Wednesday, July 23, 2008

SPORTS: The Inflection Point

"Inflection Point" was a term made popular by Andy Grove, the Intel CEO. As he defined it, I believe, it's the point where things change so much, you can't go back. The Doctor Who series on TV did a show called "Turn Left" and it was about what would have happened if a character had turned right, rather than left at a crucial point in history.

For the Toronto Blue Jays, the inflection point that took a season of promise and sent it careening downhill was the day GM J.P. Ricciardi signed David Eckstein.

There were some immediate results of the decision, even before the season got started. To rationalize the five million bucks Ricciardi had to pay Eckstein, a sacrifice had to be made elsewhere to get back under the team's budgetary constraints. Left-fielder Reed Johnson was sacrificed in favor of Shannon Stewart to pull back two million dollars, approximately, of the five now being spent on Eckstein.

And in doing so, Ricciardi doubly crippled the spirit of the team in ways only a number-cruncher could.

First, Eckstein made a bench-warmer out of the immensely popular John McDonald. Eckstein wasn't anywhere near the fielder Johnny Mac was, but he'd hit in the .300 neighbourhood and would supply some power, which was 'some' more than the powerless McDonald. Stewart would probably be the equal of Johnson in the average department, if not a little bit better. Would be worse in power and a LOT worse in defence. But he would share the position with Matt Stairs and they would both be keeping a spot warm for either Adam Lind or Travis Snider, set to later join Vernon Wells and Alex Rios in the Blue Jay outfield of the future.

Well, that was the plan. But a decidedly unfunny thing happened on the way to happily ever after for Ricciardi. Turns out stabbing McDonald in the back and shipping the just-as-popular Johnson out of town deadened the spirit of a team already devoid of leadership. Eckstein, along with Scott Rolen, were supposed to have replacement spirit. But it's hard to 'show' your new teammates spirit when you are hurt (Rolen, and later Eckstein) and underperforming (both). Funny how so many National League players struggle mightily on coming to the American League, or coming back, as in Eckstein's case.

It's the under-performing that hurt the most for an offensively-challenged team that couldn't afford anybody, let alone most of the starters, to under-perform. When Clarence Gaston came on board, it was time to earn your playing time. And Eckstein didn't. Neither did Stewart, notoriously fragile over most of this decade. Trading Johnson for fear of his injured back, to emplace Stewart, could only happen in a vacuum of common sense. It looked good in Roto though. Stewart is odds-on to never, ever play for Gaston, having disappeared into the hinterlands of the Injured Reserve List. He might very well be in the Witness Protection program.

The Eckstein signing and it's subsequent failure, ended up with two immediate victims. McDonald, who has battled puny hitting stats all of his career, just crumpled even further. A .220-ish hitter all of his career, McDonald, in sporadic playing time, has now fallen below the Mendoza Line. And his fielding, despite showing its lustre on occasion, has not been up to his own standards. That was patently obvious during his start on the weekend. It's hard to keep your concentration and spirits up, when you know spot-starting, where once you were a regular, is your lot in life.

It IS possible the Eckstein will be shipped out of town and that Gaston will use McDonald more often. I guess he's played about twice as often since the managerial switch as before. Maybe he can up that to playing MOST of the games at short over Marco Scutaro. Before the Eckstein signing, it was going to be McDonald as the regular, with Scutaro getting games and late-innings pinch-hitting opportunities aplenty. It would have probably been a pretty good tandem.

Certainly, if McDonald has any more games like he had Tuesday night, the chance of McDonald getting back what he earned last year is a lot better. McDonald was smooth afield, took a walk, hit a sacrifice fly and slugged a bases-clearing double to lead a Blue Jay comeback victory. Sure, Lind had the game-winning homer and a four-hit night. But it was McDonald that showed for one night at least, that he was the best Blue Jay option at shortstop.

On the field and at the bat!

NOTE: Johnny Mac became a first-time dad the day after the all-star game. No matter what happens from here on in, 2008 will have been a great year.

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