Losing Anthopoulos Is Major League Loss for Blue Jays

Image of Alex Anthopoulos speaking to the media

Although the Toronto Blue Jays didn’t go all the way this year, they clearly didn’t lack character. This wasn’t a fluke. As departing General Manager Alex Anthopoulos recently explained to Maclean’s magazine, team management made a concerted effort during the off-season to focus less on “talent and tools and production” and put more emphasis on player “character, make-up, quality of the human being, what kind of teammate they are.”

And you don’t have to remember the last time that Blue Jays fans were so well served by a competitive team to see just what a difference a change in organizational focus can make.

Character, of course, is a loaded word. Like competencies and commitment, we know it is essential for individual, team and organizational success. But what exactly is character? And what about it leads to success? Utilizing both qualitative and quantitative research, the Ivey Business School’s Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute has identified 11 character dimensions that jointly drive performance. They are accountability, collaboration, courage, drive, humanity, humility, integrity, judgment, justice, temperance and transcendence. And the Jays clearly possess these character dimensions in abundance.

For example, after being pulled from the pitcher’s mound in Game 4 against the Texas Rangers, when the Jays were up six runs, R.A. Dickey didn’t necessarily agree with the decision to bring in David Price. After throwing only 78 pitches, and allowing just five hits and a run, and no walks, Dickey had good reason to want to stay on the mound. But he still showed respect for management after the game, noting “it’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.” For Dickey, it’s all about the team and collaboration — as it should be.

And then there is Ryan Goins, who set up a loss in Game 2 of the ALC series, when the Kansas City Royals rallied to win after the Jays’ second baseman let a ball drop because he thought right-fielder José Bautista had called it. After the game, Goins didn’t try to pass the buck. He demonstrated accountability. “The blame should go on me today,” he said. “I gave them that play to start that rally.” The next time out, Goins redeemed himself by showing tremendous determination and resiliency — important ingredients of courage — while hitting a homerun and a two-run single that helped win the game.

For demonstrations of drive, look no further than centre-fielder Kevin Pillar and third baseman Josh Donaldson. Pillar clearly earned his “Superman” nickname making those incredible diving catches that left skid marks on the field while dumbfounding opponents at the same time. Donaldson, meanwhile, could not have shown more dedication than he demonstrated diving into the stands to catch balls or sliding headfirst into home plate to avoid the catcher’s tag.

What about transcendence? Instead of dwelling on the past, first baseman Chris Colabello remained future-oriented and inspired others by being inspired during a challenging career. Colabello — who typically is the first to arrive for practice, not to mention the last to leave — never gave up on his dream of playing in the majors despite spending seven years in independent baseball before finally landing a pro position at age 28. As sportswriter Jim Mandelaro put it, Colabello’s perseverance “is as long as his name.”

Pitcher Marcus Stroman also showed that he had the right stuff by returning from a devastating knee injury after being pronounced out for the season. He worked relentlessly on his rehabilitation (while also finishing his university degree), motivating himself by tweeting that his return to the game “shall be legendary.”

Patience and control — elements of temperance — clearly helped keep the team’s big hitters (Donaldson, Bautista and Edwin Encarnación) selective when taking pitches. And consider how the Jays interacted with fans this year as an example of humanity and humility. Bautista, for example, took time to meet super-fan Oscar Wood after a video of the nine-year-old known as “mini-Bautista” went viral.

Finally, following the dramatic ending of the deciding game against Texas, the Jays returned to the field from the locker room, bringing bottles of champagne with them, to celebrate their outstanding season with fans, demonstrating consideration, respect and gratefulness.

Following the last game for the Jays this year, Anthopoulos admitted that it is always tempting to place more emphasis on talent when evaluating trade possibilities and free-agent signings. But after noting that he had hit his “stride a little bit” after six years as a GM, and now understood some things as a leader “a little bit more,” he insisted that talented players who lacked the right stuff on the character front would remain “forbidden fruit.”

As Anthopoulos told Maclean’s: “We’ve taken players that were less talented than others we could have had because they fit the values of what we are trying to do as a team. When you look at the definition of a team — everybody coming together, pulling together, playing for one another, making each other better — this is the first time I can say I’ve been around a true team.”

In other words, the focus on character that Anthopoulos put in place last year did much more than make the Blue Jays a class act. It was what turned the team into an outstanding ball club. And that’s something that the next GM should take note of along with managers and directors responsible for hiring and promoting individuals in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. After all, as Ivey research shows, giving character the attention it deserves leads to home runs in performance outside the baseball stadium as well.