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Rankings and “best-of” lists always make for great debate. Whether it be lists of best movies, best bands, or best restaurants, rankings are subjective, personal, and vary significantly based on the age, background, and inclinations of the individual making the list.
This used to be the case in baseball. For years, decades even, the question of “who is the greatest baseball player of all time” sparked water cooler (or bar-room, depending on your choice of beverage) debates amongst fans of all ages. Was it Babe Ruth? Ty Cobb? Willie Mays? Was it Mantle, Bonds, Pujols, Griffey, or Koufax? What about current stars like Kershaw, Trout, and Harper? While debate can still rage, new advanced stats like WAR enable us to compare players of different eras and at different positions with relative ease. Subjectivity is slowly dying.
Which is part of what makes The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Toronto Blue Jays such an entertaining read. The latest effort by Shi Davidi (also the author of Great Expectations: The Lost Toronto Blue Jays Season with John Lott) attempts to do what so many Blue Jays fans (myself included) have tried: to rank the Top 50 moments in the history of the franchise.
It’s an exercise in futility to be sure, because 96% of the book will be considered “wrong” by both casual and hardcore fans. (Let’s be honest – every single person should have the 1992 and 1993 World Series wins as 1 and 2). But that is also what makes the book so fascinating and appealing: 96% of the list is up for debate.
I had the privilege and the pleasure to speak with Shi Davidi about the book earlier this week from Denver, where he was in town for the Jays interleague visit against the Rockies (as an aside, Colorado’s Coors Field is the 29th big league stadium that Davidi has visited, leaving only Dodger Stadium on his list – I’m jealous). Not only was Shi gracious enough to take my call while visiting the Red Rocks Amphitheatre (again – jealous), he was kind enough to stay on the line while I rambled through a series of questions about the book and the team itself.
At its core, defining the top moments of any baseball franchise is a difficult task, but picking the top 50 for the Toronto Blue Jays seemed like it might be more difficult than most. With only 39 seasons in the books, the Blue Jays have a relatively short history when compared to the Yankees and Red Sox, Cubs and Cardinals. With many of those seasons lacking in star power, results, and excitement, was it difficult to find 50 salient moments? Not at all, according to Davidi. “I put together a list of 75 to 80 potentials,” he said in response to the question. In order to trim that list without cutting some great moments out, he tried to bring several great moments together: “As I moved along in the process, what I started trying to do where possible was to try and combine things wherever I could. Rather than just focusing on the Alomar home run I turned it into what I called the Holy Trinity of home runs [with Joe Carter and Ed Sprague, and the bat flip as an added bonus].”
Still many moments missed the cut. “There were a couple of things that I was upset about not getting into the book,” Davidi said. “I really wish I’d done more on Jimmy Key, I really wish I’d done a bit more on the Brandon Morrow one-hitter, and maybe even fit a bit more Aaron Hill into the book too.”
Davidi did spend a lot of time talking about individual players in the “Franchise Icon” series, a set of chapters devoted to ten of the most important people in Blue Jay history (Gillick, Alomar, Gaston, Bell, Halladay, Stieb, Delgado, Carter, Fernandez, and Cheek). These chapters were terrific as they dealt less with individual in-game moments, and more on the actual people themselves, often giving the reader personal touches and interesting tidbits. For instance in the “Franchise
Icon: Cito Gaston” chapter (#15), we get this beauty from Cito: “I lost about 10 pounds those first two weeks managing. I also blame it on the fact it became 24/7 because Paul’s [Beeston] a workaholic and Gillick is too. They’d make you one whether you were already or not.”
Or this, from my personal favourite “Franchise Icon: Tony Fernandez” (#45): “I saw him taking ground balls off the bat, with no shoes, no shirt, and like a cotton glove, and he just picked it clean.” remembered Alfredo Griffin.” Classic.
The list of Franchise Icons that Davidi chose for the book is virtually an exact match to the Level of Excellence in the Rogers Centre. When asked who might be the next great Jay honoured with a spot on the Level of Excellence Davidi mentioned “Halladay is an automatic. After that, Jose Bautista and you can make a pretty good argument for Edwin Encarnacion.” When asked about the candidacy of John Gibbons to the Level, there was a pause before Shi said “for a manager to up there, you’ve got to win a World Series….the induction of Gibbons would be too polarizing for the fan base….unless he wins a World Series or two.”
Obviously it was impossible to fit everything in the book, and I noticed that of the 50 moments chosen, only six took place within the “Dark Days” of the franchise, the post-World Series / pre-Bautista era. Although those teams are not remembered as fondly as others, there were some solid squads in that 15 year stretch. I asked Shi that if today’s two Wild Card playoff structure existed back then if that would have changed the way that era is perceived by fans and writers alike: “I thought that I under-represented that era, but then I thought: what am I really going to
take from that era?….If there had been a second wild card….they could have won a one-off game and had a chance to make some noise, but the Yankees and the Red Sox just had too much.”
At the end of the day though, what makes this book so great is the endless debate it can trigger. Why is Carlos Delgado’s 4-HR game ranked so high (#7)? Why is Vernon Wells’ record setting 215-hit season ranked so low (#41)? Where is Frank Catalanotto’s 6-hit game? The verbal sparring is endless, and according to Shi a lot of discussion went in to crafting the list. “I distributed my list to a bunch of people. Jerry Howarth, Buck Martinez, Howard Starkman, Jay Stenhouse, Bob Elliot, Mike Wilner, Scott MacArthur – a bunch of people who are around the team and whose opinion I trust and who know more about the team than I do. I said ‘hey what do you guys think of this to give me an idea? Yes or no? Up? Down? I used that a little bit, and then I also used my own subjective opinions.”
For those of you who regularly read Shi’s pieces on Sportsnet.ca (and that should be pretty much all of you) you will know that his subjective opinions are ones that you can trust. He is an excellent journalist, incredibly skilled in the art of concise writing. A Davidi article provides context, content, a message, and his aforementioned subjective opinion in a short amount of time, letting a reader get exactly what they need quickly. He has replicated that style with this book, not once but 50 times.
The Big 50 is set up in such a way that you don’t have to read his opinion 50 times, but can simply pick and choose any of the top moments in franchise history. But trust me – once you start, it’s impossible to not read straight through to the end.
And once you’re there, it’s even harder to not spend hours trying to come up with your own list.
Let the debate begin.
Also visit the publishers of The Big 50 at the Triumph Books website.
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