CARLSBAD, Calif. – Scott Boras stood on the landing above some stairs at the Omni La Costa Resort and Spa as the throng descended upon him, directing traffic to ensure the oncoming masses could all clearly hear what he had to say.
The three pages of notes in his hands indicated that his annual media session at the General Managers Meetings wasn’t going to be the typical production of poking and prodding big-league teams into spending more money. Indeed, a 10-minute opening soliloquy, in which he issued his latest rebuke of the baseball industry, brought his usual theatre to a whole new level of spectacle.
Caught up in his latest round of recriminations were the Toronto Blue Jays, whose stark attendance drop this past season he repeatedly offered up as a symptom of the ills caused by "the cancer" of tanking in the game.
"Toronto is a wonderful city, it’s been a great franchise, they’ve drawn three million fans," said Boras, who also took shots at the Miami Marlins and Minnesota Twins, among others. "They’ve lost near a third of their fan-base due to the ‘Blue Flu’ of not bringing attractive players that their fans find interesting to their market."
His comments come with the Blue Jays in their first off-season of a rebuild and their payroll set to drop out of baseball’s upper third, perhaps as low as the $120-$130 million range. Asked for his opinion of their looming step back as they look to create opportunities for their young players to develop next year, Boras replied: "My answer to it is that when a hitter comes up to you and says ‘I’m going to condition myself the first three months of the season so I don’t plan on playing that much the first three months,’ that doesn’t go over well in the locker room."
"Players have an obligation to perform every year and perform at the highest of levels and so do teams. We need a system that exactly addresses that issue," Boras continued. "We have to create a performance model that is the equivalent of what we require of our players with owners in the sense of there’s a reward for winning. If there’s a reward for winning, I guarantee you they will do things differently."
Not to be lost amid his clever zingers – "the fans of Florida have certainly brought the M-I-A to Miami" while in Minnesota, only one Twin can be found – is the premise that baseball’s draft system with its drastic disparities in signing bonus pools incentivizes losing. In turn, that’s led smart front offices to tank seasons in order to secure a more advantageous draft spot to accelerate a rebuild, rather than spending on established players to try and create a rebound.
In its place, Boras suggests a system that incentivizes winning by creating rewards in draft picks and bonus pool room based on how much success a team has. While that’s the polar opposite of how pro sports leagues have operated – awarding top picks to the worst teams as a way to try and fairly allocate incoming talent – it’s worth remembering teams haven’t always been as clever about manipulating rules as they are now.
The fact that 17 teams in baseball experienced year-over-year drops in attendance – led by the Blue Jays, who experienced a decline of 878,605 fans this year from 3,203,886 in 2017 to 2,325,281 – shows that "the voluntary methods that are currently in place and that owners are applying and that the game is operating under, the fans are clearly rejecting," Boras said.
Asked for his response to his team’s apparent "Blue Flu," general manager Ross Atkins took the high road, saying "I don’t have a reaction to Scott’s comments, or the word play that he’s using."
Atkins did defend the Blue Jays, arguing that they’ve been "aggressive" in free agency the past couple of years while "relative to the industry, you can look and see where we were from a payroll standpoint."
As for the notion teams who weren’t spending weren’t trying, Atkins said "to ignore competitive windows and to ignore that there are better times to be more aggressive in every market, not just free agency, I think would not be the best thing for an organization’s future."
"No organization is going to win absolutely every year, there are always going to be lulls, and there are going to be teams that are spending at the very top of the payroll potential and still not go to the World Series," Atkins added. "When we talk about sustaining success it means building from within and having that depth of talent that’s constantly coming and then recognizing the opportunities to double down on that in free agency and trades.
"It’s a subtle difference in the way he’s stating it. The way I would talk about it is in terms of windows of opportunity to be more aggressive."
The Blue Jays have repeatedly made the point that now is not their window of opportunity, which is sure to lead to another drag on attendance in 2019. Next year will be about developing their next core and weeding out the young players who aren’t going to stick. There’s little sense in spending extravagantly to augment a group under those circumstances, goes the line of thinking.
Instead, Atkins intends to initially try to transform his group via trade, and he suggested Wednesday that "certainly things are teed up in a fashion that a decision could be made in a week, or days."
He didn’t get into specifics, but the Blue Jays are trying to pare down their infield logjam by trading from their depth to bolster the pitching staff. Another potential suitor for Russell Martin may have opened up, as well, with the New York Yankees announcing that catcher Gary Sanchez is set to undergo left shoulder surgery.
Any such moves won’t address the concerns of Boras, whose critique of the game, masked in altruistic notions of rewarding fans with a better product, is ultimately motivated by trying to get more money in the pockets of players.
More power to him on that front. The shame is that the worthwhile points he raises get somewhat obscured by how they were made, and the polarizing person who made them.