Baseball’s soothing spring ritual

April 7 1986

Baseball’s soothing spring ritual

April 7 1986

Baseball’s soothing spring ritual


The soothing sounds of baseball have filled the spring air on both of Florida’s sun-caressed coasts. Sounds of balls meeting bats and gloves, mixed with the shouts of the men who wield the lucrative tools of summer and the sunburned tourists who watch the springtime contests, have a rejuvenating effect. They melt

memories of winter’s chill. They wash away the lingering disappointment of defeats on frosty October nights. They refresh like the first cold bleacher beer on a hot afternoon and cleanse the palate for the major-league baseball season about to begin.

On opposite sides of Florida, Canada’s representatives in the grand old American game have prepared for the new season, which begins on April 8, with expectations that are poles apart. The Montreal Expos, once hailed as the team of the 1980s, perspired in West Palm Beach just to maintain a degree of respectability. In the first season of the post-Gary Carter era, the Expos finished a disappointing third in the National League (NL) East in 1985. On Florida’s west coast, the Toronto Blue Jays, once laughingstocks who limped into the 1980s still trying not to lose 100 games each year, confidently prepared in Dunedin for their 10th season. Under new manager Jimy Williams, the Jays prepared to defend

their American League (AL) East title and renew their crusade to bring the World Series to Canadian soil—or at least artificial turf—for the first time.

Last autumn the Jays fell one game short of reaching the series, just as the Expos had in the strike-shortened 1981 season. Rick Monday’s home run at Olympic Stadium in Montreal won the

NL pennant for the Los Angeles Dodgers that year in the decisive fifth game of the playoff. Last October Jim Sundberg’s bases-loaded, wind-blown triple at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium was the decisive blow in the Kansas City Royals’ victory in the seventh and deciding game of the AL playoffs. The Blue Jays had been poised at the threshold, leading the Royals 3-1 in games. In previous years that would have put them in the game’s fall classic.

But in 1985 the league championships were expanded from a best-offive to a best-of-seven games format. As a result, as the Expos had done four years earlier, the Blue Jays had to live through a winter knowing that no matter how wonderful the previous season, it was not quite wonderful

enough. “It is always tougher to win again,” said scholarly Montreal general manager Murray Cook.

There has not been a repeat division winner in the NL in the 1980s. And in the Blue Jays’ AL East, arguably the toughest of baseball’s four divisions, the last repeat winners were the New York Yankees in 1980 and 1981. The Royals are baseball’s most recent repeaters, having won the AL West in 1984 and 1985. Said Blue Jay relief pitcher Dennis Lamp, who last season won 11 games and lost none: “Nothing is guaranteed. In our division it’s going to be tough. The Baltimore Orioles said they were going to come back and win it all after losing the World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979. They won 100 games that year —and finished second.”

With their recent success, the Blue Jays have wrested the title of Canada’s team from the Expos. “Sure,” replied the Expos’ Cook, “and if we win, then we’ll become Canada’s team again.” Once, the Expos were baseball in Canada. With allstar catcher Carter, brilliant pitcher Steve Rogers and superstar outfielder Andre Dawson, the Expos seemed destined for a series of championships.

But Carter is in New York,

Rogers has retired, and Dawson plays with the constant pain of his damaged knee. The team of the 1980s never achieved its promise. But Cook, who has base-stealing wizard Tim Raines on his club, said, “We’ve still got four years in the ’80s yet.” The Jays made few player changes to prepare for the defence of their AL East title. In the off-season they paid $50,000 to draft pitcher Jose DeJesus, 21, from the Kansas City Royals organization. Then, in mid-March the Jays acquired free agent outfielder/ first baseman Cesar Cedeno, 35, who helped the St. Louis Cardinals in their September drive to first place in the NL East. Still, despite their relative inactivity and spring-training injuries to pitchers Gary Lavelle, Bill Caudill and Tom Filer, Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick says the team is better this season. “I cannot say by

how much, but I think we’re stronger,” said Gillick.

He pointed out that such players as left-handed pitcher Jimmy Key, shortstop Tony Fernandez and right fielder Jesse Barfield have gained a full year’s experience as full-time starting players. Gillick adds that Cliff Johnson, who started last season with the Texas Rangers, and Cedeno help make the designated-hitter position stronger. And relief pitcher Tom Henke, who had 13 saves after joining the Jays in

late July, will be with the team from opening day.

Although the Jays begin with some uncertainties—among them depth at the catcher position as Buck Martinez attempts to recover from the dislocated ankle and broken leg that ended his 1985 season in July—one of them is not manager Williams. A successful manager in the minor leagues, Williams served as the Jays’ third-base coach for the past six seasons. He moved into the manager’s office when Bobby Cox left at the end of last season to become the general manager of the Atlanta Braves. The choice of Williams as Cox’s successor was popular with the players, except perhaps with second baseman Dámaso Garcia. Williams removed Garcia from the lead-off hitter’s spot and replaced him with centre fielder Lloyd Moseby. Garcia, the lead-off man in Cox’s four seasons, drew only 15 walks last year compared with Moseby’s 76. When Williams made the switch in Dunedin, Garcia claimed that he

thought he should be traded. But Garcia has made that suggestion almost annually since joining the team in 1980.

Williams said that he does not intend to impose his personal style on the club. He added: “You do what you think is right for the club and the players involved. I’m not worried about making my imprint on the club.” But he did that just by making the change. Blue Jays’ third baseman Ranee Mulliniks, who played under Williams in the minor leagues, de-

dared: “He believes in being aggressive, making things happen. He is up front with you at all times. I think Bobby [Cox] was much more emotional and highly strung. He showed his emotions at all times during the game. Jimy’s not that way. Jimy’s just as intense—he just doesn’t show it the same way.” Garth Iorg, who shares the third-base job with Mulliniks, said, “Jimy’s got a great way with people.” And Iorg, too, says that the Jays will be stronger this season: “People say we didn’t make any changes. But who are you going to get rid of?”

While the Jays kept their strong hand intact, the Expos traded pitcher Bill Gullickson in the off-season. Cook, who traded Carter to the New York Mets for outfielder Herrn Winningham, infielder Hubie Brooks, catcher Mike Fitzgerald and pitcher Floyd Youmans before the 1985 season, traded Gullickson—14 wins and 12 losses in 1985—and catcher Sal Butera to the Cincinnati Reds for pitchers

Andy McGaffigan, John Stuper and Jay Tibbs, and catcher Dann Bilardello. Said Expo manager Buck Rodgers: “The feeling is that Gullickson is a 15-game winner. We feel Tibbs and McGaffigan are both 12to 15-game winners.” And outfielder Mitch Webster, purchased from the Blue Jays’ last June, has played well enough in spring training to open the season as the Expo starting centre fielder. Said Rodgers: “Webster played great for us last season and continued that right

through spring training.”

The Expos were picked to finish well down the list last season but they stayed close to the leaders as relief pitcher Jeff Reardon led the majors with 41 saves. The Expos were only four games out of first place as late as Aug. 19. But the club faded with injuries to pitchers Dan Schatzeder, David Palmer and Joe Hesketh. And Charlie Lea did not pitch at all because of a shoulder ailment. If the injured pitchers recover their 1984 form and the newcomers produce, Cook said, “this year we’re going to go as far as our pitching carries us. How many times have you heard that this spring?”

The Jays are picked to finish near the top and the Expos in the middle of their divisions. But until the opening game, all 26 major-league teams are tied for first place and heading for the series. It is a familiar refrain—just another part of the sweet sound of spring training’s delightful ritual that heralds the beginning of a fresh season.^