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Review: "Great Expectations: The Lost Toronto Blue Jays Season" by Shi Davidi and John Lott

Minor Leaguer reviews the new book by Shi Davidi and John Lott.

Scan of the cover of "Great Expectations"
Scan of the cover of "Great Expectations"

Despite the deeply disappointing 2013 season, I am still a Blue Jays fan and when Sportsnet's Shi Davidi and the National Post's John Lott, two great writers who happen to cover the Blue Jays, announced that they were publishing a book on it I was excited to read it. I had great expectations for the book, and I was not disappointed.

Although Great Expectations is probably not the most search-engine friendly title. it is an apt description of the feeling in Toronto--and across Canada--going into the 2013 baseball season. The country's only baseball team had a remarkable offseason in which they had put together a star-studded team. But when the players stepped on the field, they faltered, got injured, and finished dead last in the division--that's where the subtitle The Lost Toronto Blue Jays Season comes in.

The 220-page book (which includes a 16-page full-colour photo insert in the middle) was an incredibly easy read and it mostly maintained a good flow, making it difficult to put the book down. The book is segmented into 18 more-or-less chronological chapters along with a prologue and an epilogue. Davidi and Lott started off describing the latter parts of the 2012 season, which Blue Jays fans would remember, included multiple injuries, Yunel Escobar's eyeblack incident, and a manager under fire for his wishes to leave for his "dream job." It ends with the latter parts of the 2013 season, which Blue Jays fans would remember, included multiple injuries, players in the crosshair for not caring enough, and a manager under fire for the incredible underperformance of his team.

The first few chapters of the book were the strongest and most interesting. The authors provide the readers with a rare look into the way  the normally secretive general manager Alex Anthopoulos and the Blue Jays front office worked to trade former manager John Farrell, hire new old manager John Gibbons, complete the big blockbuster trade with the Marlins, and convince R.A. Dickey to sign a contract extension up north.

In the days after the end of the season, Rogers Centre luxury suites were turned into a war room, complete with a wall plastered with magnets representing every single player on a major league roster.  We find out that the Blue Jays inquired on Jake Peavy, Dan Haren, Anibal Sanchez, Hiashi Iwakuma, Brett Anderson, and Jeff Samardzija. At one point they offered Travis d'Arnaud as the main piece for James Shields, but the Rays already got an offer of Wil Myers from the Royals. The Jays were ready to offer Sanchez a five-year, $75 million deal but his agent requested for a commitment that was longer than they were comfortable with, so Anthopoulos started knocking on Miami's door to ask about Josh Johnson. The first chapter gave more details about how the deal came together than had been revealed to this date, including Anthopoulos's late night call with the Marlins on the way home from Loblaws, which made his wife wonder why his grocery trip took so long. Anthopoulos expressed to the authors how tough it was to call Jeff Mathis to tell him that he was traded, thinking it was a "betrayal" to a player he had just signed to a contract extension.

The book revealed that the first conversation about R.A. Dickey between Anthopoulos and Mets general manager Sandy Alderson came after a party at the GM meetings, when both of them were waiting for a shuttle bus back to their hotel. They chatted about Dickey and his upcoming contract extension at the bus stop and then during the ride back as Anthopoulos's assistant general managers were working out the Marlins deal. The deal itself wasn't fully settled between the two Mets and Blue Jays until mid-December, and at that point the Toronto front office was given a 72-hour window to negotiate an extension with Dickey. Much to Dickey's surprise, he found that Alex Anthopoulos, scouting director Perry Minasian, and manager John Gibbons were already in Nashville, waiting for the negotiation window to officially open. Davidi and Lott detailed how Anthopoulos rushed to Nashville so quickly he had to buy underwear and changes of clothing in a Charlotte terminal on a stopover, and an amusing choice of movie the trio went to when waiting for the Mets to give the green light.

In between the chapters about the high-stakes drama of the offseason acquisitions were two chapters about John Gibbons. They were interesting, and gave a little bit more insight to his upbringing and the infamous incidents with Shea Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly, but were a little out of place, a little too disconnected from everything that was happening between October and December 2012. That was the only point in the book when I felt it had lost its pace.

Davidi and Lott handled the balance between writing about contemporary events and historical background much better for the rest of the book. Instead of a strict recapping of the season from beginning to end, each chapter focused on a single theme and fitted events that were happening around said theme. The sputtering start in April were split into chapters focused on Alex Anthopoulos and Jose Bautista (specifically on the criticism of his behaviour and leadership). The Bautista chapter featured one of my favourite lines of the book:

"Fans in Toronto have an unhealthy history of building up their sports stars, praising them intensely during their peak, and then turning on them when disappointment over the seemingly inevitable failure to deliver a championship reaches a crescendo. When things go bad, they tend to eat their own. At the beginning of May 2013, Jose Bautista seemed headed for the same treatment that had chewed up some of the city's other recent athletic icons--Carlos Delgado, Vernon Wells, Mats Sundin, and Chris Bosh."

The next chapter, on Mark Buehrle, had a story about how he was cut twice from his high school team, and how he may have never pursued professional baseball if his dad didn't intervene at the right time. Obviously, Munenori Kawasaki got his own chapter where Davidi and Lott got Ichiro Suzuki, Esmil Rogers, and John Gibbons (among others) to heap praise on "the Noodle's" fun-loving always-smiling character. When Kawasaki was optioned to Buffalo to make room for Reyes's return, the authors noted that Buehrle's eyes were moist when he talked about how much Kawaskai he had meant to him and the team. J.P. Arencibia's trials and tribulations with Twitter and the incident with Gregg Zaun and Dirk Hayhurst was documented in another chapter but there really was nothing new in there.

Jose Reyes's chapter features stories about his very humble beginnings as a son of a toilet bowl maker interspersed with the stretch of games after the winning streak, including some talk about the "players-only meeting" that happened the day after a five-error game against the Rays. At about the same time, Davidi and Lott wrote, Alex Anthopoulos decided to abandon trade talks for 2013, stepping away from Jake Peavy and turning his gaze to players under control for 2014 and beyond like Hisashi Iwakuma and Kyle Seager.

The fourteenth chapter focused on Brett Lawrie, and that chapter was among the best in the book. Lawrie, as we remembered, struggled after returning from the oblique problem he suffered in spring training. His personal struggles and the team's record led to several incidents where the label "petulant child"  was attached to his name. The crescendo was when he showed up Adam Lind and third base coach Luis Rivera for not tagging and trying to score on a flyball to right that everyone else in the stadium thought was too shallow. He sprained his ankle the next game, and somehow during his rehab, he came back a changed man and the results followed. The authors highlighted three mentors that were instrumental to that change: Mark DeRosa, Chad Mottola, and (surprisingly) Edwin Encarnacion. Throughout the whole book, and most significantly here, there was a theme that DeRosa did bring key "veteran presents" to the clubhouse, and the greatest recipient of that was Lawrie. Lawrie and DeRosa became quick friends and golf buddies, but the veteran was still able to make sure that the young Canadian knew what he needed to change whenever he crossed the line with his behaviour.

"'If you're going to be a leader--if you're going to be the guy that the franchise dubs bobblehead-worthy--you're one of the faces of the franchise,' DeRosa says, 'you need to take accountability when you mess up.'"

Eventually that message got through to Lawrie, and after he returned from his injury he actually voluntarily asked for advice from DeRosa and Encarnacion.

Great Expectations ends with chapters on Dickey, the bullpen (or "a bunch of brothers" as Darren Oliver called it), the rash of injuries, and then a chapter assessing the entire season. These final chapters really show the importance of veteran leadership from Buehrle, Oliver, DeRosa, and Casey Janssen. There was a little discussion on the Blue Jays' unlikely run of injuries, whether John Gibbons' spring training routine was too lassiez faire, and Jerry Howarth's unexpected skewering of Jose Bautista's leadership, but nothing new or revelatory for fans who have kept up with the team throughout the season.

In the epilogue, R.A. Dickey was asked to use one adjective to describe the season. The pitcher, who kept a thesaurus in his locker and has words like "capricious" and "purview" in his vocabulary, used the word "sad."

The book did not reveal any unexpected tensions between players in the clubhouse, nor did it shed any light on the inner dynamics between Chad Mottola and Dwayne Murphy. There was no discussion on management's mid-season desperation like moving Lawrie to second base and thinking about moving Brett Cecil back into the rotation, but there is only so much one can put in a short book.

Shi Davidi and John Lott are fantastic writers and reporters, and they put together a fantastic book. It not only recapped the 2013 season, but it contained background information and extra details that did not--or could not--emerge during the season. Baseball is played every day, and it is difficult to write a summary like this after detailing the day-to-day activity of the club for so long. Davidi and Lott were able to look back at the big picture, reorganize it a little to fit their book's themes, and access the right people to give the best quotes to accompany the stories they tell. Whether you are a casual fan or a big fan of the Blue Jays, whether you are still glued to roster transactions or you have given up baseball until the spring (or the next blockbuster move), you will find enjoyment out of this book. Those who followed the Jays very closely would enjoy finding the new bits of insight and informations scattered through the chapters, and those who follow less closely would find this as a great reference to all the major events since the end of 2012, and find out how and why 2013 happened.

But don't take my word for it, you can read the prologue and the first chapter here, and a portion of chapter 13 here. The book was released today and you can order it online or pick it up from stores starting next week. Keep the receipt when you buy the book because you can get a PDF or ePub version for free with purchase. It was published by ECW Press, an independent Canadian publisher based in Toronto.

The official launch party for Great Expectations will be on Wednesday, November 6 from 7-9 pm at Shoeless Joe's Sports Grill at 276 King Street West in Toronto. All are invited to join.