SPORTS

The picks of spring

The Expos and Blue Jays have high hopes

JERRY LANGTON March 25 1991
SPORTS

The picks of spring

The Expos and Blue Jays have high hopes

JERRY LANGTON March 25 1991

The picks of spring

SPORTS

The Expos and Blue Jays have high hopes

For fans of the Toronto Blue Jays, the team’s game against the Kansas City Royals in Florida last week answered a couple of burning preseason questions. First, Toronto’s new second baseman, Roberto Alomar, snuffed a sixth-inning Kansas City rally with a brilliant defensive play. Down 4-3 with a man on third,

Paul Zuvella, the Royals’ shortstop, lashed a blistering line drive towards right field for what looked like a sure run-scoring base hit. But Alomar, 23, leapt from his set position and, fully extended, caught the sinking ball for the third out. Then, in the bottom of the inning, right fielder Joe Carter, another new Jay, hit a solo home run over the centre-field fence and onto Dunedin’s shady Union Street to give Toronto a 5-3 lead (it eventually won 8-5). Despite the team’s poor springtraining start on the Gulf of Mexico,

Alomar and Carter demonstrated with their gloves and their bats why Toronto was willing to give up shortstop Tony Fernandez and slugger Fred McGriff to get them—and gave the 6,194 fans at Dunedin Stadium reason to believe that the Blue Jays’ winter of change was for the better.

Change is the key to the 1991 pennant hopes for the Jays, as well as for Canada’s other major-league team, the Montreal Expos. Most baseball publications predict that the Jays will finish ahead of the defending champion Boston Red Sox and win the American League East pennant, and Montreal is expected to contend for the National League East title against the improved Chicago Cubs. The same analysts say that last season’s World Series champions, the Cincinnati Reds, will finish behind either the Los Angeles Dodgers or the San Francisco Giants in the National League West, while the Oakland Athletics, the defending American League champions, are favored to win the American League West.

With an astonishing flurry of trades and freeagent signings this winter, Pat Gillick, the Blue Jays’ executive vice-president, remade a team that had earned the dubious distinction of being the American League’s perennial underachievers. Gone in 1991 are such longtime Blue Jay stars as Fernandez, first baseman McGriff and outfielder George Bell, the league’s most valuable player in 1987. In Montreal, the Expos’ only trade was a big one, sending superstar Tim Raines, an 11-year veteran outfielder, to

the American League’s Chicago White Sox for outfielder Ivan Calderon and relief pitcher Barry Jones. Three weeks before the start of the regular season, the enthusiasm of the newcomers on both teams, amid the usual infectious optimism of spring training, has even

sparked outbreaks of pennant fever. Said fan Tom Quigley, a Mississauga, Ont., resident who has spent the past two springs visiting the Blue Jays’ training camp: “Of course it’s too early to tell, but don’t they look great out there?”

The Blue Jays have often looked great in spring training, and they won two divisional titles in the 1980s. But in 1990, when they were widely regarded as the best team in their division, the Blue Jays were inconsistent and finished second to the Red Sox. After examining his team’s needs, Gillick replaced nearly one-third of his 24-man roster and engineered

what insiders regard as the biggest trade in recent baseball history—Fernandez and McGriff to the San Diego Padres for Carter and Alomar. Tom Henke, the team’s premier relief pitcher, said last week that such new players as Carter, Alomar, relief pitcher Ken Dayley and Pat Tabler, the designated hitter, have brought renewed enthusiasm to the team. Said Henke: “It looks like we got in some new blood and got rid of the bad blood.”

Meanwhile, at their Atlantic-coast training centre in West Palm Beach, Fla., the Expos began spring training knowing that for the first time in several seasons, some baseball analysts picked them to win their division. Last season, when they were not given much chance of winning, the Expos were in contention for the division title until the last weeks of the season. That was all the more remarkable because they played 15 rookies at different times during the season. This year, manager Buck Rodgers says that he expects a stronger showing because of the additions of Calderon and Jones, and the hoped-for improvement of such second-year starters as outfielders Larry Walker and Marquis Grissom, second baseman Delino DeShields and pitcher Mark Gardner. Walker, 24, a native of Maple Ridge, B.C., said: “We’re not worried about any sophomore jinx. We will only get better after having another year under our belts.” Rodgers will need his sophomores to mature quickly because he may have two or three inexperienced pitchers in his 1991 five-man starting rotation. After Gardner and veterans Dennis Martinez and Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd, Rodgers must choose among Chris Nabholz, who started 11 games in 1990, and rookies Brian Barnes and Howard I Farmer to be his starters.

8 One rookie pitcher the Exz pos openly covet is Denis ^ Boucher from Lachine, Que., who is among several hope-

fuis trying for Toronto’s fifth

spot in the starting rotation. Boucher, 23, won 15 games with Class-A Dunedin and AAA Syracuse in 1990, and so far the Jays have turned down trade offers from the Expos for the promising left-hander, who did not allow any earned runs in the two innings of his first appearance for Toronto last week. As a result, while spring training progresses under the hot Florida sun, Boucher still has a chance of making it to the big leagues—and Blue Jays and Expos fans can still believe that their teams have a real chance to make the World Series.

JERRY LANGTON in Dunedin