Ex-Leafs GM Brian Burke a class act: Anthopoulos
Blue Jays GM grateful for Toronto exec's advice while attempting to build playoff contender
It was a side of Alex Anthopoulos rarely seen in the public eye.
Frustrated by his team’s performance, the Blue Jays general manager walked into the Toronto office of his Maple Leafs counterpart Brian Burke for a pep talk in the summer of 2010.
"I felt that day what he needed to hear was that it [building a team] is a lengthy process and you’re not going to fix things in a short period of time. I think he felt better by the time he left," the recently fired Burke, whose Leafs missed the playoffs in each of his four seasons at the helm, said in a phone interview this week.
Also that day, Anthopoulos and Burke talked about possessing the guts to take a calculated risk as a GM.
"I think he had that," Burke said, "and he [has] proved that in the last 60 days with the sheer scope and audacity of [his] moves. Whatever question marks exist about Alex Anthopoulos today, one of them is not, does he have big stones?"
The 35-year-old Anthopoulos’s first serious attempt to begin building the Jays into a playoff contender began in his second season on the job in July 2011 when he acquired promising outfielder Colby Rasmus from St. Louis.
That move was followed a year later by a 10-player deal with Houston, netting Toronto the pitching trio of J.A. Happ, Brandon Lyon and David Carpenter.
Four months later, on Nov. 13, 2012, Anthopoulos shocked the baseball world, completing a 12-player trade with Florida. Veteran pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buerhle were headed to Toronto along with all-star shortstop Jose Reyes, catcher John Buck and infielder/outfielder Emilio Bonafacio.
Buck was then shipped to the New York Mets on Dec. 17 as part of a seven-player deal to acquire reigning National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey. Throw in the free-agent signings of outfielder Melky Cabrera and shortstop Maicer Izturis and Anthopoulos had turned over one-third of the batting order, three-fifths of the starting pitching rotation and bolstered the bench.
Burke had a feeling Anthopoulos would succeed in the business, from the time they met in 2009 when then-Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi invited Burke and his right-hand man Dave Nonis (now the Leafs' GM) to spring training.
Burke said he was drawn to Anthopoulos’s outgoing, friendly, immediately accepting manner.
"He’s a very charming guy," said Burke, who has two years remaining on his contract with the Leafs and will serve in a senior adviser’s role. "My first impression was that he’s going to make a lot of friends real fast."
At that office meeting in 2010, Burke wondered if Anthopoulos needed his help after the young GM had laid out a prioritized list of the Blue Jays’ positional needs and a plan of attack for that summer.
The young GM, however, is forever grateful to Burke, whom he describes as "a class guy." Their six or seven exchanges over the years have opened up a whole new world in the business for Anthopoulos, who hasn’t forgotten the former Leafs GM’s words of encouragement when he succeeded Ricciardi as Jays GM in October 2009.
"There’s definitely a sense of gratitude," said Anthopoulos, who signed Happ, Bonifacio and catcher Josh Thole (Dickey trade) to new contracts Friday after introducing Reyes to the Toronto media the previous day. "He didn’t owe me anything [but] I was never bothering him, ever, even if I needed to ask a question."
Anthopoulos did require an answer to a big question about 18 months ago, according to Burke, who has built a network of GMs in the other major pro sports and held various positions with NHL teams and the league over the past 25 years.
Picking Burke’s brain
Concerned with some off-field matters with one of his talented players, Anthopoulos picked Burke’s brain. Satisfied with his friend’s advice, Anthopoulos soon made what he still calls a "pretty good transaction."
"Sometimes you just need a different perspective, a different voice," said Anthopoulos, a Montreal native who began his baseball career with the Expos in 2000 and worked in scouting with Toronto before he was named assistant GM after the 2005 season.
So, what did Burke say?
"My advice to him," said Burke, who refused to name the player, "was if a guy is a headache for your manager and a bad guy, his talent shouldn’t save him in the dressing room. … Get rid of him."
Mindful of Burke’s experience making several trades, signing free agents and dealing "with so many things" like delicate situations mentioned above, Anthopoulos took action and sent the player on his way.
"I can’t add experience, I have to wait," said Anthopoulos. "You should get better in this job with experience."
Said Burke: "There’s no shortcut to getting experience. We [GMs] compare it to combat, which is really disrespectful to real soldiers. But until you are a GM and make a trade that backfires on you and [it] gets hammered in the media, or you lose a playoff series with your team that you should have won, you can’t replace that experience."
While cutting his teeth in the NHL during the 1980s and ‘90s, a young Burke sought the advice of Pat Quinn, Cliff Fletcher and Lou Lamoriello while also forming friendships with Los Angeles Dodgers GM Ned Colletti and former NFL GM Bill Polian.
"You go through your first draft, you’re terrified of making a mistake. Your second draft you’re way more confident," said Burke. "It comes with time but in the meantime you try to pick the brain of some older guys."
It seems to have worked for Anthopoulos.