Rogers is pretty big — it’s a multi–billion–dollar cable and cellphone company that just happens to dabble in sports. That can be hard to accept as you sit there in your official jersey while wearing your giant foam finger, but the sooner you accept the team doesn’t mean as much to its owner as it does to you, the sooner a warm sense of calm is likely to envelop you. — THE GLOBE AND MAIL
TORONTO (Dec. 22) — Perhaps this will explain the curious “strategy” of the Toronto Blue Jays in the off–season of 2015. Because, frankly, nothing else really can. Certainly not to those that leaped aboard the baseball bandwagon here in town for the first time in more than two decades. And, particularly — maybe tragically — not to those that encountered “pennant fever” for the first time, period.
What seems to be a backward, almost–vindictive response by ownership to the playoff excitement in September and October really isn’t. It is simply the manner in which a titanic corporation accommodates one of its minor holdings. As the Globe and Mail reported in 2013, the “sports entertainment” wing of Rogers Communications “accounts for roughly two percent of consolidated revenue.” Perhaps that figure has risen to three percent after the recent eruption of baseball euphoria in Toronto and across Canada. This peripheral branch of Rogers is far–more concerned about its 12–year, $5.2–billion investment in National Hockey League telecast rights than it is the Blue Jays. And, the company at large is infinitely more concerned about its cable and wireless holdings than anything at all relating to sports entertainment.
Sadly for the multitudes that bought into the Blue Jays’ magical ride from the end of July to the second–last week of October, another interminable playoff drought is on the horizon. No stadium will overflow with 49,000 people to watch employees sell “bundles.” Nor will an I–Phone flip make the front page of every newspaper in the country, as did images of Jose Bautista discharging his bat after clinching the American League Division Series against Texas with a three–run homer. Boardroom chatter at Rogers is all about bundles and I–Phones… as it should be, for these components power the corporation. Baseball merely furnishes 162 days or nights of programming for its TV and radio divisions: Sportsnet and Sportsnet–590.
To anoint the Blue Jays higher in the company’s pecking order is foolhardy.
ENJOY THE MEMORY, BLUE JAYS FANS. IT’S LIKELY TO BE AWHILE BEFORE ANOTHER.
And, that’s why the “feel good” method that governed the end of the Paul Beeston/Alex Anthopoulos era has given way to the impersonal approach of Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins — neither of whom would have remotely considered the expensive makeover of the ball club with Troy Tulowitzki, David Price and Ben Revere. Beeston and Anthopoulos were on their way out; they knew it, and they departed in grand style. But, it certainly wasn’t the “Blue Jays way” under Rogers’ ownership, nor will it be for as long as Shapiro remains at the helm. If the crowds of 49,000 dwindle to less than 30,000 once again, so be it. Why pour money into that three percent investment? Much better to have a “businessman” running the team.
Those that think like accountants do not approach the agents for David Price, Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmerman, Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto — among the front–line, free agent starters that were ignored by Shapiro and have signed with clubs truly serious about winning. Bottom–line baseball executives go after J.A. Happ and Darwin Barney. Shame on me for believing someone that suggested, a couple of weeks ago, the Blue Jays were talking to Orioles’ free agent slugger Chris Davis. It’s a Tweet that I may never live down, and rightly so. After a brief and wondrous interlude, we’ve returned to the bargain–basement era at Rogers Centre. Nothing else can properly balance the ledger.
This doesn’t make Rogers a “bad” company or any of those that represent the company “bad” people. As with all successful, publicly–traded enterprises, Rogers aims to please its shareholders and isn’t particularly concerned about how others react to the bottom line. Conflict arises, however, when a bottom–line company secures a public trust and manages that trust as merely another holding. For years, the Toronto Maple Leafs were so administered by the absurdly–rich Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, whose obligation was not to the longest–suffering fans in the NHL, but to the province’s retiring school instructors.
It should therefore be noted — and not coincidentally — that the Maple Leafs and Blue Jays have performed quite similarly while in the grasp of this conflict.
As such, there is, understandably, a grave feeling of disappointment among Blue Jays fans. Rogers is sitting on its one–time baseball laurel, knowing the club will remain competitive at the plate in 2016, with power bats Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, Bautista, Russell Martin, Justin Smoak and Chris Colabello (combined 176 HR’s) expected to return. But, it’s yet another reason for Toronto baseball zealots to dismay. Starting pitchers appreciate nothing more than run support. Imagine, therefore, what the Blue Jays may have accomplished in free agency this winter had Rogers chosen to play with the big boys.
That wasn’t going to happen for a couple of reasons: a) It never has under ownership of the communications giant. And, b) the increasingly–impotent Canadian dollar. With baseball salaries paid in American funds, the Blue Jays are on the hook for roughly $1.25 CAD on every U.S. green–back spent. It adds up quickly and puts Rogers at a legitimate disadvantage as proprietor of the lone Major League club in our country. To spend like the Red Sox or Giants is economically unsound. It doesn’t matter that Boston and San Francisco have won four of the past six World Series championships.
THE SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS WEREN’T ABOUT TO MESS WITH THEIR LOYAL FANS AT AT&T PARK. AFTER MISSING THE PLAYOFFS, THE PERENNIAL WORLD SERIES CONTENDER OPENED THE VAULT TO SIGN ELITE PITCHERS JEFF SAMARZJIDA AND JOHNNY CUETO. BY COMPARISON, THE BLUE JAYS — AFTER MAKING THE PLAYOFFS FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 22 YEARS — REDUCED SALARY; RAISED TICKET PRICES AND IGNORED THE TOP–TIER FREE AGENTS. IT’S BACK TO BUSINESS–AS–USUAL.
As a Blue Jays fan in the 1980’s — and a reporter covering the team in the first half of the 90’s — I was spoiled by Labatt Breweries of Canada, which had controlling interest in the team. Labatt’s figured the best way to sell beer to baseball fans was to try and keep the fans happy. As such, they appointed Beeston and Pat Gillick to run the ball club; stepped aside, and offered whatever funds were necessary to challenge, in particular, the almighty Yankees. Beeston and Gillick came agonizingly close to the Major League summit a few times. Labatt’s maintained its trust in the duo and its commitment to the baseball fans of Toronto.
Ultimately, the Blue Jays got it right — twice — in 1992 and 1993.
Then came the barren wasteland of two decades — interrupted, magnificently and briefly, by three months of joy and excitement last season. Clearly, it was three months too many.
So, baseball in our city is once again “small” business. Rogers has decided to vote with its collective wallet.
As a fan, you have the identical choice.
BRAVO LEAFS… BUT HOLD ON
Numbers do not lie. Or, so we are told.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are 4–0–2 in their past six games. Devoid of an All–Star–caliber player up front, the team has scored 12 goals in its past two encounters — including a 7–4 romp over the Colorado Avalanche in Denver on Monday night. Yet, I’m still looking for mirrors.
If Mike Babcock has truly made chicken–salad out of this collection, they should give him the Jack Adams Award today. God bless Leo Komarov and Tyler Bozak, but the Maple Leafs should be scoring seven goals in a week… not in one night. And, to be slicing through the brawny Western Conference like a hot knife through butter? We saw that coming, didn’t we? A 9–4–1 record in 14 games, including a pair of wins against the Dallas Stars — deadlocked today with Washington atop the NHL standings at 52 points. Jonathan Bernier: Winless in goal since last April; doubling his victory total in the span of three nights.
It must be some kind of holiday mirage.
Since the beginning of November — amid few exceptions — the Maple Leafs have performed with energy and structure under Babcock. That, I can comprehend. But… LOOK AT THE ROSTER! I’ve said it since Day 1 and I continue to believe that this group cannot possibly maintain its momentum through the dog days of the schedule. It doesn’t have enough talent. Period. Unless the NHL, from top to bottom, has become overwhelmingly mediocre — and, there’s an argument to be made for that — there is no way the Leafs can remain near the quasi–.500 mark in the standings (12–13–7 for 31 points). Not a chance.
We’ll know more sometime in January.
The Leafs begin 2016 at home against St. Louis before traveling to California for three games (Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, Jan. 6–9). On that same trip last January, the club struck for one goal. Also up in the opening month of the new year is Chicago, Boston, Montreal and Florida — all playoff teams today.
I must give credit where credit is due. The Leafs have been majorly surprising for much of the past eight weeks — more than a pleasant sight for their fans. But, it has to stop.
BLACKHAWKS/SABRES IN BUFFALO
My NIKON images from a hugely entertaining game at First Niagara Center on Saturday:
FORMER TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS DEFENSEMAN CODY FRANSON (46) SCORED FOR THE SABRES AND STOOD BESIDE THE BROTHER OF CURRENT LEAF, JAMES van RIEMSDYK, DURING A GOAL–MOUTH SCRAMBLE IN THE THIRD PERIOD. TREVOR van RIEMSDYK PLAYS FOR CHICAGO.
PATRICK KANE HAS BEEN THE BEST HOCKEY PLAYER ON EARTH SINCE OCTOBER. HE RETURNED TO HIS HOME CITY FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE ALLEGATIONS OF SEXUAL MISCONDUCT LAST SUMMER — CHARGES THAT WERE SUBSEQUENTLY DROPPED BY ERIE COUNTY. KANE SCORED THE GAME–TYING GOAL ON A POWERPLAY IN THE LAST MINUTE OF REGULATION; THEN THE ONLY GOAL OF THE SHOOTOUT, TO GIVE THE HAWKS A 3–2 WIN OVER THE SABRES. HE IS WORTH THE PRICE OF ADMISSION.