SPORTS

A must-win season

JAMES DEACON,J.D. September 28 1992
SPORTS

A must-win season

JAMES DEACON,J.D. September 28 1992

A must-win season

Toronto wants its team in the World Series

SPORTS

Hours before game time in the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse, deep beneath the third-base stands at SkyDome, the men who fuel Toronto’s brittle baseball optimism are getting ready to play. Back near the showers is pitcher Juan Guzman, the flame-throwing young star of the pitching staff. Hunched over a stack of autograph requests is outfielder Joe Carter, one of the game’s premier sluggers. In the far corner, second baseman Robbie Alomar, among the best young players in baseball, slowly pulls on his jersey. Veteran designated hitter Dave Winfield, who will likely be the first Blue Jay in the Hall of Fame, hurries in from an interview. Veteran pitcher Jack Morris, slouched in a chair at the next locker, his head bowed as if pondering the stitching on his cowboy boots, looks up and nods hello. And in a huddle to one side, pitchers Tom Henke, Jimmy Key and newcomer David Cone trade fishing stories,

some of them true. The drone of heavy-metal music leaks from the adjacent weight room. The mood is relaxed but focused. “These guys come into this clubhouse with one thing in mind,” says Carter, “and that’s to win ball games.”

Welcome to Toronto, a city that takes its baseball seriously—that expects the Jays to win not just ball games but a World Series. The fans have had their fill of lesser achievements: since entering the league in 1977, the team has won divisional titles in 1985,1989 and 1991, while compiling the best winning percentage of any team in the majors over the past decade. At the turnstiles, the Jays will attract more than four million fans to SkyDome this season—an astounding average of nearly 50,000 per game— breaking their own attendance record set last year. Blue Jay president Paul Beeston admits that the team’s competitive and financial record is the envy of many other franchises, but it

does not meet the demands of Toronto. “The reality of the situation is that we have to win,” says Beeston. “We are not in this to draw four million fans, we are not in this to win the American League East championships—we are in it to win the World Series, and we haven’t got there.”

Despite their disappointments in previous playoffs, the Blue Jays have reason to feel confident—provided they win their division. Jim Kaat, a CBS broadcaster who was in California last week to see the Jays’ likely playoff opponent, the Oakland Athletics, says that he would give the Jays the edge over Oakland. “The Blue Jays have a tough divisional race ahead of them because Baltimore and Milwaukee are not backing away,” says Kaat, a former pitcher. “But if the Blue Jays get past that, they will be in good shape.” Kaat bases his assessment on the Jays’ starting pitching staff that adds Morris, an intense, tough-minded 15-year veteran, and Cone, a dominating strikeout pitcher obtained in a late-season trade with the New York Mets, to complement Guzman, lefty Key and righty Todd Stottlemyre.

Just as encouraging for fans is the Blue Jay offence. In 1991, the club lived or died by the performance of the top three men in the batting order—centre fielder Devon White, Alomar and Carter. But this season, despite an off year for White and a puzzling slump by third

baseman Kelly Gruber, the offence has been more consistent. Winfield, at age 40, has doubled the designated-hitter production of 1991,, and first baseman John Olerud is finally realizing the promise of his sweet swing. Left fielder Candy Maldonado got hot in August to help the then-slumping Jays keep their hold on first place.

Alomar has kept his average above .300 throughout the season, and Carter continues his prolific run production, driving in more than 100 runs for the sixth time in the past seven years. “Last year, it was White, Alomar and Carter, and after that you couldn’t wait to get back to the top of the lineup,” says Carter. “But this year, [shortstop] Manny Lee has played well in the ninth spot, and [catcher] Pat Borders has chipped in with some big hits. Every night it has been someone else, and that makes this a different team than last year’s.”

There is a different mood, as well. “From opening day in Detroit, these guys have been focused on winning,” says manager Cito Gaston. “This team is probably more together than any team that I have seen here.” Returning players say that the playoff loss to Minnesota, the eventual World Series champion, forged a resolve to come back stronger in 1992. Just to make sure, Beeston and vicepresident Pat Gillick acquired free agents Morris and Winfield to add their talents, their experience—and their mental toughness—to a lineup that some critics deemed lacking in character. But Morris, the laconic 37-year-old right-hander who pitched the memorable sev-

enth World Series game for Minnesota, says that the Jays are only beginning to face thentrue character test. “Maybe Minnesota wasn’t as talented as this team,” he says, “but the team spirit and the pulling together and all those intangibles that are not quite as obvious

to me on this ball club were a big part of why that team won.” Gillick says that he is pleased by the mix of talent and determination in this edition of the Jays. “I think we are more experienced and can handle adversity better this year,” said Gillick while watching his team work out at Sky Dome last week. “And I think we have better pitching right now than we had in any other year.” But such ingredients, he warns, are not always enough. “It’s a bit like when a hitter bats .290,” he said. “It doesn’t look like it’s that difficult to get to .300, but it’s not as easy as that. It can come down to one hot pitcher in a short series.”

Winfield, a 20-year veteran who endured a decade of public abuse while in the employ of New York Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner, says that he signed with Toronto for two reasons: the club’s reputation for treating its personnel well—and its chance to « win a World Series. “I just thought that a person who had been around W as long as I have, and who played N like I did, deserved a place and an I opportunity like this,” Winfield y said while sitting in the dugout I before batting practice. Then, ponu dering what it might feel like to win it all, he said: “I guess I would be very proud, and pleased, and I could finally say that I know what it really takes to win. I’ll know what the pitchers felt, what the rookies felt—I’ll have taken it all in.” That said, he sat back, breathed deeply and smiled.

JAMES DEACON in Toronto