The first couple of weeks of the Toronto Blue Jays’ spring training followed a familiar script. Players arrived, lockers were filled, mail was opened, greetings were exchanged, workouts began, pre-season games were played, much optimism was expressed.
It is like that every year, everywhere that Major League players gather for the longest and most leisurely prelude in professional sport. But there was also something different in Jaysland—subtle at first, though soon obvious enough that anyone hanging around began to pick up the subtext, as much from what wasn’t being said as what was.
The headlines over the winter were about the flashy additions to the roster—Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin—and about the lingering questions of who would play second base and who would become the closer. But the truth is, the subtractions might have been almost as significant.
Adam Lind, Brandon Morrow, Casey Janssen, Colby Rasmus, Anthony Gose and, to a lesser extent, Brett Lawrie. It’s no accident that those guys are gone, even though all of them have skill sets that might have come in handy.
Heading into the third season since the trade that reshaped the Jays’ roster and put Alex Anthopoulos and his manager, John Gibbons, on the clock, Anthopoulos came to an old-school conclusion.
It was clear, even before the announcement that this would be Paul Beeston’s final year as club president, that a watershed approached. Anything less than a trip to the post-season and the dominoes would start tumbling, with Gibbons the first one vulnerable. He could be the fall guy (and he knows it), thrown over the side at the first sign of trouble.
They can’t afford a repeat of last year’s bitter summer collapse. And while bad luck, injuries and being not quite good enough had something to do with it, Anthopoulos has obviously concluded it also had something to do with the kind of people wearing the uniform.
That goes against the grain for someone who is used to evaluating players based on their physical tools, on the hard truths discernible through their statistics, who has to believe that the best players make up the best team. Sometimes that’s true, and it’s also true that when things are going well, as they were for the Jays until June, the other stuff doesn’t much matter.
But when a team starts to go south, factors other than ability can make a tailspin worse. Malcontents. Clubhouse lawyers. Selfish players. Players who don’t really like coming to the ballpark. Players who have enough influence in the room to lead others astray. Players who won’t fight through even a minor hurt.
Jose Bautista—who will be the big dog on this team for as long he plays in Toronto—came the closest to actually saying that about those ex-Jays this spring. While making a point of volunteering that he’d miss Lawrie, and maintaining that he wasn’t going to knock anyone, that everyone was trying to do their job, he said this: “We might have guys in here now that are maybe an uptick or two more competitive than guys that have been here in the past.”
Which in athlete-ese, is pretty black and white.
If this is indeed Anthopoulos’s and Gibbons’s last stand, they’re going to make it with a group that should share their sense of urgency. It’s no coincidence, they believe, that both Donaldson and Martin have been part of playoff teams, Martin with all three of his prior big-league teams, the Dodgers, Yankees and Pirates. They’re both terrific players—both have been MVP candidates—but they’re also positive personalities known for their competitive drive. They were acquired to play third base and to catch, but also to help reset the tone.
Yep, intangibles—the stuff fans and sportswriters talk about when they don’t really have a clue what’s going on behind closed doors. Character. Leadership. Setting a good example. Fighting through adversity. Staying upbeat.
Smart, cynical analysts tossed that stuff aside long ago. Forget the clichés. Just give me the talent.
But in desperate times, after logic and calculation have failed to produce a winner, perhaps there’s no harm in looking for some old-fashioned heroes.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.