Ricciardi has big shoes to fill

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 6:22 AM ET

Fifteen years ago today, Pat Gillick's message light was flashing when he went back to his room at the Chicago Airport Hyatt, where baseball's winter meetings were being held.

That wasn't surprising, given that the then-Blue Jays general manager had, that day, just engineered one of the biggest trades in baseball history. Lots of folks wanted a piece of Gillick, but this particular message was from his wife.

"Patrick, you get yourself home before you screw up the team completely," Doris Gillick said.

It just so happened that Fred McGriff was Doris' favourite Blue Jay.

A few hours earlier, I was sitting next to colleague Bob Elliott in one of the hotel's ballrooms when Blue Jays PR director Howie Starkman went to the microphone and started rhyming off the details of a trade that blindsided the baseball world.

McGriff and Tony Fernandez to the San Diego Padres for Joe Carter and Robbie Alomar.

Now you have to understand the crowd that Starkman was addressing -- a bunch of crusty ball writers, plus scouts and various team officials -- was a hard crowd to impress. When Starkman was finished speaking, some of the baseball men at the back of the hall started clapping at the stunning news, thrilled to have an old-fashioned trade to discuss. You could have knocked over every baseball writer in the room, including yours truly, with a feather.

As Elliott would write the next day, "It was as if a Madonna video was being shown to the local church board."

This came two days after Gillick had pilfered Devon White from the Angels, essentially for Junior Felix, and five days after he had outbid the Dodgers for free-agent lefthanded reliever Ken Dayley. (Hey, nobody's perfect.)

You have to remember where the Jays were as an organization to truly appreciate just how important this week of wheeling and dealing was. The team had been knocking on the door for five years, populated largely by players that Gillick's farm system had developed.

The 1985 team should have won the American League pennant, and probably the World Series, but they were derailed by George Brett and the Kansas City Royals after leading the American League championship three games to one.

The Jays took a step back in 1986, missing the playoffs, but were probably baseball's best team again in 1987. That was when they lost a 41/2-game lead and their final six games of the year, each by a solitary run.

That's when they first became known as the Blow Jays.

In 1988, they missed the playoffs but were back again in 1989, dismissed by the Oakland A's in the ALCS. Now, at the end of 1990, they had missed the playoffs again and everybody -- fans, players, management -- was becoming impatient.

"We have come close with the same group time and again," Gillick said.

"It was time for a change."

And what a change. Through the long lens of history, it is clear that Gillick's achievements that week in Chicago were pivotal to the team's two World Series titles in 1992 and 1993. He would never be addressed as "Stand Pat" again. What had started as a McGriff-for-Alomar trade was expanded to include Carter and Fernandez.

Alomar, Carter and White were heart-and-soul performers in both championships. John Olerud replaced McGriff at first base. Years later, hard-core Blue Jays fans are deadlocked on who had the biggest hit in the team's history: Alomar, with his 11th-inning homer off Dennis Eckersley in Game 4 of the 1992 ALCS or Carter's World Series-winning "Touch-'Em-All-Joe" shot a year later.

We know and appreciate how much it grates on current team management to have ancient history thrown in their faces, but there are some parallels here worthy of reflection.

GM J.P. Ricciardi is in Dallas this week trying to change the culture of his team, not unlike the way Gillick did on this day, 15 years ago. Like Gillick, Ricciardi has the resources and the power to make some fundamental and far-reaching roster moves.

Ricciardi has no intention of tearing apart the core of his team and putting it back together in a matter of a few days.

Then again, neither did Gillick. Or if he did, he didn't confide in his wife.


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