TWO AT THE TOP
Fourteen years after major-league baseball first expanded beyond the borders of the United States, it was entirely reasonable for Montrealers to expect that the Expos be one of the premier teams in the game. But six years after the second team came to Canada, buying a lottery ticket seemed like a safer bet than expecting the Toronto Blue Jays to be at the top of their division. Yet going into the final weekend before the 50th-anniversary All-Star game, the Expos and the Blue Jays were in first place; four Expos were voted by fans to play in the game; and two Canadian-based pitching aces—Dave Stieb from the Jays and Steve Rogers of the Expos—were selected to be on the mound for the midseason classic in Chicago.
The dramatic rise of the Blue Jays has captured the imagination of those Canadians across the country who were not already obsessed with a summerlong affair with Les Expos. So far this season 1,504,133 seats have been sold in the two parks, while millions of Canadi-
ans tune in to the televised games. The fans of both teams are as different as the two cities. Euphoric over their 1983 windfall, Jays enthusiasts have roared “We’re number 1” ever since the American League team clambered into first place just 38 games into a 162-game season on May 23. They have cheered home-run hitters so lustily that only after players doff their caps repeatedly do the crowds quiet down. In the cavernous and still-unfinished Olympic Stadium in Montreal there is a knowing reserve. The patrons who have been teased so often by National League pennant promises temper their optimism with bitter memories of almost winning. The seasoned spectators interrupt their cold stares to boo an injured superstar struggling at the plate. Toronto fans share the youthful exuberance of their team; Montreal fans echo their team’s seasoned caution.
All-Star pitchers Stieb, 25, and Rogers, 33, epitomize the contrasts. Arguably they are the two best right-handed pitchers in baseball and are certainly the main reasons for the unexpected midseason positions of both Canadian teams in their respective divisions—the
Jays in the American, the Expos in the National. At week’s end Stieb had a record of 10 wins and 6 losses, with an earned run average of 2.51; Rogers was 11 and 3, with an ERA of 2.77. But the similarities end there. Stieb is what baseball people call “one in a million,” a natural. Rogers is a craftsman who, through difficult lessons, has mastered his art over 10 seasons.
While Rogers wanted to be an orthodontist and wound up being a petroleum engineer who pitches, Stieb only wanted to be an outfielder. The Blue Jays sent Bobby Mattick, their director of player development and later the manager, and scout Al LaMacchia to Eastern Illinois University in May, 1978, to take a look at a centre fielder. “We weren’t impressed,” Mattick recalls. “I didn’t like Stieb’s swing.” They were about to write Stieb off when, in the sixth inning, the youngster was called in from the field to pitch. “He knocked our eyeballs out,” says Mattick. “He was absolutely overpowering. We decided to draft him.” The Jays’ vice-president, Pat Gillick, calls it the best move the organization has made, “and the most gratifying. When you take a gamble like
that, convert a youngster into a pitcher, then have him move right into the majors, and five years later have him become one of the best, if not the best, pitcher in baseball, you’ve got to be pleased with yourself.” Last season Stieb, whose desire to be traded was a daily Blue Jay topic, won 17 games.
He also led the American League in shutouts with five, complete games with 19 and innings pitched with 288 Vá.
Those numbers meant a $6-million, six-year contract for the unhappy pitcher, whose disposition improved dramatically after that deal was signed last February.
Accolades for Stieb flow from opponents and rivals as readily as their envy. Expos President John McHale has watched Stieb frequently on television, where the Jays now outdraw the Expos. “I liken him to Bob Lemon,” says McHale, referring to the Hall of Fame pitcher who won 207 games. “Just playing catch with Lemon was an experience—he just couldn’t throw the ball straight. It always dipped, cut or sailed. Stieb is the same. All the great ones have it. You can’t teach it; it’s a gift from God.” Gillick
adds that he is “blessed with near-perfect mechanics.” Stieb does not disagree. Having added a change up and a curve to his overpowering fastball and slider, Stieb says: “Some pitchers are forever experimenting, but I’ve never had to. Most of the time I’ve been able to try something and have it feel right almost right away. I don’t worry about the hitters; I just worry about what I want to do with the ball.”
It is his disdain of the time-honored practice of poring over scouting reports on hitters that makes Stieb truly unique. “My preparation is simple. When I’m warming up I work on getting my fastball moving. In the game I visualize where the pitch is going and visualize the batter swinging and missing. Then I just throw it. It’s been that way ever since I started pitching.” Stieb, the natural, works very quickly and, reflecting his years in the outfield, gathers in line drives and ground balls better than almost any other pitcher.
In contrast, Rogers works slowly, his face and body dramatically reflecting every nuance of his passion play. The son of a dentist in Jefferson City, Mo., Rogers planned a career in orthodontics. But the New York Yankees drafted him out of high school when he was 17. “The scholarship offers came after the draft, and the best one was from Tulsa,” Rogers recalled last week. “They had one of the best petroleum engineering schools in the country, so I thought I’d try it. I enjoyed it.” He also enjoyed
pitching at Tulsa, winning 31 and losing only five in four years. The Expos drafted Rogers as a free agent in 1971.
Long and lanky with a drooping moustache, the veteran paws at the mound, sighs, shrugs, shakes his head, stares at the heavens for relief or inspi-
ration. He is called a perfectionist and he does not protest: “Sure I am. We all try to be perfect. The key is being able to cope with not pitching perfectly.” Just as often, he is called a student of the game, and he laughs. “When you win 19 games and lose eight they call you a student. When you win 12 and lose 12 they say you think too much. Heck, you can’t sit on the bench for four-fifths of the season for 10 years and not pick up something.” But the lessons Rogers has learned that have taken him to the top of his profession have been hard ones.
Rogers points to two events that more than anything else have made him the dominant pitcher that he is today—an injury in 1978 and the baseball players’ strike in 1981. Despite constant aches and pains, he has been one of the game’s most durable pitchers: in his 10th season he has never required more than five days rest between starts. His only serious injury came in 1978. Following elbow surgery Rogers spent the winter rehabilitating. “If I am a student of the game, it is as a student myself,” he said. “Prior to the surgery I studied the hitters but hadn’t really analysed my own pitching, the mechanics of my delivery. That winter I was forced to, I had to analyse my delivery to know how not to put stress on the injured elbow.” The self-analysis, which has continued, gave Rogers checkpoints that he can “feel” about what went wrong with a pitch. “Ironically,” he added, “that injury made me a better pitcher.”
But it was the players’ strike that worked in mysterious ways. New Expos fans may be fascinated by the passions played out on Rogers’ face as he pitches, but they are mere shadows of the agonies he displayed in the early years. As McHale says, “I watched him in 1976 pitch 18 of perhaps the greatest games ever pitched.” His record that year was seven wins and 17 losses. The frustration from lack of support and errors by teammates was _ evident in Rogers’ every move and expression, r “Yes,” he admitted, I “prior to the strike the frustrations weighed on me. But I was on the negotiating committee in 1981 and I learned a great deal. We negotiated for 50 days and were stonewalled for 50 days, all the time knowing there was a solution. I had never faced that level of frustration, and, having gone through that, it minimized all the frustrations on the field.” The student
in Rogers applied the lesson: “People in sport often talk of mental toughness. I really don’t know what that is, but perhaps it is being able to cope with frustration and not allow it to destroy what you’re to do. The strike taught me that, and I remember it on the mound.”
The test of time is not often kind to pitchers, whom baseball men like McHale refer to as “the game’s great mysteries.” So much “unnatural” stress is applied to their arms in making the ball curve and sink that the parts wear out. Expos relief pitcher Woodie Fryman—at 43, in baseball terms he is ancient—had a permanently bent left arm after 16 years in the majors. This spring during a batting drill his arm suddenly straightened. What would have been a joyful moment for most was a disaster for Fryman. His arm was straight, but he could not throw with it. He has been gradually strengthening the now normal arm since, and the Expos hope he will be back after the All-Star break. Equally mysteriously, pitchers suddenly “lose pitches.” For a period last season Stieb suddenly could not throw a slider. This season Expos’ Scott Sanderson simply “lost” his fastball. Doctors and Sanderson could find no reason.
Rogers is the first to admit that the level of frustration in the game has decreased proportionately with the improved quality of the players behind him. The same is true for Stieb. The powerful Toronto right-hander, to whom success had come so quickly and easily, once glared at bumbling teammates, loudly-chastized them and publicly demanded that management trade him. It took a dressing down by 34-yearold journeyman catcher Buck Martinez early last year to cure the young star of his morale-sapping histrionics. The
cooling out by Martinez had its effect, but now Stieb also is surrounded by some of the best young players in the majors and is complemented by one of the best young pitching staffs in the game.
That the Blue Jays were in first place just before the All-Star break was as surprising to Vice-President Gillick as it was to their delirious fans. “I honestly didn’t expect us to be where we are,” he said. “We thought that by 1984 or 1985 we might be at or near the top. But our pitchers developed much faster than we thought they would.” It is no mystery that the Jays are contending with such pitchers as Stieb, Jim Clancy, Luis Leal and Jim Gott. Clancy is the elder statesman at 27. After winning 16 games last year with an ERA of 3.71, he started slowly this season. But by last week his record was seven wins and five losses. Jays pitching coach AÍ Widmar says, with obvious pride: “Clancy has come of age this year. He’s finally gotten to the point where he can change the speed on his pitches, and his slider is now outstanding. He’s become a pitcher, not a thrower.”
Stieb and Clancy were expected to be solid performers, but Gillick attributes the Jays’ ascendancy to “the emergence of Leal and Gott and our relief pitchers.” The 26-year-old Leal, whom the Jays’ Carribean scout signed after watching him pitch in an amateur game in Venezuela in 1978, had an 8 and 6 record as of last week. Widmar, among others, believes that Leal is still underrated: “He can execute as well as anyone. Just ask the hitters. They will tell you that they’re not happy to face him.” Catcher Martinez agrees. After watching Clancy, Stieb and Gott, he says: “Luis doesn’t look as if he’s throwing it as hard. But he’s sneaky and he gets it up there in a hurry.” And
according to manager Bobby Cox, nobody—with the exception of New York Yankee Rich Gossage and Detroit Tiger Juan Berenguer—gets the ball to the plate faster than Jim Gott.
Toronto drafted the 23-year-old Gott from the St. Louis Cardinals in 1981. Until this season the right-hander was plagued by inexperience and a blister on his throwing hand. Both flaws have been banished this year. “He has the best raw talent on the staff,” says Cox. Last season, while losing 10 games and winning only five, Gott says he “tried to think the ball past the hitter when I got into a jam.” Now he has taken Widmar’s advice and “goes after the hitter. This year has been more fun. I feel that I belong.” Gott’s record stood at 5 and 7 last week, and many observers are con-
vinced that in a few years he will be one of the game’s dominant pitchers.
Just as much was expected of the young arms in Montreal—Charlie Lea, Bill Gullickson, Scott Sanderson and David Palmer. Though McHale points out that “Steve Rogers’ consistency, our knowing he’ll be out there every fifth day to do the job, has allowed the youngsters to rest properly and develop,” none have really developed into stars. It has been left to 32-year-old Ray Burris, who won only four games while losing 14 last season, to come back to 3 and 3 with an enviable ERA of only 2.28. A heavy burden too has fallen to reliever Jeff Reardon, 27, whose fastball has saved 12 games this year, the best in the league. Like many of his teammates, Reardon performed especially well in the two weeks prior to the AllStar break when the team finally
started playing to its potential.
That potential may be immeasurable for two Expos—centre fielder André Dawson, 28, and left fielder Tim Raines, 23. Generally acknowledged as the best centre fielder in baseball, the “Hawk” hit .301 last season with 23 home runs and 39 stolen bases. Although the AllStar voting by fans is more a popularity contest than a true ranking of worth, Dawson’s 1,354,870 votes for this week’s game was recognition of his consummate skills. For all that, Dawson’s left knee has to be occasionally drained of excess fluids, a procedure that causes him to lose a step when he chases a fly ball. Said Dawson: “Sometimes when I push off on it, it just buckles.” Dawson was hitting .321 with 15 homers and a league-leading 60 runs batted in three games before the midseason break.
Dawson, the quiet leader of the team, maintains that he is simply “trying to play within myself and not play over my head.” He admits, “I guess some players do look up to me,” but he says he is not the leadership type. “I have gotten closer to Timmy [Raines] this season and I think I should have last year. He has come through a very difficult time but he’s strong, still young and still learning.”
Raines’s difficult time stemmed from a dependency on cocaine, an increasingly common problem in professional sports. At the end of the last season, in which he led the league with 78 stolen bases, Raines admitted his problem. It took him most of the first half of the season to start displaying his talents again. In an 18-game stretch prior to the All-Star break, Raines stole 18 bases to add to his league-leading total of 33. “It takes a while to come back from something like that, from a confession like that,” says McHale. “From
talking to doctors and psychologists, we know that after someone goes through a drug rehabilitation program there is a period of uncertainty when the person loses confidence and wonders ‘Do I belong?’ ” McHale likens Raines’s public ordeal to “standing on the corner of Peel and Ste. Catherine or Yonge and Bloor and telling the world all your sins—and then having to go back out onto that corner every day. He’s a very gutsy guy.”
The smile has returned to the face of the guy they call “Rock.” Says Raines: “I know now what it was I was missing: it was confidence. I was hesitant at the beginning of the year. I would get to first base and think, T can’t steal second, I’m going to get caught.’ Now I’ve got it back, I’m playing better defensively. I’m confident again.” And that means that the Expos, who were three games back June 1, were on top and winning. “When Rock’s going, we’re hard to beat,” says All-Star catcher Gary Carter, who has been struggling this season with tendonitis in his left arm, which has severely restricted his swing. “Tim has come through a rough time and now he’s back,” says a contented Carter, who led all National League players with 1,547,843 All-Star votes. “Tim’s speed puts so much pressure on the defence that it makes it easier for André, Al Oliver [All-Star first baseman] and myself to drive in runs.” Carter says that if he and third baseman Tim Wallach start hitting, “we’re going to be very tough.”
In Carter, Dawson, Raines and Oliver, last year’s batting champion, the Expos have established stars. The Blue Jays, in turn, have emerging ones. Manager Bobby Cox is mentor and maestro of what Gillick calls “a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.” Only
four of the starting eight play virtually every day: shortstop Alfredo Griffin, second baseman Damaso Garcia, centre fielder Lloyd Moseby and first baseman Willie Upshaw. The rest swing in and out, depending on the opposing pitchers. As a result, not a single Blue Jay was voted to the American League starting lineup, while four Expos—Dawson, Carter, Oliver and Raines—were to start for the National League.
Griffin and Garcia are established infielders and are now hitting as well as expected. Upshaw, though he may challenge Oliver for the lead in errors by a first baseman playing in Canada, has become a fine hitter, leading the team with 15 homers and 46 runs batted in. But it is the blossoming of Lloyd Moseby and the steady work of designated hitters Cliff Johnson and Jorge Orta that have helped launch the Jays from sixth place last year to the top. Moseby, 23, roves centre field with the speed and grace he has always displayed. Before the break he was hitting .292 and had already matched his home-run total of nine for last season. Left fielder Dave Collins, acquired from the Yankees for reliever Dale Murray, has been a disappointment. “That trade doesn’t look too good right now,” Gillick admits, “but that could change.” The hitting of young right fielder Jesse Barfield also has been disappointing. Yet there have been compensations in the play of outfielder Barry Bonnell, catchers Ernie Whitt and Martinez, and Johnson.
In a league where pitchers never bat, Toronto suffered last season because the designated hitters had only four home runs. In the off-season the Jays acquired “professional hitters” Johnson, 35, and Orta, 32. Now Johnson leads all designated hitters and by last week had already hit 14 homers. His bat has helped as much as his experience. Now in his 10th season, Johnson was with two World Series-winning Yankee teams. He puts the long season in his
unique perspective: “Right now we’re just running free and easy, like a racehorse. I’ll probably be more visible and make my presence felt later in the year. Winning a pennant is like a funnel. Everything is open at the top, then it starts narrowing down.” The Jays listen to the self-described “grey eminence”— and evidently they understand.
Although the chemistry on the team seems to be right, and Gillick is surprised at the quality of the play, he is not totally satisfied. “We will be in Chicago this week for the All-Star game, hoping to make a trade for a lefthanded pitcher and a right-handed power hitter,” he says. “There are some teams, like the Seattle Mariners and the New York Mets, who have fallen out of the pennant races. They may be willing to give up an established player for a couple of young ones. At least we hope so.” The Expos, on the other hand, do not expect to make any moves as the second half of the season approaches. “We have looked at the marketplace and at the players we have in our farm system and we think we have the best available now,” says McHale. “We won’t know for sure until the end of the season. People will say ‘McHale was right’ or ‘McHale was wrong.’ ”
If the Blue Jays simply manage to win half their remaining 85 games, it will be the most successful season in their history. Prior to this season the team had not won more games than it lost nor been in first place later than May 6. “We started out thinking we would be happy to move up to fifth place, maybe fourth,” says Gillick. “But now, after this great first half, if we don’t finish near the top or win more than half our games, it would be a disappointing year.” The Jays may be able to maintain their pace because of the youthfulness of the pitching staff and the fact that they have a number of bright prospects in the minor leagues.
But for the Expos anything short of a pennant and a shot at the World Series is unacceptable, especially to the demanding fans. Raines observed last week: “They have been spoiled by their hockey team. Those guys were always winning the Cup. Maybe the fans are still mad about how they lost last year and are taking it out on us.” The Expos all feel the pressure. It hangs over Olympic Stadium like the unfinished concrete arm that was to suspend a roof over the Olympic Games seven years ago. “The fans feel that we’ve screwed them out of three or four championships,” says Rogers. “Being a bridesmaid just gets you into the party. Now they want the ring.” For the Blue Jays and their fans, a party would be just fine, for now.