TORONTO (Aug. 9) — Through much of the 1980’s, a haunting refrain could be heard with respect to the pitiable Toronto Maple Leafs: The club would never win anything of consequence until Harold Ballard died.
Once that event occurred — on Apr. 11, 1990 — the wheels began to turn. Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. opened the vault to hire a credible manager, Cliff Fletcher (from the Calgary Flames), who brought in Pat Burns (from the Montreal Canadiens) as coach and engineered what is still the largest trade, per capita, in the annals of the National Hockey League. Heading east in the 10–player swap of Jan. 2, 1992 was Doug Gilmour. Just more than three years after Ballard’s demise, Fletcher, Burns and Gilmour brought the Maple Leafs closer to the Stanley Cup final than they have been since 1967. Defeated by Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings in Game 7 of the 1993 Cup semifinals at the Gardens, Toronto narrowly missed a championship clash with the Canadiens. It was an exponential growth–curve that would not have happened with Ballard alive.
No one, today, needs to die for the Toronto Blue Jays to prosper. But, the club is similarly–doomed… and will remain so until Rogers Communications divests itself of ownership. This unholy alliance is maintained in order to contribute 162 nights of TV programming for Rogers–owned Sportsnet. And, no other apparent reason. Beyond generating content for “all Rogers platforms”, our country’s largest cable/Internet/wireless provider has proven, unequivocally, it cares nothing about the lone Canadian entry in Major League Baseball. It operates the club on a shoe–string budget when compared to the behemoths of the American League East Division: the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. And, given that baseball revenue is so minuscule in the Rogers’ empire, the Blue Jays will remain distantly behind the company’s enormous cable division, and its commitment (12 years, $5.2–billion) to the National Hockey League for exclusive TV rights north of the border. This “Ballard” trilogy is like none we have witnessed since the original adaptation.
It presents itself most vividly, of course, when either Boston or New York is the opposition. As I wrote the other day, the 2018 Red Sox are, in my view, the best Major League team since the 1998 Yankees, who won 114 games and the World Series (over San Diego). It was therefore no surprise on Tuesday night at Rogers Centre when the BoSox twice surmounted adversity against the Blue Jays — first, obliterating a 3–1 Toronto lead with a four–run eighth inning; then calmly restoring their own advantage after a Justin Smoak home run tied the match in the bottom of the ninth (Boston prevailed, 10–7, in 10 innings). The biggest blow of the night was provided by American League–MVP favorite J.D. Martinez, who smacked a three–run homer off Ryan Tepera in the eighth to give the Sox a 5–3 edge. Martinez, obtained as a free agent last winter, leads all of baseball with 34 home runs and 97 RBI. It’s the caliber of signing that Rogers would never even consider.
And, therein lies the gloom and melancholy for the Blue Jays against their free–spending Division foes.
As Toronto baseball fans need not be painfully reminded, only once in the 18–year history of Rogers ownership has the club ventured beyond frugality: late in the 2015 season, when the big contracts of Troy Tulowitzki and David Price were acquired. Not surprisingly, the club went on a tear (42–14 over 56 games) and demolished a seven–game deficit to New York atop the A.L. East. The Jays won their first Division title (and made the playoffs for the first time) since 1993; bearing sellout crowds at the ‘Dome; colossal TV ratings, and a nationwide love–fest with a new era of fans. It also spawned unprecedented baseball revenue for Rogers… yet barely caused a ripple of enthusiasm among the company bean–counters, who yawned widely when comparing the Blue Jays’ ledger to that of the cable/Internet/wireless division. There was, for example, no consideration given to retaining Price as a free agent. The momentum predictably decayed.
DAVE DOMBROWSKI (LEFT) AND THE BOSTON RED SOX MADE A MOVE LAST WINTER THAT THE BLUE JAYS, UNDER ROGERS OWNERSHIP, WOULD NEVER HAVE CONSIDERED — SIGNING J.D. MARTINEZ TO A FIVE–YEAR, $110–MILLION CONTRACT. MARTINEZ JUST HAPPENS TO BE THE BEST PLAYER IN BASEBALL THIS SEASON WITH THE BEST TEAM IN THE MAJORS (81–34 .704 AFTER 115 GAMES).
Less than three years later, the Blue Jays have come full–circle.
The team is inept, with no hope of challenging the Red Sox or Yankees; operated cheaply and indifferently by a company that uses it solely to generate content. When Ballard destroyed the Leafs in the 1980’s, he ran the club as a fiefdom; a vehicle for which to see himself in print. He was a penny–pincher that cared only about the bottom line. Rogers, with baseball, has forever been a penny–pincher; the bottom line provided, lucratively and exponentially, by its cable/Internet/wireless division. Until it sells the Blue Jays to a person or company that is truly invested in winning on the field, nothing about this forlorn circumstance will change.
WAYNE’S WORLD 30 YEARS AGO
Chances are you’ll be inundated with recollection of 30 years ago today, when the Edmonton Oilers traded Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings. So, another quick story:
The trade occurred as I was settling nicely into my third month at CJCL AM–1430 (now Sportsnet–590). I’m profoundly dating myself by recalling our Canadian Press ticker – a contraption that looked like a computer–printer and spit out reams of newsprint. Whenever C–P sent out a story of note, our machine would emit a solitary ring. If the story was of particular importance, a second ring would occur. Once in a blue moon, three rings accompanied a breaking story of international prominence (such as the December 1988 Pan American Airlines disaster over Lockerbie, Scotland).
When the bell wouldn’t stop ringing early in the afternoon of Aug. 9, 1988, we in the news–room made a bee–line for the printer and nearly bounced into each other like Curly, Larry and Moe.
The only subsequent time I’d heard such a commotion from the C–P ticker occurred less than two months later, when word broke from Seoul that Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson would be stripped of the 100–meter gold medal he’d won two days earlier at the 1988 Summer Olympics.
Here, in my collection, newspapers from the day after the Gretzky trade:
NHL GAME—WORN JERSEYS–2
Continuing my look at vintage NHL jerseys, starting with a Black Hawks’ icon that died on Tuesday:
STAN MIKITA: Chicago Black Hawks 1960–61 (ROAD)
BOBBY ORR: Boston Bruins 1968–69 (HOME)
ORLAND KURTENBACH: Vancouver Canucks 1972–73 (ROAD)
LEFT: RICK VAIVE Vancouver Canucks 1979–80 (HOME) / RIGHT: PATRICK SUNDSTROM Vancouver Canucks 1985–86 (ROAD)
WAYNE CONNELLY: Detroit Red Wings 1969–70 (ROAD)
DEREK KING: New York Islanders 1995–96 (ROAD)
JIM ROBERTS: Montreal Canadiens 1966–67 (HOME)
DAVE (TIGER) WILLIAMS: Toronto Maple Leafs 1978–79 (ROAD)
GARY JARRETT: Oakland Seals 1968–69 (ROAD)
ROD GILBERT: New York Rangers 1976–77 (ROAD)
DOMINIK HASEK: Ottawa Senators 2005–06 (HOME)
LARRY PATEY: St. Louis Blues 1975–76 (ROAD)
KEN DRYDEN: Montreal Canadiens 1971–72 (HOME)
GILLES MELOCHE: California Golden Seals 1971–72 (ROAD)
JOEY JOHNSTON: California Golden Seals 1972–73 (HOME)
KENT NILSSON: Calgary Flames 1980–81 (ROAD)
HENRY BOUCHA: Minnesota North Stars 1974–75 (ROAD)
PHIL (SKIP) KRAKE: Los Angeles Kings 1969–70 (ROAD)
BOB MacMILLAN: New Jersey Devils 1982–83 (ROAD)
GILBERT PERREAULT: Buffalo Sabres 1976–77 (HOME)
PIERRE LAROUCHE: Hartford Whalers 1981–82 (HOME)
WILF PAIEMENT: Colorado Rockies 1976–77 (ROAD)
MARIO LEMIEUX: Pittsburgh Penguins 1987–88 (HOME)
CRAIG BERUBE: Washington Capitals 1996–97 (HOME)
LEFT: JIMMY WAITE Phoenix Coyotes 1998–99 (HOME) / RIGHT: RICK TOCCHET Phoenix Coyotes 1999–2000 (ROAD)