Book Review – Full Count: Four Decades of Blue Jays Baseball

Jeff BlairLate in Full Count: Four Decades of Blue Jays Baseball (2013, Random House Canada), Jeff Blair writes that the Blue Jays “won the off-season.”

After the club’s blockbuster with the Miami Marlins and their acquisition of R.A. Dickey, Blair – a Globe & Mail columnist who doubles as a radio show host on Sportsnet 590 The Fan – was as optimistic as many of us about the Toronto Blue Jays heading into the 2013 campaign. But the Jays’ last place showing in the American League East is further proof that you can’t win a World Series in late November or December.

Published prior to this year’s baseball season, Blair’s 249-page tome offers an extensive rundown of the Jays’ off-season transactions, but also manages to weave a fascinating narrative of the franchise’s entire 37-season existence.

For more than a decade, starting in the mid-’80s, it seemed like a new book about the Blue Jays was being unveiled every other month, but not since Stephen Brunt’s outstanding 1996 effort, Diamond Dreams: 20 Years of Blue Jays Baseball, has the history of the club been so thoroughly revisited.

Blair had the difficult task of picking up where Brunt left off in 1996, which means he was burdened with trying to make the last 16 – soon-to-be 17 – playoff-less seasons compelling for readers. But thanks to his tight prose and revealing interviews with past and present Jays’ executives – particularly Gord Ash, J.P. Ricciardi and Paul Beeston – Blair has produced an interesting and insightful book that’s a worthy, unofficial sequel to Brunt’s offering.

Before dissecting the more recent era in the franchise’s history, however, Blair summarizes the club’s prerequisite triumphant moments. He writes succinctly about how the Jays evolved into a contender under manager Bobby Cox, about Alomar’s ninth-inning, momentum-shifting home run off of Dennis Eckersley in Game 4 of the 1992 American League Championship Series and, of course, about Joe Carter’s World Series-winning belt on October 23, 1993.

But Blair really hits his stride in the revelations he provides about the Jays after their glory years. A candid Gord Ash is one of the stars of the book. Among the more juicy tidbits we learn about Ash, who’s now an assistant GM with the Milwaukee Brewers, was that he strongly disapproved of the four-year, $21-million contract the club doled out to light-hitting shortstop Alex Gonzalez after the 2000 season. Ash, and almost his entire scouting staff, believed the club overpaid, but the transaction was completed by president and CEO Paul Godfrey, who felt the signing was a necessary public relations move.

A forthright Ash also answers questions about how the Jays missed out on Canadian talent like Larry Walker and Justin Morneau during his tenure as GM.

“We did not have Larry Walker highly ranked,” confesses Ash in the book. “I believe the story is that when Bob Prentice saw him, he was not 100 per cent physically. We didn’t see him enough, and that happens. Others? Like [Justin] Morneau? We were just beaten on him. That’s all. And that happens too.”

As expected, former Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi doesn’t mince words in the book. Painted as a disciple of Billy Beane’s Moneyball approach, the outspoken Massachusetts native came to Toronto in 2001 and cut payroll, fired scouts and hired renowned Baseball Prospectus contributor Keith Law. Lost in the Moneyball hoopla, however, was that Ricciardi actually came from a scouting background and had a keen eye for talent. One surprising revelation in the book was that Ricciardi developed a close friendship with old school baseball man Bobby Mattick.

Ricciardi also reveals that he struggled to understand what exactly the owners at Rogers wanted for the club. Several stories indicate that Ted Rogers, the quirky head honcho, was clueless about baseball. For example, Phil Lind, vice-chairman of Rogers Communcations, recalls a game in which Rogers, seated in the front row to the right of the Blue Jays’ dugout, stood up and cheered when a Boston Red Sox player doubled in the ninth inning because he saw so many other fans (obviously members of Red Sox nation who had trekked to Toronto) rise to their feet.

More evidence of Rogers’ cluelessness about baseball came when he decided to announce a three-year, payroll commitment of $210 million in January 2005. It was a generous amount of cash to be sure, but it was money that Ricciardi could’ve used during the prime free agent signing period that had already passed that off-season.

“I just don’t think they [Rogers] understood the business of baseball,” Ricciardi tells Blair, in reflecting upon his tenure in Toronto. “I don’t think they were in it with both feet. Instead they were dipping their toes in the water and that’s not enough to beat the Yankees and the Red Sox, because that’s their whole business. Don’t get me wrong: Rogers should be applauded for keeping the team in Toronto and wanting Canadian content. Nobody should ever take that away from them. But this is a tough business if you’re not going to jump in with your whole body.”

Blair also traces the ascension of Jays’ GM Alex Anthopoulos through the club’s ranks. A McMaster University economics grad who never starred at baseball at any level, the Jays wunderkind executive worked in a heating and ventilation business and as a bank teller, before opting to make baseball his career. He started out working for $7 an hour for the Montreal Expos, making photocopies for the home and visiting team managers. While with the Expos, he would watch batting practice with scouts and absorb as much information as he could. The ambitious youngster was eventually named the Expos’ scouting coordinator, before he jumped to the Jays after the 2003 season.

Ricciardi tabbed the-then 28-year-old Anthopoulos as his assistant GM after the 2005 campaign. In that post, Anthopoulos often negotiated and finalized contracts and evolved into a respected voice in the organization – a voice that he used, the book reveals, to try to convince Ricciardi not to offer B.J. Ryan a five-year contract. Anthopoulos was named the club’s GM after Ricciardi was fired in October 2009.

The book also reveals a number of potential transactions that were discussed under Anthopoulos’s tight-lipped regime. After the 2011 season, for example, the Jays pursued Joe Nathan, but the right-handed closer wasn’t interested in moving his family north of the border. And in this past off-season, prior to the blockbuster with the Marlins, Anthopoulos met with free agent right-hander Anibal Sanchez and had a trade in place for Jake Peavy.

It’s these types of revelations, coupled with Blair’s thorough research and tight, engaging prose that will make this book a strong addition to any Blue Jays fan’s library. The book also reinforces the lesson that the World Series can’t be won in the off-season – something that Blue Jays fans should keep in mind for 2014.

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