TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays return to action Friday when they host the Texas Rangers in the opener of a seven-game homestand, and their eyes remain set firmly on ending a 20-year playoff drought.
Sitting four games back of the AL East-leading Baltimore Orioles and 1.5 games behind the Seattle Mariners for the second wild card, the opportunity before them is a legitimate one. It’s been a long time since the Blue Jays have played meaningful baseball deep into the summer, and it’s hard to fathom now that it used to be a regular occurrence.
From 1983 through 1993, the Blue Jays posted 11 straight seasons with finishes at better than .500, winning the AL East in 1985, ’89, ’91, ’92 and ’93, and consecutive World Series in those final two years.
Gord Ash, currently assistant general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, worked under GM Pat Gillick throughout that tenure, becoming the club’s AGM in 1989 and taking over from Gillick after the ’94 season.
During his reign the Blue Jays posted an 88-74 finish in 1998 – still the club’s best record since the World Series years – but not good enough to qualify for the post-season, underlining just how special a period the franchise experienced during those glory days.
“There aren’t many New York Yankee-type dynasties anymore,” says Ash. “There’s constant change in the competitive nature of the game, we all talk about the parity and it’s much more difficult to survive into a World Series. As I talk to former Blue Jays employees as I go around, I don’t think anybody understood how good it was in the mid ’80s to early ’90s.
“I don’t think we appreciated it as much as we should have or could have, because it was a pretty special time to be that successful for that length of time because it doesn’t happen very much anymore now looking back. But as you get older you get more nostalgic anyways.”
Here are some other thoughts Ash recently shared with Sportsnet:
With the passage of time, how do you reflect on your years as GM in Toronto?
“Well, I wish I knew then what I know now. There’s probably nothing better than a recycled executive because you hopefully learn from your mistakes. I don’t think any excuses are needed, but it was a difficult time, the club was for sale, there was no long-term plan and in this business you better have a long-term plan or you’re going to be in trouble. We had the one pretty good year (1998), we got close a couple of other years, we just didn’t have the depth or the staying power. I know a lot more now, I’m better prepared to handle situations as they come up, what’s a big deal and what isn’t a big deal.”
What are some things you wish you knew then?
“A lot of it is not in terms of team building, because it’s pretty much the same formula for clubs like Toronto and Milwaukee, we’re not big free-agent signers, you have to draft and develop well, rely on your own personnel. More in how you handle your staff, your communications and relationships with players, all of those kind of things.”
You faced many challenges with the Interbrew ownership and its instability. How did that affect the team?
“It wasn’t a question of support. It was probably you didn’t know who to turn to because the club was in a little bit of flux. Sam Pollock was a tremendous asset to me from a learning point of view, and obviously having success with the Montreal Canadiens and being able to think two and three steps ahead. And he was a great ally to have and a great sounding board, so I can’t complain on that front. When Paul (Beeston left in 1998 to become chief operating office at Major League Baseball) that was a void that never fully got replaced because he had great perspective and great ability to ask the right questions, did you think about this, and what about that. You missed that voice of reason, so I can’t say there was a lack of support. There was a void. You did what you thought made sense, and sometimes it did, and sometimes it did.”
Though you had lots of experience as assistant general manager, that must have amplified the challenge as a first-time GM?
“I think so, and I’m not sure anyone if they’re truthful feels that they’re fully prepared because you haven’t experienced everything. As an assistant there are a lot of things you see and a lot of things you do but you don’t have the totality of the responsibility. That’s a different picture.”
Your teams were built around a core that included Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green, Alex Gonzalez, Roy Halladay, Kelvim Escobar and Chris Carpenter. What are some of the keys that helped you develop and integrate players so effectively?
“That’s the influence of Pat (Gillick). You go back to ’85 (check) and Jimmy Key spent his first year in the bullpen and then transitioned into a starter. Jimmy Key wasn’t going to make the team that year, we played exhibition games and Jimmy Key was the last cut sent back, Brian Clark was kept on the club and at the last minute they changed their minds and Jimmy Key worked out of the bullpen that entire year. Working in those opportunities to bring those players into this setting and maybe not putting the full weight of responsibility on them, that’s the way Delgado came up and went back, a lot of those guys came up and went back, Halladay is obviously the most talked about, but Carpenter came up and went back, so getting that initial opportunity to experience this level and then fine-tuning what you need to fine-tune and then come back.
“The general manager finds opportunities for those players, but the scouts did a tremendous job finding those kind of players and at the time we had some great development minds in Bobby Mattick and Mel Queen, they’re really responsible for getting those players ready.”