More Lessons Learned

TORONTO (Oct. 29) — It began when I was 10 years old… on a Sunday night in April 1969.

I had just attended Game 4 of the Stanley Cup quarterfinal series between Toronto and Boston at Maple Leaf Gardens with one of my dad’s chartered accountant partners, Bernie Kraft. The Leafs had been eliminated by Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Co. in a four–game sweep and we walked to Bernie’s car in the lot directly across from the Gardens’ main entrance on Carlton St. Back then, the parking attendants would cram in automobiles like sardines. As such, you had to wait for those around you to move before snaking your way onto the street. Once inside his car, Bernie turned on the radio and we were immediately informed that Punch Imlach had been fired as general manager and coach of the Maple Leafs — the same Punch Imlach that led the club to four Stanley Cup titles in six seasons between 1961–62 and 1966–67.

To this day, I can hear Bernie saying, “Boy, that didn’t take long.”

Indeed, it was less than 10 minutes since we’d left our seats in Sec. 46 of the Blues on the west side of the Gardens. At my age, I couldn’t comprehend the news. “They fired Punch Imlach?” He was the only GM and coach of the Leafs I had ever known. Less than two years earlier, I’d been sitting at the foot of my parents’ bed in Downsview watching George Armstrong accept the 1967 Stanley Cup from National Hockey League president Clarence Campbell. Now, that bald man with the fedora and scowl was gone? It made no sense.

15-punch-1Forty–six years, six months and 23 nights later, I’m still learning — getting it through my head that the business of professional sport, while occasionally more glamorous, is no different than the affairs of any large enterprise. People come and people go. Loyalty endures for as long as it takes to utter the legendary line: “What have you done for us lately?” Personalities clash. Individuals pull rank. New executives are hired and old employees are moved out. Almost all of it happens behind closed doors and out of the public eye. When it involves a professional sports team, it commands city and nation–wide attention, and somehow convinces us — if only temporarily — that the governing rules of commerce aren’t the same.

Bull–feathers.

What I first learned on the night of Apr. 6, 1969, I was starkly reminded of early today when it became known that Alex Anthopoulos would not be returning as GM of the Toronto Blue Jays. If I were 10 years old this morning, I would have turned to the nearest person and exclaimed: “Alex Anthopoulos isn’t coming back?” Just as I’d done with Bernie Kraft in that car across from Maple Leaf Gardens. No matter how often it happens, movement at the executive level of pro sport catches us by surprise — even when there are glaring indications. As I wrote here on Wednesday, the news that Bobby Cox was leaving as manager of the Blue Jays in October 1985 absolutely floored me. Cox had just guided the Jays to their first–ever playoff appearance and had chosen to accept an offer from his home–town club, the Atlanta Braves. Successful people switch companies all the time. But a baseball manager? Why, it was tantamount to treason.

Many throughout the hockey world were stunned on the afternoon of Jan. 9, 2013 to learn that Brian Burke had been fired as president and GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Burke, as he’ll remind you today, left behind the only playoff club of the past 11 years and was rinsed by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment on the eve of a 48–game schedule, abbreviated by an owners’ lockout. The work–stoppage had spanned more than three months, with a lengthy run–up of anticipation through the summer of 2012. The Leafs hadn’t played a game since the previous April. Couldn’t MLSE have done the deed a bit earlier? As it were, Jan. 9 was the day that George Cope — chief poobah at Bell Canada Enterprises (37.5 percent owner of the Leafs) — won a boardroom skirmish to waylay Burke, whose aggressive management style and demeanor he abhorred. It was a shock to the masses, but just another afternoon to those on the MLSE Executive.

The situation involving Anthopoulos came with a fair amount of warning — yet it still generated a volcanic response. Even as the Blue Jays cavorted through the 2015 Major League playoffs — falling two victories shy of appearing in the World Series — such in–the–know, responsible journalists as Bob Elliott and Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun; Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star; Shi Dividi of Sportsnet and Scott MacArthur of TSN kept abreast of the Anthopoulos narrative. A new team president had been hired by Rogers Communications and Anthopoulos was without an extension during the final week of his existing contract. In any other business, it would be simple to comprehend a parting of the ways between the incoming president and the incumbent general manager. Just not in baseball. Cue the trauma and excitement.

A year ago today, Toronto sports fans would have been thrilled to see Anthopoulos’s head on a slab. Even in mid–summer, as the Jays wallowed near the .500 mark, a change would hardly have generated such clamor. Then came the now–storied trade–deadline deals; the 41–14 romp that left the New York Yankees in the dust; the American League Division Series comeback against Texas, and almost a seventh and deciding game in the Championship Series with Kansas City. Suddenly, it was impossible for people (myself among them) to envision Anthopoulos going elsewhere. How could Rogers provide its blazing GM an unfavourable environment? One that might prompt him to reject a lucrative, four–year extension.

As it turned out — and despite the cordial words of all parties in the wake of today’s announcement — this was a done deal once the Blue Jays approached Mark Shapiro to replace “retiring” president Paul Beeston. A two–time winner of baseball executive–of–the–year with the Cleveland Indians, Shapiro, under no circumstance, would retain a GM on the basis of that individual having contractual authority over personnel… which is essentially the rope that Beeston provided Anthopoulos. If Shapiro wasn’t to appoint his own guy, the existing GM had to operate under a new set of guidelines. Anthopoulos would surely stay put with another half–decade of guaranteed salary in a town that had grown to adore him.

Not so fast, as we learned this morning.

Once again, cold, hard business prevailed. Anthopoulos weighed the prospect of working for Shapiro against the knowledge he’d become one of the hottest acts in Major League Baseball. Shapiro had been displeased with Anthopoulos plundering the Blue Jays’ farm system — two playoff rounds or not. As of Sunday, it would become his team. Alex, understandably and perhaps wisely, chose to move on.

15-punch-2My over–under on Double–A being out of work is two weeks — at most. He can write his own ticket with any of a half–dozen teams; the Miami Marlins perhaps a front–runner (and what a coincidence that would be after the November 2012 blockbuster which brought Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and others to Toronto from south Florida). If ever Anthopoulos were to “gamble” on his future, now was the time. Though leaving a city he considers “home,” Alex would easily find himself back in a sovereign baseball environment.

All of that said, I still had a “Punch Imlach” moment this morning.

Will I ever truly learn?

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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