“Great Expectations” by Shi Davidi and John Lott: A Review

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Apr 12, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Jose Reyes (7) is helped off the field after an injury in the sixth inning against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

With so much coverage of the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays coming into the year, getting a book so quickly after the conclusion of the season is not a surprise. The surprise comes from how the season played out so differently than how we expected it to go. I sat down to read “Great Expectations: The Lost Toronto Blue Jays Season” this weekend and, as someone who follows this team in a very in-depth way, I thought it would be necessary to actually write two reviews of the book.

Why two reviews? The first review (what you’re reading now) is geared towards Blue Jays fans that might be interested in buying this book. It will consider the more casual fan who may not have been following the day-to-day minutiae of the 2013 season as well as the more die-hard fans who will read this and recall the ups and downs of the season with a little more attention to the particulars of what was going on.

The second review, which you can find at my own blog, Blue Jays from Away, takes a more academic look at the volume in a way that I think you might find interesting. I approach Davidi and Lott’s offering from a more in-depth angle, looking at its construction, bias and other issues that arose in my mind when reading it. It’s not a “review” per se, but more of an essay about the nature of books of this sort and what they can tell us about the nature of sports journalism and publishing.

“Great Expectations”

 

The use of Dickens’s own words to bookend the volume is quite apt: “How my great expectations had all dissolved, like our own marsh mists before the sun, I could not understand.” Davidi and Lott then spend the next 180 pages trying to understand something that isn’t necessarily all that understandable: how a team that was great on paper failed to succeed on the field.

Structured around a timeline of the year from August/September 2012 to October of 2013, each chapter generally presents not only an account of what was happening in a chronological progression of the offseason and season but offers vignettes into the backgrounds of general manager Alex Anthopoulos and manager John Gibbons. Once the authors start telling the story of the season itself, these vignettes look at the upbringings of some key players, shedding some additional light on Jose Reyes, R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and others.

Sep 24, 2013; Baltimore, MD, USA; Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons (5) talks to pitcher Mark Buehrle (56) during a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

To begin with, the authors take the reader into the world of Alex Anthopoulos and the Toronto Blue Jays as the 2012 season was closing in turmoil. Their manager wanted out. Their shortstop was disciplined by the club for writing inflammatory comments on his eye black. A team that many thought could be a contender had fallen apart (literally) due to injuries. A fan base was getting tired of the “wait until next year” mantra that the club had been proclaiming for the better part of 20 years.

One of the real strengths of the authors is their ability to get insider information from the club. They’re both beat reporters, Davidi for Sportsnet.ca and Lott for the National Post, who are around the club all the time and have a real rapport with the players, coaches and front office staff. In the book’s prologue and first several chapters, the authors provide unparalleled coverage of the backroom dealings inside the Blue Jays offices. They make it clear that Alex Anthopoulos and manager John Farrell weren’t on the same page at all, particularly in 2012, the second year of their working relationship. They also depict his fascinating relationship with club President and CEO Paul Beeston, whose candid, often profane remarks are always insightful.

Once clear of the prologue, “Great Expectations” offers unrivaled insight into the big trades that the Blue Jays consummated with the Marlins and the Mets. For example, the authors enlighten us on the fact that the Miami deal almost didn’t happen because the Blue Jays felt it was unfair to trade Jeff Mathis right after signing him to a contract extension. These little flashes of inside information really go a long way to revealing more about some of the people from and about whom we normally only get sound bites.

Alex Anthopoulos and John Gibbons are among the personalities about whom we get a lot more background information in the early chapters. Through the authors’ anecdotes and excellent reporting, Alex Anthopoulos is really humanized for the reader. We see that he’s more than a “ninja,” but he’s also a man who thinks about his players as people and as more than just assets. In these chapters, we see how Anthopoulos’s “ninja” reputation comes from hard work and preparation. By closely examining every player in the major leagues (and the minors), Anthopoulos armed himself with the information he needed when he engaged his colleagues in talks at the General Managers’ and Winter Meetings in November and December. To show another side of him, his remorse about trading Mathis after giving him the impression that he would be in Toronto for two more years is actually quite touching.

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