Blue Jays Plight Cannot Be Addressed

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (May 19) — The success or failure of a business enterprise starts at the top. It always starts at the top. And, that’s why the Toronto Blue Jays are beyond salvation right now. The chief decision makers are about to move on. There are no apparent descendants — to the fan–base or within the clubhouse. Neither short nor long–term planning can be properly executed. A once–proud baseball club is ensconced in limbo.

Heading elsewhere before the 2016 Major League season are Blue Jays president Paul Beeston and Rogers Media president Keith Pelley. Beeston allegedly transitions to retirement after a horribly bungled attempt by the parent company to oust him during the winter. Pelley moves across the pond to preside over the European Golf Tour — his legacy, the 12–year, $5.2–billion purloining of national TV hockey rights from rival TSN. Neither man will be easy to replace. Until such time arrives however, there is no one to effectively administer baseball decisions. Careers hang in the balance — on the club and the periphery.

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CANADA’S MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL TEAM IS RUDDER–LESS AT THE MOMENT.

Were the Blue Jays faring reasonably after 1½ months of the current schedule, perhaps this wouldn’t be as critical an issue. But, given the plight of the ball club — 18–22 after 40 games; entombed in the American League East after a frightful 1–6 road trip to Baltimore and Houston — some form of analysis and determination is in order. Loyalties toward Beeston and Pelley naturally persist in the sports and media wings of the Rogers empire. Such rapport isn’t often sustainable upon a change of guard, as yours truly can attest after having considerable responsibility vanquished in my final years of many at The FAN–590. New bosses want their own people. For Rogers to amend the executive and field–level structure of the Blue Jays in the coming weeks would be largely cosmetic and devoid of staying power.

This doesn’t preclude there being a sacrificial lamb; a move to temporarily assuage criticism and offer potential ticket–buyers false hope. It happens all the time with foundering teams in professional sport; in the Majors — as we’ve witnessed in Milwaukee and Miami — discarding the field manager is a traditional path of least resistance. For the Blue Jays to fire John Gibbons would be patently absurd to any trained baseball eye. With a starting rotation as unreliable as any since the earliest years of the Toronto franchise, Gibbons is completely hamstrung. And managing his bullpen is the equivalent of juggling hand–grenades. It is best he throw a pitcher out there and run for cover.

Alex Anthopoulos, the Blue Jays general manager, needs a win streak as desperately as any person in the Major Leagues (his record is 1–0 since I began writing this blog — the Blue Jays teeing off on the Los Angeles Angels, 10–6, Monday afternoon at Rogers Centre). Double–A’s awning of security departs with Beeston. Only a complete turnabout of the roster he assembled for 2015 might position him under the club’s next president… “might” being the key word, given what many anticipate will be a dramatic overhaul of the front office. The grand opportunity for Anthopoulos occurred in November 2012, when Rogers — on several occasions under its previous guru, Nadir Mohamed — authorized financing to amend the ball club. Mega–deals with Florida and the New York Mets proved marginal, with brittle shortstop Jose Reyes and aged hurlers Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey that winter’s legacy.

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ALEX ANTHOPOULOS (LEFT) AND PAUL BEESTON ENJOY A MOMENT IN MARCH DURING THEIR FINAL SPRING TRAINING TOGETHER WITH THE BLUE JAYS.

The objectives of ownership and management were commendable. But, the results didn’t follow. And, as Josh Donaldson tersely summarized over the weekend in Houston, the Majors is a “get it done” not a “try to get it done” business. Donaldson sounded particularly irked — as if understanding his new team’s state of limbo. Anthopoulos made a good trade to get Donaldson from Oakland for the oft–injured Brett Lawrie. The GM also signed Russell Martin as a free agent; the Blue Jays have never had quite as efficient a defensive catcher. Combine that with the restraint shown by hanging on to young pitchers Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez at the trade deadline last season, and the Toronto GM has done some good work. But, he is still lacking the mandatory results.

Though lauded for his veteran acquisitions, it quickly became apparent that Anthopoulos overlooked the Blue Jays primary deficit. This, again, was brought to light in Houston over the weekend, when the Astros swept the Jays in a four–game set. While adorned with some good young players — none better than second–baseman Jose Altuve — Houston was a terrible club the past two seasons with records of 51–111 and 70–92. Over the winter, GM Jeff Luhnow acquired right–handed relievers Luke Gregerson (from Oakland) and Pat Neshek (from St. Louis). Both have been instrumental in the Astros meteoric rise to top spot in the A.L. West (25–14 for the second–best record in the Majors to the Los Angeles Dodgers). Anthopoulos chose to entrust his bullpen to a couple of raw rookies. Miguel Castro, 20, began the season as the team’s closer and is now in Triple–A Buffalo. Veteran Brett Cecil, a fairly good set–up man, has therefore been thrust into that role. But, the middle–relief corps has rarely enabled the Blue Jays to carry a lead into the ninth inning.

It hasn’t helped Anthopoulos that his two most feared hitters are hobbling. Edwin Encarnacion came out of spring training with a sore back and hasn’t resembled the rocket–launcher that clouted 16 home runs last May. Though he’s appeared in all 40 games this season, Encarnacion is batting a meager .240 with nine homers. And, Jose Bautista has been confined to plate duty since Apr. 22 when he strained his right shoulder trying to throw out Baltimore’s Delmon Young on a base hit to right field. Bautista, when healthy, has one of the strongest and most accurate outfield arms in baseball. Injuries, however, are inevitable and the best teams have enough depth to overcome them for stretches at a time.   

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FINALLY! BRETT CECIL STRIKES OUT KOLE CALHOUN OF THE LOS ANGELES ANGELS MONDAY AFTERNOON TO END THE BLUE JAYS FIVE–GAME LOSING STREAK. SPORTSNET IMAGES

Whether Pelley’s departure will impact the Blue Jays’ media wing is a total mystery. The club is well–served on TV (Buck Martinez, Pat Tabler, Barry Davis) and radio (Jerry Howarth, Joe Siddall, Mike Wilner), though there is much less cheer–leading on the radio side during ballgames (some suggest that ends once Wilner begins his post–game call–in show, but my ol’ pal Mike does a good job of keeping the masses under control). Pelley’s successor may have other ideas but we won’t know until that person comes aboard. Certainly Howarth, 69, is a fixture, having joined the club back in 1982. He replaced the Blue Jays’ original radio analyst — Cleveland Indians Hall–of–Fame pitcher Early Wynn — and worked alongside the late, great Tom Cheek for more than 22 years.

Right now, the biggest question — among many — surrounding the Blue Jays: Who’s in charge of long–term decision–making?

The likely answer? No one.

BABCOCK WATCH: Barring subterfuge, it appears that Mike Babcock will either stay in Detroit or defect to one of the three National Hockey League teams that have coaching vacancies — Buffalo, San Jose and Toronto. You might be thinking “well d’uh!” but there has been much speculation that clubs with coaches under contract would make changes to accommodate Babcock. Or that Babcock would join a team that provides him more roster control than he has with the Red Wings. Anything, of course, is still possible. According to multiple reports, Babcock has standing offers from Detroit, Buffalo and Toronto. The Sabres’ overture is said to be wide–ranging with respect to money, term and roster jurisdiction. Babcock apparently met with the Sharks this weekend to determine their level of interest. He told Darren Dreger of TSN that he would probably announce his intentions by “May 20,” or this Wednesday… The Philadelphia Flyers went the college route to replace Craig Berube as head coach, hiring 46–year–old Dave Hakstol away from the University of North Dakota, where he once guided Jonathan Toews. It gives Philly quite the battery: Hextall and Hakstol. Ron Hextall is the Flyers GM… Let us pray: With TV enacting such a prominent role in breaking sports news, nobody would be shocked if TSN or Sportsnet aired a half–hour special: Babcock: The Decision. It would, of course, be a spin–off to the ridiculous pandering ESPN did with LeBron James on July 8, 2010 when the basketball superstar told reporter Jim Gray and a breathless world he’d be taking his act from Cleveland to South Beach. I’m kidding, of course, and let’s hope there are no big “ideas” smoldering at the networks… One thing is certain with Babcock: By staying in Detroit, he’ll encounter less of the national hockey spotlight; fewer media demands, and not quite the same urgency to make his mark than if he goes elsewhere to become the highest–paid NHL coach of all time. Despite appeals for continued patience here in Toronto, we all know the expectation meter would soar off the chart as soon as he arrived. Ultimately, it will be a decision between comfort and challenge. Money shouldn’t be a determining factor. All offers will place Babcock well atop the NHL’s Mount Everest… Don Cherry was bang on when he spoke of the Russians leaving the ice immediately after the hand–shake ceremony at the World Hockey Championships. Canada had romped to a 6–1 victory in the gold medal game and and the snotty Russians wouldn’t hang around for their rival’s national anthem at the arena in Prague. As Cherry pointed out, this is never an issue with Canadian players. Imagine, for example, how desperately our guys wanted to dig a hole after the Russians pored in five unanswered goals in the third period at Buffalo on Jan. 6, 2011 to obliterate a 3–0 Canada lead and win gold at the World Junior Hockey Championships. Instead, the Canadian players and staff remained on the ice at what is now First Niagara Center until the anthem ceremony ended. It’s defined in most world–wide dictionaries as “sportsmanship.” And ignored only by the boorish… Despite rather frantic admonishment from Ron MacLean, who keeps time on Coach’s Corner, Cherry angrily refused to end his five–minute show Monday night before airing the Canadian team singing O Canada at the end of the World Tournament. And, good on Grapes for that… Todd McLellan, the triumphant coach of Team Canada at the World Championships, will officially replace Todd Nelson as head man with Edmonton this week and become Connor McDavid’s first NHL coach.

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RON MacLEAN STOOD NO CHANCE OF KEEPING DON CHERRY FROM EXCEEDING THE FIVE–MINUTE WINDOW ALLOTTED COACH’S CORNER DURING THE FIRST INTERMISSION OF TAMPA BAY AND THE RANGERS MONDAY NIGHT. GRAPES MADE SURE SIDNEY CROSBY ET AL WERE SHOWN SINGING THE CANADIAN NATIONAL ANTHEM IN PRAGUE. CBC/ROGERS

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