SPORTS

Play ball!

JAMES DEACON April 11 1994
SPORTS

Play ball!

JAMES DEACON April 11 1994

Play ball!

SPORTS

JAMES DEACON

It is all behind them now. The six winter weeks that ball players spend in sunny Florida and Arizona to regain professional proficiency, like an extended management retreat without the motivational speeches. The tiny, perfect Florida ball parks—lush, green diamonds enclosed by palm trees and cozy little grandstands. The fans lucky enough to escape winter to watch the boys of springtime limber up. For both players and fans, spring training is a time of limitless possibilities when the world seems right. ‘You’re so close to the field, the games go faster, the grass is real,” said chartered accountant John Carter of Halifax, while watching a recent game at the Toronto Blue Jays’ training camp in Dunedin, Fla. “It’s more

like the game I remember growing up with.” And just as they press the chain-link fences for autographs, fans also search for clues. Will this be the year for the Montreal Expos? And can the Blue Jays put together another World Series run?

Those questions can only be answered in the regular season that opens this week for all 28 majorleague teams. But even though the Grapefruit League games don’t count for anything, the work the Blue Jays and Expos just completed in Florida may be critical to their success this season. Baseball is a game of timing and touch, and it takes repetition for pitchers to master the strike zone and for batters to iron out the kinks in their swings. Toronto will need to be ready in the American League East against the bolstered Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox. Montreal, meanwhile, faces last season’s pennant winners, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the odds-on favorites this season, the Atlanta Braves, in the National League East. A good training camp is critical to a good start, says Expos manager Felipe Alou. ‘We can’t control what happens,” he adds. We can only try to get the players in the right frame of mind.”

No major-league team in recent years has made better use of baseball’s season of renewal than the Blue Jays. Three years ago, the team spent the spring getting acquainted with outfielder Joe Carter and second-baseman Roberto Alomar, acquired in a blockbuster off-season trade. That team won its division. The next February, free agents Jack Morris, a pitcher, and slugger Dave Winfield tried on Jays jerseys for the first time. Toronto won the World Series. And last spring, staggered by the loss of 12 players from its 1992 championship team, the Jays introduced pitcher Dave Stewart and designated hitter Paul Molitor, among others, to the line-up. Another World Series.

But just as those changes caused anxiety among fans, the lack of changes is this year’s cause for concern. Several free-agent players left in the off-season—outfielder Rickey Henderson returned to Oakland, Morris joined Cleveland and shortstop Tony Fernandez caught on with Cincinnati. But the Jays’ consummate wheeler-dealer, general manager Pat Gillick, made only one off-season acquisition of note—journeyman pitcher Greg Cadaret. “I just don’t think that there was much available out there,” Gillick says. “There was too little supply and too much demand.” The team was also late diving into the free-agent pool because it played through October. “It was not for lack of frying,” explained Paul Beeston, the team’s president. We would have taken on another salary if we

could have done the deal. When you’re at the top, it’s a little more difficult to make the deals we wanted to make because other teams don’t want to make us stronger.”

The Jays’ weaknesses are obvious. “The bullpen, left field and shortstop,” recites manager Cito Gaston while holding court in the dugout. Duane Ward, a dominating relief pitcher, has been unable to play because of bicep tendinitis. So starter Todd Stottlemyre is being tried in that role until Ward recovers—

Leiter and sophomore Pat Hentgen appear solid. Stottiemyre’s starting spot may well go to Paul Spoljaric, 23, a lefty from Kelowna, B.C., who started last season in Class A “It’s great that I’m getting a shot,” says Spoljaric, “but I have to perform. That’s the hard part.”

Because of the questions surrounding the bullpen, Toronto will again rely on offence to get through tough times. That is fine with batting coach Larry Hisle, who stands behind the cage each day watching a fearsome group take

tional toll of a 162-game season, seem convinced. “This is an unselfish ball club,” insists Joe Carter, looking around the clubhouse. “Everyone here will do whatever it takes to help the team.” And Molitor, the most valuable player in last year’s Series, says that some of that emotion carries over. “I learned from the guys who were here in 1992 that you have to refocus as soon as possible on the season at hand,” Molitor says. “And that’s what we are doing.” Beeston, puffing on his ubiquitous

The Jays and Expos begin a test of the diamond’s best

soon, the team hopes. At shortstop, budding star Aex Gonzalez, 21, has shown a good bat if a jittery glove. Left field was supposed to go to one of two 24-year-old prospects—Rob Butler of East York, Ont., or Venezuelan-born Robert Perez. Neither played well in Florida, so the Jays handed the job to 21-year-old Carlos Delgado, the muscular catcher whose batting prowess convinced Gaston to give him a shot in left. “It’s a lot different than catching,” says Delgado, a native of Puerto Rico. “I thought it would be boring, but it’s fun out there.”

Still, the Jays remain a power in the American League. The starting rotation is probably stronger now than at this time a year ago: veteran Dave Stewart is healthy, flamethrower Juan Guzman is maturing and left-hander A

their rips. He has 1993’s top three hitters in the American League—first baseman John Olerud, Molitor and Aomar—and proven performers in centre-fielder Devon White, Carter and thirdbaseman Ed Sprague. Hisle says his job is to get production out of the bottom third of the batting order. “We know that Olerud and Molitor and Aomar will hit, that Carter will drive in runs,” Hisle says. ‘The key to great teams is how the supporting cast performs.” The biggest question, however, is whether the 1994 Jays have the resolve that powered the 1992 and 1993 teams. Winning three straight World Series—last achieved by Oakland in the early 1970s—seems an almost unthinkable accomplishment in the age of free agency, but the veterans, who know the emo-

cigar, knows the problems but still likes what he sees. “The commitment is still to win,” he says. “If we win three in a row, we’ll go for four. That’s the way we are.”

The prospects of the Montreal Expos are, as always, clouded by cash shortages that beset the franchise. Blue Jay fans will see about 150 games on TV across Canada this season, but the Expos are currently committed to only 25 games on English TV—all on the cable network TSN. The Expos won only one less game than the Jays in the 1993 regular season, yet Montrealers failed to support them. The Expos drew only 1.6 million fans in 1993, compared with the more than four million who attended games in Toronto. With little revenue from

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television and attendance, the team has made sacrifices. It has only one player—catcher Darrin Fletcher—signed to a multiyear contract. It has cut back on the money it invests in the crucial scouting and development of players. It did not re-sign the ace of its pitching staff, free agent Dennis Martinez.

And it traded its star second-baseman and team leader, Delino DeShields, to Los Angeles for pitcher Pedro Martinez in a move that saved the club millions of dollars in salary.

The absence of DeShields concerns the players. He was their leadoff man and most experienced infielder.

His departure has forced manager Alou to shift Mike Lansing to second, leaving an erratic Sean Berry at third. Marquis Grissom, the brilliant centre-fielder, has taken it upon himself help the younger players get the focus off the difficulties of the front office. “You have to accept things for what they are, small market or big market,” Grissom says after strolling in from a workout with his two-year-old son D’Monte in his arms. “But I’m just doing what I did last year. People call it leadership. I call it doing for these guys what other veterans did for me when I came up.”

When the games begin, it is easy to set aside

the team’s troubles and instead marvel at the exciting prospects of the young and talented Expos. Once Moisés Alou fully recovers from the broken leg he suffered late last season and rejoins Grissom and Larry Walker of Maple Ridge, B.C., the Expos will again boast the best young outfield in baseball. Backing them up is Rondell White, a 22-yearold prospect who has other teams’ scouts clamoring for a better view. John Wetteland and Mel Rojas anchor a strong bullpen, while right-hander Ken Hill and lefty Jeff Fassero lead the capable, if young, starting rotation.

The Expos’ greatest strength may be their manager. Felipe Alou, 58, was a fine player for 17 years in the majors, and managed in the minor leagues for 12 years before joining the Expos as a bench coach before the start of the 1992 season. He became the manager that May, and unlike most of his big-league counterparts, he at times throws batting practice and plays first base during workouts. “I’m not smart enough to just be a manager,” he laughs. “I’ve got to do more.” He does. In the past two seasons, Alou has taken a cast of largely not-quite-ready-for-prime-time players

and guided them to strong second-place finishes in their division. Only the Expos gave Philadelphia a run for their money last year, and Pittsburgh the year before that. Alou’s is a teaching job, and it never stops. “Felipe deserves the credit for getting so much out of this team,” says Fletcher. “He knows the game better than anyone I’ve ever been around.” Randy Ready, a veteran utility infielder, cites Alou’s rapport with the players. “Out of respect, you want to play hard for him,” Ready says.

The prevailing spirit of spring training is that anything can happen—and usually does. The Blue Jays, for instance, were down 9-6 to Minnesota going into the bottom of the ninth inning of a recent game at Dunedin Stadium. Worse, slugger Joe Carter, the man whose home run ignited the World Series fireworks last Oct. 23, had just been knocked out of action when he was struck in the hand by an inside pitch. (It was later discovered that he had broken his thumb.) But the sell-out crowd of predominantly Blue Jays fans seemed unperturbed. ‘This is the greatest,” said fan Cheryl Amott of Pickering, Ont., sitting with her husband and friends along the third-base line. “It’s March, the sun’s out and we’re in shorts and T-shirts. It’s a lousy time of year at home, so this is great no matter who wins.” But when the Blue Jays’ lineup of young recruits rallied and won the game 12-9, Amott and company were on their feet, cheering and whistling. Baseball is fun, Jays fans have learned, but winning is better. □