Blue Jays' State of the Franchise reflects state of confidence in their future: Griffin
It happened again on Tuesday night, the State of the Franchise event for the Blue Jays, presided over by president Paul Beeston, GM Alex Anthopoulos and manager John Gibbons. The host of the event, featuring four men in easy chairs sitting easily on top of the home team's dugout, was broadcaster Buck Martinez, who greeted Gibbons with the line of the night...being fired as manager of the Jays is alright. “Things gets better.”
The concept of staging a Blue Jays' State of the Franchise get-together as an annual event was first unveiled in 2002 with the arrival on the scene of a newly-hired, bright young general manager, J.P. Ricciardi. Brimming with optimism and a misguided missionary zeal, the young Bostonian promised that his teams would be able to compete in the uber-tough AL East, despite working under a tight payroll budget.
Of course that competing-and-winning thing never happened under Ricciardi, but that seldom stopped the spirit of the SoF love-fest. Year after year, whether staged at a downtown restaurant, a hotel or, now, back to the Rogers Centre, there has forever been a sense of optimism emanating from the assembled fans, plied as they are with light snacks, refreshments and a clean won-lost slate. Of course, the Jays' target group is composed mainly of season ticket holders and their guests, so it's definitely preaching to the choir.
I remember the first two years of the event in 2002-03. The young GM with the bulletproof reputation would stand at the microphone, a grin on his face, and feel the love of Jays fans that, one after another, stepped up to the mic to express their unshakeable belief in the direction his team was taking. It was magic, more sleight of hand.
There was the one February where Carlos Tosca, via conference call, went off script and, apparently, sitting at home with a glass of wine and a big cigar, boldly predicted 95 victories. How did that turn out? The Jays plummeted from 86 wins in 2003 to 67 in 2004. Tosca was fired in-season and replaced as manager by Gibbons, who was, of course, one of the major stars of Tuesday's SoF love-in at the Rogers Centre.
Historically, the only negative blip on the feel-good radar came in February 2008, when Ricciardi was inexplicably missing from the annual event, replaced by team president Paul Godfrey as the chief spokesman/apologist. That may have been the only time that the thick atmosphere of fan discontent could have been cut with a knife. The previous season had seen the disaster of closer B.J. Ryan's injury, wherein a spring training “back issue” had turned into Tommy John surgery for the $47 million lefthander, spawning the line “it's not a lie if we know the truth.” It was the beginning of the end for Ricciardi.
Fast forward to Tuesday evening. There was an estimated crowd of 1,500 people at the Rogers Centre, a mix of young professionals and older Exhibition Stadium veterans, all with one thing in common – an enthusiastic view of the coming season.
The gift shop offered a 40-percent discount on Jays' gear and a very unofficial report from the young, enthusiastic sales staff was that the three most popular jerseys flying off shelves were Jose Reyes, R.A. Dickey and Brett Lawrie. One guesses perhaps Jose Bautista's fans already have theirs.
So confident were Beeston, Anthopoulos and Gibbons of the team's elevated status in the current Toronto sporting universe that, on Tuesday, some tough e-mail questions even made it through the screening process, flashed on the giant scoreboard. One question described centre fielder Colby Rasmus as “awful” and another demanded an explanation from Anthopoulos of the club signing Melky Cabrera considering his 2012 suspension for steroids. It was quite a departure from usual swattable softball questions of the past.
There were a few interesting nuggets of information that came out of the 45-minute panel session. Beeston finally admitted that his personal preference is for grass on the stadium field, but that as long as the Argos are there, it's impossible. He soft-peddled the idea of increased ticket prices, but my interpretation is don't be surprised if prices go up next year, given the expected team success.
Beeston talked about the future possibility of playing an end-of-spring-training exhibition game at a Canadian locale – either Montreal or Vancouver. He said that he wants to see it happen and 2014 has not been ruled out. The Montreal question is whether Olympic Stadium could be reasonably re-configured for baseball with safety of the players in mind. The Jays have a Class-A team in Vancouver.
The team president spoke of the possibility of reaching 3-million in attendance again, for the first time since 1993. The Jays' attendance high since the devastating strike of '94 was 2,826,483 in 1995. The stadium high in this century, since the Jays' began their State of the Franchise tradition was 2,399,786 in 2008, although that figure is tainted by hugely discounted tickets and questionable accounting procedures. The 2,099,663 of 2012 in fact, produced more actual ticket revenue.
One priceless moment on Tuesday demonstrated how emphatically and how far Jays' fans have moved away from their enfatuation with the past, preferring a look to the future. It came following the panel event, up on the Level 100 concourse with Jays' celebrities mingling with season ticket holders.
A throng of fans, many of them women, had formed a three-deep semi-circle around Gibbons, talking baseball, waiting patiently for a chance to be photographed with the manager's arm around their shoulders. He accommodated them all as Frank Sinatra played softly on the speakers behind him. Surreal.
Meanwhile, nearby, Jack Morris, the newest member of the club's radio broadcast team and a key member of the Jays in the World Series years, was speaking to a mixture of Jays' staffers and a few older fans, before wandering quietly off in another direction his night's work done. It clearly seems from that scene that there's no longer a need for that annoying Flashback Friday mentality with this new generation of Jays' ticket holders.