Friday, February 15, 2008

Scribblings of the Scribes of Sport: Diamond Dreams by Stephen Brunt

Stephen Brunt's Diamond Dreams is a classic for any fan of the Toronto Blue Jays. Published in 1996, it's an amazing retrospective into the history of the franchise. What's more impressive than the on-field action though is the clarity Brunt brings to the shady backroom maneuverings that are as much of a part of baseball in this day and age as "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" or the seventh-inning stretch. Along the way, we're treated to some interesting vignettes and character sketches of the key personalities involved: Pat Gillick, the withdrawn baseball genius, Don McDougall, the young, ambitious Labatt's president and eventual key ownership figure, and Howard Webster, the eccentric sport-loving millionaire.

Perhaps the most interesting portrait, though, is that of a man still deeply involved with the franchise: Paul Godfrey, who The Tao of Steib recently called "a kitten-drowning baby shaker " for his plans to sell Jays' tickets to Red Sox and Tigers fans before local fans could buy them. Godfrey's recent actions, particularly his deep involvement in the nefarious plot to bring the NFL north of the border , certainly make a lot more sense when you consider his history and his involvement in bringing the Jays to town. He was originally on North York council, a tiny role that was insufficient for his lofty dreams, and chose baseball as his ticket to the big time. He later was the Metro Toronto chairman from 1973-1984, and published the Toronto Sun from 1984-1991 before eventually joining the Jays' front office as president. As he told Brunt in an interview for the book, his involvement with the franchise was always with regards to what it could do for him.

"I figured there was no political downside for me," he said. "Only a political upside in any event. So I started this campaign to try to bring major league baseball to Toronto. I was going to be the guy who brough major league baseball."

In fact, as Brunt so eloquently points out, bringing a team was always going to be a massive effort involving many people, particularly as none of them knew how to do it.
"A politician [Godfrey], a brewery [Labatt's], a bank [CIBC] and an eccentric businessman [Webster] set out to buy a baseball team for Toronto," he writes. Sure enough, the punchline follows: "Not one of them really knew for sure how to do it."

Interestingly enough in the end, Brunt seems to conclude that Godfrey's role wasn't all that essential. As he writes, "...[T]he idea evolved that [Godfrey] was exactly what he had hoped to be—"the man who brought baseball to Toronto"... Some of those more directly involved with bringing the team to town―and especially with paying the bills—came to resent that image, though the friction never became public."

Brunt also quotes a couple of Jays' officials disgruntled with Godfrey for taking all the credit. "The guys at Labatt resent Godfrey being credited with bringing baseball to Toronto, because he didn't put up the money," one says. The overall consensus seems to be that Godfrey was helpful, particularly with Exhibition Stadium, but didn't do as much as he generally gets credit for: not surprising, given that it was always a political matter with him.

The on-field drama is also compelling, from the Jays' poor start to the back-to-back World Series wins in 1992 and 1993. Brunt's strong writing means the reader is never bored even in the midst of long stretches of mediocrity, and the in-depth profiles he provides of Jays' players, coaches, managers and front-office staff means the book always stays interesting even when the team isn't.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book: for a younger Jays fan like myself, it gave a lot of insight into the origins and roots of the team, which I think is vital to an understanding of where they are now. As previously mentioned, many of the same features in the original expansion to Toronto seem now to be repeating themselves with the NFL situation, so this book certainly is still relevant. Moreover, though, it stands as a strong example of sportswriting at its best: telling the behind-the-scenes story of a franchise to the fans who only get to see the on-field product.

A few quick links of the day:
- A post I put up over at my Journal blog predicting the various Queen's teams first-round playoff matchups: 1 for 1 so far, with women's volleyball's loss to the Varsity Blues tonight (my story on that should hit the Journal's website soon).
- Allan Maki has a great feature on Lakehead's basketball team over at the Globe and Mail's website
- Mike's take on the Senators' trade to get Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore
- Neate has a nice piece in the Ottawa Sun about a goalkeeper attending Toronto FC's summer camp
- The Globe's James Mirtle has some interesting stats on defensive forwards up on his blog: also, he wrote a hilarious post on the Globe on Hockey blog about former Canuck goalie Johan Hedberg facing rubber chickens in Atlanta
- The CIS Blog's newest contributor, Rob Pettapiece, has an interesting post up about the possible demise of campus sports radio over at the University of Waterloo

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