SPORTS

A TIME TO PLAY

BLUE JAY AND EXPO FANS HAVE AMPLE REASON TO DREAM OF AN ALL-CANADIAN WORLD SERIES

JAMES DEACON April 5 1993
SPORTS

A TIME TO PLAY

BLUE JAY AND EXPO FANS HAVE AMPLE REASON TO DREAM OF AN ALL-CANADIAN WORLD SERIES

JAMES DEACON April 5 1993

A TIME TO PLAY

SPORTS

BLUE JAY AND EXPO FANS HAVE AMPLE REASON TO DREAM OF AN ALL-CANADIAN WORLD SERIES

JAMES DEACON

Spring training is supposed to be baseball’s happiest season. Working out in the warm, breezy atmosphere of tiny perfect ball parks in Florida and Arizona, the players begin anew in the sunny glow of wishful thinking, their slates clean and their ball-playing pals once more stretching and chattering around them. Spring training is not supposed to be about tragedy. It is not supposed to include stories of young men with families and bright futures ramming their fishing boat into a dock on Little Lake Nellie in central Florida. The deaths last week of Cleveland Indians pitchers Steve Olin, 27, and Tim Crews, 31, cast a sudden pall over the game and made batting averages and fielding percentages pale to insignificance. “It put things in perspective for all of us,” said Blue Jay outfielder Joe Carter, a former teammate of Olin. “I’ve got three kids of my own, so something like this really hits home.”

At such a trying time, the players seemed to take comfort from the soothing rhythms of baseball itself. That sentiment was echoed by fans in major-league cities across North America, many still shivering in the cold and snow, and weary of off-season developments. Over the winter, baseball team owners openly considered a lockout of players as the collective bargaining agreement neared its expiration, and they worried aloud about the financial health of the game. Among other things, the four-year U.S. network television contract that pays each team about $14 million per season ends later this year. Still, the victory-hungry owners awarded multimillion-dollar contracts to the game’s stars—and even to some of its mere workaday players.

They also punished one of their own: Marge Schott, owner of the Cincinnati Reds, was banished from baseball for a year for making racist comments. She departed just before the league welcomed back George Steinbrenner, the meddling managing partner of the New York Yankees, who had served a 2V2-year ban for consorting with a known gambler. Even the fabled southern weather was in an ornery mood. Midway through spring training, a vicious late-winter storm that tore into the entire eastern seaboard spun off 50 rogue tornadoes in Florida, leaving hundreds of people homeless—and forced the cancellation of many exhibition games.

Next week, with controversy and tragedy behind it, major-league baseball begins for

real. Fans in Toronto will have to hope that the world champion Blue Jays, much altered in the off-season, leave their bad baseball in Florida. Montreal fans will hope that the young and talented Expos carry their fine spring performance into the regular season. In the heated pennant stretch last year, there was a short, sweet time when Canadian fans dreamed the impossible dream of an allCanadian World Series. A recent tour of spring training sites suggests that, this year, supporters of both Canadian teams have ample reason to hope that the wishes of spring will become the wonders of autumn.

THE BLUE JAYS

Fans who lavished record levels of appreciation on the Toronto team last year should have spent the off-season basking in the reflected glory of their Series triumph. They did not. Almost before the crowds dispersed from the victory parade route, the champions’ personnel began to change. Jays officials, known for not fixing things that are not broken, decided that the team would go broke if they tried to reassemble the cast that defeated Atlanta four games to two last October. In the end, the team bade farewell to such stalwarts as Tom Henke, Jimmy Key, Dave Stieb, Manuel Lee, Candy Maldonado, David Cone and Kelly Gruber. Even fan favorite Dave Winfield packed his bags. And who was added to the roster? Most notably, pitcher Dave Stewart and designated hitter Paul Molitor—established stars, but someone else’s stars.

The startling turnover, however, has not cooled fans’ passion for the Jays. Autograph hounds arrive as early as 8 a.m. at Grant Field in Dunedin, the team’s Florida base, which nearly sells out its

6,200 seats for every spring game. Many waited through the recent spell of cold and rainy mornings in the hopes of getting a Molitor or a Roberto Alomar signature on a card, ball or program. At Dunedin, the players do not seem as remote as they do in Toronto’s vast concrete SkyDome; the Grant Field seats are so close to the action that spectators can listen to the warm-up banter, full of the trash talk that athletes toss in each other’s faces like a verbal food fight.

And the team’s ability to draw a crowd follows it on the road.

On a miserable day in Sarasota recently, a nearly all-rookie Jay lineup attracted a near-sellout for a game against the Chicago White Sox.

But there remains a sense of unease. Fans want to see the Jays repeat as Series champions, and are not impressed by the blue boys’ dismal record in Grapefruit League play. Righthander Stewart, a notorious slow starter, was shellacked in two recent spring starts. Ed Sprague, though improving at third base, has not made people forget the slick-fielding but injury-prone Gruber, as much g as many would like to. Pat g Hentgen, the young right-han| der originally thought to be the team’s fifth starter, has had a mediocre spring and is now competing with a resurgent Al Leiter, a lefty known more for a blistered finger than for getting batters out. And it remains to be seen whether talented but flighty Derek Bell can successfully replace Maldonado in left.

The Jays, however, have a calming clubhouse presence in their manager, the oft-derided Cito Gaston. Plagued last season by the hounds of open-line-radio hell, Gaston has emerged with a Series triumph and a new two-year contract. And the easygoing Texan seems unperturbed by the changed faces in this year’s team picture. “Since 1989, when I started managing this club, we have almost always had a different makeup going into each season,” he said. “So you have to manage differently according to your strengths.”

In 1993, those strengths appear to be speed and team batting average. Molitor, a veteran of the Milwaukee Brewers, hit .320 last season and stole 31 bases. He will bat third behind speedsters Devon White and Alomar, and ahead of slugger Carter, whose prolific run production earned him a three-year $19.5-million contract. In the raucous and jovial clubhouse atmosphere in Dunedin, Carter is the loudest inhabitant, whether he is ragging White in the indoor batting cage or calling out results in the team’s NCAA basketball pool. “Our goal is to go out there and do what we did last year,” Carter said in a more serious moment. “We are still focused, even though we haven’t had a good spring. Come the

beginning of the season, though, we’ll be right there.”

The biggest concerns in Dunedin are starting pitching and the infusion of youth into a veteran team. Stewart, 36, replaces one of the two departed starters, Cone and Key; and while rumors last week suggested that the team was attempting to trade for another pitcher, Gaston said that he was comfortable going with the current roster. Mike Timlin, 27, who assumed the set-up role in the bullpen when Duane Ward took Henke’s place as the closer, said that the young players will help each other improve. “It’s going to be exciting to see the guys I came up with make it at the major-league level,” he said. “It’s good to see them doing well.” Still, Gaston admitted that

there were some worries. ‘We do have a few things to sort out, more so this year than in any other year that I’ve been here,” he said. “It should be interesting.”

THE EXPOS

Nonstop rain takes the shine off a baseball diamond. Before a recent Grapefruit League contest in West Palm Beach, a platoon of roller-pushing groundskeepers relocated the worst of the puddles from the grass playing surface to the sidelines. But players still had to tiptoe around the outfield grass to find solid ground. The game would probably have been called, but there was nearly a full house at 7,500-seat Municipal Stadium to watch the teams that many experts predict will meet in next October’s National League

SPORTS

Championship Series—the Expos and the Atlanta Braves. The two squads, loaded with young stars, did not disappoint. Expo starter Dennis Martinez duelled new Braves ace Greg Maddux to a standstill, and the game was tied 1-1 in the 10th inning when the rain finally stopped the proceedings.

As a franchise, the small-market Expos operate with a careful eye to the storms on baseball’s horizon. They have eschewed the

salaries based solely on productivity. “That’s why Sean Berry and Frank Bolick are battling for third base without [former third baseman] Tim Wallach in the way,” he said. “Not only was Tim Wallach expensive, but he also was not very productive, by his own admission, over the last two years.”

That hard-nosed approach bruised some players’ feelings during contract negotiations. Stoneman was able to sign most play-

often-used strategy of spending lavishly on players and then complaining about the cost. Instead of long-term contracts, the Expos have refused to sign anyone beyond the end of this season, and their player payroll is about $14 million, less than one-third of the Blue Jays. The team’s cost-consciousness stems partly from an inability to sell the Expos on English-language TV in Canada: while Toronto will be featured in at least 135 televised games across Canada in 1993, Montreal will appear in only 35 English games. They will be shown 95 times on French TV. Expo vice-president Bill Stoneman said that, despite the difficult Montreal market, he is committed to fielding a competitive team and remaining economically viable. That means paying player

ers without major confrontations, but talks with centre-fielder Marquis Grissom and leftfielder Moisés Alou grew acrimonious. Both now profess to have put their bitterness behind them. “Unfortunately, they didn’t treat me the way I thought I should be treated,” Alou said, “but I know that sooner or later, they won’t have any choice.”

Still, an air of excitement surrounds the young Expos, even if they are quiet about it. Felipe Alou, the team’s manager and clubhouse philosopher (and Moisés’ father), maintains that no team ever won anything with their mouths. Alou Sr. admits that the team lost some valuable players when such veterans as Wallach, Spike Owen and Ivan Calderon left via off-season trades or free agency. But he likes what he sees out on the

practice field in West Palm. The players who remain include right-fielder Larry Walker, a 1992 all-star from Maple Ridge, B.C., who joins Grissom and Alou as the best young outfield in the game. They are fast, solid defensively and, under manager Alou, very aggressive. ‘There’s only one way to go with a young club—pushing, aggressive, being fearless, having fun, being ready for me and my type of baseball,” he said. ‘We use all the resources we have, offensively and defensively.”

The Expos will indeed be young when they open the season April 5 in Cincinnati. Aside from Martinez, 37, pinch-hitter Franklin Stubbs, 32, and recently acquired first-baseman Jack Clark, 37, they are all 20-something. Calderon will be replaced by Moisés Alou, whose fine play last season showed that he was ready for full-time work. Owen’s place at shortstop has been inherited by 21year-old Wil Cordero, who in training camp has worked well with 24year-old second-baseman Delino DeShields.

Six weeks into spring training, the players seem convinced that the loss of veterans has not hurt the team. We were all a little concerned at the beginning about the fact that a lot of rookies would be making the club,” Walker said before a recent game. “But now, it’s clear that they can do the job.” Nevertheless, manager Alou clearly wants to dampen any expectations of a division title. In the NL East, the Expos are widely seen as the best of an unimposing lot. The only team to finish ahead of them in 1992, Pittsburgh, lost many first-line players, including outfielder Barry Bonds and pitcher Doug g Drabek, to free agency last winter. I “Last year, we were given up for dead before the season started,” § Alou said. “This year, they think we 1 can win. How can we be picked last x one year and first the next? Either somebody made a mistake last year, or they made a mistake this year.” By the glint in his eye, Alou seemed to know the answer to that one.

Expos’ fans will have to wait until April 13 to get a firsthand look at their team at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. The Jays, meanwhile, will finally get their World Series rings at their home opener on April 9. But the moment will be bittersweet. The Jays will be missing many of their former teammates who earned the coveted rings but have since gone on to play elsewhere. Their opponents that night, the Cleveland Indians, will be missing the two teammates killed in the tragic boating accident. Along with their rings, the Jays may also receive a lesson in perspective.

JAMES DEACON in West Palm Beach