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Their dynasty is flagged down

August 19, 2007|Bill Shaikin | SUNDAY REPORT

TORONTO -- It was a Jay Leno moment, at least to Americans, an oops that inspired a chuckle.

The Marines marched onto the field for the 1992 World Series, carrying the Canadian flag upside down. Canada erupted in outrage, wondering how the neighbors could be so ignorant as to fly a maple leaf with the stem up top.

Revenge was as sweet as maple syrup. Canada's team whipped the Americans at their own game, once and again.

This had the feel of a birth of a dynasty. The Toronto Blue Jays toppled the Atlanta Braves in the 1992 Series and -- thank you, Joe Carter -- the Philadelphia Phillies in 1993.

The Jays were the first team to attract four million fans, and they did it three years in a row. They attracted Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor and Jack Morris too, in free agency.

Yet, as Toronto exploded in population, the Jays collapsed, so striking a failure that major league owners now subsidize a franchise in one of North America's largest metropolitan areas to the tune of $30 million a year.

"You can't justify it on market size alone," Blue Jays President Paul Godfrey said.

Not when five million people live in the Toronto area. The Jays play in a market bigger than Boston, bigger than Phoenix, twice as big as Denver.

"We're a large market," Godfrey said. "We're a small-revenue market."

The days of four million fans, he said, are gone forever. The novelty of the first retractable-roof stadium is long gone, the NBA has arrived and, of course, this is a hockey town.

"What the Red Sox are to Boston," Godfrey said, "the Maple Leafs are to Toronto."

Fine, but Toronto was a hockey town when Carter hit the home run heard 'round Canada. Washington is a football town, but that didn't stop baseball from moving the Nationals there.

Since Carter homered, the Jays haven't played a postseason game and, except for one year, haven't finished within 10 games of first place. Just win, baby.

"It's such a hockey town, but they're dying to have a winning organization here and get into the playoffs again," said Matt Stairs, the Jays' Canadian-born outfielder. "If you put a team out there that has a chance to win every night -- and does win a lot of the time -- you'll have the fan support. All over Canada, we'll be watching the Blue Jays on TV every night."

Commissioner Bud Selig sells hope and faith, pointing to revenue sharing. That hope and faith can be hard to find here, even with $30 million in revenue sharing, because the Jays share a division with the Red Sox and New York Yankees.

In 1993, the Jays fielded a $45-million payroll, the highest in the majors, with the Cincinnati Reds second at $43 million and the Yankees third at $41 million.

The strike of 1994-95 killed the momentum from the back-to-back championships, and the franchise deteriorated from there. The architects of glory, President Paul Beeston and General Manager Pat Gillick, departed. Within a decade, attendance plummeted, from 4.1 million to 1.6 million. The exchange rate did not favor a franchise that paid players in U.S. dollars and sold tickets in Canadian dollars.

Labatt's, a Canadian brewery, owned the Jays and played to win. Interbrew, a Belgian brewery, bought out Labatt's and didn't care for baseball. When Toronto cable magnate Ted Rogers bought the club seven years ago, mediocrity reigned and revenue sharing did not.

So the Jays hired General Manager J.P. Ricciardi and told him to stem the losses, build from within and then supplement with free agents. He cut payroll from $88 million to $50 million, then got cash to lure A.J. Burnett, B.J. Ryan and Troy Glaus.

"It's like turning a battleship around in the middle of the ocean," Ricciardi said.

If he had to win on $50 million, he said, he wouldn't be here.

"The A's and Twins, the days of them doing what they've done on $50 million are over," said Ricciardi, a former assistant to Oakland General Manager Billy Beane.

The Yankees opened this season at $190 million, the Red Sox at $143 million. The Jays ranked 16th, at $82 million.

They can't get back to October without finishing ahead of either the Yankees or Red Sox, or both. But they're on the fringe of the pennant race, behind ace Roy Halladay and a cast of talented young pitchers, on pace to draw 2.4 million.

Godfrey is selling hope and faith too. The Jays should draw 2.75 million every year, he says, and 3.3 million when they win.

*With selective free-agent participation and great player development and drafts, we will be able to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox, and we'll spend half as much as they will," he said.

"I believe we can win the World Series within the next few years."

Maybe they can. Or, just maybe, the NFL can save the Blue Jays.

It's a football town too. If Rogers can lure an NFL team to Toronto, Godfrey said, the market would support the highest ticket prices in football.

And then, by bundling the NFL team and the Blue Jays in selling luxury seats in the stadium and sponsorships on his national cable network, Rogers could command premium revenue. All those dollars, Godfrey suggests, could help put the Jays on fairer financial footing with the Yankees and Red Sox.

If that revenue translated into victory, the Blue Jays could exploit a national market and reclaim their stature as a baseball powerhouse.

If we could be freed from the tyranny of the Yankees and Red Sox, and if an NFL team in Toronto means we never have to hear about the NFL coming to L.A. again, what can we do to help?

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bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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