Lockout won't help, hurt Jays

GEORGE GROSS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:22 AM ET

With the Maple Leafs officially on the shelf because of the NHL lockout, one would think that the Blue Jays would move quickly to transform their early spring marketing strategy. Such, however, is not the case according to Paul Godfrey, president and CEO of the Blue Jays and a man considered a sports magician who had a large role in bringing Major League Baseball to Toronto, the building of the SkyDome and its subsequent sale to Rogers.

"We haven't changed our strategy at all in view of the NHL lockout," said the man who is up exercising every morning at 6:30 and, usually, puts in a 16-hour day. "We started promoting the Jays in October and we haven't stopped.

"The problem is that after we won two World Series (1992 and 1993), baseball lost the World Series at a time when we drew four million people to our games. Then, because of labour trouble, the people got turned off and we are still fighting to get them back.

"Hockey is more religion than just a sport in Canada. I wish it had such roots in the United States. In Canada, kids are weaned on playoff hockey. Not in the U.S. Last year, I went to Boston in the spring and saw the Red Sox on the front pages, not the Bruins fighting for playoff glory."

The Jays president continued his analysis by saying that south of the border they have three seasons -- fall, winter and baseball, while in Canada we have three different seasons -- spring, fall and hockey.

Is that why the Jays are finding it difficult to bring back the millions of fans, I asked naively?

"You mustn't forget that between 1989 and 1994 the SkyDome was a novelty and we had a competitive team," Godfrey explained. "The fans knew that we were in the hunt in September. But disruptions to a sport don't benefit anybody. When baseball had the 1994 strike, it did not benefit hockey in the United States. Equally so, I don't think the hockey lockout will help baseball in Canada. Sport is cyclical. You had better keep on going because rebuilding is a very arduous task."

Can I take from these remarks that the Jays are not a competitive team, I pressed again?

"I didn't say that," shot back Godfrey. "J.P. Ricciardi is a great general manager. Last year, at one point, we had our second, third, fourth and fifth hitters out of the lineup. Moreover, our Cy Young winner -- Roy Halladay -- missed half the season."

Now that Ted Rogers put another $20 million US into the team, does it mean you'll go after some free agents to strengthen the team, was my next question?

"Actually, Ted gave us a budget of $210 million over the next three years," the Jays president said. "And while J.P. may make adjustments to the team, we will invest heavily in the Rogers Centre. We will have seven electronic boards, which will probably make it the best setup anywhere. They will show the type of pitch that is being thrown and what the pitch count is. One of the boards, which is 10 feet high and 60 feet wide, will show details of the other games played that day. And the scoreboard itself is 33 feet high and 110 feet wide."

What about the new turf? Will it reduce injuries to players?

"The new field looks and feels like natural grass when you walk on it," replied Godfrey. "Players will be able to stop and turn on it without hurting themselves. The Atlanta Falcons claim that it is better than natural grass."

To change the topic, I asked Godfrey about his thoughts on salary caps.

"Maybe baseball needs a salary cap," was his surprising reply. "I think the NFL has the best system by having a partnership arrangement. By contrast, the New York Yankees pay $63 million to five pitchers, while we spend $53 million on 25 players.

"We will spend $8 million on the new scoreboards and another $2 million on the new turf. We will also spend several more millions on refurbishing the Rogers Centre."

Godfrey will be the supreme commander of the Rogers Centre -- the new name for the SkyDome. The facility will have a stadium operations manager, but that person will report to Godfrey, who is proud that the Jays now own their facility and have complete control.

As I said at the outset, Godfrey has been successful in the majority of ventures he has involved in since he became a North York council member, Metro chairman, publisher of The Toronto Sun, one of the initiators of the SkyDome and several other investments, some still in the works. One unaccomplished venture is his dream of bringing NFL football to Toronto.

"I haven't given up," Godfrey said.

"I was encouraged by what NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue had to say at this year's Super Bowl when he said that Mexico City and Toronto are future candidates for NFL expansion. The NFL will also play a regular-season league game in Toronto in 2006 or 2007. So, I will say, it's not a question of if the NFL comes to Toronto, but when."

That would complete Godfrey's hunger for accomplishments in the world of sports except, of course, if he has an unspoken eye turned toward the Maple Leafs.

GROSSLY ABBREVIATED

A few well-known sports figures will attend the St. Michael's Buzzers Sports Celebrities Dinner at the Capital Banquet Centre in Mississauga on April 20, including boxing great George Chuvalo, Argonauts president Keith Pelley, hockey's Red Kelly, Dick Duff, Dave Gardner, Pat Boutette and Tom Fitzgerald. For details contact Buzzers president Mike McCarron at 1-800-667-4175.


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