Recycling blues

TOM FENNELL March 23 1992

Recycling blues

TOM FENNELL March 23 1992

High hopes and tube tops


Letter From Spring Training

Baseball is back. Even as snowbound Canadians endure the last dismal innings of winter, major-leaguers from 26 teams are warming up at spring training camps in sunny Florida and Arizona. Adoring fans scrutinize their every stretch and swing, while a fortunate flock of baseball writers limber up their cliches—the crack of the bat, the smell of the grass—for another season. Last week, Maclean’s Associate Editor James Deacon dropped in on the Toronto Blue Jays’ camp in Dunedin, Fla., while correspondent Jerry Langton visited the Montreal Expos in West Palm Beach. Their wish-youwere-here report:

Game time is still more than 3V2 hours away, but the true believers are already lined up to worship at the great diamond shrine. The place is Grant Field, a lush patch of ball-park green in otherwise paved and billboarded Dunedin on Florida’s west coast. The

people waiting outside the still-chained stadium gates clutch score sheets and seat cushions, and sport binoculars around their necks. By arriving so early, they will be able to see both the Jays and their opponents, the St. Louis Cardinals, take batting practice. In the queue, the mostly Canadian fans chatter about what a good game young Rheal Cormier, from Shediac, N.B., pitched for the Cardinals the day before, and about how Jack Morris, the Jays’ new ace, has not reached mid-season form yet. But the most telling sign of their love of baseball is that they are here at all—flocking in March to watch what is supposed to be a summer game.

Sullied as it is by commerce, the game retains at least the illusion of innocence in spring training. Veteran stars hone the skills that earned them their privileged place in what has become an enormously lucrative pastime. Rookies and non-roster hopefuls run out every infield hit and dive for every ground ball, vying

for precious spots on the 25-man teams. The ball parks are small, the stands close to realgrass infields—intimate settings to rekindle an affair with baseball after a 41/2-month separation. “After the layoff, I come back really optimistic,” said John Olerud, the Jays’ first baseman. “It’s exciting to get out here and see what you can do.”

Canadian fans at both the Expos’ and the Blue Jays’ camps seem especially eager this year to erase the disappointments of last season. Montreal finished dead last in the National League East in 1991, while Toronto, after capturing the American League East crown, inexplicably lost three straight playoff home games—and the league title—to the Minnesota Twins, who went on to win the World Series. Most baseball prognosticators are confident that the beefedup Blue Jays will at least top their division again; the predictions are less rosy for the Expos, whose hope is simply to be a contender. But the most oft-repeated spring-training cliché is that the 162-game regular season, which begins on April 6, still lies ahead, giving every team an equal shot at the World Series next October. After all, last year’s Series combatants, Atlanta and Minnesota, both finished at the bottom of their divisions the year before.

That is good news to fans watching the Expos warm up in toney West Palm Beach. Last place was bad enough; losing their home park, Olympic Stadium, when a 50-ton hunk of concrete came crashing down last fall, was positively embarrassing. But this year’s Expos begin with some new players and a new look— and sound. The new media guide reads in French first, English second. And even in West Palm, the team is marketing itself to francophone fans. Last week, before a crowd of 3,503 at Municipal Stadium, contestants in a between-innings promotion shot baskets into a hoop with the aid of scantily clad waitresses from the local Hooters restaurant. The promotion may have been pure Americana, but the

public-address announcer was all Québécois. “Bonne chance,” shouted Alain Chantelois. He might have been talking to the team, which is fighting to regain its fan base after seeing overall home attendance slip below a million in 1991, compared with a high of 2.3 million in 1983. “It’s hard for them in Montreal,” said Gerry Price, 55, a cabdriver in hockey-mad Montreal who had come to see the Expos. “They’ll always be second to les Canadiens.” If the Expos fail with the fans this year, it will not be for lack of front-office effort. They traded slumping first baseman Andrés Galarragga to the Cardinals for fireballing pitcher Ken Hill, and they re-signed fan favorite Gary Carter. Whenever Carter, a 37-year-old catcher, jogged up to the plate last week, the crowd gave the 18-year veteran a standing ovation. “He’s going to sell a lot of tickets for them,”

said Ray Savond, 56, from Ottawa. Carter well knows that he has to be a drawing card—he even claims to have sold a season’s ticket over the telephone. “I was in the office and some guy called up asking how much the tickets were,” he told Maclean’s, “so I got on the phone and talked him into it.”

At Dunedin, Grant Field has a distinct Toronto flavor. Most of the cars in the parking lot have Ontario licence plates. And amid the profusion of Blue Jays caps are those bearing Ontario place names: “Fenelon Falls Car & Truck Centre” and “CFB Trenton.” But even without such props, the trained Floridian eye can detect the Canadian presence. One Dunedin ticket-taker points out how quiet the early-arriving fans are, how they stand in a straight line outside the gate. “They’re too polite to be American,” she observed between drags on a cigarette.

In the stands, a sizable contingent of the crowd seems not to believe the stories about ozone depletion and skin cancer. Great ex-

panses of overexposed winter skin abound, and although most of the many grey-haired heads are covered in some sensible headgear, there are many angry-red bald spots—and several ill-advised tube tops. But the fans are steeped in baseball: against the Philadelphia Phillies last week, veteran slugger Dave Winfield, an offseason addition to the Blue Jays, slid hard into second base to break up a double play. The crowd erupted in cheers, acknowledging real hustle from one of the game’s millionaires. “Way to go, Dave,” yelled one fan as Winfield trotted back to the dugout. Winfield pointed up to the fan and said, “Thanks.”

In a small ball park, even people in the back row can hear that sort of thing. “We like it here,” said Douglas McCaugherty, a retired Ontario Provincial Police officer from Zephyr, Ont., who attends Grant Field games with his

wife, Rene. “It’s homey, and there’s no one spilling booze down your back.” The players appreciate playing to a seasoned audience. “Fans in New York might have missed that play,” said Kelly Gruber, the Jays’ third baseman. “But not here. They love baseball here.” The dean of Dunedin fans is Frank McKee, 81, an usher at Grant Field since the Blue Jays began playing there 16 years ago. McKee, a retired insurance executive, has mixed allegiances—he has been an usher at New York Mets home games since 1962, and before that worked Brooklyn Dodgers games at Ebbets Field beginning in 1938. He lives in nearby Clearwater, but flies to New York City so that he can man his first-base ushering station for every Met home stand. McKee calls the game “the greatest thing in the world.” But the thing he loves most about spring training is the evident joy it gives the players. “During the season, you don’t always see them having fun,” he said. “Down here, they have fun.”

And why not? The off-season acquisitions of Morris and Winfield shored up an already formidable Jay roster. The Jays know that a lot is expected of them this year, and they are confident. “This is the best team I have ever been a part of,” outfielder Joe Carter told Maclean’s. Added Winfield: “It’s up to us to commit ourselves to playing our best, having a winning season and being the first Canadian team to win it all.”

But even sun-splashed spring training has its dark clouds. Just outside the civic pockmark of Lutz, Fla., northeast of Tampa Bay, a roadside billboard read: “BASEBALL!!! Don’t sell out to the Japanese! God Bless America.” The reference was to a proposed sale of the Seattle Mariners to a group headed by a Japanese investor. The man who has so far blocked that bid is Fay Vincent, the cane-toting commissioner of Major League Baseball. While on a tour of training sites last week, Vincent told reporters that, while he still loved the game, he was getting tired of the business. That business includes the financial difficulties of the Mariners and the problems of small-market teams in an age of spiralling player salaries. As well, Vincent must soon negotiate a new rights agreement with television networks, a deal that experts predict will pay far less than the current $ 1.6-billion four-year agreement with New York-based CBS and Bristol, Conn.-based ESPN that expires next season. Even the Jays’ local TV deal appeared in doubt until last week, when Toronto-based Baton Broadcasting paid $60 million for five years to televise up to 65 games each season on CTV and CBC stations.

But this is still spring training, weeks from any game that means anything in the standings and light-years from the worries of big business. Even Vincent said that he enjoyed watching as the Blue Jays scored a ninth-inning run to beat the Phillies 7-6 last week. And from his seat in the sunshine behind home plate, McCaugherty asked: “Would you rather be back home in winter, or here watching baseball?” Good point. □