Friday, November 8, 2013

Great Expectations: The Lost Toronto Blue Jays Season Interview with Shi Davidi

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Most great baseball stories are a rags to riches story; a team that battles adversity and overcomes all odds to become the very best. The narrative of the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays was quite the opposite; they were a riches to rags story.

The team that was hailed as the World Series favourites going into the 2013 season finished dead last in the American League East. The Blue Jays were truly the antithesis of the underdog in 2013.

Shi Davidi of Sportsnet and John Lott of the National Post chronicled a season bookended by excitement and disappointment in "Great Expectations: The Lost Toronto Blue Jays Season".

The two images on the front cover perfectly embody the two polar opposite emotions experienced by fans this season; the incredible high of an improbable walk-off win, and the utter disappointment of losing a key player in a freak injury.

I spoke with co-author Shi Davidi and asked him some questions about the book and a retrospective at the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays.

In many ways, the Blue Jays were the antithesis of the underdog story this year. Have you ever seen the hopes of a team at two complete opposite ends of the spectrum over the course of one year like this?
To this extent, no. And this is my 11th season covering the Blue Jays, and I've seen a lot of different build ups not come to fruition.

I think back to 2004 when Carlos Tosca was predicting they'd have a 95 win season after they picked up Miguel Batista, Pat Hentgen and Ted Lilly. But the level of players the Jays brought in was nothing like what Alex did the previous offseason.

To see that amount of talent combined with the base that was already in existence, you can see why there was so much excitement, and then it just fell apart so horribly. I don't think I've seen anything to this extent with the Blue Jays.
On paper, this was supposed to be a team that was at least supposed to contend. Why do you think things went so horribly wrong for the Blue Jays this year?
In the book we described it as the Blue Jays having a house with the finest bricks and the cheapest mortar. The metaphor there being that the supporting pieces of the Jays weren't what they thought they would be.

There's the starting rotation, and Izturis and Bonifacio at second, and key injuries ... and you combine all those factors together and it just drained the talent. You had all these symptoms add up and by the time they were even remotely healthy, they had too much ground to catch up.

There were just so many little factors that added up to one big gigantic problem.
In the book you have a chapter devoted specifically to Munenori Kawasaki. In many ways, he provided a welcome distraction to what was otherwise an abysmal season for the club. Why do you think he became a cult hero in Toronto?
There's a couple things here: one, he was legitimately loved by his teammates. He really endeared himself to everybody and there was a lot to his personality and he had a natural charisma.

Because of his size and the way he plays the game, he's someone you naturally root for. In this city especially, the fanbase generally seems to fall in love with these kinds of players.

Think back to Reed Johnson, John McDonald, David Eckstein ... Kawasaki's emergence was one of the few pleasant surprises of the season.
Image courtesy of Sportsnet
Speaking of positives, you and John said that assigning Brett Lawrie and Mark DeRosa lockers next to each other was one of the few success stories of 2013. How important was that relationship between Lawrie and DeRosa?
It was crucial. Brett was very charismatic headstrong guy, and all his career, he did things his way and found success his way. But when things went a bit awry for him, I don't know if he had the tools to handle that.

DeRosa made a concerted effort to get to know him and build his trust right from the beginning of Spring Training. And DeRosa reached Lawrie at a level that not a lot of people have, and he got Brett to open his eyes a bit.

John and I talked about this as well, but we really noticed a different Brett. There's a quote that he gave us at the end of the book, and I just thought what he said was such a mature answer. I'm certain we wouldn't be able to get such a mature answer earlier in the year.

That quote is due in large measure to Mark DeRosa and the work he did with Brett Lawrie.
As you wrote the book, was it difficult to get any sort of read on Alex Anthopoulos during this whole process, considering how guarded he typically is with the media?
One thing I will give Alex credit for is if you dig something up, he won't lie to you. When we were able to unearth stuff about Jake Peavy and Anibal Sanchez, he was open and upfront about it.

Alex was open as he could be with us given the circumstances, and I've always appreciated how Alex works with us in the media; he's very professional and that honesty goes a long way.
The past few years, it seems like the Blue Jays were an organization that had a clear identity; one focused on cultivating great young talent. But after they sold off most of those prospects, do you think the Blue Jays are in the midst of an identity crisis?
I wrote about that for Sportsnet last week, and they're now in this situation where the question is "what are you about going forward?"

Are they going to sacrifice their youth for the present? They've already given up a chunk of the farm system, but I don't know if you'd want to go too much further unless you're going to scorch the earth for 4-5 years down the road.

They don't really have a lot of homegrown talent. At some point, your farm system needs to be providing players that are contributing to your club. They haven't had a lot of fixtures and guys come in and be impact players.

This is in a sense uncharted territory for Alex because he's been in asset gathering mode for so long. The big thing is you have to service that $120 million dollar payroll, otherwise there's no point in having those commitments.
Image courtesy of Yahoo/AP
Close to the end of the book, R.A. Dickey said that if he could describe the season in one word, it would be "sad". What is the one takeaway that you'll take from the 2013 Blue Jays season?
The last few years have made me more of a believer in intangibles than before. I've always been more of a numbers/talent/production-based guy, and those things will rule the day at the end. But sometimes you need a bit more; a cohesive group feeling, some guys that have a knack for getting their teammates going with their tenacity.

Sometimes we get so fixated on talent, that we maybe are willing to overlook some of the character issues ... and maybe we shouldn't.

2013 is some ways was an example for that. Even if the starting pitching stayed healthy, there were a number of other cracks that probably would have hurt the team. I wouldn't have placed as much value in the little things as I would have after watching the last two seasons unfold.
If you were Alex Anthopoulos, how would you fix this team this offseason? And which players would you target via free agency or trade?
Personally, I'd like to see them go after someone like Ervin Santana. He's routinely solid and he'd be another 200 inning guy alongside Dickey and Buehrle. I can see them going after someone like Jeff Samardzija, who the Jays have made runs at in the past and might become available.

They could address second base; I'd be fine with them running Ryan Goins out there. He's probably not going to give you much offense, but if he plays that kind of defense, that would work and give them some extra insurance.

I can also see them doing something at catcher; I don't know that they're necessarily giving up on J.P. Arencibia, but I don't think they're in a position where they can gamble on him recovering. There are some intriguing options out there, guys like Carlos Ruiz and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

I'm also curious what they're going to do in left field, if they just run with Melky Cabrera and assume he can return to the player he was. Or if they can try to work with Anthony Gose, I'm not sure which route they go and I'm not sure how much they'll have to spend at their disposal.

Obviously they have to divert the vast majority of their resources to their starting rotation, but if they don't address that, then there's no point having much conversation about them being a contender next year.
"Great Expectations: The Lost Toronto Blue Jays Season" is available now online in eBook and PDF form, and hard copies with free eBook version will be in stores soon at Chapters, Loblaws, Walmart and Costco.

As always, you can read Shi Davidi's work over at Sportsnet, and John Lott over at the National Post.

2 comments:

  1. Nice job Ian. I don't think I have ever seen a book about how bad a season was come out this soon after that season ended. I had rough year covering the Jays as a simple blogger. Goes to show just rough this year must have been on the actual guys who had to be there day in and day out.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Jeremy! I think this season was particularly taxing all around, from the beat writers, to the bloggers, and even the fans. Especially by the end of season, it became tough to find positive spin pieces when half the team was on the DL.

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