Q&A: Paul Godfrey

In his tenure as president and CEO of the Toronto Blue Jays from 2000-08, Paul Godfrey watched his team go from an also-ran in the cutthroat American League East to, well, an also-ran in the cutthroat American League East. But that doesn't mean it wasn't a good run.

The former Blue Jays president and CEO talks about the future of the club

Paul Godfrey, seen in this Sept. 29 photo, stepped down as president and CEO of the Blue Jays, ending an eight-year run in which his success on the team's business side was never matched by similarly strong improvements on the field. ((Chris Young/Canadian Press))

In his tenure as president and CEO of the Toronto Blue Jays from 2000-08, Paul Godfrey watched his team go from an also-ran in the cutthroat American League East to, well, an also-ran in the cutthroat American League East. But that doesn't mean it wasn't a good run.

Godfrey, who announced in late September that he's stepping down, presided over a fairly successful period in Blue Jays history. Though the team never finished better than second in baseball's toughest division, it posted a record better than .500 in four of its eight seasons — including each of its last three — under the former Toronto alderman.

Business-wise, the bottom line was better. With Godfrey at the helm, Rogers Communications, which purchased the club for $120 million US in 2000, upped the value of its investment to $352 million by April 2008, according to Forbes. The company also bought SkyDome for the bargain-basement price of $25 million in 2005, revamped it, and turned the albatross into a more fan-friendly (if still aesthetically unpleasing) stadium capable of generating more revenue.

Much of that cash filtered back to the team, with the Jays' opening-day payroll soaring from about $46 million in 2000 to just shy of $98 million in 2008. The increased spending translated to improvement on the field, where the team averaged better than 83 wins over the last three seasons, its best such stretch since the World Series years of the early 1990s.

With the state of Toronto pro baseball looking relatively rosy on the eve of his departure, Godfrey talked with about the Jays' new retro feel, life in the high-rent AL East, and the chances of Barry or Manny coming to town.

The biggest news surrounding the Jays of late was the rehiring of Paul Beeston to be your interim replacement as team president. How much input did you have in that move?

I don't know whether I had any input at all. But after I made my announcement, knowing Paul was not involved in a full-time job, I thought he would be the ideal candidate to return to the Blue Jays. I had recommended his name go up on the Level of Excellence because of his excellent contribution to the Blue Jays as president, when he was involved in bringing the World Series to Toronto. He's just a terrific individual and baseball executive.

With the return of Beeston and the rehiring of manager Cito Gaston earlier this year, the team has brought on two high-profile guys from the World Series years of 1992 and '93. Was a conscious decision made to bring back leadership figures from when the team was more successful?

I'm not sure there was a conscious effort. In both cases, circumstances dictated that these two people were available at a time when the club had to fill important positions.

Cito was brought back because the club was struggling under [former manager] John Gibbons's leadership. Everyone loved John Gibbons as an individual, but the players couldn't seem to get enough traction this year with him as the manager. When [general manager] J.P. Ricciardi and I decided to make the change, Cito, who was a special assistant to me for a number of years, was the obvious choice. His learning curve with the Blue Jays organization was less than anyone else's, his track record was very obvious to everybody, and he was available.

When I decided to leave, the Rogers [Communications] people who made the ultimate decision to convince Paul knew that it was going to take some time to find my replacement. I told them I would stay to the end of the year and fulfill my contract, and if they found someone in the interim, I would make the transition as seamless as possible. When they asked me what I thought of Paul, I wholeheartedly endorsed it and told them I had already gone to mention the possibility to him, but it was their decision.

Between the recent hirings, the Flashback Friday promotion, and the introduction of retro uniforms this year, it seems the team is really trying to remind fans of the glory years. How much a part of your business strategy was that?

Flashback! Toronto Blue Jays' Joe Carter celebrates as he runs the bases after his game-winning three-run home run to win the World Series on Oct. 23, 1993. ((Associated Press))

This club doesn't have a long tradition the way teams like the Phillies, Yankees and Tigers do, but we've been around for 30-plus years. And in the early '90s, we managed to captivate the baseball world and the Toronto sports world by winning two World Series. The fans show their enthusiasm when guys like Robbie Alomar and Joe Carter and other great players from yesteryear come back. Sports fans like to remember and get caught up with what's happened to the stars they cheered for, and it's proven to be very successful.

Though the team didn't make the playoffs in your tenure, it certainly produced some solid results, culminating with a fine 2008 in which it won 86 games in a very tough AL East. How do you feel about the shape you're leaving the on-field product in?

I'm very, very happy with what I see. I think the stage has been set for great success for this organization both on the field and off the field. If you took a snapshot of when I arrived in 2000 and when I'm leaving in 2008, the picture is much brighter, much clearer, and much deeper in talent than it was. Off the field, the business side has been totally revamped, from ticketing to marketing to control of the stadium, to the look of the stadium.

But it still seems like the only way for the team to really make a lot of money and really capture the imagination of the city of Toronto is to make the playoffs.

There's no doubt. You measure success in sports by making the post-season. It's easier to make the post-season in hockey, basketball, and even football. It's much tougher in baseball because only eight of 30 teams make it, whereas 16 make it in basketball and hockey. But this team has been competitive. We've had three seasons in a row of playing better than .500, we play in the toughest division in all of baseball, and I don't think we're far away. I really think that with a healthy team - a healthy Vernon Wells for the whole year, a healthy Aaron Hill, getting some of our pitchers like Jeremy Accardo, Casey Janssen and Dustin McGowan back - this club has the makings of being very successful going forward.

Certainly, a healthy team is a necessity. But the going isn't getting any easier in the AL East. Tampa Bay has emerged as an elite team by making the World Series, and the Jays are never going to be able to spend as much money as the Yankees or Red Sox. Can Toronto survive in this division, or does some kind of realignment need to happen?

That's a hypothetical thing. Do you think the Detroit Tigers or Cleveland Indians are going to say "We'll switch with Toronto because Toronto has had their share of being in the AL East?" That's not going to take place. And no one from the National League is going to switch into the American League. Look, if we played in the National League West, we would've been in first place. The Dodgers won 84 games, we won 86. But that's all hypothetical.

Tampa Bay has proven that you can beat the Yankees and Red Sox, and the Rays had to go right through Boston to win the AL Championship Series. To be a world champion, you want to play with the best all year round. We did it in '92 and '93, and we're hopefully going to do it again really soon.

If you had a say in how baseball organizes its economics as far as things like revenue sharing or a salary cap, what changes would you make?

I think that salaries are going to continue to rise, and for baseball to give teams a better chance, a salary cap is inevitable. Is it inevitable in the next collective bargaining agreement? Not necessarily, but it's inevitable in the next 10-15 years. We're the only sport that doesn't have it, and logic will eventually rule.

Revenue sharing will have to go up to give Kansas City and Pittsburgh and Cincinnati and Minnesota and many of the teams that can't spend $150 million a year a chance to win. In the NFL, they share somewhere around 75-80 per cent of all revenues. Baseball shares somewhere around 40 per cent. That's why in any given year in the NFL, you can have a team move up the standings pretty quickly. Some will argue you can do that in baseball, and Tampa Bay went from last place to first in one season, but you have to remember that may be an aberration more than anything else.

The consensus this season was that the Jays needed a big bat in the middle of the order, and there was such a player on the market who could've been had for a reasonable price. We're talking, of course, about Barry Bonds. Was there any talk of signing him?

Yes, there was talk of signing Barry Bonds, but it was immediately rejected. Number 1, this is a team. A team is 25 players. Barry Bonds, who is no doubt one of the greatest hitters of all time, would have come to Toronto with all the problems he's facing. Barry Bonds would have been the focus of attention, and not the team.

Number 2, Barry Bonds was indicted in the United States and to be honest, we're not even sure if he could've ever got clearance to come to Canada. We feel we've built a team of players that can play together for the long haul. An aging slugger is not the route to go. The route that we're following right now for the long haul will always be better for the club.

While we're on the topic of controversial aging sluggers, Manny Ramirez will be a free agent after the World Series. Given what you know about the Jays' financial resources, how much of a shot does the team have at landing him?

I think Manny will be offered more money than the Jays can afford. You've got Vernon Wells getting a big salary, and you're going to have to offer [free agent pitcher] A.J. Burnett a lot of money if you want to retain him. Manny Ramirez will get at least a three-year contract, maybe a four-year, at 20 million plus per season.

The guy who makes many of these decisions, J.P. Ricciardi, has been something of a polarizing figure among Jays fans. How would you assess his tenure in Toronto?

J.P. Ricciardi, in my opinion, has done a reasonably good job on the budgets he's worked with. I've been very supportive of him, and I continue to be supportive of him. He worked with a $50-million budget when teams were spending three and four times what he had. His budget has since gone up, but he's faced a few years of injuries, and with some of his draft choices, you're just beginning to see how positive things are. Aaron Hill, Adam Lind and Travis Snider are in the major leagues, and you've got a whole crop of young kids like [class-A catchers] Brian Jeroloman and J.P. Arencibia in the minor leagues and moving up very quickly.

I think J.P. Ricciardi will be judged by the performance of those guys and the other kids he drafts over the next few years. I think you've got to give him a fair chance of doing that. Yes, he's been there for seven years, but there are general managers that have been in their jobs for a lot longer and have not produced. He's produced quite well with respect to the budget he's had.

You've worked for Ted Rogers for many years. He's someone that is very well-known, and yet most of the public doesn't seem to know very much about him at all. What kind of guy is he and what's it like working for him?

I've worked with Ted Rogers on two different occasions: when he owned the Sun Media Corporation and here with the Toronto Blue Jays. I jumped at the opportunity of running the club. I think Ted is not only a Canadian icon today, but will be remembered for years to come as one of the great Canadian business leaders of all time.

He's not a sports fan, and he'll be the first to admit that, but he's got a great love affair with Toronto, Ontario, and Canada. He was the one bold enough to step forward when nobody else would buy the Toronto Blue Jays, and he ensured their long-term longevity in this community.

In some ways, he's tough to work for because he demands 150 per cent effort, and he looks for results and hands-on leadership from the people he puts in place, but I like anyone who raises the bar to a high level. He's that kind of leader, and it's been a pleasure and an honour to work for him.

What's next for you?

I'm considering a number of things but I haven't made any decisions yet.