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GiveLife.ca

    

PRINT EDITION
The man who transformed Toronto FC
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Many take credit for TFCs' rise, but Bezbatchenko is the only one who has been in the middle of it all
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By CATHAL KELLY
  
  

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Saturday, October 28, 2017 – Page S1

TORONTO -- Shortly after he arrived at Toronto FC in 2013, Tim Bezbatchenko was part of two pivotal decisions. At the time, the new general manager was 31 years old and had no experience working in, never mind running, a big-league franchise.

The first decision would end in disaster - signing English star Jermain Defoe.

The second would signal the beginning of the organization's threepoint turn out of perpetual failure - signing Team USA captain Michael Bradley.

The two moves were announced the same day, but there was a short period during which the former was certain and the latter still only likely.

Bezbatchenko was new and didn't really know anybody at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. He'd had a rough public ride on the way in, not because anyone disliked him in any particular way, but because he was so callow, the team was so terrible and this all had a déjà vu feeling. Someone connected to the team - he won't say whom - decided to offer him some advice.

They got him alone and began explaining what was what in Toronto. "They said, 'This is where we're expected to be with Defoe' ..." - Bezbatchenko holds his hand at chin level - "... 'and if we get Michael Bradley we're expected to be up here' ..." - hand held up over his head - "... 'and we don't need that.' " Generally speaking, there are two types of sports executives - listeners and talkers. Bezbatchenko is an unusual amalgam of both. He talks a lot and at a frenetic pace, but long after will recall small details of things you said to him.

(When I met Bezbatchenko this week, he handed me a large, signed paintbrush. I laughed stupidly, because I had no idea what it meant.

Turns out I'd written something about the team a year before that made light of the idea of "painting the town red." Somewhere between amused and bemused, Bezbatchenko remembered.)

So when he was warned not to reach too high or try too hard for fear that it would end in embarrassment (again), the listener in Bezbatchenko gave it some thought.

He went home and talked to his wife. He decided that if he was going down as every manager, GM and president in Toronto FC's cursed history had before him, he was going to be the first to go down with his foot on the gas.

Bezbatchenko wasn't the only person responsible for recruiting Defoe and Bradley, but he would be the one who got the blame if it went wrong.

He did it anyway.

That hundred-million-dollar commitment remains the largest gamble in Major League Soccer history. It was a simultaneous lose/win that helped transform the club from the worst franchise in North American sport to, this season, the best regular-season team in the league's history.

A lot of people enjoy the credit - Bradley, former MLSE CCB (chief carnival barker) Tim Leiweke, a board that okayed an expenditure the corporation will probably never recoup, Sebastian Giovinco, Greg Vanney, all the other players and staff.

However, the one person who has been in the middle of it all is Bezbatchenko.

You can't be immortal without titles and Toronto FC is still five games from that finish line.

But though he is less feted and far less talked about than his peers in the city's hockey, basketball and baseball organizations, Bezbatchenko has quietly laid out a vision that puts him in position to become the most transformative team executive in Toronto's modern history.

When Toronto FC's coaches talk about players, they consider them in terms of "the gap" - the difference between how good a man thinks he is and how good he actually is. Everyone in pro sports has a gap. No one at this club has closed a bigger one than Bezbatchenko.

They handed him the Washington Generals, and in less than four years he turned them into the Harlem Globetrotters.

You can't be immortal without titles and Toronto FC is still five games from that finish line.

But though he is less feted and far less talked about than his peers in the city's hockey, basketball and baseball organizations, Bezbatchenko has quietly laid out a vision that puts him in position to become the most transformative team executive in Toronto's modern history.

When Toronto FC's coaches talk about players, they consider them in terms of "the gap" - the difference between how good a man thinks he is and how good he actually is. Everyone in pro sports has a gap. No one at this club has closed a bigger one than Bezbatchenko.

They handed him the Washington Generals, and in less than four years he turned them into the Harlem Globetrotters.

'I was ready to be scarred'

Like many charmed professional lives, Bezbatchenko's has been the result of a series of heedless leaps.

He played soccer at the national level as a young man, but abandoned that to go to law school.

He gave up a partner-track job at a large firm to be a jumped-up bookkeeper with MLS. As he left, another helpful sort said, "Are you sure this league is going to be around in five years?" When he exited MLS HQ to take the job at Toronto FC, someone at the league walked into his office, closed the door and said, "Are you crazy?" Leiweke recruited him in the most Leiweke way possible - called him out of the blue on a Labour Day weekend and though Bezbatchenko had no experience, offered him the job straight-up. They cautioned him about that, too.

"They told me it would be a whirlwind. [Leiweke] is a visionary. In some ways, he'll scar you, but those scars will make you better," Bezbatchenko says. He mulled that over and decided, "I was ready to be scarred."

Even by low local standards, the first bit was tough sledding.

Shortly after he arrived to so much hype, Defoe decided that he preferred being injured to being here. The only thing he ever seemed to like about Toronto was the paycheque.

Pedigree is everything in sports and Bezbatchenko had none to speak of. The coach at the time, former Premier League pro Ryan Nelsen, tried to plow him over and their relationship quickly soured.

Much of Bezbatchenko's first while was spent doing triage, removing two human-shaped foreign objects from a patient that had already been terminal for nearly a decade.

Asked what the key moment was, Bezbatchenko's hands start waving about as if he's helping land a plane from the ground. He does that usual executive thing - lots of moments, lots of factors, all intersecting, who can really say?

As with most men his age (36) in his position, he is a wonk in his heart. Show him a solution and he'll want to see the calculations before he agrees with it. Every question eventually winds back to "the culture."

"I know you're not a big culture person," Bezbatchenko says like he's sad for me, and waves his hands some more.

But pressed, he'll concede that that was it - the office, the warning and the decision to do it anyway.

"When we got Defoe and Michael, we had to do that to save ... well, I wouldn't say 'save'. That's a strong word. You come up with a better word."

No, "save" is good.

From the storytelling end of things, there's nothing better than covering a habitual loser. Rip jobs are fun to write and fun to read. No team in the history of athletics - reaching back to the Stone Age - has ever been more fun to cover than Toronto FC circa 2008-13.

You'd just show up every once in a while and watch someone - there was always a volunteer - have a complete breakdown in public.

When John Carver, a particularly ill-fated leader, came into a news conference waving a sheaf of papers and screaming, "I know what you're saying about me!" at a room full of us like Nixon on a bender, it was hard not to point skyward and thank St. Francis de Sales for small journalistic miracles.

Single-handed (one might even say undermanned, given Defoe's conscientious objection to working), Bradley changed that.

Toronto FC wasn't yet any good, but you couldn't laugh at it any more. It was more than Bradley's evident quality on the field. If you veered too far into comedy or scorn, he'd get you in a corner, hit you with his laser beams and threequarters politely/one-quarter dangerously explain his displeasure. He cancelled the TFC Gong Show.

Giovinco is the best performer in the history of the team, the league and, one might now argue, the continent, but Bradley is the one-man mission statement. You want to know what to do? Look at that guy.

As an example of Bradley's attention to detail, there are his travel arrangements.

Most pros only want to be told when to be on a bus. They have to be nagged about remembering their passports. If the bus isn't there, that isn't their problem.

Bradley wants to be apprised of everything in advance - when he's going, who's meeting him on the other end, what the schedule is for the next few days.

If he is returning to Toronto after international duty and will likely miss practice in the morning, he'll ask the team to charter him an earlier flight.

If he gets in in the middle of the night, he expects team medics and physiotherapists to be waiting for him at the club's hell-and-gone training facility so that he can prepare alone for the next day.

Bradley does not take time off and he does not clock-watch, so no one else at Toronto FC does either.

The roster is certainly more talented now than it was five years ago, but it always had talent. It's the ethos that's changed.

(Another telling detail: Toronto FC usually flies commercial. The middle-class salarymen sit in coach.

The multimillion-dollar designated players are offered first-class tickets.

Defoe took advantage of the perk.

Bradley sat back in steerage with the rest of the team. Every DP since has followed Bradley's example.)

Bezbatchenko is defined by Bradley's success, but Defoe has one salutary place in the legend. The then-new GM watched Leiweke do that unlikely recruitment, and applied the same psychological tactics: What does this person really want? Because it's not just about the money. What does he need to hear? Because it's not a prose poem about a world-class city - in persuading Giovinco to abandon Italy in his prime.

The rest of it - finding the right coach, managing the league's Byzantine salary structure, slotting together the correct combo of complementary players - played to Bezbatchenko's data-driven strengths.

But his key attribute may be fatalism. He didn't expect to get this job, he didn't expect to keep it ("... I figured I might get fired in 10 or 11 months and that that wouldn't be the end of the world ...") and didn't worry why it happened or what it meant. He just did it.

Reputationally, he's been squeezed between Leiweke's enormous personality and the eventual rise of the team. Since Bezbatchenko wasn't greeted like an Ujiri/Shanahan/Babcock-esque sports messiah on the way in the door, too few plaudits have fallen his way now that he's part of the furniture.

I mean, isn't it easy to buy a team?

That's what he did. That's what people say.

Well, no easier than winning a draft lottery at exactly the right time.

It also elides the fact that Toronto FC had been a buyer before Bezbatchenko got here. He was just the first person to spend the money wisely.

In conversation, he was different four years ago - shyer, prone to speaking jargonese, far more concerned about saying the wrong thing. Time and success have smoothed those edges.

Bezbatchenko even dresses differently - like all MLSE's top executives, he looks as though he's been put through a haberdashery boot camp in Milan.

One thing that remains as it was is the evident delight at where he's ended up, an impossible-not-towarm-to 'aw, shucks'-ness about the whole thing.

He says he gets the occasional call from "really big" clubs in Europe - "less direct interest, more 'Tell me how you do it' " - but has no interest in leaving. He's too folded into the city now - bought a house in the west end, found a good school, created a life here.

He is living the dream, and we're not just talking about sports. He gets to do what he wants in a makebelieve world and no one secondguesses him any more.

Asked if he's got any good advice lately, Bezbatchenko has to give it a lot of thought.

"I'm sure they have," he says. "But I can't think of any right now."

Associated Graphic

Tim Bezbatchenko applauds before an Oct. 15 match between TFC and the Montreal Impact in Toronto. The GM decided if he was going to go down, he would do it with his foot on the gas.

JULIAN AVRAM/ICON SPORTSWIRE

TFC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko is living the dream. No one second-guesses him any more now that he's led the worst team in history to powerhouse status.

CHRIS YOUNG/THE CANADIAN PRESS


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