SPORTS

The promise and problems of spring

HAL QUINN April 18 1988
SPORTS

The promise and problems of spring

HAL QUINN April 18 1988

The promise and problems of spring

SPORTS

As major-league baseball’s regular season enters the second of its 26 weeks, last season’s painful memories in Toronto and unexpected joy in Montreal linger. The Blue Jays lost their final seven games to miss the American League East pennant by a precious two, while the Expos surprised even themselves by finishing third in the National League East. Yet each spring brings new promise, and problems. The Jays are expected to win this year, or at least be close again. And now the same is expected of the Expos. But Toronto started the season with an unhappy designated hitter (DH), the 1987 American League’s Most Valuable Player, George Bell. And the Expos opened their pennant drive in the domed Olympic Stadium with a new ventilation system which has transformed their park from a pitcher’s paradise to a hitter’s paradise. It could be a long—but certainly not uninteresting—season for both clubs.

During the off-season, the Blue Jays—having compiled the secondbest record in baseball in 1987—did not make any dramatic moves, sign any free agents or make any trades. But they did make changes.

With Bell tentatively moved to DH, the Jays have a new left fielder, a new centre fielder, a new tandem at first base, a new pitcher and a new catcher. Indeed, the Jays opened with seven players who were not on the 24-man opening-day roster a year ago. The Expos started 1988 with a new shortstop and a disgruntled right fielder, Hubie Brooks, their 1987 shortstop. And both teams may lose star players if an arbitrator rules next month that team owners conspired to restrict the movement of last year’s free agents.

Arbitrator Thomas Roberts ruled last fall that the 26 major-league team

owners acted in collusion against players who were free agents after the 1985 season. His decision freed the eligible players—most notably Detroit Tigers’ outfielder Kirk Gibson—from their existing contracts. Gibson left the Tigers and signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Now arbitrator George Nicolau may rule as Roberts did, freeing Blue Jays’ catcher Ernie Whitt and pitcher Jim Clancy and Expos’ left

fielder Tim Raines, one of the game’s best offensive players and the heart of the Montreal club. Adding to the Expos’ worries, well-ventilated baseballs flew over Olympic Stadium’s walls last week as the visiting New York Mets hit an opening-day team-record six home runs. Said 1987 National League manager of the year, Montreal’s Buck Rodgers: “We’ll have to wait a few

more games to see if the stadium will always be like this. If it is, we’ll have to adjust our thinking.”

Toronto’s management changed their thinking about Bell, who as their left fielder last season hit 47 home runs with a .308 batting average and 134 runs batted in. In an effort to improve their defence and add speed to the lineup, the Jays shifted Bell to DH, Lloyd Moseby from centre field to left, and inserted the fleet rookie Silvestre Campusano, 22, in centre. Bell expressed his displeasure on St. Patrick’s Day. The 28-year-old from San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, refused to take part in an exhibition game.

Fined $1,000 (U.S.) and suspended for a day, he returned under the threat of a 30-day suspension and $2,000 fine from Jays’ manager Jimy Williams. The monetary threat meant little. On Feb. 17 Bell signed a contract for $1.9 million in 1988 and $1.9 million in 1989. The following year the Jays must pay him $2 million or buy out his contract for $200,000.

Still, after hitting a major-league openingday record three home runs as DH in the Jays’ victory over the Kansas City Royals last week, Bell said: “I am not happy. I have too many things on my mind to be s happy.” Bell is con5 cerned that being the I DH will take the edge off his hitting game, that $ he has to play in the i outfield to keep his legs loose. Said Bell: “I have a right to be mad, I want to play.” Added right fielder Jesse Barfield: “He’s not happy about it, and that’s understandable. But the way he performed today, let’s keep him ticked off.” In the Jays’ second game, and playing left field, Bell collected five hits in five at bats. Said Bell: “I’m the bad guy. Fifty-five per cent of the people in Toronto are against me.”

But Bell will likely prove to be a better hitter than pollster and will probably share cheers, not boos, with the newcomers to the Jays’ opening-day lineup. Joining Campusano on the roster is rookie right-handed catcher Pat Borders, who will platoon with Whitt, who hits left-handed. After a sensational spring training—he led the team with a .373 batting average— Borders batted in five runs in his ma-

jor-league debut last week. Rookie Todd Stottlemyre, son of New York Mets’ coach and former New York Yankees’ pitcher Mel, is the fifth starting pitcher. In addition to the rookies, pitchers Mike Flanagan and David Wells, second baseman Nelson Liriano and outfielder Juan Beniquez were not with the team last April. And first basemen Fred McGriff and Cecil Fielder replace Willie Upshaw, sold to the Cleveland Indians. Said executive vice-president Pat Gillick: “I feel more confident than last year. Our pitching is a little more resolved. Borders is better than Charlie Moore, last year’s right-handed catcher. Our offence will be better at first base. And having Liriano all year at second base will be an improvement.”

The Expos also hope to improve by having starting pitchers Dennis Martinez and Pascual Perez with the team all season. Both spent part of 1987 in the minor leagues sorting out pitching and personal problems—Martinez’s with alcohol and Perez’s with cocaine. And hard-throwing starter Floyd Youmans appears ready for 1988 after off-

season treatment for alcohol dependency. As well, the Montreal starters have an excellent supporting staff of relief pitchers led by Tim Burke, who won seven games without a loss, saved another 18 and posted a sparkling 1.19 earned-run average last season. Said Rodgers: “ With the possible exception of the New York Mets, we could have the best all-round staff in the league.” But in their 20th season, the Expos

know that any pennant hopes rest with a “Rock” and a hard place. “Rock” is Tim Raines, who this season requested that the media refer to him only by his nickname. Raines is the catalyst of a hunt-and-peck offence that produced only 120 home runs last season, com-

pared with Toronto’s 215. While third baseman Tim Wallach emerged as one of the most potent hitters in the game last season—26 home runs and 123 runs batted in—Raines is the engine. Despite sitting out last April as an unsigned free agent, Raines led the major leagues with 123 runs scored, batted .330, hit 18 home runs and stole 50 bases. Anticipating a worst-case scenario with arbitrator Nicolau, the Expos have already made it a priority to re-sign him. Said Montreal’s majority-owner Charles Bronfman: “I love Raines, the team loves Raines. He is the heart of the Expos.”

While Raines is the heart, the hard place is Olympic Stadium, suddenly a haven for homerun hitters. Last season, with the roof finally in place —11 years after the Olympics for which it was designed—there were 12 per cent more runs scored. If the Expos’ opening games last week are any indication, the computer-controlled ventilation system now functioning should boost the run total even higher. Mets’ outfielder Darryl Strawberry hit a home run last week that would have travelled an estimated 535 feet — fully 135 feet beyond the deepest part of Toronto’s stadium— had it not hit the rim supporting the roof. It was an ominous opening for a team dependent on pitching. Said Mets’ first baseman Keith Hernandez: “With that air conditioning, it’s like a plane taking off, like a jet stream. You’re going to see a lot of home runs here this year.”

The ventilation system did not cool off Hubie Brooks in right field. Unlike Bell, he did not create an issue over his change of position, but Brooks said last week, “It’s like the New York Knicks putting Patrick Ewing [the basketball team’s outstanding centre] at guard.” Luis Rivera, a 24-year-old shortstop from Cidra, Puerto Rico, now has Brooks’s old job. But like Bell’s traumatic opening-day transition, Brooks’s, too, may not be permanent. Their promise and problems, like those of their teammates, are among baseball’s joys. Fans and players alike take part in the game’s rites of spring, confident that by October’s final reckoning April’s showers will be long forgotten.

— HAL QUINN with correspondents’ reports