The Inside Agenda Blog

Play Ball! Paul Beeston in his Element

by Steve Paikin Thursday February 21, 2013

He was the first guy the Blue Jays ever hired. And nearly four decades later, after a journey that took him away for a while, he's still trying to sell baseball in Toronto. 

Paul Beeston calls himself the luckiest guy in the world. When he started with the Jays in 1977, he was one of the executives overseeing 24 employees.

"Now we've got 24 employees in public relations alone," he jokes.

Beeston was recently a guest lecturer at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Business Management. He told his life story to a packed classroom, starting with his days as a University of Western Ontario student, then becoming a chartered accountant in Welland.

And how popular were the Jays when he got there?

"TV was in its infancy," he recalls. "We almost had to pay the networks to get our games on TV. And we didn't just play in the worst stadium in baseball," he said of Exhibition Stadium. "We played in the worst stadium in all of sports."

The Jays, of course, became a massive hit once the team got competitive in the mid-1980s. And they were the biggest thing in major league baseball after June 1989, when they moved to what was then called SkyDome, now the Rogers Centre. From 1989 until 1993 --- the year they won their second consecutive World Series --- the Jays drew four million fans a year, by far the highest number in baseball.

"We had the swagger," Beeston told the class.  "We acted like the smartest guys in the room. We had a pride. We brought everyone together. Sports is critically important in doing that."

But then came the lean years. Baseball went on strike in 1994. There was no World Series. The Jays got worse. For two decades, "The Dome" sat half empty for home games.

"I haven't worked a day in my life," says Paul Beeston.

However, this off season has been one of the most noteworthy in the team's history. They pulled the trigger on baseball's most sensational trade, bringing some top-flight talent from the Miami Marlins. Then they signed last year's Cy Young Award winner in R.A. Dickey, and suddenly, many experts are calling the Jays the team to beat. Not only that, people are talking baseball in Toronto, and Canada, again.

"I haven't worked a day in my life since I was 31," Beeston insists. "Every day is a Saturday for me. From an accounting degree to major league baseball, it's been a terrific ride."

Having said that, and at age 67, Beeston isn't sitting on his laurels. He says the Jays are a $225 million business, "But we should be a $400 million business." 

Yet for all his baseball success (he also did a stint in the commissioner's office when he left the Jays for awhile), Paul Beeston can't send an email. Seriously.

"I'm not proud of the fact I can't send an email," he says. "But I'm not ashamed of it either. Just call me. I'll get back to you within 24 hours."

That quaint philosophy doesn't quite always work in today's workplace, Beeston admits, reminding students that the Jays' general manager, Alex Anthopoulos, was getting married at 1 p.m., but was on his BlackBerry at 12:45 p.m. negotiating a contract with one player.

One of the worst moments of Beeston's tenure came last year, when infielder Yunel Escobar was caught featuring an anti-gay slur, written into his "eyeblack" that some players wear under their eyes to reflect away the glare.

"Our entire organization, not just the players, learned from this," he says. "We learned to move quickly. We got a wake up call. So did the community." Escobar received a three-game suspension, which many found unsatisfactory. He's subsequently been traded.

During their glory days, the Jays had among the highest payrolls in baseball. Then, during the lean years, they fell to the middle of the pack.  They've taken on significantly more payroll now, in hopes of winning while their division rival New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Tampa Bay Rays are all thought to be on the way down.

"Former Yankee owner George Steinbrenner didn't care how much money he lost, as long as he won championships," Beeston says.  "And I can name you three owners who didn't care if they won champioinships as long as they made money." (He actually didn't name names).,

Making money should be easier for the Jays in the future. As an example, the Los Angeles Dodgers just signed a $7 billion television deal, much of which will go to attracting bigger names and better players.

"We had 18 games on TV in 1977," Beeston says. "Now, all 162."

On the question of whether the Jays would prefer to leave the American League East division, widely believed to be the toughest in baseball because the Yankees and Red Sox have been for years the two highest spending clubs in the majors, Beeston says he's indifferent: "I don't care what division we get moved into, as long as the Yankees and Red Sox come with us!" he laughs.

One of the great divides in Toronto these days is between Beeston and Paul Godfrey, the former Metro Toronto Chairman, who was instrumental in bringing the Jays to Toronto back in 1976. Godfrey, now chair of Ontario Lottery and Gaming, is trying to bring a casino to Toronto. Beeston is virulently opposed.

"I've got friends whose lives were devastated by gambling," he says. "The office of the baseball commissioner was created in 1919 because of the Black Sox gambling scandal. The greatest hitter of all time has been suspended (Pete Rose) because of gambling. What great city has a casino downtown? I oppose it."

Beeston with lawyer and longtime friend Ralph Lean

When reminded by the class's professor, lawyer Ralph Lean, that a casino siting fee could bring in $200 million to city coffers, Beeston was nonplussed.

"Then raise taxes if you want the money. I'm a conservative guy, but I still say raise taxes rather than go for a casino."

And finally, what about the notion that big time players don't want to come to Toronto because the money is different, the taxes are higher, and the border is a pain in the neck to cross?

"Not true," says Beeston. "Anyone who tells you Toronto isn't a good sales tool has never tried to sign a free agent. Robbie Alomar lives here. Jack Morris. Paul Molitor. Dave Winfield. Dave Stewart all wanted to be here."

And all have World Series rings for having done so. Wouldn't millions of Ontarians love a repeat of that experience this year?

Play ball.

Sports    Toronto    Society & Culture