Blue Jays fire general manager Ricciardi after eight seasons

The Canadian Press
10/3/2009 9:52:59 PM
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BALTIMORE - The Toronto Blue Jays began resolving the overwhelming dysfunction choking the franchise by firing GM J.P. Ricciardi, reaffirming Cito Gaston's status for 2010, and discussing the clubhouse unrest toward the manager.

An eventful Saturday in Baltimore also included a visit from Rogers Media president and CEO Tony Viner, who addressed the team in the clubhouse along with interim CEO Paul Beeston and newly promoted Alex Anthopoulos, the 32-year-old from Montreal who becomes the fifth general manager in team history.

Much work remains in restoring order to what was once considered a model organization in baseball, and both Beeston and Anthopoulos promised details on a course of action for the club later this month. But at least now there's a starting point, and the path forward doesn't include Ricciardi.

"The message (to the players) was the old Clint Eastwood, the good, the bad and the ugly," Beeston told a hastily arranged news conference at Camden Yards. "The good was the beginning of the year, the end of the year was the ugly, and in between was kind of the bad."

Fittingly, the end of Ricciardi's eventful eight-year reign was marked by controversy thanks to Friday's jarring revelations of widespread clubhouse discontent with Gaston's methods of communication, old-school approach and managing style.

There were efforts from all corners of the team to whitewash and cover up the problems Saturday, although Beeston met privately with a small group of players away from the ball park beforehand. Afterwards, the Blue Jays lost 6-3 to the Orioles -- their second straight defeat.

A day after speaking openly about the issues, the players completely clammed up having likely been read the riot act by Beeston. Gaston continued to insist there is no rebellion in the clubhouse, suggesting someone from outside the organization was stirring up trouble.

Ace Roy Halladay sounded a similar note.

"I wasn't going to talk about it but, I think the players being on the ledge was kind of brought up by people who aren't associated with the situation," he said. "I think it's a lot different than what was brought up. I think things were handled very professionally and I think Paul's done a great job of that. I feel good about a lot of the things I've heard today and things that have happened."

"I think there's a lot of good to come, hopefully shortly."

One player was upset that the clubhouse problems were described as a "mutiny" in a report and said the team was trying to find out who was the source of that. He also resented the notion that the players didn't want Gaston back in 2010, insisting they only wanted an opportunity to sort through some of the issues that exist.

If the sudden back-pedalling is legitimate, it's a good thing since both Beeston and Anthopoulos said Gaston, who has clearly reasserted his control, is coming back in 2010.

"I think he's done a good job," said Anthopoulos. "It's unfortunate the things that have leaked out to the media, but those are things we take care of in house. Going forward, he will be our manager."

Gaston again fluffed off any notion of discord and dismissed some of the attributed comments made by some of his team's most important and influential players.

"They didn't say anything really. Did they say the issues? How can I comment on the issues if I don't know the issues?" said Gaston. "I've had players come to talk to me, a lot of them told me, 'I didn't say it. I'm not the one who started it.' ... That's why I'm thinking it came from somewhere else."

Also putting a shiny happy face on it all was Viner, who said team owner Rogers Communications Inc., is "very happy with the state of the team" and that even though "it's been through some turmoil the club is positioned to really do well."

Asked if something needed to be done to reassure a dwindling and disgruntled fan base, he said: "Is there any surprise that there's fan discontent when we don't win as many games as we would have hoped? Not just the fans are not content with that, we're not content with it. We think it's good to stabilize the franchise and we think we're in good shape going forward."

Ricciardi's dismissal at minimum is a bone to fans sick of his mediocre teams never good enough to reach the post-season. The 50-year-old joined the Jays in 2001 and had one year left on his contract but leaves with a cumulative record of 642-651 and a team that's neither a contender nor in rebuild mode.

He declined to comment in an email to The Canadian Press.

Many fans will wonder what took so long as Ricciardi, along with centre-fielder Vernon Wells, had become the lightning rod for those most frustrated with the team's playoff drought, which dates back to 1993 when the Blue Jays won their second straight World Series.

The best finish by one of Ricciardi's clubs came in 2006, when the Blue Jays went 87-75 to finish second in the AL East. But they never got within a sniff of the post-season and only the 2008 squad played any kind of meaningful September games, and of the too-little-too-late variety at that.

"I think at times he received some unfair criticism," said Halladay. "But I guess being the head of something that isn't performing, you're going to draw that. It's hard for me because he was a great supporter of me, a great friend and the guy wanted to win."

Apart from a string of good players he drafted and developed, Anthopoulos will also be part of Ricciardi's legacy, having been groomed by him since he joined the organization in 2003 as a scouting co-ordinator.

Anthopoulos started his baseball career with the Montreal Expos in 2000 as an intern responsible for opening mail. Less than a decade later he becomes just the fifth Canadian to serve as GM of a big-league team, following in the footsteps of current Milwaukee Brewers GM Doug Melvin, Gord Ash, Murray Cook and George Selkirk.

"I won't have a lot for you today in terms of specifics on direction, things like that, it's been a bit of a whirlwind for me," said Anthopoulos. "The arrow is pointing up with this organization, it may not seem that way right now, but there's a lot to look forward to."

His style will vary from Ricciardi, who was brash, cocky and always ready to talk.

The 2009 campaign was like a microcosm of his tenure as GM. There was a hopeful start, a sudden collapse, a lack of resources to turn things around, a spate of injuries, some painful decisions related to bad contracts and ultimately, pessimism for the future.

Adding to the pain felt by Blue Jays fans this year was the clumsily handled Halladay trade talks, which some believe robbed Ricciardi of his remaining credibility and sealed his demise. Ricciardi essentially took every media call he could for a month in a bid to try and create pressure on other teams to overpay for the ace, and in the end couldn't get a deal done.

"J.P. always looked out for my best interest and that was lost in a lot of that," said Halladay. "I think people blamed him for that and I think that was something knowing the situation the team was in and my situation, he was looking out for my best interests. He took a lot of flak for that and in certain cases he shouldn't have. I'll always appreciate that he did stand up and defend me."

Regardless, the Ricciardi era is over and despite how polarizing a figure he was, his often off-the-cuff style sure kept things interesting.

He had countless memorable quotes over the years, perhaps the definitive one coming during a radio show while taking calls from fans.

"It's not a lie if we know the truth," he said about the back injury story concocted for B.J. Ryan when the left-hander was actually having elbow issues in 2007.

Ricciardi infamously trashed Adam Dunn on the same radio show in 2008, telling a caller, "Do you know the guy doesn't really like baseball that much? Do you know the guy doesn't have a passion to play the game that much? ... I don't think you'd be very happy if we brought Adam Dunn here."

Ricciardi attacked other players, too.

"When a guy talks about coming to our place where he has a chance to win and compete against the Yankees and the Red Sox, and then he goes to a place like Kansas City, that's an eye-opener," he said of Gil Meche after the right-hander spurned Toronto to sign with Kansas City in the winter of 2006.

Royals manager Buddy Bell defended his player by saying Ricciardi was, "a little guy with a big mouth and all he does is whine. ... Every time I hear this guy talk, all he's doing is whining."

Ricciardi also twice caused spats by publicly wondering if A.J. Burnett's injuries were simply in his head.

Ricciardi triggered controversies for many other reasons, too.

He was criticized for including an opt-out clause in Burnett's contract, for giving Frank Thomas an US$18-million, two-year deal with a vesting option, and for signing Ryan to a $47-million, five-year deal.

Burnett left to become a free agent last fall, Thomas had to be cut in the second season at a cost of around $8 million, and Ryan was released in July with $15 million left on his contract.

Other bad contracts he signed included a $17-million, three-year deal for Canadian Corey Koskie and of course, the monster deals for Wells and Alex Rios.

Wells has five years remaining on his $126-million, seven-year deal, an albatross contract that will handcuff the club for many seasons to come. The team managed to escape the $60 million remaining on Rios's deal when he was claimed off waivers by the White Sox, but Ricciardi got nothing in return.

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