Double Play: Jays need to make changes off the field

Dave Carroll
9/24/2009 5:53:17 PM
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Back in 2003, Glen Grunwald stepped on to the court of Air Canada Centre at the end of the regular season and apologized to fans of the Toronto Raptors. The team had just finished a woeful 24-58 season and Grunwald told fans there would be changes.

Markus Naslund did the same thing for fans of the Vancouver Canucks before the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2003 after the team 'choked' and missed a chance to capture the Northwest Division crown.

Both were instances of great intestinal fortitude (to borrow a line from pro wrestling legend Gorilla Monsoon). To use a more recent turn of phrase, it took pretty big stones for them to stand up like that.

The Vegas odds on J.P. Ricciardi standing at home to ask the Rogers Centre faithful for forgiveness are not good - and that's a shame. An apology might help - at least a little.

After what's happened this summer, Blue Jays fans should be demanding an apology from somebody as one of the most trying seasons in team history comes to a close.

Right now they're 69-83 - a whopping 27.5 games behind the New York Yankees in the American League East and 21.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox for the AL Wild Card.

The good feelings from a 15-9 April are long past, the Rogers Centre is all but empty and the fans that still admit they follow the team are looking for answers.

Now being a fan of a pro sports team usually means you have to suffer through bad seasons. Sooner or later, all teams go through a period of rebuilding. Some teams - like the Pittsburgh Pirates - are in a constant state of it. Others like the New York Yankees have the resources to reload more than rebuild - making a change of fortune very quick.

The Blue Jays' fortunes have been in a steady state for some time.

The current playoff drought - 16 seasons and counting - doubles their original playoff drought of eight seasons after the franchise came into existence in 1977.

And things look bleak. The Yankees and Red Sox have money to burn and are using their brains as well as their bank accounts. The Tampa Bay Rays are still a potential force and if it wasn't for their late season swoon, they would be in the thick of the Wild Card race.

With almost no hope division realignment, the Blue Jays need to find a way to compete with the Beasts of the East, or get comfortable with mediocrity.

The on-field results could be the least of the team's worries at this point. A summer of bad press and recent history of questionable moves has all but exhausted even the most rabid Jays fan.

The Roy Halladay trade rumours.

B.J. Ryan.

Alex Rios.

Failing to sign their picks after making a big deal about their draft plans.

It is a bit much.

As it stands now, the front office is a question. Ricciardi's future in doubt and interim club president Paul Beeston is still searching for his replacement.

So what's next?

Well, De Kerpel and I have a few ideas about what we'd like to see happen.

It's often said professional sports teams are in the business of winning games, but that isn't exactly correct. Teams are in the business of pleasing their fans. While it's true that wins and the odd championship make fans happier than anything else, the (insert team name here) Nation will hang in through bad seasons if they think there's a plan in place for the future. And right now, the fans aren't turning up for games. The frustration is painfully obvious if you listen to any call in show or read any web forum.

The Blue Jays have a few great young hitters and some pitching depth, but does anyone really know what the timetable is for anything? Is contending for a playoff spot in 2010 still on the table?

The team might know, but the public doesn't and that's where we begin.

Accountability: I addressed the issue in this space a few weeks ago. At the time, I had hoped the team would come forward and explain what they were planning going forward, but there's been nothing. Chances are there won't be much said until front office changes are made.

The Ricciardi administration (2001 and counting) has not provided results and that's the bottom line. I'll give him credit because he has done some positive things, but not enough for (good lord!) eight years of service.

The fan base has lost faith and he has had long enough to accomplish the club's goal of contending for a playoff spot. Another season of the current regime could destroy the fan base altogether.

But before there is a move with the general manager, the presidency needs to be addressed.

There are rumblings that the Jays have a person in mind for the presidency and an announcement could be coming soon. No matter whom Beeston finds to lead the club, that person will have his or her work cut out. Trust in the organization needs to be rebuilt also from scratch.

Once you have the president in place, you have to settle the front office and move forward - letting anyone who will listen know in every way imaginable what the plan for the team happens to be. The new regime won't have to promise a World Series in 2010, just provide a clear direction.

People appreciate straight talk and while they might accept an occasional omission of information, they will not tolerate lying. Just tell the fans where the franchise is at and if it needs to be rebuilt yet again. And beg them to give your club another chance.

Fan Friendly: The Blue Jays are going through a lean September at the box office...And I mean, 'Color Me Badd Reunion Tour' lean.

Most of the problem deals with on-field performance and the events of the past few months, but there is more to it. This is not a bash Rogers Centre section. On the contrary, it is a workable stadium. A roof is a must for a baseball team in Toronto and the sight lines are - with the exception of a few spots - fine. They have made a few improvements, but it is still just the Concrete Convertible as the inside is lacking in any kind of pizzazz. 

Every once in a while the topic of a new stadium comes up. Building a new home for the club doesn't appear to be in the cards, so why not remake the current one.

Although it might be too much to ask, finding a way to put in natural grass would help enormously. It would give the appearance of an outdoor game when the roof was closed. Sure, it might be a pipe dream due to factors like drainage and the Argonauts, but there must be a company someplace with an idea on how it could be done.

If natural grass won't work, then put up a few ferns, build an arboretum in centre - just do something. Even Tropicana Field has that Devil Ray pond in the outfield. Do something to help people forget the concrete and steel around them.

There are large banners of players hanging very prominently outside Rogers Centre of players. That's fine, but some of the banners became dated over the summer as the featured players parted ways with the Jays. While I'm sure the massive banners were a sizable expense and replacing them after players departed would have been tricky, leaving them in plain view puts the club in on the same level as the neighbour who doesn't cut their lawn.

Why wouldn't those banners pay tribute to players from the past – Tom Henke, Joe Carter, Tony Fernandez – who can't be released, traded or have a season-ending injury if they were hard to change?

The team has a reputation for not being very fan friendly. And at a time when your followers are fed up with what's on the field, that's a bad reputation to have.

Do some research with your core fans and season ticket holders, use focus groups, make big strides in team marketing and find a way to become better at pleasing the folks in the stands and on TV while you get better on the field.

Out and About: Make the players more visible in the community and around Toronto. The Maple Leafs don't need the attention, but the Raptors and Argos do a lot around the city. The Jays need to up their profile around the GTA.

Sidney Crosby delivers season tickets for the Pittsburgh Penguins, so maybe some of the Blue Jays should be doing the same thing in Toronto.

It might also be time to make a 'Canada's Team' kind of push and treat the entire country as the target market. I still miss the Expos, but they are gone and they Blue Jays have Canada to themselves. Look into holding a few games across the country – can it be done and if so where. 

Of course, they need money to do it and with any luck ownership can be talked into making a push in all aspects of the team.

Once those things have been dealt with, tell your fans at length about every detail and then move on to the field.

Part II will run on Friday and feature the questions surrounding the on-field product.


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