By CATHAL KELLY
Saturday, November 18, 2017
TORONTO -- This week at Major League Baseball's general managers' meetings, the Toronto Blue Jays talked up their chances of hitting the offseason's biggest jackpot - Japan's Shohei Otani.
If you buy the hype, Otani is the most complete ballplayer to emerge in nearly a century. He both hits and pitches at an elite level. In the coming weeks, his current team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, will sell him to an MLB club of Otani's choosing.
Right now, anything's possible.
Maybe Otani's the new Babe Ruth.
Maybe he's better than that. It's a mystery.
A much greater mystery is why he would choose to start that journey in Toronto, in the wrong country on a fourth-place team teetering on the edge of a full rebuild. Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins tried to clear it up.
"Our emphasis on recovery, our emphasis on preparation, our emphasis on what it takes to realize all of your potential and understanding what that means is at the forefront [of the Otani sales job]," Atkins told Sportsnet.
So, that's it - a well-equipped training room and someone yelling "Be the best you you can be!" while you're on the treadmill? It's the sort of pitch you might give for a highschool swim team, and it might not work then. But it's definitely not going to turn heads at the professional level.
"I can't imagine a better fit, quite frankly," Atkins said.
If I'm Otani's agent, I certainly can. I can imagine a whole bunch.
How about the New York Yankees? Or the L.A. Dodgers? Or any other team in a major U.S. media market that has a recognizable international brand and is also a winner?
All of those would be better choices for a young player who must secretly believe that his real competition is not other baseball players, but Lionel Messi and LeBron James.
Of course the Jays want Otani.
Every team does. Why they are talking out loud about Otani, as though they have a genuine shot at him, is another matter.
It speaks to what has become a serious problem for the Toronto Blue Jays - prioritizing.
While they moon in public about a kid who has never stepped onto a major-league mound, we haven't heard much lately about Josh Donaldson.
I know he can't pitch, but he has won an MVP award and also happens to be on the roster already.
This saves the Jays the trouble of having to convince Donaldson that Toronto's ice baths are colder and more spacious than anyone else's in baseball.
Would it not make sense to at least be seen trying to re-sign Donaldson, who can walk after this season? Because there isn't much point to getting the Next Big Thing if you're letting the Current Big Thing walk out the door at the same time. That's not a win. It's a wash.
There's been a lot of this muddled thinking since the season finished. The Jays are doing what few teams manage - continue their losing streak beyond 162 games.
They fired a bunch of long-serving back-office people for no particularly good reason other than that they could do it. Or maybe it's got something to do with "culture" - a word that gets thrown around so often in sports these days to explain away bad decisions that it's beginning to sound like a Bolshevik term.
Bullpen didn't nail it down?
Clutch hitting not what you'd hoped? Obviously, it's the culture.
Eliminate those wreckers in group sales.
The employees they sacked were largely business people and the Jays are, if nothing else, a thriving business. What was the point?
If it is to get better - if that's the main priority - it's hard to see how painting yourself as petty and capricious achieves it.
Then there's Roy Halladay's death. That was a blow, but also an opportunity for the organization to demonstrate the best part of sports - its ability to rally disparate communities together and give tragedies, both large and small, a greater meaning.
The Jays were wrong-footed on that one as well. They issued a boilerplate statement. No one came out to speak on the club's behalf. A few hours after Halladay's passing was announced, pitcher Marcus Stroman was on social media woohooing about winning a Gold Glove.
Try to imagine the Yankees handling it the same way if a peer of Halladay's stature on that team had died. Say, a Derek Jeter or a Mariano Rivera. It is not possible. Up in the Bronx, they'd have draped the stadium in black velvet. They'd be running people up to podiums day and night to accommodate all the tributes.
While it's true that every person handles tragedy differently, there is a clear playbook for organizations.
It is to be present and respectful and, above all, to say something genuine about the person. The Jays couldn't manage it.
When an emotional reaction was required, their response was to be very still and wait for more information.
It was the wrong decision, and one I suspect this management group will be quietly wearing for a long time.
Running a professional sports organization is a bigger job than simply winning and profit margins.
If it was only about the numbers, we'd all get together over beers on Friday afternoons to watch the stock market close.
It's also about projecting an aura of competence and decency. Despite the obvious to-and-fro of the marketplace, people want to believe that their team is a family. Because there can't be a Them without an Us.
That's why fans choose to invest themselves in people. For human reasons, as well as cynical business ones, people should be the top priority of any team.
Right now, the Jays are having trouble figuring out where those values fit on the corporate org chart.
The question of why Japan's Shohei Otani would choose to launch his MLB career in Canada, on a fourth-place team teetering on the edge of a rebuild, is one the Jays have failed to answer convincingly.