For America’s the first pastime time will in not history, open in the United States. Next week, weather permitting, the first pitch of the 1987 major league baseball season will be thrown in Canada. Barring rain or snow on the north shore of Lake Ontario, the opening volley—likely
from Blue Jay left-hander Jimmy Key—will head toward the Cleveland Indians’ lead-off batter—probably second baseman Tony Bernazard—at 12:35 p.m. on April 6 in Toronto. Within hours the other 24 teams will join the pennant races, sharing the springtime optimism intrinsic to the summer game. More than most, however, the Blue Jays’ optimism seems justified.
Said New York Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly, arguably the game’s best player:
“Any team thinking about winning the American League East has to get by the Blue Jays first.”
Mattingly’s generous assessment has nothing to do with his
record $1.98-million February salary arbitration award. But it has everything to do with baseball’s myriad problems. In addition to preseason optimism, the 26 teams share the lingering acrimony of a turbulent winterfive months of heated arbitration, salary and free-agency disputes between
players and owners. The players association charges that the owners are acting in collusion to hold salaries down and restrict the movement of free agents. The owners say that there has been a downward adjustment in baseball’s marketplace and that they are simply being prudent.
At week’s end, the 1986 National League batting champion, free agent outfielder Tim Raines of the Montreal Expos, remained unemployed. And the top pitcher in the American League last year, Roger Clemens of the Boston Red Sox, continued his holdout as the team fined him $1,000 for each day’s absence. Said Jays executive vice-president Pat Gillick: “Teams don’t necessarily have to make a player happy, but hopefully as comfortable as possible. But some players have higher comfort levels than others.”
While the free-agent issue simmered over the winter, almost every team suffered bitter preseason salary disputes. Even the Jays were not immune. Last week at spring training in Florida, shortstop Tony Fernandez, winner of the Gold Glove Award as the best defensive shortstop in the American League in 1986, and relief pitcher Tom Henke, who saved a club-record 27 games for the Jays in 1986, labored unhappily.
The Jays, after winning the American League East in 1985, finished fourth last season. Injuries to pitch-
ers Gary Lavelle and Tom Filer, an abrupt fall from grace by pitcher Dave Stieb and the unexpected renaissance of the Boston Red Sox all contributed to their collapse. But Fernandez, with a .310 batting average, sought a sizable raise from his reported $225,000 base salary. And Henke, who toiled last season for $191,000, asked for the game’s average salary of $412,000. As talks stalled, Fernandez refused to play exhibition games, and Henke briefly walked out of camp.
In March, Fernandez’s contract was renewed by the Blue Jays—the team’s prerogative under the collective agreement —and Henke re-signed. Fernandez will receive a reported $325,000 with $100,000 in possible incentive bonuses;
Henke, $291,000 with the chance for an additional $50,000. Said the 24-yearold Dominican shortstop, who like Henke will be eligible for salary arbitration next year: “I lost the battle, but not the war.” Added the 29-year-old pitcher from Missouri: “I showed them that they can’t push me around. But I’m not the Lone Ranger. There are a lot of guys out there in the same situation.”
In the toughest division in baseball— the American League East—the Jays are not alone in their trials. The defending champion Sox are without Clemens and free-agent catcher Rich Gedman. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner is still fuming over Mattingly’s salary and is missing free-agent pitcher Ron Guidry. And the Detroit Tigers have lost free agent catcher Lance Parrish to the Philadelphia Phillies. Indeed, without signing or losing a free agent, Toronto’s chances in the AL East have improved:
According to team officials, their problems with Fernandez and Henke and their decision not to pursue free agents were not the result of playing “hardball” on salaries. Said Gillick: “We have always said that we would be competitive with the other clubs, and that hasn’t changed. Maybe what is happening is that the megastars are going to be paid big bucks. But unfortunately the nonstars—the role players—are going to be playing for scale or slightly above it.” Even before outfielders George Bell and Jesse Barfield signed million-dollar-
plus contracts in February, the Jays carried financial burdens from less temperate times. Pitchers Stieb and Bill Caudill were signed to multimillion dollar contracts in 1985. Caudill, 30, whose postmillionaire days with the Jays have been as undistinguished as Stieb’s, wears his contract like a tether. Last season, with management’s co-operation, he kept secret a viral arthritis condition. Said the 30-year-old reliever: “If I was in pain, it was nobody else’s business.” Added Caudill: “The days of the multi-year contract are gone. I came along at the right place and the right time. Still, I do wonder: if the owners are cutting back so much on salaries, why aren’t they cutting back on ticket prices?”
Far from cutting back, the Jays have increased ticket prices for the fourth year in a row. A box seat in their 11th year costs twice the amount it did in their first. And Blue Jays fans will see a different team for the extra price. Gone from second base is the volatile Damaso Garcia (traded to the Atlanta Braves); he will be replaced by either 25-year-old rookie Mike Sharperson or a rotation of infielders. At third base, the reliable duo of Garth Iorg and Rance Mulliniks has been supplanted by 25-year-old sophomore Kelly Gruber. Behind the plate, 22-year-old Matt Stark or Jeff Hearron, 25, will be the team’s backup to Ernie Whitt. And 23-year-old first baseman Fred McGriff’s towering home runs in Florida did not go unnoticed by the incumbent Willie Upshaw.
Still, as with the other contenders in the AL East, the Jays’ chief concern is their pitching. Said Toronto manager Jimy Williams: “We can compete offensively with any team. It all comes down to that hump out there in the middle of the field—that danger zone—60 feet and six inches from the mound to the plate.” After a shaky start last year, Key regained his control over the danger zone. While right-hander Jim Clancy is reliable, right-hander Joe Johnson and lefthander John Cerutti still have to demonstrate consistency. Whether righthander Stieb can return to his 1985 form is something only the 29-year-old Californian and the bone spurs in his right elbow can answer. The club is also counting on left-hander Lavelle to recover from surgery last April and on Caudill to start earning his salary.
The Jays already have the division’s best relief tandem in Henke and last season’s rookie sensation Mark Eichhorn, 26, who posted a 1.72 earned-run average in 157 innings. But Gillick is still contemplating a trade. Blessed with baseball’s best outfield—in left fielder Bell, centre fielder Lloyd Moseby and right fielder Barfield—the Blue Jays also boast some choice trading bait: outfielders Silvestre Campusano, 20, from the Dominican Republic; Glenallen Hill, 22, from California; and Rob Ducey, 21, from Cambridge, Ont. Said Gillick: “We’re looking for a veteran backup catcher and a left-hander relief pitcher.”
For the more than 40,000 fans who will watch the season’s first pitch at Exhibition Stadium, the five-month wait for baseball’s return has been too long. For them, once the game begins, the turbulent winter will fade into memory. But for the players and owners, the bitterness of the off-season is likely to linger well into summer.
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