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      March 2012

The second coming

Is it the bottom of the ninth or glory days, again? Whichever, longtime baseball exec Paul Beeston hopes for more Jays fans in the seats and victories on the field

By Paul Brent  
Photograph: Edward Gajdel

In the fall of 2008, when Paul Beeston was named president and CEO of the Toronto Blue Jays, the move was described both as a “return” by the affable Beeston to the organization that he worked with for more than two decades and an “interim” appointment.

Both characterizations were inaccurate given the cozy relationship the Jays’ first employee has had with the baseball franchise from the time it was a twinkle in a brewery executive’s eye to World Series champion to its present status as a source of programming content for a multimedia communications giant. The truth is Beeston never truly left the Jays, even after decamping in 1997 for a job in New York as president of Major League Baseball. Although he had no official role with the team, Beeston maintained an office in the cavernous SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) for himself and his faithful secretary of 34 years and would hang out in the 300-level executive offices. His five-year New York stint with MLB was a commuting affair: he never sold the Lawrence Park-area Toronto home he and his wife purchased when they moved to the city and he typically flew back every weekend. And even after he retired following his time in New York, the office remained. “I never really left, but you know I came in the back door,” says Beeston. “I stayed out of the way of the people who were operating it but it was a terrific situation for me.”

It may not have been clear to him at the time, but there were plans to make his interim status permanent pretty much from the beginning. Far from a caretaker, Beeston held the interim CEO role for a busy year. Over that span he fired the team’s long-time general manager, named a surprising replacement and began the long process of rebuilding the Jays organization, which was at a nadir in the standings — a process that included trading franchise pitcher Roy Halladay.

While Beeston was searching for a replacement, the Jays’ owners, Rogers Communications, worked to convince him to accept the president’s job. After a year Rogers succeeded and Beeston accepted a three-year contract — ending more than 20 years of handshake agreements with the Jays.

“I have never had a contract [before], I never wanted a contract,” says Beeston. “I never really believed in contracts. I have never read it. I know what is in it, I know what my job responsibilities are — if they are not happy, just sayonara, goodbye.”

Beeston’s recent machinations as president and CEO have given the Rogers brass plenty of material to make an appraisal of his performance. As interim president, he fired general manager J.P. Ricciardi after determining that the team was headed nowhere after eight years in that post. Beeston made the controversial decision to promote the team’s then 32-year-old assistant general manager, Alex Anthopoulos, to the top player-management position.

The appointment of Anthopoulos, a tireless dealmaker and savvy judge of baseball talent, was arguably Beeston’s signature achievement in his second go-round with the team. Anthopoulos not only traded Halladay for a handful of blue-chip prospects, he has made a number of other key trades of popular pitchers and position players that have lightened the team’s payroll and stocked its player system with talent that was all but barren a few years ago. The new general manager and team president have also devoted resources to rebuilding the franchise’s scouting and development (coaching) systems, which are key determinants to successful drafting, trades and free-agent signings. Indeed, the Beeston-Anthopoulos partnership recalls to some observers the success the Jays president had with Pat Gillick, executive vice-president of baseball operations, in the exciting 1980s-1990s stretch when the team grew to be contenders and champions. “I think another partnership is forming with Alex Anthopoulos,” says Phil Lind, vice-chairman of Rogers Communications.

For his part, Beeston says the Jays are again close to becoming a force in a division that has long been dominated by the big-spending powerhouses of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. “At the end of this year I am so pleased about where Alex is taking the team and where Steve Brooks [vice-president of business operations] is taking things. We always talk about the baseball of it; we never talk about it from the business point of view,” he says.

The Jays’ budget today is smaller than during Ricciardi’s heyday with the club when late owner Ted Rogers was determined to field a winner. Today, Beeston has been charged with getting the team to break even. The business side includes cementing the Jays’ status as “Canada’s team,” which is a default position since the departure of the Montreal Expos but not something Beeston is taking for granted. As part of the undertaking, team events are held during the off season in Eastern and Western Canada and there is an effort to ensure that games are broadcast nationally whenever possible.

The Jays are cautious when speaking about their player budget and intentions to open the vaults to attract high-priced, established talent. The franchise does admit it spent more in 2011 and that the GM has the green light to spend more in 2012. The reality is that the Jays today are a solid, mid-market team with a payroll to match. That’s a far cry from its early years in its retractable-roofed stadium when its championship teams attracted back-to-back annual attendance figures of four million. Last year’s attendance was about 1.8 million for the 81-win, 81-loss Jays, less than half that of the glory years and well below that of the freer spending Ricciardi-era team when the franchise was Ted Rogers’ shiny new toy.

The team enters the 2012 season in a bit of a “chicken and egg” conundrum. Beeston has said that the club will spend more in salaries, provided that fans return to Toronto’s domed stadium in greater numbers than in recent years. The fans, and sports media for that matter, say the Jays have to be better than a .500, fourth-place division finisher to get more bums in Rogers Centre seats.

In the end, recapturing the success on and off the field of the early ’90s when the SkyDome-Rogers Centre was a novelty is in the hands of its young general manager, not of Beeston. “We are very close and because of the philosophy [of building with] draft choices and everything, we are close enough that once this gets going, it could be 10 years’ sustainability of being an elite team in an elite division,” says Beeston. “We have an advantage that very few have and everyone in sports should want and a lot of people in Toronto are afraid of; that is, we have the Yankees and Boston as one-quarter of our schedule.” In other words, playing good teams is more of a draw to fans.

Beeston is convinced the Jays have or will soon have the talent necessary to compete with the juggernauts of New York and Boston because other teams are asking about the availability of the players now toiling in the feeder system clubs and there is internal data that show the health of the fan base. “We have got to give people a reason to come back,” he says. “But we can tell from our television ratings, we can tell from the demand for tickets, we can tell the direction it is going from no-shows and from your paid attendance. Those are critical numbers.”

An old-school accountant who professes “I don’t do email” and still has an old-style calculator complete with paper roll placed prominently on his desk, Beeston says he is energized by the younger generation within the Jays organization.

“Working with young people is an incredibly invigorating experience. They have the energy and they think differently because they are schooled differently and their education is different and their recall, and their ability to get that information is so much quicker,” he says in his rapid patter. “They just get on that thing, they get on their phone, their computer, they get that information while we say, ‘Get the baseball encyclopedia.’ ”

While his ebullient personality has made him one of the most popular executives in Major League Baseball, it is Beeston’s sober accounting skills that have made him a treasure for his corporate owners at Labatt and more recently Rogers. “I would say [an accounting background] is almost critical. You have to be able to read a P&L. You can’t lose money and be successful.”

“He still thinks of himself as an accountant even though he hasn’t practised accountancy in [close to] 40 years,” says Herb Solway, a lawyer for Labatt with Toronto law firm Goodmans LLP and Beeston’s mentor throughout his Toronto career. “He is very proud of the FCA. He has the Order of Canada; you don’t hear about that but the FCA you hear about.”

An accountant to the end, Beeston looks back fondly at his time with Coopers & Lybrand in London, Ont., where he received his CA in 1971 (then McDonald Currie) and worked in the tax department. Clients were smaller in London, which meant he got to work on up to 50 audits with different clients over the course of a year. “You learned and you did everything — the tax returns, the auditing — you learned what a financial statement was all about, you learned what financing was about,” Beeston says. He contrasts that with a role in a big firm where an accountant might work on just one client for the better part of a year.

If Beeston and Rogers ever part company, it is unlikely it will be the communications company that will pull the trigger. “When Paul is over there, there is no concern over here because it is going to run, it is going to run well,” says Lind, who played a key role in convincing Beeston to stay with the Jays a second time. Lind describes the turnaround during the CEO’s current three-plus years with the team as “quite dramatic and quite positive.” With just months left on Beeston’s contract, it is a safe bet to assume Rogers will attempt to keep him from retiring — again. “I’m not sure I want to discuss that with you, but from what I am saying, you can make certain assumptions,” says Lind.

One Jays observer who is not surprised at Beeston’s successful second act is his predecessor as president, Paul Godfrey, now president and CEO of Postmedia Network Inc. “He should have accepted it right off the bat,” he says. “He was the logical guy. The search started and ended with him and I was thrilled.”

On a clear and cool November morning, the off season when management is plotting to sign free agents and trade for players with other teams, and sports reporters fill print and air space with unsolicited advice about what the team should do, Beeston makes time for yet another media interview. Hunched over his desk and facing a blank wall in his new, rather cramped office, he rises and greets visitors with his legendary informality and friendliness.  

Dressed in black dress pants, wool sweat-er and clutching an unlit, well-chewed cigar, he sprawls comfortably in one of two matching lounge chairs before bawling to his secretary, Sue, for coffee. Up close a visitor is struck by the fact that he looks much younger than his 66 years, somewhat remarkable given the demands of his job and his penchant for beer and Monte Cristo cigars.
Just how did a London accountant end up as the business brains behind one of the most successful baseball franchises in modern times? Having the right neighbour for starters. Beeston was fast friends with Labatt Breweries president Don McDougall when Labatt was trying to land a team for Toronto as part of its efforts to sell more beer in the city.

The trouble was McDougall knew next to nothing about baseball, while Beeston and his gang of London buddies regularly took road trips to Detroit for the Tigers games. “He thought I knew everything there was to know about baseball,” Beeston recalls. “The fact that I was a CA, the fact that I liked to drink beer, that was a perfect combination for McDougall.”

Those connections led Beeston to become the first employee of Labatt’s baseball team in 1976. At the time, the brewer and its business partners had an agreement to buy the San Francisco Giants and relocate the team to Toronto. The plan was for Beeston to be the lone Canadian of the management team, as it was expected that most of the Giants’ front office would move north with the team. His job would be to “set up the accounting, set up the financing, set up the taxation, and then it kind of evolved into the business side — the ticketing. I knew nothing about that.” The Giants deal fell through at the 11th hour and Labatt, businessman Howard Webster and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce landed an expansion franchise that became the Blue Jays.

In the realm of professional sports where franchises were typically owned by wealthy business types, the Jays’ tripartite ownership structure was an oddity but the owners soon established themselves as a model franchise. “It was a terrific ownership group to work for,” says Beeston. “We always take credit for the successes that the ball club had but if we hadn’t had the ownership group it would never have happened. They had the patience and they had the money.”

Solway recalls working with Beeston in those early days. “If you had asked me then if I thought Paul would achieve what he has achieved, I would have said no. He was such a good guy and he was so much fun that you tended to overlook his abilities. You thought a guy who is that much fun to be with is unlikely to be a serious businessman. But he turned out to be a very serious businessman and he is still as much fun to be with.”

Solway, who was for years chairman of the Blue Jays and one of Beeston’s closest friends, attributes part of Beeston’s success in baseball to that gregarious, fun-loving personality. “He has a fabulous laugh, people love to be around him,” says Solway. “People like him. I have never heard anybody tell me that they don’t like Paul Beeston.”

The executive among the Jays’ ownership group who recognized that Beeston brought more than just accounting skills to the team was Peter Hardy, then chairman of John Labatt Ltd. and later chair of the Blue Jays board. The two men were an “odd couple,” in the words of Solway. Beeston liked to drink beer, talk and have fun. Hardy was quiet, more than a generation older and, despite his role at Labatt, not a drinker. “He was the guy who recognized that Paul had skills.”

A few years into the Jays’ existence, the team’s direction was put into the hands of Beeston as executive vice-president of business operations and Gillick as executive vice-president of baseball operations. Gillick, a rangy former professional pitcher, who, says Lind, had a “mind like an IBM computer,” could effortlessly recall player statistics and was a shrewd judge of talent. Together they formed a successful management team that quickly transformed a hapless startup franchise into a contender in less than a decade.

But it was a tougher task than it might seem. The Gillick-Beeston duo had to cope with a sinking Canadian dollar, an unfamiliar and unattractive city in the eyes of established players and perhaps the worst stadium ever to host a major league ballgame. Exhibition Stadium was a converted football stadium on the shores of Lake Ontario that often provided winter-like conditions from April to June.

Toronto’s initially less-than-appealing status as a destination for the baseball fraternity meant that the management was often forced to recruit players from beyond the traditional talent hotbeds. Jays scouts were heavy on the ground in Latin America and the early teams had a large Latin contingent, among the most notable being Alfredo Griffin, Tony Fernández and George Bell.

Gillick, inducted into the baseball hall of fame in Coopers-town, NY, for his success as a World Series-winning general manager with the Jays and Philadelphia Phillies, was able to zero in on the players the developing Jays needed to win a championship. He was less than ebullient, however, meaning that the job of Toronto booster fell to Beeston. “He wasn’t excellent on the face-to-face things; meeting the guy and persuading him to do anything, that was Paul,” says Lind. “Paul could talk you into anything, including talking a lot of Americans into playing in Toronto.”

Gillick, an adviser to the Phillies and living in Seattle, shares that view. “I don’t think [Beeston] got into judging [baseball] talent,” he says. “He got into judging personalities and makeup. He was very good about evaluating people. He could meet people for the first time and make a quick judgment not only from a business standpoint but from a baseball standpoint if they fit.”

Canny personnel moves transformed the Jays from a perennial playoff contender in the mid-’80s to World Series winners in 1992 and 1993. With the team hitting a plateau in the win column late in that decade, Gillick pulled the trigger on a key trade for outfielder Devon White and the blockbuster deal for outfielder Joe Carter and future Hall of Fame infielder Roberto Alomar. In 1992, with the Jays poised for the playoffs, he landed ace pitcher David Cone in a trade that lead them to the team’s first Series win. In the off season, Gillick and Beeston had dinner with Paul Molitor and his agent and convinced the baseball great to join the team’s successful championship squad the following year.

How much of a role Beeston played as comanager in those franchise-changing and ultimately successful trades and signings depends on who you talk to. “Paul won’t say this to anybody but in the key trade in Gillick’s career, Paul urged him to make it,” says one long-time Jays colleague of the Alomar-Carter trade for Fred McGriff and Fernández.

The jury — composed of fans and the ever-critical sports media — is still out in regards to whether Beeston has found a new Gillick in the choice of Anthopoulos as general manager. A generation apart, the two men share the gift of the gab, as well as an enthusiasm and passion for the game. Age-wise, Anthopoulos is between the Beestons’ two children: Aimee (a brand manager with Nike Canada) and David (a lawyer with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP).

And what would Beeston do if he ever decides to call it a game? If his six years on the sidelines is any indication, his routine wouldn’t be very different. During his so-called “retirement,” the Beestons traveled to bucket-list-worthy destinations such as Antarctica and Iceland. He also found time to serve as the chairman of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health during a period when he helped launch a $1-billion expansion of CAMH. He speaks of the place with the same enthusiasm he uses to describe the Jays’ farm system or playoff prospects. He is also a member of the board of supermarket giant Loblaw Cos. and Toronto-based investment firm Gluskin Sheff & Associates Inc.

His wife, Kaye, is a longtime supporter of the Toronto arts scene, and the thought of her dragging her husband to art shows is a source of amusement among their friends and family. “I won’t be going to the ones that I don’t want to, I have been to [too many],” he says. “She is into contemporary art and I am into modern art like Jack Bush,” Beeston says, pointing over his shoulder at a painting on his office wall.

Having retired and unretired to head the Jays again, Beeston is unwilling to say whether he will re-up with the team when his contract ends later this year. “To me, retirement wasn’t really retirement, it was unemployment, it was not getting paid for doing things you really enjoyed,” he says.

Paul Brent is a Toronto-based writer and journalist

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