Lott: Alex Anthopoulos returns to the Rogers Centre podium and reflects on his time as Blue Jays GM

Alex Anthopoulos
Photo Credit: John Lott

The last time Alex Anthopoulos sat in this seat, he was basking in the glow of the Blue Jays’ biggest season in a generation and talking about making it go on and on. But he knew, almost certainly, that he would not be part of it.

In fact, that reality began to dawn on him around September 1 of last year. A week earlier, his team had taken over first place. A few days later, Mark Shapiro had been hired as the new club president and CEO.

Thus began the great divide, and a great torment too for the Jays’ general manager. At a time of his greatest accomplishment, he was hiding a private anguish.

“I did my best to try to enjoy the playoffs,” Anthopoulos said during a media conference in his old digs on Friday. “I really made a conscious effort to try to enjoy it. Until the decision is final, it’s not final, right?”

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Today, he is a vice-president of baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have an all-star front office and a $227-million payroll. As of Friday, they also had a .500 team, which was one of the few parallels one could draw between the Dodgers and Blue Jays before they opened a weekend series at the Rogers Centre.

Anthopoulos had been flooded with media requests before his homecoming, which wasn’t really a homecoming at all, because he still lives in Toronto, making regular transcontinental commutes while he wades deeper into his new job and looks for a new home and schools for his kids in southern California.

And maybe a new route for his drive to work.

“I thought Toronto was bad,” he said of the traffic, “but L.A. definitely takes the cake.”

So, having chosen to make just one media appearance, here he was again, on the same stage where he answered so many questions during his six years as the Jays’ general manager. The new administration – the one for whom he decided he could not work – had allowed him to use that platform one more time, while Shapiro’s new PR functionary stood at the back and furiously typed the ex-GM’s words into his phone and up the pipeline.

Of his new job, Anthopoulos said, “It’s really fun.” He has no regrets about leaving the Jays. “You’ve got to be happy going to work every day. If you’re not, you’re not going to be a very good employee.”

But he does think about the what-ifs. The one he thinks about most is Ben Zobrist.

Even casual baseball fans are familiar with the remarkable flurry of season-changing deals Anthopoulos made leading up to the July 31trade deadline. But the one he thinks about most, he says, is the one he couldn’t pull off.

Zobrist was his first priority. The most versatile front-line player in the game was playing for Oakland. Anthopoulos made a strong bid, but refused to part with the prospects Oakland wanted. Instead, Zobrist went to Kansas City.

“I look back, and what if we had gotten Ben Zobrist?” he said. “That would’ve been the first deal. Kansas City, they (wouldn’t) have him. That would’ve been the first deal, and, I don’t know, it may have influenced some other deals, and we may not have had the players to make some of the other deals. It felt like at one point we had gotten close but we weren’t willing to give up an extra player or two to get it done.

“That’s probably the one I’ve thought about the most. What if we had done it? You get to Game 7 in Kansas City, who the heck knows what happens?”

Had he acquired Zobrist, he might not have needed Ben Revere to play left field and lead off. But he also might not have had the prospects to land Troy Tulowitzki or David Price.

“Through the month of August,” he said, “I expected to be here five, 10, 20 years, whatever it was going to be. And then, things rolled into September, and it’s probably the first time it entered my mind that I might not be back. But certainly the decision wasn’t done until the end.”

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His session Friday was the first time he has sat in the media spotlight and reflected on the accomplishments and the what-ifs. He was relaxed and even a little more candid at times than he was in the old days. And as he acknowledged several times last year, the lessons of his first five years as GM helped him turn a corner in 2015 – perhaps most notably, his decision to stockpile enough cash to make noise at the trade deadline.

He addressed that matter after someone asked him to assess his decision to trade prospects Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud for R.A. Dickey before the 2013 season. At the time, Syndergaard had just finished his age 19 season in low-A ball and d’Arnaud was a Triple-A catcher who kept getting hurt. Dickey had just won a Cy Young Award.

“We felt we were at a bit of a crossroads there in terms of, do we scale it back and strip down and maybe (Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista) get moved,” he said.

”Do you trade Edwin? Do you trade Jose? It’s hard to be in the middle. In any sports team, it’s probably not the appropriate place to be. So you have to make a decision on where you want to be. Ultimately, it didn’t work out for 2013.

“In 2014, we probably had a team that could’ve made the playoffs. The unfortunate part is, we just weren’t able to get anything done at the trade deadline then. (Last) year, we were able to learn from some past experiences to be prepared for the trade deadline and be able to make moves.”

He believed the Dickey trade, which followed a blockbuster deal with Miami, might have set the stage for an extended period of playoff contention. Instead, the Jays finished last in 2013 and third in 2014.

Ownership – that would be Rogers Communiucation –  never interfered in baseball operations, Anthopoulos insisted.

“You had your number and you worked with it,” he said. “And that’s what happened at the (2015) trade deadline. We didn’t have to go back for more money. We had the amount. I’ve learned some things over the years, how to work through some things, and we left some money available in the offseason and did what we wanted to do at the trade deadline and always had the support of ownership the whole way. Not once did ownership ever get involved from a baseball operations standpoint.”

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The grass-roots resurgence of baseball in Canada – not just interest in the Blue Jays – fills him with pride, Anthopoulos said.

“The thought was always that it could be what it is today, in terms of attendance, TV ratings, fan interest,” he said. “The belief was there. It was almost like a wick and you needed to light it. If you could, it would open up all kinds of things.

“That’s what I’m most proud of. I’m sure there are other employees here (who were) a part of it because there were so many people involved. Seeing where the sport is in Canada right now, seeing how the organization is viewed and the fan interest, all those type of things.”

He sees the stories about waiting lists for kids to join minor baseball leagues. He sees Blue Jays paraphernalia everywhere he goes in Toronto. He knows the club he guided to the playoffs last year had a lot to do with that.

“Kids walking around with bats and balls and hats – that’s probably the most exciting thing, and that’s a reflection of the grassroots level work that was being done (by the Jays) – the caravan, the winter tours,” he said.

“Clearly, winning was important. I got into baseball in a big way because the Expos started winning, and I remember guys like Adam Loewen talked about getting into baseball because of the World Series years. So I do believe there’s a whole new generation of fans, based on what happened last year.

“Hopefully, it continues, and I do believe obviously this place is set up to do unbelievable things – (across) Canada, all that type of stuff, the ownership – they’ve got the ability to do tremendous things for a long time.”

Anthopoulos may be a Dodger, but he remains an ambassador for the city. On Thursday night, he took his boss, Andrew Friedman, and manager Dave Roberts, on a driving tour of Toronto.

“They were saying, wow, what a great place, what a great city … It’s an unbelievable place.”

And now, even the traffic has started to look good.