Book Review: Full Count - Four Decades of Blue Jays Baseball

Tom Szczerbowski

Jeff Blair is not a new face in Toronto sports media, but he's certainly been newly ascendant over the last few years. Coming to the Globe and Mail in 1998, Blair established himself as a cantankerous critic of the Blue Jays; a fan of the team, but from the perspective of an outsider. His work was often acerbic and pointed, savaging then General Manager Gord Ash for his lack of direction, and later calling JP Ricciardi to task for the many puzzling moves of the club. In many ways, Blair had emerged as the heir to Bob Elliott, with the combination of access and influence that has allowed him to be critical - harshly so at times - without being isolated by the Front Office.

In the last few years, Blair's presence has expanded greatly, in part due to the success of the Jeff Blair Show on the Fan590, which borrows a page from Bob McCown's schtick as being a 'straight talking' show unafraid to point out the idiocy of callers. His popularity has led to replacing Sam Constantino as Dirk Hayhurst's foil on Baseball Central, as well as McCown's go-to replacement host for Prime Time Sports. This media expansion has cost him some of the separation he had enjoyed earlier in his career, in exchange for a much larger audience.

'Full Count: Four Decades of Blue Jays Baseball' is very much influenced by Blair's evolving media presence. It is, at times, savagely critical, pillorying the Blue Jays organization for questionable moves that marked the team's long status as a good but not good enough team. It is also at times mawkish, even fawning of Alex Anthopoulos and Paul Beeston, structuring the 2013 season as a victory lap for years of smartly managed risks finally paying off. It stumbles between the two narratives, shifting tones from objective critic to hopeful fan and back, culminating in a book that is immensely readable and enjoyable, but ultimately fails to deliver a fully realized overview of the Toronto Blue Jays.

THE EARLY YEARS

"They built up a following. But it also made the players believe there was a long term commitment. To me, that's the challenge of getting it all back; to make the players believe they're a part of it. That's why continuity is so important; it creates an identity and stays with it. That's what [Peter] Widdrington and [Paul] Hardy did." - Buck Martinez

Blair's approach to the early years of the Blue Jays franchise is all about the business end of it. Ceding authority for the 1976-1992 years to Steven Brunt's Diamond Dreams, Blair mostly deals with the twin evolution of the Jays Front Office and the ownership group. Dominated by anecdotes on Widdrington's unwavering support as the chairman of Labatt's during the 80s and the stewardship of Beeston and Gillick, it deftly outlines the case that the early years of the Jays focused on building a new baseball culture. By differentiating themselves in both minor ways like accessibility between players and ownership, and major ways like the expansion into the Dominican Republic through the late Epy Guerrero and use of the Rule Five draft to build the system, the early Jays are presented as the innovators of baseball culture in the 80s.

More than any one person, Full Count is the story of Paul Beeston. He dominates the narrative, from the early pages as an important architect of their success leading to the World Series to being the club's quiet champion in the Commissioner's office. The story finally lead to Beeston being the key building block in their return to greatness. Following Interbrew's acquiring of the Jays, it was an open secret that the team was available for purchase, but Beeston claims to have been the final hurdle for any potential sale. "The team was only going to a group that I wanted it to go to." He states. "I know it sounds arrogant, but it's absolutely true. They could have come up with the wealthiest guy in the world, and if I told Bud this guy would be bad for the team or bad for the city, the sale wasn't going to happen."

Blair is almost equally infusive about Gillick, although goes into far less depth. He breezes quickly through to the World Series and the business relationships leading to the sale of Labatt's and the transition of the franchise from an industry leading innovator and model organization into a very different beast. In truth, while Full Count charts the rise of the Blue Jays, it's story really starts with its rapid fall.

INTO THE WILDERNESS

"I guess that's when I started to think that things were changing, because the thing is, it just didn't seem like we tried to get anybody. I don't know that, but it seems like it. In 1985, we had Bill Caudill here, and when he didn't work out we went and got Henke. This time, nothing happened." - Cito Gaston

Much like with the early years, Blair is more interested in grappling with the questions of ownership between 1995 and 2000, devoting a great deal of time and attention to Rogers' acquisition of the team and Ted Rogers famous lack of knowledge about the game he was buying a professional team for. The purchase of the Blue Jays brought Paul Godfrey to the helm of the Blue Jays as President, a move well approved by the Toronto establishment. Blair dives into the roots of the Blue Jays ownership, tied into Toronto's Tory business community, where Godfrey emerged from as the President of Sun Media before moving over to the Jays. Gord Ash, GM following Gillick's departure, is portrayed as a hapless cost of doing business, blindsided by his new ownership group during the 2000 Winter Meetings, with an ill-advised deal to Alex Gonzalez negotiated without the involvement of the General Manager.

In a chapter titled 'Moneyball North', Blair dives into the circumstances surrounding the appointment of J.P Ricciardi to the position of General Manager. According to Blair, the Jays first made serious runs at Billy Beane and his assistant, Paul DePodesta, who both turned down the position for family reasons. Ricciardi was interviewed, offered the position, and accepted all in the span of four hours. But did Toronto have a real plan for Moneyball? "They kind of said that they wanted to follow what went on in Oakland, but I don't think they had any idea how to go about it. They were looking for a plan and the problem was the plan I came in with... I don't think they understood how it would come about." Ricciardi claims.

Blair spends awhile exploring Ricciardi's contentious run as GM, especially with some of the accepted truths that Ricciardi was a 'numbers stat guy' and the sole architect of the Jays misfortune. He gets into Ricciardi's original background as a scout and the misconception that scouting was rendered obsolete in the Jays Front Office. In truth, Blair weaves an intriguing story that shows a struggle between the Front Office, the President, and ownership, each one demanding a plan and then abandoning it when expedient. While Ricciardi was the lightning rod for criticism, assisted by his own tendency towards ill-considered off the cuff remarks, the faltering direction of the Blue Jays in Blair's narrative is owned by all levels of the organization. One of the most telling would be the loss of Carlos Delgado.

Delgado, the greatest offensive player that the Jays ever produced, was a heavy payroll drain on a cost-cutting club, regardless of his offensive contributions. His no trade clause limited their options, and his love of Toronto scared them away from even giving him a qualifying offer. Instead, they allowed him to walk without even receiving compensation in the draft for him. Two months later, Rogers would announce a major commitment to increase payroll over the next three years - money that would have allowed them to retain Delgado or to at least make a qualifying offer for the draft picks. A classic example of a patchwork power structure without any unifying element, it epitomizes the lack of cohesion that would cost the club over the decade.

Once again, Blair casts Paul Beeston as the savior, swooping in with the release of Godfrey to take the mantle of interim President and bringing the Front Office, ownership, and the President's office together on to the same page for the first time since Interbrew bought the team.

WELCOME THE NEW KING, SAME AS THE OLD KING

"So I rationalized it. I told Jeff [Mathis], 'Go ask the Marlins if we shopped you' I just realized: if I'd lost this deal, Paul would have fucking choked me. He really would have." - Alex Anthopoulos

The remainder of the book focuses on the appointment of AA as GM, and the various deals that have earned him the nickname of 'Ninja'. Following the death of his father, it works to show Anthopoulos' rise through baseball as the product of tremendous hard work and sacrifice, defining himself as a different creature from his former boss, Ricciardi. Beeston's tone is familial, that of the proud parent seeing his child succeed. The charting of AA's rise from Expo intern to Jays GM is also the vehicle to tackle what Blair sees as a misunderstanding of how SABRmetrics fans view the assessment process of the Front Office. He details AA's time traveling through scout school and watching minor league talent, making his own observations and learning to identify value. It is designed to show Anthopoulos' value as a ‘complete' GM who balances advanced metrics with scouting and baseball knowledge; but also to underscore the unspoken but implicit argument that the Fangraphs crowd of outsiders only have the same partial picture of the game that they often charge old-school scouts and journalists as having.

Somewhat jarringly, the book skips from the victory lap of Anthopoulos' appointment to focus on one of his trades in particular; Shawn Marcum for Brett Lawrie. Lawrie is portrayed as a gargantuan of Canadian baseball, striding in as the sign of the Jays final steps to the mountain. The white whale of the Jays Front Office; a Canadian superstar, destined for a career to match the greats, but this time earned on his home and native turf of Canada. While Blair is not entirely uncritical, noting Lawrie's tumultuous 2012 performance, he tends to gloss over the somewhat serious deficits in the young man's game to hold to his narrative. Like any good omen, Blair takes Lawrie's potential at face value; a sign of a finally ascendant Canadian juggernaut, ready to compete after years of futility.

LETTING THE DAYS GO BY

"[The meeting] allowed me to look him in the eye and hear from his heart where he thought I fit into the scheme of things with the organization, where he envisioned us going in the near future and how important he felt like I was to that vision." - R.A Dickey

If there is anyone who should feel bitter about the Jays performance so far in 2013, it is Blair. Full Count is a triumphal victory lap for the organization; a record of mis-steps and bad moves which sent it stumbling down a long and dreary road for fans until finally the right pieces aligned. The old President who understood how greatness was built, the new GM who combined all the best parts of his predecessors, and a wealth of intelligent, effective trades that finally put them on the map. Instead, the Jays April makes Blair look like the classic homer, too enamored with his narrative and blind to the faults of the team.

The book is not helped by the obvious and slightly cynical ploy to cash in on the renewed interest of the fanbase, slated to hit the shelves at the same time the players hit the field. It entices new fans to come and read the history of their newest adopted favourite sons, so they can awe their bandwagon friends with a newly acquired sense of Jays history. The entire book feels like it was constructed on a hardline to cash in on the offseason hype, and as such, often comes off as sloppy, rushed, and shallow.

There is a wealth of material here, and much of it shows Blair's normally shrewd eye for detail and his ability to frame decisions in terms of the club's perspective and that of the industry as a whole. He shows remarkable balance and empathy in handling the great villains of Jays fandom - Ricciardi and Ash - painting them as both responsible for their decisions and trapped by their circumstances simultaneously. Through-out, the book underlines the fact that while the decisions may have a single name or face to the fans, a professional baseball team is made up of a collection of interests, each pulling in different directions and with different priorities, often unseen by fans.

Full Count is not a history of four decades of Blue Jays baseball. In the end, it omits, rushes through, and skips over too much to be considered a definitive anything. It is an entertaining narrative based around the question ‘How did we get here?', and following those threads back to the key decisions that eventually led to the moves of the 2012-2013 off season. Blair's writing is deft and he weaves together his materials well, which almost works against him, as the brevity of coverage on topics will shift to another point just as he finally seems to be getting to the meat of the previous one. Blair's victorious tone also undercuts his credibility as an objective observer; a flaw that makes his points unnecessarily difficult to take seriously as this season unfolds.

The is a lot to like in Blair's work, but the main sense is that Full Count is a missed opportunity. It exists like the shadow of a much deeper, much more effective work that harnesses Blair's talents and knowledge fully to paint a detailed portrait of the Jays, instead offering a quick, if pretty, sketch. In the end, Full Count, like the Jays, is full of contradictions: insightful yet shallow; wide in scope but lacking in depth; and most importantly entertaining to read and yet unsatisfying to finish.

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