If Only…Reed Johnson Stayed a Jay

Back in December I wrote an “If Only” column (if only the Jays could sign Major League’s Roger Dorn to play 3B), meaning to make it a weekly series.

Well, it took six weeks but today I present a second column:

If only Reed Johnson remained a member of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Johnson re-joined the Cubs last week and seeing his name again brought back a lot of memories.

Don’t get me wrong – I wasn’t a huge Johnson supporter.  I thought he played well for the Jays and I loved watching him play.  He played hard, he got dirty, and he produced decent numbers (.281 average, 319 runs scored, .752 OPS in 5 seasons).  He played a pretty good left field, and he showed a lot of hustle and heart on the field (coincidentally the mantra of the 2010 club).

But Reed’s impact on the team went beyond numbers – he was a fan favourite.  I remember going to games in 2006 and night after night the loudest cheers were reserved for Johnson.  Fans loved his aggressive play.  He would dive for balls in the OF even if he was 70 feet away from them it seemed.  The crowd loved him.

At the end of the 2007 season the Jays were still being run by J.P. Ricciardi.  They had just completed a fairly successfuly campaign (83-79, 3rd in the AL East), and were gearing up to make a run at the Red Sox and Yankees.  Ricciardi had yet to deliver on the promises he had made to Blue Jays fans – namely a playoff spot.  His leash was getting shorter as fans were beginning to grow impatient, but most still trusted him to lead the team to salvation. He still had a chance.

That offseason started well enough for Toronto.  Ricciardi signed two Canadians (Scott Richmond and Matt Stairs), inked Shawn Camp and Rod Barajas to contracts, and picked up both Marco Scutaro and Scott Rolen in trades.  Sure he made a curious signing in David Eckstein (essentially screwing over fan favourite John McDonald) but that seemed a minor issue.

But on February 25, 2008 Ricciardi brought back former Jay Shannon Stewart.  Stewart had been a star with Toronto, and was incredible with Minnesota.  But after an injury plagued ’06, he signed with Oakland for the ’07 season and put up numbers that were respectable (.290 average, 12 HR, 79 R, .739 OPS) but down from his career norms. 

The Stewart signing was problematic for two reasons:

1. He was clearly on the downside of his career, and

2. He played left field.  Reed Johnson also played left field.

At first Jays fans, myself included, weren’t bothered by the signing.  Reed was coming off an injury plagued 2007 season of his own and was no sure thing to get back to his ’06 form.  Besides, Stewart was an ex-Jay, a former hero coming back home.  We could accept this.  Surely Johnson would win the job making Stewart an above-average bench player and 4th OF.  Reed was a much better defender, and much better on-base threat.

But to the shock of many, Stewart won the job.  To the extreme shock of everybody, Johnson wasn’t simply relegated to the bench.  He was given his outright release. 

I couldn’t believe it.  My friends couldn’t believe it.  Many Toronto sportswriters couldn’t believe it.  I think a large majority of Blue Jays fans couldn’t believe it.

And I strongly believe that March 23, 2008, the day Reed Johnson was released, was the day that Toronto Blue Jays fans turned on J.P. Ricciardi.

He had stabbed us in the back.  Gone was a versatile player and a fan favourite.  Sure he wasn’t an All-Star, but he was better than his replacement in pretty much every way possible.  It didn’t seem right.

Suddenly the lustre was off J.P.  People started looking at his previous moves more closely and found ways to criticize him where they might not have before.  What followed in the summer of ’08 was a complete disaster, and fans shifted the blame away from the players and manager and put it directly on Ricciardi’s shoulders.

Consider what happened:

– Eckstein didn’t do much and was traded away in August

– Frank Thomas was released after only 16 games making Ricciardi look like a fool

– Ricciardi’s hand-picked manager John Gibbons, not far removed from several physical confrontations with players, was axed, with fans blaming J.P. for hiring such a loose cannon in the first place

– Former MLB closer Armando Benitez, signed in the offseason to provide help to the back-end of the bullpen, was finally released after only 6.1 IP

– Kevin Mench and Brad Wilkerson, mid-season acquisitions meant to add pop to the lineup, were terrible, combining for 4 HR in 323 AB

– In June, J.P. further solidified his downfall with the Adam Dunn debacle, claiming the Cincinnati slugger (who Toronto could have desparately used) “doesn’t really like baseball” and “doesn’t have a passion to play the game.”  He was making a fool of himself and the organization.

Finally, on August 11, after hitting only .240 and playing in only 52 games, Shannon Stewart was released.

To make matters worse, the man who was cut to make room for Stewart, was thriving.  Reed Johnson signed with the Cubs five days after being released by Toronto, and put up very solid numbers in Chicago: .303 average, .358 OBP, .778 OPS.  Jays fans wept.

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I’m not here to say that things would have been better if Johnson would have stayed.  Would the Jays have won a few more games?  Maybe, but they finished nine games back of the playoffs, so postseason baseball would never have happened.

But I think J.P. Ricciardi would have had more rope.  Fans would have tolerated his moves – good or bad – a bit more and wouldn’t have jumped all over him.  Maybe without such a public backlash against him, Ricciardi gets another chance to prove he can win here.  Maybe he isn’t fired in 2009.  Who knows…

In reality, the Johnson release was a good thing.  That was the spark that ignited the fan’s fire for J.P., and I believe started the road to his downfall.  Without it, maybe the above would have happened.  Maybe we wouldn’t have Alex Anthopoulos.  And does anybody out there truly believe the Jays aren’t in a better place now?

Whatever you believe, the moral of the story is clear:

Don’t screw with your fans.

Ricciardi did and he didn’t live to tell the tale.

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