The man with the big shoulders and the wicked smile on his face was George Bell, the black cloud hovering over the Toronto Blue Jays. Last week, Bell was hitting grounders to infielders under a clear blue sky at the Jays’ spring training camp in Dunedin, Fla. “Hey, hey, el bonito [good-looking],” shouted the goateed left fielder, smiling benevolently as one of his charges made a backhand pickup. That Bell was in a good mood was not surprising. After all, Jays manager Jimy Williams bent over backward during spring training to ensure that the temperamental 29-year-old Dominican batting powerhouse does not disrupt the Jays’ nest—as he did last year with disastrous consequences.
The Jays lost the American League East to the Boston Red Sox by just two games. But Bell’s ham-fisted performance in left field probably cost the team more games than that. In the 1989 season, which begins next week, the ambitious Jays say that they are determined to increase their chances of achieving the goal that has eluded them by narrow margins for the past 12 years. In the 1989 season, they want to go all the way to the World Series.
Canadian fans have been tantalized by the
prospect of having a team play in the world baseball championship since 1969, when the National League’s Montreal Expos strode bravely onto the field at Jarry Park to become Canada’s first major-league baseball team. Both the Expos and the Jays have come within one win of pulling it off—the Expos in 1981 and the Jays in 1985—but each time two consecutive losses sidetracked the northern challenge. The chances of one of those teams—even both of them—making it to the World Series this fall are probably as good as they have ever been.
To be sure, neither is a league favorite. In the American League, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire smash fences with their hits on behalf of the mighty Oakland Athletics, whose formidable pitching staff has been bolstered by the acquisition of Mike Moore from the Seattle Mariners. And in the National League, while the world champion Los Angeles Dodgers may not have enough talent to hold their lead, the New York Mets, winners of 100 games in 1988, look especially strong. Infielder Gregg Jefferies, who hit .321 for the Mets after being recalled from the minors during the final month of the season last year, will be on hand right from the start this year. As well, the Mets’ veteran reliever Don Aase, who had suffered
from arm ailments throughout his career, looked strong in Florida.
Still, Expos manager Buck Rodgers says that this may be his year to topple the swaggering New Yorkers. “They’re getting old,” declared Rodgers last week as he watched the Expos work out in West Palm Beach, Fla. Rodgers noted that the Mets’ two key players—first baseman Keith Hernandez and catcher Gary Carter—are both 35, and they looked it last year. He added: “In the last few years, we have felt that something had to go wrong for the Mets in order to give us a shot at beating them. This year, I think we can compete on even terms.”
The Expos have a few weak spots of their own. The very day that Rodgers was waxing so enthusiastic about his team’s chances, his new starting shortstop, Spike Owen, was hit in the back by a throw from the centre fielder of the day, Otis Nixon. In the meantime, if third baseman Tim Wallach can rebound from his flacid performance at bat during the 1988 season, he could top off a potent offence built around the Expos’ new superstar, Andrés Galarraga, veteran superstar Tim Raines and the underrated right fielder Hubie Brooks.
Of the two Canadian teams, the Blue Jays probably have an advantage over the Expos in talent. This spring’s five weeks at Dunedin saw the emergence of long-ball-hitting Fred McGriff at first base and a much more relaxed Kelly Gruber at third. Shortstop Tony Fernandez has recovered from his elbow and knee injuries and could well regain the reputation he had earned as one of the best middle-infielders in baseball. The Jays’ pitching is sound, although somewhat overbalanced to the port side, and the three outfielders who only two years ago were considered the top trio in the game—Bell, Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield—are still a unit despite recurring trade rumors.
There remains the unresolved issue of how the moody Bell will perform this year. A great hitter, he slumped last year from the numbers that made him the league’s 1987 Most Valuable Player—a .308 batting average, 47 home runs and 134 RBIs—to a less godlike .269, 24 home runs and 97 RBIs. Last year’s decline set in after Bell flew into a spring training tantrum over manager Jimy Williams’s decision to make him a part-time designated hitter, rather than a full-time left fielder. The dispute festered long after the team had headed north for Toronto and never really disappeared, despite management’s decision to leave him in the outfield. Bell went on to make 17 errors and he recorded fewer putouts per game than any other regular outfielder in the American League.
The Jays do not want to run the risk of another Bell fiasco this year. The assumption seems to be that while the great George may have another uneven year in the outfield, if management can keep him happy, he will not be as clumsy as he was. And if a pampered George Bell is playing at the top of his form, the Jays might just be the first Canadian team to go all the way to the World Series.
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