Closeup/Sports

Hog Town at the bat

Toronto as Kid, the Blue Jays as New Toy

Hartley Steward May 2 1977
Closeup/Sports

Hog Town at the bat

Toronto as Kid, the Blue Jays as New Toy

Hartley Steward May 2 1977

Hog Town at the bat

Closeup/Sports

Toronto as Kid, the Blue Jays as New Toy

Hartley Steward

Big Bill Singer, a 32-year-old right-hander from Los Angeles, stood on the pitcher’s mound rubbing up the baseball and glowering as big-league pitchers will. Suddenly, in the chilled stillness of Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium, he executed a modest kick, leaned slightly toward home plate and delivered a crisp fast-ball that the umpire deemed a strike. In an instant the stillness was shattered as more than 44,000 baseball fans, snow-swept and bone-cold, leaped to their feet. The roar, loaded with whistles and trumpet blasts, was the sort of baseball cheer usually reserved for the last pitch in the World Series. In fact, it was merely the first pitch of the season. The time was 1.48 p.m. on April 7, a freezing, snowy Thursday, and major league baseball had come at last to Toronto.

The fledgling American League Toronto Blue Jays went on to win that first game, 9-5 over the Chicago White Sox, but what really mattered was that big league ball was in town, and Canada had acquired its second major league team after the eight-year-old Montreal Expos, who belong to the National League, thus eliminating any direct Toronto-Montreal ball park rivalry. That first-day sellout crowd in Toronto probably would have cheered the Jays had they lost 10-0. As it was, they were on their feet for practically every pitch, and every foul ball was cause for a major demonstration. In the bottom of the first inning, when young Doug Ault, a broadshouldered first-baseman with a swing that could start a wind storm, tagged one over the 375-foot marker in left field for the Blue Jays’ first ever home run, he became, at once, a hero. When he did it again his second time at bat—this time over the right-field fence—he had the fans at Exhibition Stadium in his pocket.

Rarely has the sports world witnessed so wild a love affair between city and team as the start of the affair between Toronto and the Blue Jays. When the team opened spring training camp in Dunedin, Florida, last February, sports reporters, editors, columnists and photographers by the dozens descended on the quiet town. At one point the CBC alone had more than 25 announcers and crew at the camp. Toronto newspapers carried as many as three or four pages a day of Blue Jay stories. Toronto sportswriters and broadcasters wandered ecstatically around camp filing re-

ports, many of which sounded as though they had originated in the Blue Jays’ public relations office. Back in Toronto, amid the snowstorms and hockey games, Torontonians couldn’t get enough of it. Blue Jay sweaters and baseball caps sprouted like crocuses in April. Families changed their holiday plans to include a few days in Dunedin; at times as many as 1,000 fans, mostly Canadians, showed up at Dune-

din’s Grant Field for Blue Jay practice. Toronto sports writer Louis Cauz wasted no time in starting work on a book, surely destined to sell out, entitled Baseball’s Back In Town. Earlier, more than 30,000 people submitted entries to a name-the-team contest, and while a few editorial writers criticized the choice the letters-to-the-editor writers loved it. The Variety Club of Ontario announced it would hold a “Baseball’s Back In Town” dinner April 6 at which the team would be introduced, and the dinner immediately sold out 1,500 seats at $35 apiece.

More than 8,000 season’s tickets to Blue Jay home games were sold, guaranteeing a minimum paid attendance, even before the season opener, that would be larger than that of some established American League teams. It was the largest advance ticket sale by any expansion club and the Blue Jays, with television deals and souvenir sales, found themselves with four million dollars in the bank. At the opening game, reporters and photographers filled the large, unfinished press box to overflowing. The local Toronto Sun, which only employs seven photographers, had five of them at the game. The Toronto Star’s contingent was almost double that.

A spring baseball training camp is a desperate place. And an expansion training camp is probably more desperate than the camps of established teams. This spring there were 39 ballplayers in camp at Dunedin, 25 positions on the team and five coaches watching to see who was going to fill them. Every time a player stumbled, he stumbled toward the minors. But every job was open and every player had as good a shot at one as the next guy. Jays’ manager Roy Hartsfield told the players and the press that almost daily. So the aspirants did their wind sprints and exercises with vigor and shagged fly balls as though their lives depended on it. Because that other guy going for first base had fast hands and a glove like a basket.

Gary Lee Woods is a strapping 24-yearold Californian with the grace of a mature athlete. Woods’ previous major league experience was limited to six appearances for the Oakland Athletics, batting only eight times. But he came off a fine season with Tucson in the Pacific Coast League where he hit a healthy .308 and batted in 67 runs. I talked to Woods after an intra-squad game in March in which he hit two beauties, both for extra bases, into left centre field. Asked what he intended to do if he didn’t make the Jays, Woods replied sharply; “I just don’t think of it. I’m going to make the team. I don’t even want to think about going back to the minors.” The next time I saw Gary Woods, he was smiling from earto-ear and getting under fly balls with his big, loping stride in the Blue Jay opener at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. And he cracked a couple of beauties into left centre too.

Less happy was the experience of a 27-

year-old pitcher named Lloyd Allen, who, as a 21-year-old, appeared in 54 games in relief for the California Angels of the American League, winning four and saving 15. He had a handsome 2.49 earnedrun average. When the Jays cut Allen, he was not casual. He unloaded on the organization with vehemence. He called the Toronto club a team of nobodies that wouldn’t improve. He said the Blue Jays chose Toronto because the city had a history of supporting losers and the team was there only to make money. “The fans,” he warned darkly, “should never forget that.”

All the early signs suggested that Toronto’s baseball fans couldn’t care less. Indeed, it was not so much a surprise that Toronto won a major league franchise, but that it took so long. For 82 years, Torontonians supported minor league baseball with a vengeance, while the brass ring of a major league franchise stayed just out of reach. Many of the legendary names of baseball at one time or another played in Toronto, either against or for Toronto teams. Babe Ruth hit his first-ever professional home run in Toronto in 1914. (At that time Ruth was a 19-year-old pitcher and that day he hurled a one-hit, 9-0 shutout for the Providence Greys of the International League.) Over the years players and managers by the score drifted through Toronto, managed or played a year or two, and went on to dazzle the fans in major league towns. Jackie Moore, the Jays’ third-base coach, was the last Toronto Maple Leaf manager. He was preceded by such stars as Casey Stengel, Sparky Anderson, Dick Williams, Chuck Dressen and Elston Howard. All the while, owners of the old Maple Leafs kept up a flirtation with the big leagues, watching promises die unfulfilled, often almost grabbing a financially weak franchise from some city or other, always coming close enough to keep the dream of a major league team alive.

By 1926, the Toronto Ball Club had moved into the best stadium in the minors, Maple Leaf Stadium, built for $750,000 and seating more than 20,000. Talk of the imminent arrival of a big league team became frenzied. But the new stadium was destined to house only minor league teams through the Thirties, Forties and Fifties and into the Sixties. The stadium grew older and more run-down, and a seating capacity of 20,000 looked less and less big league. By 1967, Torontonians would no longer support even minor league baseball, attendance fell and the team folded. The stadium was eventually torn down.

The penultimate owner made a serious attempt at getting a major league franchise to Toronto. He was entrepreneur Jack Kent Cooke who owned the team during the 1950s. Cooke spent much of his time hounding the owners of every major league team that showed signs of weakness, trying to get someone—anyone—to move to Toronto. Meanwhile, he begged, cajoled and threatened local politicians in

an effort to get a municipal ball stadium built that would attract a big league team. He failed, and when he left in disgust for the United States it seemed to spell the end. The city would not see organized professional baseball again for 10 years.

But the dream never died. It surfaced again in the form of Don McDougall, the 39-year-old president of Labatt Breweries of Canada Ltd., and Paul Godfrey, chairman of the Metropolitan Toronto Council, two baseball nuts with clout. McDougall had the financial weight and Godfrey the political. Godfrey convinced Ontario premier Bill Davis that the Canadian National Exhibition Stadium, home of the

Argonauts football club, should be substantially expanded and renovated to accommodate baseball as well. With a provincial loan and at a cost of $17.8 million, the old stadium was converted into a serviceable, combination park seating 44,000 for baseball and 53,816 for football. Between them, the fields sport 160,000 square feet of astroturf, the largest such surface in North America.

With the stadium launched, McDougall and Godfrey were determined to bring the majors to Toronto. In 1975, McDougall entered into partnership with R. Howard Webster, chairman and president of the Toronto Globe and Mail and Vulcan Assets

Ltd. The two would have an equal partnership in whatever baseball venture they undertook; the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce came in for a 10% interest.

Last year, the franchise of the National League’s San Francisco Giants narrowly eluded Toronto. The Giants were up to their bats in debt, and the McDougallWebster-ciBC group was off to San Francisco faster than a Bill Singer fast-ball. By January, 1976, it was announced they had a deal in principle to buy the Giants for $13.6 million. But San Francisco Mayor George Moscone decided he wanted to keepthe Giants in his town, and found fresh money to keep them there.

Then, finally, in March of last year, the American League decided to expand and Toronto and Seattle were chosen for franchises. Several Canadian groups showed interest in the Toronto deal, but league president Lee McPhail, who had held secret meetings with McDougall as early as 1974, felt the Labatt groups deserved the franchise. And so, after almost a century, the major leagues arrived in Toronto.

Toronto sports fans have always been among the most wildly indiscriminate in the country, filling the stadium every year to watch the Toronto Argonauts who haven’t won a Grey Cup in 25 years and scrambling for tickets to Maple Leaf Gardens to watch the hockey Leafs who haven’t brought home a Stanley Cup in a decade. Which is just as well, because in the Blue Jays Toronto’s fans may very well have another longtime loser on their hands.

Even Blue Jays general manager Peter Bavasi, the 34-year-old son of the great San Diego Padres executive Buzzy Bavasi, would not predict a winning season. The most wild-eyed Jays fan has been conditioned by statements from Bavasi and manager Roy Hartsfield to expect the team to lose more games in 1977 than it wins. In fact, since expansion of the American League in 1961, no new team has had a plus won-lost record. The best record was posted by the California Angels in 1961 when they won 70 games and lost 91. Among National League expansion teams, the Montreal Expos have done no better than a 52-110 record in 1969.

No one connected with Jays is predicting a winning season. But Hartsfield, an engaging 52-year-old Georgian, drawls: “I’ll promise you this: we’ll have to be beaten every day. I’m that kinda guy. You can knock me down one day and I’ll be back the next and you’ll have to knock me down again. That’s the kinda team we’ll have. We’ll have to be beaten every day.” Hartsfield who, after 34 years in professional baseball as player, coach and manager, is getting his first major league managing chance, professes to be happy with his team. He describes them as a young, strong,talented group of players who,with a few years experience and a little trading here and there, can become winners.

The fact is, the Blue Jaysjust do not have many experienced players. There are exceptions, such as veteran Ron Fairly, a former Expo, and pitcher Bill Singer, who have more than 10 years’ experience. But because the Jays were excluded from the free agent draft until next year, most of their players—from the expansion draft— are minor leaguers, albeit superior minor leaguers. Most of them, in fact, would not be getting a major league chance were it not for expansion.

What the Blue Jays have done is open up major league jobs for such players as

centre fielder Gary Woods. The Jays’ instant hero, first-baseman Doug Ault, is as typical a Jay as any. His major league experience consists of nine games last year with the American League Texas Rangers (he hit .300). The rest of the year he was turning in a fine season with the Sacramento Solons, where he hit .313 with 25 home runs. He also made the Pacific League allstar team at first base.

Well-heeled financially though the Jays are, Bavasi refused to go for the expensive, big-name players that could attract crowds even for a losing team. The Jays, for example, could have picked up Rico Petrocelli,twice an all-star,who was cut from the Boston Red Sox, and Earl Williams, the 1971 rookie of the year, cut from the Expos. “We’re just not interested,” says Bavasi. “We’re going for youth. This is a young man’s game.”

As a baseball team, the Blue Jays are a great business. At a time when more than one major league team is in financial trouble because of slow gates and lack of solid backing, the Jays have blue chip backers and prospects of better than average crowds. The team plays half its 1977 dates at home—81 out of 162—and almost

every visiting team has at least one bigname attraction. The Yankees will be in Toronto with their high-priced pitcher Catfish Hunter; Detroit will sport rookieof-the-year Mark Fidrych; and even the lowly Chicago White Sox will be able to offer up left fielder Ralph Garr.

The Blue Jays can also count on television and radio contracts. CBC-TV will carry Jays’ games nationally on Wednesday, alternating with Expo games (although most southern Ontario areas will be able to see the Jays). Radio broadcasts, originating at Toronto’s CKFH, will be carried by 16 Ontario stations and one Buffalo station. Tom Cheek, who filled in occasionally as an Expo announcer, will do the Blue Jay radio play-by-play and former major league pitcher Early Wynn, who should know a spitball when he sees one, will provide the color.

The financial impact of the franchise on Toronto should be considerable. The Jays’ player and coaching payroll will be about one million dollars annually and another 500 full and part-time employees, from Bavasi down to the ticket sellers, will bring it close to two million. The overall financial effect of a franchise on a city, including revenue from all the out-of-towners, is estimated at about $50 million.

What will not bring in any revenue at the Toronto Stadium is beer sales. The Ontario government, despite considerable pressure from the media, local politicians and owners—especially, of course, Labatt’s—refused to grant permission for beer sales at Exhibition Stadium. If that ruling sticks, it will make Toronto the only one of 26 major league cities in North America where fans are denied the added stimulus of a cool brew. Most local radio stations and newspapers conducted random polls on the issue and claimed responses ran as high as 50:1 in favor of beer. On opening day The Toronto Sun hired an airplane to fly over Exhibition Stadium towing a sign that read: “Good Luck, Blue Jays. Now give us beer, Bill”—referring to Premier Davis. At one point during the opening game a Chicago player trekked across the snow-covered field to lead the crowd in a “We-Want-Beer” chant.

But if Jays’ fans could not have beer, they were grabbing up everything else that a baseball team can offer, including caps, sweaters, official gloves, pennants and practically anything else that could sustain a team crest. And in all likelihood, the bone-dry fans will flock to the stadium for many years to come, even if the team were to follow the sad example of the Chicago White Sox, the Jays’ first-game victims, who won their last World Series in 1917. In any case, Bavasi is promising little more than to keep the faith. “We have the basis to build on,” he says. “We aren’t making any promises other than that we’ll keep strengthening the club. We think Toronto fans will stick with us if we show we are doing what is necessary to build a team with a future.” O