By Bob Elliott
The room inside the Rogers Centre was cold, damp and dank, save for the bright TV lights.
Zero streamers or balloons had been hung for the festive occasion.
Yet, it was a love fest.
New Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro had wonderful praise for new Jays general manager Ross Atkins.
And Atkins, a first-time GM, spoke glowingly about interim GM Tony LaCava.
By the time the pair were finished praising LaCava -- for signing free agents Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ plus trading for Jesse Chavez -- a newcomer to the room might have wondered whether it was Atkins or LaCava who was the Jays sixth GM in franchise history.
LaCava’s name was mentioned 21 times, according to our Tony counter intern Jessica Patton, by Shapiro and Atkins. LaCava, who was not present, finished in the runner-up spot after serving as the interim GM after Alex Anthopoulos decided working with Shapiro was not the “right fit” for him.
So when the Jays delegation arrives at the quaint Opryland Hotel in Nashville (2,711 guest rooms, 171 suites and 17 restaurants) for the annual winter meetings, LaCava will run the show.
“I’ll be there to compliment and supplement,” Atkins said. “I’m very fortunate to have Tony here. I will support Tony. Tony will bring recommendations to Mark and I, we’ll go from there.”
Atkins, 42, is from Greensboro, N.C., attended Wake Forest University was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the 69th round in 1994 and in the 38th round by Shapiro’s Cleveland Indians in the 38th round the next year.
He signed with the Indians and spent five years in the minors at class-A Watertown, class-A Columbus, class-A Kinston and double-A Akron. Each year Joel Skinner was his manager.
“One year in Akron I asked Ross his plans off season,” said Skinner from Avon Park, Ohio on Friday. “He told me he was going to Spain to learn Spanish.
“When (the Indians) signed Danys Baez, Ross’ first job was to assimilate him to our organization.”
Atkins pitched in 141 games in the minors and skipper Skinner was there for each outing.
“I always liked Ross,” Skinner said. “Any time we’d have a team meeting or talk before stretch I’d finish and I’d ask Ross ‘how was that?’ He’d critique me. Usually he’d say ‘where do you come up with that stuff? And I’d say I have four kids.”
In 1997 at Kinston, Skinner said when the ball was hit on the ground it was relaxing with John McDonald at short, Marco Scutro at second and Russ Branyan at third.
One night at historic Grainger Stadium, the Indians won on a walk-off homer and players rushed onto the field. Then, everyone headed for the clubhouse.
Skinner made the long walk through the dugout picking up items left behind. When he reached the bullpen, which he couldn’t see from the dugout, he found a Jai alai-like gadget and a beach ball.
“Next day I told the bullpen ‘great game, but you guys were so excited you left your game in the bullpen, whoever wants it come get it. It’s in my office,” Skinner told his players. “Ross and his group drew straws -- Ross didn’t have to come.”
Skinner had to drop Atkins from the rotation when a prospect was promoted for a playoff start.
“He was the odd man out, but I think he pitched more out of the bullpen than he would as a starter,” Skinner said.
Skinner managed triple-A Charlotte in the Chicago White Sox system last year and will manage class-A Winston-Salem next season.
“I wasn’t surprised Ross became a GM, he’ll be outstanding,” Skinner said. “He pays attention to detail. I’m proud of him.”
Atkins’ uncle Dave Odom was a respected hoops coach with the University of South Carolina Gamecocks, the East Carolina Pirates and the Wake Forest Demon Deacons.
Atkins takes over -- eventually from LaCava -- a team that reached post-season play for the first time since 1993 and came within two wins of the World Series.
Fans were upset when Anthopoulos didn’t want to stay -- some asking to cancel their tickets for next season -- and the fact that the Jays didn’t make an offer on free-agent lefty David Price, who joined the Boston Red Sox for a seven-year $217 million US deal.
Oh yeah on the Home Hardware/Jessica Patton scoreboard ...
It was LaCava 21.