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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

December 11, 2011 at 1:30 PM

The not-so-Hollywood tale of one baseball team’s ongoing 10-year rebuilding plan

Many of you have asked in recent days about whether the Mariners were about to become the AL West equivalent of the Blue Jays. Meaning, a team that balances its books, makes all the cost-effective moves to keep the blogs happy, but has no chance of contending for anything because it is being outspent by the Yankees and Red Sox.
Well, I’d say we’re headed in that direction. The Angels and their new, $3-billion TV deal are starting to look a whole lot like the Yankees while the well-managed, cash-infused Rangers have plenty in common with the Red Sox. As do the Mariners with the perennial third-and-fourth-place Blue Jays.
One thing people this side of the country are not always familliar with is how the Blue Jays got to be the Blue Jays. It ties in to a lot of what I’ve been writing about this past week in regards to the true intentions of team owners, their real ability to spend and how baseball fans and some media place too high a value on cost-effectiveness while missing the bigger picture.
Don’t take my word for it. Look at the Blue Jays. Not the for-public-consumption story of a little team trying to go up against the payroll giants of the AL East. No, I mean the real story of how baseball’s once top-spending team and two-time World Series champions degenerated into an afterthought on the baseball scene while its behemoth corporate owners consolidated a sports empire.
Wouldn’t quite fit with the new Moneyball movie. Or the book. Unfortunately, it’s a much more realistic look into the world of MLB and how it operates.
Anyhow, one reason I come by my opinions the way I do are my experiences covering the fascinating Blue Jays story firsthand from the years 1998 through most of 2006. But today’s story really took hold 10 years ago this month, when freshly-hired GM J.P. Ricciardi went to his first winter meetings in Boston to begin a “rebuilding plan”.
A decade later, we’ve seen the results of that plan and they’ve paid off quite handsomely for team owner Rogers Communications. Just last week, it was announced that Rogers had teamed up with Bell Canada Enterprises to purchase a $1.3-billion (including equity and debt), 75 percent stake in the entity that controls the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team. For those not familliar with the Toronto sports scene, this was the final and biggest step towards consolidation of a sports empire. It was great news for Rogers and came at the cost of $533 million or so for their half of the purchase.
For fans of the Blue Jays? Well, they still have the same .500 team they did a decade ago when Ricciardi — now long gone from Toronto — began a rebuilding plan that was supposed to help the team win bigger on a budget. And if I was one of those fans, especially one of the fewer and fewer actually buying tickets to go see the Blue Jays in person, I might be standing on my couch screaming at the top of my lungs: “Hey! Wait just a gosh-darned minute here!”
But having lived there and dealt with many of the baseball fans, most well-meaning and well-intentioned — who would often write in to lecture me about the wisdom of balanced budgets and fiscal prudence — many will merely be crossing their fingers and hoping that next year will bear fruit. And the year after that. And the year after that.
Which is how rebuilding plans drag on for six, seven, 10 and 20 years at a time when nobody is really paying attention to the real games that go on in corporate boardrooms well above the playing field. We can measure the cost-effectiveness of contracts and try to determine how to squeeze the most WAR out of a balanced-budget roster and make value judgements about what teams can really “afford” versus other teams.
But as the Toronto case shows, many times, those viewpoints will be so far gone from reality that they don’t matter.
Let’s look at the real story of Blue Jays baseball and use it as a cautionary tale for those of us who are willing to quickly make excuses for Mariners ownership and their front office employees without really doing any homework.
If you don’t want to hear about Toronto, then move on. I’m trying to use this little bit of recent history here to point out some things that I see too often repeated in this marketplace. Namely: fans doing a team’s dirty work by making payroll excuses for it.
Now, the real story of Toronto’s 10-year (and counting) rebuilding plan.

Back in 2000, Rogers bought the Blue Jays from a Belgian beer conglomerate that had mismanaged the team so badly it lost control of the SkyDome to auction right out from under its nose. So, the Blue Jays were playing baseball in a stadium they didn’t own. In fact, the stadium was now newly-controlled by a Chicago-based consortium fronted by none other than Pat Gillick.
Rogers eventually fired GM Gord Ash — now an assistant in Milwaukee who worked for years alongside Jack Zduriencik — and searched for a successor in late 2001. Among those who applied for the job was assistant GM and former big league pitcher Dave Stewart, who had a plan to hike team payroll up around $100 million so he could give a supporting cast to newly-re-signed Carlos Delgado (who’d been given a four-year, $68-million extension by Rogers a year earlier) and take a run at the Yankees and Red Sox.
But lo and behold, Rogers went with Ricciardi instead. Ricciardi’s strongest suit, apparently, having been that he’d worked under Billy Beane in Oakland and proclaimed he could deliver a winner to Toronto with lower payrolls in the $50 million range.
Ricciardi had told Rogers exactly what it needed to hear. Rogers jumped on-board and began playing up the virtues of Ricciardi anywhere you looked. Ricciardi was marketed as heavily as the team’s players on team-partner broadcasts and in other media. Moneyball was published about a year later and author Michael Lewis was trotted in by the team to meet the media and help them sell the virtues of what Ricciardi was trying to do.
Payroll went down and Delgado’s contract became an albatross overnight. But it didn’t seem to matter to the Blue Jays, who kept promising that they were rebuilding with young stars. To save even more money, the team slashed its Latin American pipeline, which for 20 years had supplied it with talent from outside North America.
The moves didn’t make the Blue Jays any better on the field.
But that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to gain control of the ballpark. The Chicago consortium that owned the SkyDome was losing money yearly in operating a venue where it did not control the tenant team. And the Blue Jays were losing out on huge revenue opportunities by having a team with no ballpark.
It was a matter of who would blink first. And in the meantime, the goal of Rogers was to trim annual deficits for the ballclub and keep the budget as balanced as possible until it gained control of the stadium. Rogers never actually said this out loud to baseball fans, who remained under the impression the final goal was to actually win something. No, the cost-cutting and money stockpiling and franchise value maintenance was sold as a cost-efficient way to win in baseball. The same virtues that attracted people to Moneyball and the Oakland A’s were exploited heavily in order to buy time for Rogers to gain a ballpark in Toronto.
Baseball blogs were relatively few back then. But the local bloggers were all on-board as were some ill-informed mainstream media types. One in particular used to drive me nuts with periodical scribblings that referred to the Blue Jays as “The Little Engine that Could” while seemingly ignoring the enormous wealth of the team’s corporate owner.
Anyhow, in late 2004, bleeding money from all sides, the Chicago consortium that owned the ballpark finally caved and sold the SkyDome to Rogers for pennies on the dollar. A ballpark that cost taxpayers more than $300 million in the late 1980s was sold to Rogers for only $25 million. Initially, the consortium had wanted well over $100 million. But Rogers merely waited them out to get the bargain basement price, sacrificing a half-decade of Toronto baseball in the process (a fifth year was spent getting the stadium up to snuff before the team began signing free agents in earnest).
Oh yeah, there was one winner from all the years of slashed payrolls. According to Forbes, the Blue Jays were able to keep their franchise value hovering around the $170-million mark while they waited the consortium out. It didn’t grow, but it didn’t crash either.
Once they got the stadium, that value skyrocketed from $169 million in 2004 up to $214 million in 2005. The team promptly threw its “Moneyball” approach out the window and shoved big money at A.J. Burnett, B.J. Ryan and a bunch of other free agent types it had spent five years ignoring.
Those expenditures weren’t thought out all that well, but no matter. With the stadium in hand, franchise value kept on growing — up to $353 million in 2009, when Ricciardi was finally fired after years of seeing his “rebuilding plan” go nowhere.
But even as the team kept on turning in mediocre performances and attendance kept dwindling, the baseball team kept gaining in and later consolidating its franchise value.
One reason was that — for all the new money it was taking in — parent company Rogers was actually spending a lot less on annual Blue Jays payroll then it had been in the early Ricciardi years.
The Blue Jays fielded a payroll of roughly $50 million in 2003 at the height of Moneyball hysteria. Every dollar of that cost the team roughly $1.50 in Canadian funds because of the exchange rate.
In other words, they spent $75 million Canadian on that year’s payroll.
This year’s Blue Jays opened with a payroll of roughly $70 million. But the Canadian dollar at the time was now — at worst — on-par with the U.S. greenback. In plain English, it spent roughly $70 million Canadian on this year’s team.
So, in terms of real money spent, the present-day Blue Jays with their new stadium and all are spending even less money than they were in their cheapest of the cheap years under Ricciardi and his Moneyball-likened cost slashing.
How can that be? Well, for one, because folks let it stay that way without asking the right questions. I don’t see these dollar comparisons between 2003 and 2011 being used too often when I read reports out of Toronto about the baseball team’s “ability” to spend or ability to “afford” certain players. The same types of people questioning the M’s ability to “afford” Prince Fielder for eight years are the ones questioning whether it’s cost-effective enough for the Blue Jays to make such commitments.
I still see pundits south of the border citing the Blue Jays as an example of a “hopeless” situation in the AL East. As being at an “unfair” disadvantage compared to the Yankees and Red Sox.
But how can anyone with even a degree of insight into their situation make such an argument with a straight face? The Blue Jays are spending less today than they were a decade ago. They haven’t even tried to keep up. In failing to do so, they’ve spent less money and taken revenue sharing and exchange-rate equalization handouts at various points over the past decade. All this and they now have a parent company that just shelled out more than $500 million to buy one of the more lucrative sports franchises in North America.
All the while, Blue Jays franchise value under Rogers has more than tripled from the $120 million it purchased the team for back in Sept. 2000. The Little Engine That Could, indeed.
Tell me again, please, what the Blue Jays can afford in terms of free agents.
Sure, they have a bright young GM in Alex Anthopoulos to make the shrewd, cost-effective moves that get him hailed within the local fanbase. But are the team’s owners ever going to allow Anthopoulos the chance to truly compete by giving him a payroll higher than the Blue Jays had in their cheapest of relative spending years? Or are they simply going to use him to continue the facade of competitiveness by maintaining the status quo while owners get even richer off other ventures?
Because right now, if I’m a diehard Blue Jays fan, I’m asking myself: If the first half of the last decade was spent with the Blue Jays stockpiling cash for their owners to buy a stadium cheaply, what’s the second half been about? Has it been about Rogers stockpiling cash to buy a hockey team? At the expense of quality baseball?
I don’t know the answer. All I know is, the Blue Jays let it be known early on at the winter meetings that they weren’t going to spend big on Prince Fielder over more than five years. They went out and traded for a closer rather than spend on one in free agency. These may wind up being prudent moves, but was that really the reason they were made? Or were they made in order to keep payroll down and allow the team’s owner to spend hundreds of millions in other sports arenas?
This one writer in Toronto — Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star — has been on to the whole Rogers/Moneyball/money saving ruse for most of the past decade and is as clued-in with baseball insiders as anyone in Canada. At least he’s still asking the tough questions.
And here in Seattle, that’s all we can do. We can watch and learn from history that the interests of team owners often have little to do with winning championships. Doesn’t mean the Mariners have some vast conspiracy underway. But it does mean that we should not be so foolish as to make definitive proclamations about their “ability to compete” or their “ability to afford” certain players.
Teams don’t need apologists in the media, on blogs or in the fanbase doing their dirty work for free. Let them sell you on why they can or can’t do certain things.
And if you’re going to try to read into it, make sure you’re looking at the stuff that matters. Start at the very top and work your way on down. No, it’s not as easy as venturing to a website and adding up all the pertinent numbers. Nor as easy as watching the latest Brad Pitt movie. Sometimes, it takes some real legwork to find the answers and they won’t become apparent right away.
But that’s OK. We’re not all experts in every realm. The best we can do is try to stay better informed about the issues that matter.
Hopefully, by reading this, you’ll now be a little better informed about how one team’s rebuilding plan was able to stretch into 10 years and counting without its owners being called on the carpet too severely. How those owners managed to keep the fanbase hoping for the next big year while 10 of them drifted on by.
Owners that are now putting the finishing touches on a sports empire filled with mediocre teams that make them piles and piles of money. It’s been a happy ending, to be sure. But probably not the one baseball fans in Toronto were hoping for 10 years ago.



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