Peanuts, Cracker Jack and if they don’t win it’s the same
Umpires picketed, wearing placards that looked like chest protectors, teams voted to allow women sportswriters into dressing rooms and vendors barked “hot dogs, peanuts, cold beer” and “you can’t tell the millionaires without a program” as the snows receded and the 104th National League and 79th American League baseball seasons opened last week. The summer game got off to its earliest start in history, April 4, and after the San Francisco Giants embarrassed the Cincinnati Reds, there were only 2,105 games left to pass the time before the playoffs.
There’s no hurry, the game of sunshine, lazy fly balls, looping line drives and walks, played by kids,men and guys who have lost their birth certificates is a game without time limit, taken out of time, returning each spring wearing the same clothes. It saunters back unaf-
fected by elections, revolutions, wars and peace treaties, shuckin’ off winter and tellin’ the same old stories.
The tales became exaggerated while cold winds swept through the waiting stadiums. Pete Rose’s flying media circus landed finally in Philadelphia where he will play for $800,000 a year. Pittsburgh’s Dave Parker stayed home and settled for $1 million for every 162 games and Rod Carew packed seven batting titles and headed to California for $900,000 worth of encouragement to win an eighth. Meanwhile, north of the line that separates 100-cent dollars from floating ones, and single from dual federal tax, the two nominally Canadian members of the fraternity were looking ahead to their third and 11th seasons.
In the tradition of professional sport, expansion teams join the privileged circle caps in hand—with no one to wear them. In 1969, when baseball first added an international flavor to its quest for
the “world” championship, the silly tricolored Montreal Expo caps were worn by a collection of young and tired legs, untested and worn arms, small and once-big bats. Mudcats from Lacoochee, Florida, became starting lanceurs, Cocos from Ponce, Puerto Rico, became troisième-buts and Macks from Atlanta became voltigeurs. But now, memories of les originaux and the oft-frigid Parc Jarry have been replaced by a starting eight that is among the best in baseball and an Olympian home awaiting a roof. Only the brief but honored tradition of losing more often than winning, and the sense of being suntanned visitors in a wintry capital of hockey, linger.
The Toronto Blue Jays opened in the snow in 1977 with a team that could have become the most laughable since Casey Stengel’s Mets (before they became amazing) had the Jays not roosted in the only beerless park in baseballdom. Looking back, manager Roy Hartsfield can now smile—a bit. “Boy, that first year, if you had a Blue Jay uniform on, you pretty much had a job.”
Toronto and Montreal have done a lot of mixing and matching in their sometimes baffling, often circuitous effort to build winning teams. Designated hitter Rico Carty has become a Blue Jay three times in three years with each departure prompting whimpers of disapproval from season-ticket holders, and each return heralded as a coup. Fans have been equally troubled by the loss of other momentary heroes, but the Jay management’s seemingly mysterious moves are settling into place and have yet to match Montreal’s decade of Alphonse and Gaston bungling.
Unlike the Labatt’s beer money in Toronto, the Seagram whisky dollars have been poured into baseball’s free-agent market and, while the Blue Jays somnambulantly build through trades and their farm system and count the profits without apology, the Expos have bankrolled another edition of “the year of the Expos.”
They have the best young outfield in the majors—Warren Cromartie, Ellis Valentine and André Dawson—and a solid infield anchored by high-priced but long-toothed veterans Tony Perez at first and Dave Cash at second. Aided by dependable Chris Speier at short, the rising star of Larry Parrish at third and workhorse Gary Carter behind the plate, the Expos were supposed to play .500 ball last year (and the year before). But after a good start, they fell apart in the dog days of July and August, finishing behind Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Chicago. Amid rumblings that some of the well-paid seasonal workers
in Quebec folded in important games and padded their statistics in meaningless ones, the Expos lost 36 games by one run while players riding the bench staggered out to pinch-hit a limpid .161. Manager Dick Williams admits that if his boys don’t play over .500 this year, he’ll be looking for a job.
As the Expos parade in the weakest division in baseball, the National League East, the Blue Jays are the new kids on the toughest block, the American League East, wistfully eyeing the chattels of their neighbors, the New York Yankees, Milwaukee Brewers, Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles. After losing 102 games last year, the Jays don’t have to worry about playing .500—for a while yet.
“Yep, we looked to strengthen our club over the winter—at every position,” Hartsfield was saying as he surveyed the veterans and hopefuls hitting fungos and jogging in the Florida sunshine at the Jays spring training camp. “You know, you load up and go lookin’ for trades, but we didn’t have a whole lotta bullets to begin with.”
Yet, before winter had sealed its grip on Toronto, catcher Alan Ashby and reliever Victor Cruz were fired off to new employers. The exchange brought starting pitcher Mark Lemongello (nine wins and 14 losses with a 3.94 earned run average for Houston last year) and
shortstop Alfredo Griffin to the Jays. “Mark has looked real good and will be a big addition to this club,” Hartsfield drawled. “Cruz [who set a Jays record with nine saves last year] will be hard to replace. The relief end of pitching is the most important, and ours has me concerned—but now I’m happier with the other end.”
A rare find may be young Griffin. Quiet, intense, drawing on just 31 games of major-league experience, Griffin impressed not only the retirees watching in Florida but the Jays management. With surprising range at short and outstanding speed on the base paths, Griffin may be the most exciting player yet to wear Blue Jay blue—if he can hit big-league pitching. “They’ve had me working at hitting on top of the ball, swinging down to hit it on the ground. With the artificial turf in Toronto, I may have a chance to beat out a few grounders.”
Down the Gulf of Mexico coast, Dick Williams was
peering out of the Expos dugout, but seeing only those 36 games last year. “We went out to do four things this winter without trading any of our starting eight. We wanted a backup for Gary Carter who caught 157 games last year and we had no bullpen, so we went after a ‘stopper.’ We needed some speed on the bases and some bats on the bench.”
With liberal portions of Seagrams money and a remarkable trade, the Expos accomplished all they wanted to do, and more. Free agent Duffy Dyer (from Pittsburgh) will spell Carter and free agent Elias Sosa (8-2 with a 2.64 ERA with Oakland) will get a lot of work relieving a good corp of starters including Ross Grimsley (20-11 with a 3.05 ERA), and Steve Rogers (13-10 with a 2.47 ERA).
Speed arrived in the Expos camp compliments of the Chicago Cubs. Rodney Scott (an Expo in ’76) and Jerry White (an Expo for part of last year) returned in exchange for outfielder Sam Mejias. Both are switch-hitters and can steal bases. Scott stole 27 for the Cubs while playing second, short, third and centre field. With Chris Speier having back problems and Dave Cash coming off a terrible year, Scott may become a regular.
But the man who could have the Expos playing important games in September is the Spaceman, pitcher Bill
Lee, acquired in a trade with Boston. After winning 17 games three years in a row, Lee struggled back to a 10-10 season last year while feuding with the Red Sox management. Outspoken in his eccentric (for ballplayers) interests, lifestyle and opinions, in typical Lee fashion he ran afoul of the league’s commissioner before spring was old by rapping to reporters from New England about the joys of marijuana. Manager Williams, of course, says that he’s “not going to worry about what he says in the papers; I’m only concerned with what he does on the field.” Outfielder Ellis Valentine goes a little further. “If we have to get special caps made for him, so as not to mess with his antennae, then I say let’s do it.”
As the Expos settle in with familiar faces, confident of their major-league status, the Blue Jays continue to shuffle with the young regulars still getting used to the idea of playing in the big leagues. The trade that brought Lemongello to Toronto sent Rick Cerone’s rival for the catching job, Alan Ashby, to Houston. “The position hasn’t actually been handed to me, but the trade made me a lot more confident,” says Cerone. He played only 88 games last year with but 282 at bats. “I’d get doing something
well, then sit down for three days and lose it. Since I’ve been in the majors, I haven’t hit [.215 in 133 games]. I haven’t played enough to know if I’m a .300 hitter or a .200 hitter. At least now I’ve got a shot at it and we’ll soon find out.”
Big John Mayberry, exiled to the Jays after a couple of sub-par years with the contending Kansas City Royals, has become something of a fixture at first base. He had a good year last year, hitting 22 homers with 70 runs batted in, but the Jays are hoping for that and more this time out. Roy Howell has some problems at third and though he looks like the home-run hitter that Toronto would like to have at the position, he hits line drives for a .270 average. Over at second is the Jays’ lone Canadian, Dave McKay.
Walking along in the Florida sun, McKay looks like the biggest second baseman in baseball. “I decided not to play winter ball this year,” he says, “and went to my home in Arizona and a weight-lifting program.” The six-foot, 29-year-old native of Vancouver put on 15 pounds of clearly evident muscle and now carries 205 pounds. “You know, I hit a homer my first at-bat in the majors [1975 with Minnesota] and now I
feel strong enough to try and crank one every once in a while. Line drives that would have faded last year are sailing this year.”
And it’s starting to be fun for Expos like Larry Parrish and Ellis Valentine. They’re no longer part of the tense undercurrent of rookies and newcomers struggling to stay with the team. “It’s a nice feeling when star players from other teams come over to say hello,” says Parrish. “It makes you realize that they think you’re going to be around for a while. Course, it doesn’t hurt coming off a good year.” The 25-year-old had his best season hitting .277 with 15 homers, 70 RBIs.
Valentine is the slugger in the Expos’ gifted outfield, hitting 25 homers and 76 RBIs in each of the last two years. Hulking his six-foot, four-inches and 207 pounds into a comfortable spot in a spring training dugout, he flashes a smile that’s rarely far away. “Ya man, this is nice, feeling like you are a major leaguer. You don’t have to strain and push yourself at camp trying to impress somebody. I hate to see these young guys [Valentine is 24] extending themselves, maybe getting hurt, when the club knows they aren’t going to make it.
“Sometimes I can’t figure this club out. You’d think they’d like to have a dude like me around for a long time, but they sign me to a one-year contract and hassle over the money. Shoot, I don’t know what they’re worrying about. They’re going to get it all back in fines anyway.”
With a reputation for going all-out in key games, Valentine was fined last year for showing up late for a game played long after the Expos were eliminated. “My big thing, you know, is learning how to deal with defeat. I’m working on it, but I’ve got to take that energy and make it work for me and not against me.”
The Blue Jays’ outfield is settling down to the point that the good gloves and arms of Rick Bossetti and Bob Bailor have taken over centre field and right. Though playing power positions, neither are sluggers, but Bosetti had a remarkable spring, hitting .450 in the Grapefruit games. A late addition from the New York Mets, Bob Brown, will play some left field with Otto Velez and Alvis Woods dropping in.
The Jays are once again depending on “de tuunder” of ageless Rico Carty. Whether he’s 38, 39, 40 or older than Luis Tiant of the Yankees, Carty has played 11 years in the majors and hit 192 homers. Hobbled by a leg injury in spring training, Carty says with a big smile, “I don’t want to waste good hits in the spring anyway,” and adds: “Dis bat is a dangerous weapon, mon. It de tuunder. When de bell ring de tuunder going to heet de ball to de bridge, and beyohd.”
As Carty is de Beeg Mon for the Blue Jays, Tony Perez is the Big Dog for the Expos. It was his departure from Cincinnati for Montreal in 1977 that heralded the demise of the Reds as the power in the National League West, according to former Red and current Philadelphia millionaire Pete Rose. Perez dropped off a bit in homers and RBIs but finished with a .290 average last year. On the field and in the clubhouse, like Carty, he leads by example and quiet and credible counsel. “I feel good,” he says, and adding almost apologetically, “I’m, ah, a natural hitter. All I ask for is a Tony Perez type of year.”
And over the next seven months, as the statistics, momentous and trivial, are recorded for boys that are boys this summer, as the daily triumphs and miseries of the Guidrys, Carews, Rices, Roses, Jacksons, Parkers, Blues, Garveys et al are brooded and worried over by millions miles removed, north of the border the Jays will struggle to lose fewer than 100 times and the Expos will hope for their type of year and try once again to erase the memory of les Canadiens—at least while the grass is green.