TORONTO – During a road trip to Florida early in 2009, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke stopped by the Blue Jays’ spring training facilities in Dunedin, and was given a tour by then GM J.P. Ricciardi.
They walked through the executive offices together and as each introduction was made, Ricciardi told his counterpart which NHL team the person rooted for. There were supporters of the Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, New York Islanders. Growing frustrated, Burke muttered, “Don’t we have any Leafs fans here?”
Alex Anthopoulos, at the time a Blue Jays assistant GM, thought Burke was joking around, so he jibed back at him by saying since Burke was from Boston, he was probably a Red Sox fan.
“I’m from Minnesota, and I was a Twins fan, but now I’m working in Toronto, and I’m a Jays fan,” was the rebuke Anthopoulos recalls receiving from Burke.
“It kind of hit me right then that I’d been programmed as a Montrealer and as a Canadiens fan to not like the Leafs,” Anthopoulos said.
“Growing up in Montreal, I’d be shot if ever said I was pulling for the Leafs, but you know what? I’m both a Canadiens and a Leafs fan now, because I work in the city of Toronto and a lot of Blue Jays fans are Leafs fans, and I want the city’s sports teams to do great.
“Brian’s the guy who made me realize that.”
That was one of the first things Anthopoulos, now GM of the Blue Jays, learned from Burke but it’s far from the last. The two executives have struck up a burgeoning professional and personal friendship over the past year, one both are eager to develop further.
One of the first emails Anthopoulos received when he was promoted last October after Ricciardi’s firing was from Burke, offering both congratulations and his help if ever needed. Feeling like the new kid on the block, emphasis on kid, Anthopoulos was floored by the gesture.
They have continued to exchange messages and ideas since, with the veteran Burke, 55, inviting the rookie 33-year-old to his office this summer for an in-depth chat. They discussed their methods of conducting business and approaches to their jobs. They even agreed to take in each other’s next draft, with potentially more such exchanges down the road.
Both feel they have much to gain from each other.
“There are a lot of GMs that don’t bother to get to know the GMs in other sports, even in their own cities and it’s amazing to me,” said Burke. “I think you can learn a lot from executives in other sports, I’ve learned a lot from my friendship with (L.A. Dodgers GM) Ned Colletti, and I look forward to developing the same type of friendship with Alex.”
Anthopoulos is always picking the brain of his rivals in baseball, trying to gain insights and ideas of different ways to do things, but feels the discussion can be more open with a GM from another sport. Though the games and the players are different, there is enough common ground that allows for methodology to be imported.
“We all scout, we all develop, we all have to manage employees, we all have to deal with media, we all have to deal with agents and contracts, so really other than the sport itself, the similarities are striking,” said Anthopoulos. “It’s just another way to look at how to improve upon things.”
A significant portion of their summer chat revolved around the importance of having the guts to take calculated chances as a GM, and to not let concerns over risk and public criticism get in the way.
Anthopoulos feels he was way too conservative during his first off-season as general manager, something he wants to remedy this winter. Burke told him the caution was understandable, but with a year under his belt now, he should be better able to trust his instincts.
“You have to go through it,” said Burke. “I said to him the first big trade I made I put the phone down twice, my hand was shaking. Finally the third time I said, ‘Screw it, I’m doing it.’ Some of the steel you need to do this job can only come through doing it, through the experience.
“If you start with the right skill set, which he has, I think you’ll be successful.”
Anthopoulos has heard similar things from other GMs, and points to Kenny Williams of the Chicago White Sox as the prime example of someone unburdened by the fear of risk when making moves.
He particularly enjoys speaking with executives like Burke, who have the wealth of experience that he lacks because of his age.
“I always want to get better, I always want to learn and I love talking to guys who have been through it, I just think it makes you better,” said Anthopoulos.
“Brian and I are similar in that, but—and I admire him even more for it—this is a guy who’s already won, who’s already done it, but he still feels he can learn and he still feels he can get better and he doesn’t care where he ends up getting it from. He wants to continue finding an edge. That’s what makes him great.
“I know people want the quick fix, but the team is in really good hands.”
Burke believes the same of the Blue Jays under Anthopoulos. He likes the approach to team-building his young friend is taking, and urges him to stay the course.
“He has a vision, and I think the key for being a successful GM is having a vision when you start—how’s your team going to play, what’s its strength going to be,” said Burke. “My teams are all the same, when you watch me make a player transaction most people nod and say, ‘Well, that makes sense. It’s his kind of player.’ And I think he has all that, he’s got it all planned out.
“I was very impressed.”