SUDDENLY, TORONTO'S CN Tower, formerly one of the world's tallest structures at 1,815 feet, is only the town's No. 2 edifice. Roy Halladay suddenly stands taller than that.
The 32-year-old righthander has been the sharp focus of a tale of two cities ever since Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi put the Executioner on hold by tossing a match into a huge mound of dry hay and allowing that his floundering and overcompensated ballclub might be forced to entertain offers for the most famous pitcher in franchise history.
Now, the guy seems surprised that the hay is blazing out of control and he's trying to put out the bonfires of his vanity with a water pistol.
This is a huge story in Toronto, of course. It is sometimes lost on Americans that the handsome city on Lake Ontario is the fourth largest north of the Mexican border, a cosmopolitan metropolis of 4.7 million. Only Athens has a larger ethnic Greek population than Toronto's Danforth (aka Greektown). Toronto's Chinatown - 2008 estimate 400,000 - has four times more residents than San Francisco's famed landmark.
And every ethnic group in North America's most diversified city, from Albanians to Zaireians, is afflicted with angered blood as J.P. Ricciardi delays the man with the blindfold and cigarette by trying to undo a terrible financial mess of his making by dangling his All-Star pitcher for a sack of Kobe beef sliders - choice young, inexpensive, high-ceiling prospects.
Here, of course, we have the pulse-quickening possibility that rookie GM Ruben Amaro actually has a chance to guarantee not only this year's World Series repeat, but to string October parades together like endless strands of red-hued spaghetti. The franchise that has won twice in 126 years is humming the theme from "Dynasty." The sports talkers are all over it 24/7. Guys who were spitting on the Phillies' chances a year ago are now ready to trash their painstaking and expensive rebuilding of a fallow minor league system for another jab at the golden ring. Overnight-shifters who wouldn't know Michael Taylor from Elizabeth Taylor speak authoritatively about a hole in the Reading - now Lehigh Valley - outfielder's swing scouts claim he has.
So, the Halladay possibility has the town the most excited it has been since the heady days of Terrell Owens frenzy. It never considers the suitors in other towns, all with contending baseball teams or the dynamic of what could lead the Blue Jays to the radical outcome of dealing a man with a 10-3 record, a contender for his second Cy Young Award, a tough, hard-bitten hombre with tunnel vision who wants to pitch in a World Series while he has all his powers.
This tale of two cities is about Toronto, as well.
In a way, Ricciardi is about to become a victim of transient success. The 2003 Blue Jays were supposed to be rebuilding under a man who had been second banana to "Moneyball" alchemist Billy Beane. Oakland's guru of how to win without expensive talent by signing players who can win with inferior tools has lost a little luster. Last place tends to do that, even to geniuses. When Ricciardi was wooed by Toronto, ESPN senior seamhead Peter Gammons gushed that P.J. "just might be the single best evaluator of talent in the major leagues today."
That was in 2001. By 2003, Ricciardi had the Jays pointing toward contention in the AL East. Halladay won his Cy Young Award. Carlos Delgado and Vernon Wells pounded 75 homers. The Jays won 86 games. According to Toronto Star baseball columnist Richard Griffin, who I have known since his days as a great media relations director for the Montreal Expos, it was a false dawn. "It was good for the fans, but promised too much, too soon," Griffin blogged recently while reaction to a Halladay trade possibility assumed tsunami proportions. Meanwhile, Ricciardi was telling a radio host it wasn't he who stirred up Blue Jays fans: "I don't think we caused a stir in Toronto. I think we caused stirs in all these places that cause stirs - Philadelphia, New York, Boston, LA, Chicago." He can add St. Louis to the Stir Crazies. It has been reported by MLBtraderumors.com - the name kind of says it all - that when asked about the price tag for Halladay, a St. Louis club source said, "Give Ricciardi all our minor league rosters and let him circle any five names."
The new ownership brought back Blue Jays former president and later MLB president Paul Beeston, an Ontarian, to serve as interim CEO. It is widely believed that Beeston, who plans to step down himself, will fire Ricciardi as his final act. The GM seems to have been caught in a strange contradiction where he did his best work in Toronto when strapped for cash - in "Moneyball" mode, as it were. And when given
real money to spend, he has made poor trades and lavished ruinous contracts on the likes of recently released closer B.J. Ryan and handed $140 million in future salary to underachieving Wells and Alex Rios.
When Ricciardi was quoted the other day that he would entertain no offers for Halladay before the July 31 deadline for nonwaiver trades, he created a nightmare scenario for potential suitors. What if Ruben Amaro falls into the Jim Thome trap? After GM Ed Wade proudly wrapped his biggest deal with the red ribbon of a 6-year, $85 million contract, it turned out Jim never got an offer from the Cubs. Ed had bid against himself.
So what if Ruben shrewdly packages, say, J.A. Happ, Kyle Drabek, just-promoted Michael Taylor, Antonio Bastardo and Anthony Gose and BlackBerrys the deal to Ricciardi? And the Blue Jays' lame-duck GM takes it and runs.
What if . . . What if it turns out the Phillies were the only bidder? *
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