Sports

A whole new ball game

Baseball hopes fans will forgive and forget

JAMES DEACON April 15 1996
Sports

A whole new ball game

Baseball hopes fans will forgive and forget

JAMES DEACON April 15 1996

A whole new ball game

Sports

Baseball hopes fans will forgive and forget

In the first inning of the Montreal Expos’ season opener in Cincinnati against the Reds last week, home-plate umpire John McSherry collapsed on the field and died of a heart attack. The tragedy stunned players and spectators alike, and overshadowed an ordinarily sunny time on the sports calendar, the beginning of the baseball season. For baseball boosters, it also seemed to symbol -ize the black cloud that hangs over the game. The major leagues, which have been without a full-time commissioner for more than three years, desperately need an upbeat year after seeing the 1994 and 1995 seasons shortened by a bitter strike. Angered by that stillunresolved dispute, fans stayed away from ball parks in droves last year, and those who tried to watch on TV missed some of last year’s exciting playoffs because some games inexplicably overlapped. To paraphrase immortal manager Casey Stengel, critics wondered: Can’t anyone here run this game?

Luckily for baseball, the game is renewed each spring, and TV executives seem prone to short-term memory loss. Despite the fact that CBS claimed a $500-million shortfall on its last baseball deal, three other U.S. TV networks—Fox, NBC and ESPN—stepped up to the plate in 1996 with a rich new contract worth about $2.3 billion over the next five seasons. Fans, meanwhile, are doing what they

always do in spring—dreaming of World Series glory. In some cities, that optimism is not an idle tease. The defending champion Atlanta Braves may actually be better than last year; the same can be said of the hot-hitting Cleveland Indians. But hope springs eternal even for 1995’s cellardwellers. The Montreal Expos, saddled with baseball’s lowest payroll ($21 million, compared with the highest, the New York Yankees’ $72 million), left training camp quietly confident that they will contend in the National League East. And despite an exodus of stars, the Toronto Blue Jays have also succumbed to spring. “That’s the

great thing about baseball,” says Jays outfielder Joe Carter, looking more enthusiastic and fit than ever. “No matter what we did last year, there’s always a new chance, a new season.”

After a dismal 1995 campaign, the Blue Jays are bracing for a significant drop in attendance from their two championship seasons, when more than four million fans packed SkyDome each year. On the field, absent veterans have been replaced by eager kids. Slugger Carlos Delgado inherits the designated hitter role from Paul Molitor, and Felipe Crespo, Domingo Cedeno and Tilson Brito are all vying to succeed departed second-baseman Roberto Alomar. With newcomer Otis Nixon in centre field and sophomores Alex Gonzalez (shortstop), Shawn Green (right field) and Sandy Martinez (catcher) taking regular turns, the Jays have only three returning veterans—Carter, first baseman John Olerud and third baseman Ed Sprague—in the everyday lineup. And the pitching staff—even with the addition of free agent Eric Hanson and Cobourg, Ont.’s Paul Quantrill—is iffy at best. “This is the first time since I’ve been here that we haven’t been picked to win,” says Olerud. “But we’ve got a good club—we’re going to surprise a few people.”

The Expos will also be young, but that is nothing new. The organization has been living off its talent-rich minor-league system for years. Montreal bolstered its 1996 roster by acquiring bullpen ace David Veres from Houston and slugger Sherman Obando from Baltimore. But what excites manager Felipe Alou is a pitching staff anchored by starters Pedro Martinez, Jeff Fassero and Rhéal Cormier, a native of Moncton, N.B. The offence, with more speed than power, will depend on Alou’s son, left-fielder Moisés, and centre-fielder Rondell White. Sitting in the sunshine during training camp, Expo broadcaster Ken Singleton was looking on the bright side. “Just watch them,” he said almost conspiratorially. “I think they will be better than most people think.”

Which Canada-based team does best this season will depend on how quickly their youngsters adapt to the big leagues. “The older players have been terrific with the kids,” says Gord Ash, the Blue Jays’ general manager. The Expos, with fewer experienced hands, will once again lean on professor Alou, who in years past has taken raw talents and turned out such stars as hard-hitting Larry Walker, the Maple Ridge, B.C., native who now plays for Colorado, and Atlanta centre-fielder Marquis Grissom. “Spring, to us coaches, is the teaching season,” Alou says. “We believe that what we are teaching is good, because the guys who leave here are great players.” And it is the great players—no matter where they ply their trade—who hold the best hope for a baseball revival.

JAMES DEACON