Argos general manager Jim Barker was sitting at a table at the East team media breakfast, the circus going on all around, quietly contemplating the enormity of one of the biggest trades in Argo history.
If you quarrel with that characterization, you can’t with this one.
Getting Ricky Ray is the undisputed top shelf trade that Barker’s ever made.
“No doubt,” he replied in response to the question of whether it ranks as his best. “It’s a franchise turner. This team for years to come now, is going to be competitive to win Grey Cups. This team is going to be a team to be reckoned with for years to come. Period.”
The fruits of the Ricky Ray trade are readily apparent and on display this week as the Argos have stepped forward in scripted fashion, representing the East in the 100th Grey Cup Game, right in their own home stadium.
The call that changed the Argos
After a few conversations with former Eskimos GM Eric Tillman, Jim Barker describes the call that really got the Ricky Ray trade off the ground:
“Scott and I were at dinner. I got a call from Eric and went out to take it. I came back and told him ‘I think we can get this done.’ And Scott’s response was ‘whatever we have to do.’ That was the guy he wanted. Whatever we have to do, that’s the franchise changer. That was Scott’s belief.”
What is also apparent, what continues to frustrate Barker, is the well-worn notion that he didn’t have to do anything, really, to make it happen.
“It’s insulting,” he said, when I broached the subject with him.
There were outlandish theories about who was involved in the process of getting Ricky Ray’s trade to the Toronto Argonauts done last December, or that a feverish Eric Tillman awoke one night and in a fit of hallucination, called Barker and just flat out handed the Argos a star quarterback.
“For anyone to think that a league could do that… in a league this small where guys are getting fired all the time and are getting pissed off and they’re gonna say ‘you know, let me tell you what really happened,’ that would come out,” said a slightly exasperated Barker.
“That stuff doesn’t happen,” he continued. “It just doesn’t. It’s a bit insulting. Because I worked my ass off to get that deal done.”
The plan to get Ricky Ray, or someone of his ilk, Barker says, was born long before the frenzied week of discussion that led to the longtime Edmonton star heading to Toronto. The seeds, it seems, were sown as far back as the moment Barker took over as head coach and general manager, in 2010.
2009 starter Kerry Joseph and the remaining three quarterbacks were released as Barker felt he didn’t want to go with someone who “was just a good enough player that you keep him around. I felt it was best to wipe the slate clean and bring in some young guys. (But) my goal all along was that, in 2012, to hopefully have a veteran quarterback that had been to Grey Cups.”
The Cleo Lemon experiment followed and failed. In 2011, Barker made a deal with Winnipeg to bring in quarterback Steven Jyles who, along with kicker Grant Shaw and a first round 2012 draft pick, was peddled to the Eskimos in the Ray deal. If Barker’s plan all along was to bring in a quarterback who’d already won a Grey Cup or two, Jyles was not one who’d fit the bill in time for the 100th game.
“He was always a huge fan of Steven Jyles,” said Barker of Tillman, fired three weeks ago as Edmonton general manager. In that, Barker felt he may have the makings of a deal, although he was far from sure at the outset that he could make it happen. Oddly enough, Jyles’ presence on the Argo roster, Barker thought, might be helpful in the team getting a veteran quarterback from Calgary, not Edmonton.
“I honestly believed there was a chance Henry (Burris) could come here,” said Barker. “I knew that they were ready to make that move. With Steven Jyles it gave us a chance to maybe get him.”
However, shortly after Barker hired Scott Milanovich to be the new Argos’ head coach last November 30th, the two met to look at film and discuss personnel plans going forward. Barker didn’t divulge exactly what was said in those sessions but it was decided to place a call to Tillman and the Eskimos. To see if there was any chance they’d part with Ray.
“He was a guy where you don’t know if you’re going to have a chance but you go and you knock on the door,” Barker said of the ‘what the heck?’ mentality of the time. “And I know Eric’s history and I know his philosophy of not overspending at the quarterback position.”
“We made a call to Edmonton.”
When asked how his call to test the “fishing for Ricky” waters was received, Barker replied:
“It was good. Then he (Tillman) called me back with some players (that he wanted back) and I knew there was a possibility. From that point it was that I was not going to be denied. I was going to be persistent and I was going to get something done.”
Milanovich was completely on board, as well. Barker recounts that the return call came when he and his head coach were out socializing one night.
“Scott and I were at dinner,” Barker began. “I got a call from Eric and went out to take it. I came back and told him ‘I think we can get this done.’ And Scott’s response was ‘whatever we have to do.’ That was the guy he wanted. Whatever we have to do, that’s the franchise changer. That was Scott’s belief.”
What followed was about a week of back and forth and haggling over price. Whatever Tillman’s first demands were, Barker says he turned them down. But he won’t say who or what Tillman asked for.
“It wasn’t an easy deal to get done,” insisted Barker. “But in the end, Eric believed in his heart it was the best thing. And that got it done.”
So far, so good in what has to rank as one of the biggest deals in Argo history. Not in quantity (the same two teams swapped 16 total players back in 1993 and the same general manager who did that, Mike McCarthy, also traded 7 players to the B.C. Lions for quarterback Matt Dunigan in 1990) but in quality.
Ricky Ray’s emergence as the leader Barker and Milanovich thought he could be astounds even them.
“He’s way better than I thought he was, offered Barker. And he fits this system better than we thought he would. Nobody has his toughness standing in the pocket. He’ll hold the ball as long as he has to hold it.”
“I would not trade Ricky Ray right now for any quarterback in the league. Any,” he added.
All’s well that ends well for Jim Barker. Except that, in a town that held a coronation for Cliff Fletcher when he fleeced the Calgary Flames in the Doug Gilmour trade and, more recently, canonized Blue Jays’ general manager Alex Anthopoulos for doing the same kind of thing to the Miami Marlins, he might be due a little more love in making Ricky Ray an Argonaut.
The week that led to Ray donning double blue was a tense one, and might have ended up all vapour.
“If that hadn’t have happened,” said Barker of the Ray transaction, “we’d have gone hard after Calgary’s quarterback (Henry Burris, now a Ticat). “Would that have been a harder deal to get done? Maybe. I don’t know.”
What Barker does seem to know is that the deal that did get done was harder than you think.