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Blue Jays roll dice with new manager John Farrell

It appears that the Toronto Blue Jays have their man in John Farrell, and this hiring, for the franchise, is a big one.

Not just because the bright young general manager Alex Anthopoulos is putting his stamp on the organization, but because of where the Jays appear to be on the great developmental arc, following an encouraging 2010 season.

In the American League East, for every team not named the Yankees or Red Sox, the idea is to build patiently, to acquire and develop young talent, and then when opportunity knocks, to answer.

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Farrell is not a caretaker. His job will be to win. He is a pitching coach by trade taking over a team deep in live arms, and arrives at a time when the critical talent mass seems nearly there. A season or two from now, the owners will be expected to dip into their pockets to pay for the final pieces, and then the Jays will take their once-in-a-blue-moon shot.

It could be an exciting time, and Farrell is an intriguing choice - well respected in the game, a key part of a very good club, a World Series winner, though without managerial experience even in the minors.

In Anthopoulos (and his mentor, Paul Beeston) there is reason to trust, but for any long-time Jays' loyalist, a little voice also kicks in right about now, repeating an uncomfortable truth of the team's history: picking managers is something the Blue Jays haven't done very well at all.

You can make a case that no matter who was in charge, no matter who owned the team, only once did they really get the guy they were looking for: Bobby Cox, who arrived after being fired by Atlanta's mercurial boss Ted Turner, and who proved to be exactly the right skipper to transform a promising young team into a division winner.

But after Cox abruptly walked out following the franchise's first playoff appearance in 1985, the grand plan - at least in terms of field bosses - fell apart.

Not wanting to upset a team apparently on the verge, the Jays' promoted from within, giving the job to Cox's right hand man and third base coach, Jimy Williams. It didn't pan out - Williams was fired early in the 1989 season, with Pat Gillick pining to replace him with Lou Piniella. When George Steinbrenner wouldn't release Piniella, Cito Gaston was promoted - initially as a stopgap - and of course what followed was as happy as it was unexpected, a brilliant fluke rather than brilliant design.

There haven't been any more of those. When Gaston had to go, his replacement, Tim Johnson, was felled after one successful season by his penchant for biographical extrapolation. Grizzled vet Jim Fregosi arrived as an emergency replacement, hired mostly because he was ready and willing to step in during spring training, and under him the Jays merely spun their wheels.

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Buck Martinez was a sentimental choice who didn't pan out. Carlos Tosca and John Gibbons were discovered by J.P. Ricciardi following exhaustive searches of the Blue Jay clubhouse, but neither could make a difference. And Gaston, in his second incarnation, was really a sop to calm the restless fan base.

It's certainly possible to argue with authority that no Jays' manager since about 1994 has really had the horses to win. But if they were simply victims of circumstance, if their talents were obvious to all, surely they would have turned up somewhere else eventually.

Consider this: Cox moved back to Atlanta, Williams managed again, Gaston was once a failed finalist for the Chicago White Sox job and Gibbons was being considered for the current opening in Pittsburgh before dropping out. But beyond that, no other ex-Jays manager has had a sniff of another big-league managerial gig. Farrell, then, among other things, has to break a depressing pattern, though there will be lots of people in his corner. In a city desperate for a winner - any winner, in any sport - Ricciardi's departure, the blossoming of the pitching staff and Jose Bautista's miracle season have inspired flickerings of belief for the first time in a long-time.

With Gaston's exit pre-ordained, the Jays could have played it safer by hiring an experienced big-league hand. Instead, they've made a move in line with Anthopoulos's larger vision, which will seem inspired or will seem disastrous in the not too distant future: in this situation, there's no middle ground. You'd like to think - or at least, to hope, for the sake of a little good news - that this time, they've got it right.

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About the Author
Sports columnist

Hamilton-born Stephen Brunt started at The Globe as an arts intern in 1982, after attending journalism school at the University of Western Ontario. He then worked in news, covering the 1984 election, and began to write for the sports section in 1985. His 1988 series on negligence and corruption in boxing won him the Michener award for public service journalism. More

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