How do you make a dreadful season compelling enough to read about?
That’s the challenge that Toronto baseball writers Shi Davidi and John Lott faced with Great Expectations: The Lost Toronto Blue Jays Season, their 183-page book about the Blue Jays’ disappointing 2013 campaign.
Fortunately for readers, these authors are gifted storytellers and superb interviewers, skills that allowed them to dig deeper than the disillusionment and deliver a tight, insightful page-turner with plenty of revelations about the team’s players and executives.
The book begins in August 2012 with rumours circulating about Jays skipper John Farrell being the odds-on favourite for the Boston Red Sox impending managerial vacancy. The authors reveal that by this point the relationship between Farrell and Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos had become somewhat shaky. Some of the most interesting revelations in the book are of the conflicts between the two during the 2012 season. One example of them butting heads came at the July 31 trade deadline. With the Jays five games out of a wild-card spot, Farrell was eager for Anthopoulos to make a bold transaction to spark a late-season playoff push, but the Jays GM only swung minor deals. Farrell and some of the players were so annoyed at Anthopoulos’s relative inactivity that a clubhouse meeting was called to “diffuse the dissatisfaction.”
Another difference of opinion took place after Yunel Escobar was suspended for three games for writing a homophobic message in his eye-black in mid-September. With little left to play for, Farrell wanted to insert prospect Adeiny Hechavarria at shortstop for the rest of the season, but Anthopoulos balked at the idea, fearing that showcasing the raw youngster might diminish his trade value.
The rumours about Farrell were, of course, not unfounded and he was eventually traded to the Red Sox on October 21 for journeyman infielder Mike Aviles. Shortly after Farrell’s departure, Anthopoulos began masterminding the most exciting off-season in Blue Jays history. The blockbuster he completed with the Florida Marlins on November 19 that saw the Jays acquire Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio and John Buck for Escobar, Jeff Mathis, Henderson Alvarez and a package of prospects was hailed as a triumph and it generated a buzz around the club that it hadn’t enjoyed for 20 years.
The authors reveal, however, that this transaction almost fell apart when Anthopoulos was asked to include Mathis, whom he had recently inked to a two-year contract extension. Anthopoulos’s colleagues, however, convinced him – and deep down, he knew it himself – that Paul Beeston would be livid if the deal unravelled because of his allegiance to a back-up catcher.
“To this day it still bothers me that I did it,” Anthopoulos tells the authors of trading Mathis. “Because it was so fresh it felt like a betrayal.”
On top of providing insights on transactions – including the R.A. Dickey deal – that Anthopoulos was able to consummate last off-season, Davidi and Lott also shed light on some of the other players that the Blue Jays pursued. For example, the team made a hefty, five-year offer to right-hander Anibal Sanchez and they dangled uber catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud to the Tampa Bay Rays in an effort to land right-hander James Shields. The Jays also came close to acquiring Jake Peavy and they coveted starters Jason Samardzija, Brett Anderson and Hisashi Iwakuma.
Where Davidi and Lott really excel, however, are in their in-depth profiles of Blue Jays personalities. In their chapter about manager John Gibbons, they skillfully bring out the skipper’s simple, storytelling charm. One humorous tale that Gibbons shares was when he was serving as the New York Mets bullpen catcher in the 1986 World Series. He was warming up Dwight Gooden in Game 6 when Mookie Wilson grounded the ball through Bill Buckner’s legs in the tenth inning to give the Mets an unlikely, come-from-behind win.
“There in Shea, they all had the mounted police ready to storm the field if Boston won it. All the horses are lined up inside the bullpen against the outfield fence,” recalled Gibbons of the scene just prior to Buckner’s gaffe. “I’m catching Gooden and his fastball is cracking the mitt pretty good, so every time the ball hit the mitt, those horses were jumping. That’s what I remember most, I didn’t actually see it all happen because I was blocked by the horses.”
The authors also provide details about Gibbons’ famous blow-ups with Shea Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly in the summer of 2006. Upset with his role as DH, Hillenbrand famously scribbled, “The ship is sinking” on a white board in the Blue Jays’ clubhouse. Gibbons, in his first go-around as Blue Jays manager, confronted Hillenbrand in a team meeting that Vernon Wells describes in the book as the “most intense” he has ever been involved in. Hillenbrand would never play another game for the Blue Jays.
The authors tracked down Hillenbrand, who’s now out of baseball, and the ex-Jay regrets the incident, but appreciates that it helped him make a profound change in his life.
“I was at a point in my life where I wasn’t saved,” Hillenbrand tells the authors. “Now I’m saved. I have Jesus in my heart.”
The book also presents fascinating chapters on Alex Anthopoulos and several players, including Jose Bautista, Buehrle, Reyes and Brett Lawrie. These chapters offer us a deeper glimpse into these key Blue Jays personalities. We learn, for example, that Bautista’s father, Americo, was a poultry farmer and his mother, Sandra, was an accountant and that they both emphasized the importance of a good education to their son. This helps explain why Bautista attended Chipola Junior College rather than sign out of the Dominican Republic as a 16-year-old.
The authors also paint a poignant picture of Reyes, who grew up in poverty in the Dominican Republic. His father, Jose Manuel, worked long shifts at a ceramics factory while his mother, Rosa, stayed home to raise him and his younger sister, Miosoti.
“The family bungalow was short on luxuries – they slept on mattresses piled atop a concrete floor and the bathroom was out back – but the household was filled with joy and laughter,” the authors write of Reyes’s childhood home.
Davidi and Lott also share that the happy-go-lucky Reyes didn’t let the fact that his parents couldn’t afford to buy him a baseball glove stop him from playing. As a child, Reyes perfected the art of fielding grounders by using an old milk carton.
The book also houses 16 pages of photos, many of which were taken by Lott, who proves to be as adept with the camera as he is behind the keyboard. The bulk of Lott’s shots are candid, behind-the-scenes photos that make you wish there were more of them in the book.
So how do you make a dreadful season compelling enough to read about?
Well, Davidi and Lott have found the formula: tight, breezy prose, candid photos, revealing portraits of key personalities and new details about the behind-the-scenes workings of a franchise. Pooling their many skills, Davidi and Lott have accomplished something rather remarkable with this book: they’ve crafted a fascinating page-turner about a season that most Blue Jays fans would like to forget.
You can purchase a copy of Great Expectations: The Lost Toronto Blue Jays Season here: http://www.ecwpress.com/books/blue-jays