The boys of summer have something new this year— a real chance to win

ALLEN ABEL April 10 2006


The boys of summer have something new this year— a real chance to win

ALLEN ABEL April 10 2006



The boys of summer have something new this year— a real chance to win


Major-league baseball flies north this week on its usual wings of ardent dreams, irrational hopes, serious dollars, poisonous scandals, and interchangeable heroes.

Nowhere is the game’s return more baldly conspicuous and eagerly awaited than on the otherwise barren sporting stage of Toronto, where the Blue Jays will begin their 30th season with a game against the Minnesota Twins. With the basketball Raptors a forlorn failure and the hockey Maple Leafs now offering 40 consecutive years of proof of love’s power for betrayal, the Jays will have the town to themselves, at least until soccer’s World Cup commences in June and magnetizes the multiethnic metropolis.

“Jays muscle into AL East race,” hollers the cover of the Athlon Sports baseball annual (in its Canadian edition). The senior analyst for in the United States treasonously picks the Jays to win the pennant, and so forth. This sort of soothsaying has sustained professional baseball every spring since the 1870s, of course, but Toronto fans will know soon enough whether the rose-coloured forecasts point toward happy fate or sad delusion.

The Jays’ box office is already a quartermillion tickets and $6 million ahead of2005, according to team executive Patrick Elster. And it is not only Toronto that has been swept away on the foaming tide of optimism. Radio stations CJYM in Rosetown, Sask., and CFYM in Kindersley, have been so successful in selling advertising for Blue Jays broadcasts that some of their sponsors have had to accept being slotted before and after the games.

“I love Toronto!” chirps Barb Bell, the Saskatchewan stations’ manager, broadcast-

ing a sentiment rarely heard from west of Etobicoke. “But,” she hastens to add, “I wouldn’t want to live there.”

At the root of the giddy outlook is a bender of player purchases, exchanges, and acquisitions by the team’s general manager, John Paul Ricciardi, a 46-year-old, one-time minorleague infielder from Massachusetts who personifies so many of the diamond game’s ancient verities: the passing of the passion from fathers to sons; the near impossibility of reaching the major leagues as a player, no matter the avidity of a young man’s dreams; and the comprehension that the game of our Little League childhoods is, at its highest level, a cutthroat and corruptible industry.

Granted a 40 per cent increase in disposable outflow by team owner Ted Rogers, Ricciardi disposed of it with alacrity—and pledged the team’s revenues for half a decade to a handful of mortals—plunging into a freeagent pool that was rather shallow in superstar talent, compared to other years. The purchased prizes included a Louisiana lefty initialed B. J. Ryan (even though his given name

is Robert Victor), who is to anchor the team’s bullpen after only one season in Baltimore as a closer; a right-handed starter from the Florida Marlins named A.J. Burnett with a losing

lifetime record and six stints on the disabled list since 2000; and Bengie Molina of Puerto Rico and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, a thick yet nimble catcher who is shaped like Babe Ruth or a barrel of beer, which may be the same thing.

The debits, softened greatly by the rise of the Canadian currency versus the American dollar, added up as follows: US$5 million for one year to Molina (with an option for seven million more in 2007), $47 million over five years to Ryan, and $55 million over five years to Burnett, who proceeded to damage some scar tissue in his throwing arm just a few innings into his spring exertions, leaving his status for Opening Day and beyond hanging by a tendon.

Meanwhile, Roy “Doc” Halladay, the wonderfully soft-spoken and hard-throwing allstar from Colorado who never has pitched anywhere but Toronto in the major leagues, was granted a three-year, US$40-million extension to take him comfortably to 2010. Vernon Wells ($14-5 million through 2007) remains firmly in centre field, and, in trades, Ricciardi acquired Troy Glaus, the Most Valu-

able Player in the 2002 World Series and a slugger who has averaged 36 home runs per season in the majors, to play third base, and Lyle Overbay, another reliable power hitter, to cover first.

On the face of it, these moves provided Toronto with a veritable surplus of offensive punch and dependable pitching, but baseball always has worn two faces: one of desires and the other of deeds.

At the team’s spring training base in Dunedin, Fla., last week, Ricciardi was impassively stoical about Burnett’s injury and impressively realistic about the lunatic economics of his sport, rebutting any suggestion that his Christmas shopping might come with any sort of warranty.

“It’s the price of doing business,” he said. “We didn’t create this market. When your grandparents go to the deli, they remember what they used to pay and they’re appalled by the prices, too.”

When J. P. Ricciardi’s grandparents went to the deli in Worcester, Mass., they were shopping for 12, until the day Papa’s backyard fireworks factory exploded, leaving Mama a widow with 10 hungry kids.

Just minutes earlier, a four-year-old son named Johnny had been shooed out of the shed, thereby saving his life for a future his mother never could understand.

“One time, my mother heard on the radio, ‘Johnny Ricciardi stole three bases today,’ ” the senior Ricciardi said last week in the grandstand in St. Petersburg, where his son’s Blue Jays were playing Tampa Bay. “When I came home, she said, T thought you go to school! Why you steal? You bring them back.’ ”

In the late 1940s, John Ricciardi was a baby second baseman under contract to the Boston Red Sox. Unfortunately for him, so was the great Bobby Doerr, bound for 14 seasons at Fenway Park, the Hall of Fame, and a role as the Blue Jays’ first batting instructor, way back in ’77 “When I was playing Class D ball, I thought I was as good as those guys,” John said. “I mean, why play if you don’t think you can be the best?”

But, as in the case of most players, his abilities betrayed his ambition and so, after a season in New Brunswick with the Fredericton Capitals, he was left to fend for himself in the real world of work. “My arm went so dead, I couldn’t throw the ball across the street,” he remembered. “When I got cut, it was a shame to come back home, to face all the people. But not to my mother. What Italian mother doesn’t want to see her son come home?”

Half a century later, his own son comes home to Toronto this week under the burden of unproven expectations, which may be the heaviest weight of all.

J. P. Ricciardi grew up in Worcester at about the time that Harvey Ross Ball, another son of the same city, was inventing the yellow smiley face to boost morale at a local insurance company. Reprising his father’s futile dream, J. P. clung to the lowest rungs of the New York Mets organization as a player, then turned to coaching and scouting and the front-office end of North America’s immemorial sporting endeavour.

With the Oakland Athletics, he became allied with Billy Beane, his former minor-league


roommate and the proponent of a low-cost, high-IQ approach to the game that rejected old-school scouts and stats and has become popularly known as “Moneyball.” (A third roomie, John Gibbons, is the Jays’ field manager.) A strict adherence to Moneyball has kept the A’s in contention at reasonable cost over the years, but in Toronto, after a decade far from the summit, Rogers’ infusion of philanthropy has trumped philosophy.

According to a survey by USA Today, the Jays now rank second in all of baseball in the amount of money pledged to players in the coming decade—US$198.1 million, compared to US$373-1 million for the Yankees.

“You’ve taken on a huge mortgage,” I suggested to J. P. Ricciardi in Dunedin.

“We invested in a good house,” he replied. “It’s not like we’re just throwing money at guys and hoping that it works.”

As a boy, he had idolized a Red Sox outfielder named Tony Conigliaro, another son of Italian Massachusetts and the youngest American Leaguer ever to hit 100 home runs. John Paul was nearly eight when Conigliaro was hit in the face with a pitch, shattering his cheekbone and beginning a series of tragic events that ended with a heart attack at age 37 and death at 45-

“I remember how I cried the night he got hit in the eye,” Ricciardi said, and this is how baseball is woven into the souls of those who breathe it from their earliest days, so tightly that a stranger’s pain can cut to the heart.

“I wonder how many kids in Canada cried when Halladay was hit in the shin last year,” I said.

That mishap, from a batted ball, robbed the team’s ace of half a season, and, perhaps, cost his team a playoff run. A year later, Halladay is perfectly healthy, but for too many children baseball has been trounced by GameCubes and Xboxes. As J. P. Ricciardi said, “In general, we’re lazy. We’d rather watch than play.”

“Baseball was king when I was a kid,” he said. “But now, I go by so many baseball fields in the Northeast in July and August and there’s nobody playing ball. I don’t know if it’s king anymore.”

“Does that hurt you?” I asked him, but he put on a smiley face.

“It’s still king for me,” the general manager replied.

few miles down the road, the engineer of the Jays’ now-distant glory was playing the same numbers game.

At 68, Pat Gillick is starting all over again with the Philadelphia Phillies, his third club since leaving Toronto. The Phils are the franchise that, in the 1993 World Series,

Gillick’s Blue Jays deliriously vanquished on Joe Carter’s sayonara home run.

“There is a twilight zone of player salaries,” ^

Gillick reasoned, when asked about the Jays’ elevated payroll. “If you’re over $70 million, ¿ you’ve probably got a pretty good opportu^ nity to win. If you’re not over 70, you’re just ^ as well offbeing at $30 or $40 million.” The statis«

tics show Toronto at US$75 million for 2006, ^

the Phillies at $95 million, and the Yankees be¡¡j yond $200 million with no limit in sight. ^

“The Philadelphia club generates sufficient 5E

revenue to make money, but it doesn’t give you enough to make mistakes,” Gillick said. “New York and Boston have enough revenue to cover up their mistakes. If somebody doesn’t do the job, they can just spend $20 million and get somebody else.”

This, of course, is Ted Rogers’ dilemma: the more he spends, the more his East Division rivals are encouraged to simply outspend him. The long-term contracts that J. R Ricciardi has given out, Gillick said, may be a mixed blessing: “What usually happens is that, after a couple of years, the guy doesn’t do well and the club is unhappy with his per-


formance, or he does really well and then he’s unhappy because he thinks he’s underpaid.”

But he understands the urgency of his successor’s successor’s task with a team that sagged in attendance last season to llth place in the American League, while watching baseball evaporate into oblivion in Montreal.

“In Toronto,” Gillick said, “other than the Maple Leafs, who don’t have to win because they’re so much a part of the culture that they will sell out anyway, a team has to win. To win, you have to spend, but you don’t have to spend unwisely. The problem is, everybody is very impatient—the owners are impatient, the writers are impatient, and the fans are impatient.”

Like J. P. Ricciardi, Gillick, whose pitching career also ended in the minor leagues, has seen the empty playgrounds and heard the silent fields. “Most kids today are inside, involved with technology. Kids have a lot of options—soccer, basketball, football, or computers. I talk to a lot of people who have trouble getting their kids out of the house. I don’t know if it’s an addiction, but once they get involved with a new technology, it’s hard to get them uninvolved.

“Baseball will survive, but it won’t be the same mix. Do you know what I think? I think the area that’s going to start producing a lot of major-league players in the future is mainland China.”

Awaiting a harvest of Hunanese hurlers, the Grand Old Game has come to this: Roy Halladay re-enlists on a sliding scale that guarantees him US$15.75 million dollars in 2010 (by which time global warming may have melted the artificial turf), and is widely praised for his humility, self-sacrifice and loyalty to his team.

In Dunedin, the ace shrugged off the accolades. “I like Toronto,” he said. “If you’re


happy where you are, there’s no reason to go somewhere else. But maybe that’s getting a little more rare.”

This rarity was made more evident than ever last winter, when the Red Sox centre fielder, Johnny Damon, jumped to the Yankees, a betrayal as visceral and hurtful to Boston fans as the pitch that hit Tony Conigliaro in the eye.

That is, if the kids still care at all.

“Video games are easier for the kids and for the parents,” Halladay said. “The parents can stay home and the kids can play inside and that’s much less work for everybody. On video, you can do what the major-league players do. Not many players can play in Fenway Park, but on video, everybody can.”

Everybody except Johnny Damon, of course. I asked Roy Halladay if he thought that there was a clear correlation between dollars spent and victories recorded.

“History has proved the opposite,” he replied.

A mile or two from the clubhouse where the tender-armed A. J. Burnett and his millions and minions repose in worry and doubt, another A. J.—Aaron Jordan Wideman of Mississauga, Ont.—trotted out to the pitcher’s mound for another morning’s drills.

Wideman is 20, a Blue Jay farmhand expecting to spend another season in Michigan as a Lansing Lugnut, or in Manchester as a New Hampshire Fisher Cat, or in New York as a Syracuse Sky Chief. In the years to come, he may advance no further than the minors—as John and J. P Ricciardi and Pat

Gillick did—or he may become the darkhaired, left-handed sensation of the SkyDome he haunted as a youngster, now renamed the Rogers Centre.

“It’s kind of funny saying that I’m right below those guys,” Wideman said last week, “when it was only two or three years ago that I was sitting in my aunt’s season tickets behind the Blue Jays bullpen, leaning over the fence, watching Billy Koch throw smoke. A couple of years ago, my life was high school math class and playing on the local fields, and now I’m here.”

A. J. Wideman said that “all my ‘normal’ friends think I have a million dollars,” but he doesn’t, at least not yet. This is how it goes in





the old king of sports: years of futile yearning for the many, mad riches for the very few.

Or, in the words of Wideman’s potential Toronto battery-mate, catcher David Corrente, the son of a pair of high school teachers from Chatham, Ont.: “I’ll be happy with the major-league minimum. Three hundred thousand is four times what my parents make.”

The Widemans, as well, are hardly wealthy. They formerly had a leather-goods store in the Square One shopping mall and season tickets at Exhibition Stadium, but now the father, Glenn, works at a seniors’ home in Toronto, A.J.’s mother Mary is at home, and her sister Connie lost her job and could no longer afford her Blue Jays seats.

In a game, and an epoch, mesmerized by mega-dollar signs, the striving of young men on distant diamonds is sometimes difficult to see. But this remains the foundation from which all else is constructed, the springtime hope and autumn disappointment.

“We always remind Aaron that when he was really little, we would go to his grandma’s house and he would throw the ball in the backyard,” Mary Wideman said. “And grandma would always tell him, ‘Throw it like you mean it, A. J.! ’

“We have dreamed of him as a majorleague player since he was nine years old. We need to ask ourselves—are we being realistic, or are we just silly parents?

“He called us last night and said that they had released six or seven or eight pitchers,” Mary Wideman said. “He said, ‘They got fired, and I’m still here. I feel so bad, but I don’t know what to say to them.’ ” M