Friday, May 17, 2013

Review: Full Count (2013)

By Jeff Blair

What ever happened to the Toronto Blue Jays?

This is a reference in the competitive sense. The Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993, and were drawing about four million fans a season. With a retractable domed stadium that was state of the art, it seemed like the Blue Jays had the financial resources and the baseball smarts to be a very good team indefinitely.

As we know now, it didn't work out that way. Toronto has had some good teams and bad teams over the years, but few teams that even had a strong chance at being a serious playoff contender.

That's essentially the focus of "Full Count." Jeff Blair takes a look back at Blue Jays history and comes up with some interesting perspectives on what happened.

First things first - the subtitle of "Four Decades of Blue Jays Baseball" is misleading. Blair, who writes for the Globe and Mail in Canada, briefly covers the team's beginnings and then jumps to the World Series titles, more or less. That means this is not a history lesson, usually produced for major anniversaries. Since the team played its first game in 1977, this is more of a celebration of the team's assumed return to relevance in 2013 after 20 years in the wilderness ... although so far this season, the Blue Jays haven't taken the expected step forward.

Blair sought out many of the people who were involved in the management of the Blue Jays, as well as some key players, for insights into what was really going on. There are a few factors involved in what went wrong with the team, and Blair outlines them nicely.

As a starting point, the Blue Jays did mortgage their future a bit in order to win those championships. No one can blame Toronto for doing that, as the team acquired a few veterans who helped them win at the time for some prospects that were in the pipeline. From there, it was tough to get off the treadmill of mediocrity. The team was certainly affected by currency exchange issues, as the Blue Jays took in Canadian dollars and paid its players in American dollars. There was a good-sized difference in those rates at times, at one point jumping above 30 percent. When the team tailed off on the field and the fans didn't come out in large numbers, Toronto didn't keep up on payroll.

By 2000 or so, the poster boys for big spending became the Red Sox and Yankees - two teams in the Blue Jays' own division, no less. They dominated the landscape for years, leaving Toronto looking up. The team tried all sorts of approaches, but the problems - which also included some ownership and leadership changes - remained.

Blair spoke with such people as Pat Gillick, Cito Gaston, Buck Martinez, Paul Beeston, J.P. Ricciardi, Carlos Delgado, and Alex Anthopoulos, who tell good stories and are quite frank about what went right and what went wrong. It's a fine lesson in sports management.

The one catch in the book comes at the end. The last chapter is dedicated to the subject of Canadians who play major league baseball. Brett Lawrie is the first such player in Blue Jays history to be a regular. The weather up there works against player development compared to, say, Florida or California, and the good athletes often move on to other sports. Sidney Crosby was a very good shortstop growing up, but hockey turned out to be a very good career decision. It's not an uninteresting area, but does feel like it's from a different book in some ways.

Still, going 13 for 14 is an exceptional batting average, and Blair's writing style is smooth as he keeps the story moving nicely. "Full Count" probably isn't for readers who prefer their baseball books to concentrate on runs, hits and errors, but those who want to see what goes on behind the curtain at key times will find this to have many rewards.

Four stars

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