COVER

READY IN THE OUTFIELD

BOB LEVIN September 15 1986
COVER

READY IN THE OUTFIELD

BOB LEVIN September 15 1986

READY IN THE OUTFIELD

In the fall of 1959 fate smiled upon the yet-to-be-formed Toronto Blue Jays. On Oct. 21, George Antonio Bell was born in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic. The birth of Jesse Lee Barfield followed eight days later in Joliet, I11., and seven days after that Lloyd Anthony Moseby drew breath in Portland, Ark. Years later the wise men who run the Blue Jays installed Bell, Barfield and Moseby as their starting outfield. And now, as the Jays struggle to repeat as American League (AL) East champions, many experts agree that the trio of 26-year; olds comprises the best outfield in baseball. “It is a very talented group,” said John Schuerholz, general manager of the Kansas City Royals. “They have the physical skills. They’re young, they’re aggressive, and they seem to comple! ment each other. I can’t think of another outfield [ that’s better.”

Slugged: Statistics tell part of the story. By the end of play on Sept. 5, with 27 games left in the regular season, the three Jays’

I outfielders had a combined batting average of nearly .300 and had slugged 79 home runs and driven in 269 runs. No outfield in either the American or National leagues could match those numbers. Cleveland Indians manager Pat Corrales compared the three Jays with the 1980 Oakland As’ outfield of Ricky Henderson, Dwayne Murphy and Tony Armas, which batted .285 and had 57 home runs and 230 runs batted in (RBIS) for the full season. Added Corrales of the Jays’ contingent: “I would say this is a better outfield.” Said Tony Kubek, Jays broadcaster and exNew York Yankees shortstop: “They are the best there is right now. No one else is even close.”

So effective have the Jays’ outfielders been that both Bell and Barfield (along with Jays’ shortstop Tony Fernandez) are considered strong candidates for the league’s Most Valuable Player award—particularly if the Jays

win their division. The three outfielders often find themselves competing for individual honors, but they remain good friends. “We love each other,” Moseby says simply, adding that the competition spurs each of them on to greater achievements. Barfield recalled that in spring training a reporter asked Bell to predict how many home runs he would hit this year. “How many did Jesse say he’d hit?”

Bell replied. Told that Barfield had said 35, Bell said, “Then I’m going to hit 36.” By last Friday night they were well within range of those goals: Barfield had 30 homers and Bell 29, both among the American League leaders.

Youth: Despite their youth the three outfielders are all big-league veterans who had the luxury of coming of age with a new team in the majors. Pat Gillick, the Jays’ executive vice-president, said the team believed that it was just a matter of time before the threesome “matured into the players

that they are at the moment. And because of their age, we don’t think that they’ve reached their potential yet.” Moseby was the first to make it to the major leagues. Signed as a celebrated high school athlete in Oakland, Calif., the six-foot, three-inch centre fielder played only two full seasons of minor-league baseball before jumping to the Jays in May, 1980. His next three years were disappointing. But he had an outstanding season in 1983 and he has performed consistently ever since, this year making the AL All-Star team. As the Jays continued to close in on league-leading Boston last month, Moseby, a lefthanded batter, delivered a grand-slam home run to help defeat Minnesota and a game-winning single against Cleveland the following day. As weekend play began, he was batting .272 with 20 homers and 76 RBls, and he had stolen 29 bases.

Style: Beyond his statistics, Moseby is noted for his style. Nicknamed the “Shaker” for the way he eluded defenders in high school basketball, he plays baseball with a cool cockiness, complete with snappy one-handed catches. “I get called ‘hot dog’ because I do things flashy or different,” he said. “But I’m just having fun out there. I think the day I stop having fun I’m going to quit the game because that’s what it’s all about for me.” Moseby, who lives in Loomis, Calif., in the off-season, said he enjoys playing in Toronto. He is philosophical about the fact that he and his teammates do not receive as much recognition in the United States as the stars in such media centres as New York and Los Angeles. “The cameras are always focused on those cities,” he said. “But real baseball people realize the talent we have over here in Toronto. That’s what matters: our peers really respect us. In some instances, I think they fear us.”

They certainly fear Barfield, the powerfully built right fielder who was

batting .299 and had driven in an impressive 93 runs. Like Moseby, Barfield was no overnight sensation. The Jays drafted him in 1977 only after scout Bobby Mattick spotted him. “He had good actions,” recalled Mattick, now a Jays vice-president. “He was fluid, he had a good arm and he was a pretty polished outfielder.” Still, Barfield spent five seasons in the minors before making the parent club in September, 1981. Even then he did not become a full-time starter until last year. He responded by hitting 27 homers and using his strong, accurate arm to throw out 22 base runners, best in the AL.

Breaks: Barfield struggled, however, at the start of this year. “He hit the ball well,” said Jays batting instructor Cito Gaston. “It’s just that he didn’t get any breaks.” Barfield recovered in time to make the AL All-Star squad. But even during the worst of the slump he said he never lost his selfconfidence, a steadiness he attributes in part to his religion. On June 23, 1982—he is quick to recall the exact date—he attended a bible-study session at the home of then-teammate Roy Lee Jackson and became a bornagain Christian. “It keeps me more relaxed,” Barfield said. “Not passive, but I think it helps me put things in perspective. I go out there day in and day and out and just do the best I can.”

Bell’s efforts have been equally impressive. A free-swinging left fielder, Bell, whose home town of San Pedro de Macoris has provided half of the 200 Dominicans playing pro ball in North America, was drafted from the Philadelphia Phillies’ organization in 1980. After an injury-plagued minor-league career, he was promoted to Toronto three years later and hit 26 and 28 homers in 1984 and 1985. This year Kansas City manager Dick Howser, who also managed the AL All-Star team, did not choose Bell for the star squad despite his suberb play—a slight that outraged Bell’s teammates. “He got screwed last year and he’s getting screwed this year,” catcher Ernie Whitt said at the time.

Hothead: Many Jays players believe Bell was passed over because of his reputation as a hothead, a characteristic that has caused him problems on several occasions. Most celebrated is the June, 1985, incident in which Bell, hit by a pitch, charged the mound and tried to karate-kick Boston pitcher Bruce Kison. Bell has also chimed in with con-

troversial comments. After a questionable call during last year’s American League Championship Series with the Royals, he accused the umpires of being anti-Canadian and anti-Dominican. Of late he has not been talking to the press. “No way, man,” he said in response to a request for an interview last week. “I don’t talk. That’s just me.” But many of his teammates say that not only is Bell a superb player—batting .326 with 100 RBIs at week’s end—but that his reputation is undeserved. They say he simply plays hard. “He gives 110 per cent,” said Whitt. “As a teammate I think he’s an outstanding guy.” Added Gaston: “You give me 24 George Bells on a ballclub. He’s a good guy off the field, but when he’s on the field, he’s there to beat your butt.”

Bell also plays with chronic knee problems, and Jays officials say that next year they may use him partly as a designated hitter in an effort to prolong his career. He and Barfield, both said to be making about $900,000 in 1986, will undoubtedly seek substantial raises when their one-year contracts expire at the end of the season. Moseby, who is earning about $850,000 this year, is on a five-year contract that comes due after the 1988 season. In the volatile world of professional baseball, it is by no means certain that the Jays will keep their outfield intact even that long. “We’d like to keep it together for as long as possible,” said Gillick. “But we do have some players in the minors who we think are going to be knocking on the door within a year or two. That’s a nice problem to have.” For Bell, Barfield and Moseby, the problem now is how to help their team overtake Boston, and in the process, prove beyond a doubt that they are the best outfield in the game.

BOB LEVIN