Sports

Making their pitch

JAMES DEACON March 31 1997
Sports

Making their pitch

JAMES DEACON March 31 1997

Making their pitch

Sports

JAMES DEACON

Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, spring home of the St. Louis Cardinals, is one of the prettier Florida ball parks, especially when it is sunny and 28° C, with a breeze tousling the palm fronds beyond the outfield fences. But neither the weather nor the pleasant view of Tampa Bay were what brought hundreds of fans out early to watch batting practice. They wanted autographs—or, more specifically, Roger Clemens’s autograph. The legendary fireballer, late of the Boston Red Sox, was starting for the visiting Toronto Blue Jays, and each time he neared the dugout fans strained the chain-link fence trying to get his name on their programs. The unlucky ones had to take solace in a vintage Clemens performance when the game finally got under way.

The 34-year-old Texan struck out seven Cardinals with his stillscorching fastball in 52/3 scoreless innings. Later, he also showed his hot temper, stomping and cursing around the clubhouse when the Jays blew the lead and lost 4-2.

“That’s the way I am,” he said after cooling off. “It doesn’t matter if it’s spring training—I want to win.”

Winning has not been the Jays’ way over the past three seasons.

But if spring renews all hopes, as the baseball maxim goes, then the spring of 1997 is a hopeful time not only for the Toronto team but for the league in general. League and player-association representatives finally signed a new collective bargaining agreement that, for at least five years, ends the labor wars that caused strikes and lockouts, and turned fans off the game. For the regular season that begins next week, the major leagues have tried to boost interest by scheduling showdowns between American and National League teams. Purists bemoan the assault on tradition just as they did when the American League embraced the designated hitter, but other fans apparently endorse inter-league play: officials project that season-ticket sales will rise nearly nine per cent over last year.

For Canadians, the change creates the first-ever Highway 401 series between the Blue Jays and Montreal Expos—three games that will feed the cities’ long-standing rivalry while also highlighting the disparity between baseball’s haves and have-nots. By acquiring Clemens, among others, the Jays hiked their annual player payroll to about $69 million in a bid to win their third World Series title of the 1990s. The cash-strapped Expos, plagued by relatively low attendance and broadcast revenues, will rely heavily on manager Felipe Alou to work miracles with players paid a relatively

The Jays and Expos: a tale of two budgets

minuscule $22.6 million in all. In the past, the Expos have been able to survive the annual exodus of stars— gone in trades or as free agents—because talented youngsters in their minor-league system have stepped up to fill the void. But this year, the cost-cutting has left the team even more suspect—and left holdovers shaking their heads. “It’s hard to think about the guys we lost,” says pitcher Rheal Cormier.

Roger Clemens follows a Jays tradition. When in need, the team has signed veteran free agents—Dave Winfield for 1992, Paul Molitor for 1993—who had amassed Hall of Fame statistics but still lacked that elusive World Series ring. Once a Red Sox fixture, Clemens was induced to bolt Beantown by a staggering $33.6-million, three-year deal. The pitcher insists money was not why he picked the Jays over other bidders—he says he liked the team’s commitment to winning, its family atmosphere and the fact he could bring his four young children to SkyDome to play when he was working out. (The kids’ names—Koby, Kory, Kacy and Kody—all start with K because that is the scorekeeping symbol for strikeout, their father’s specialty.) “I wanted to go where I had a good opportunity to win in a pretty quick fashion,” says Clemens, who spends the off-season at his 1,350-square-metre mansion in Piney Point, Tex., outside Houston, complete with a collection of baseball bats and other memorabilia. “I don’t know if

I’m going to hang around too long in baseball. I have four good reasons to go home—I want to watch them play ball. I never had the chance to do that with my father because he passed away when I was young.”

Despite an off-season overhaul, the Jays still have notable weaknesses. Their defence is suspect, particularly in the outfield and át first base, and they do not pack as much offensive punch as their championships teams did. Still, Clemens alone should help. He is a fearsome sight on the mound—with powerful shoulders and a barrel chest, he has the look and on-field personality of a red-faced, six-foot, four-inch pit bull. Although his performance slipped last year in Boston, Jays general manager Gord Ash says Clemens fits perfectly in a starting rotation that boasts Pat Hentgen, the top pitcher in the American League in 1996, and Juan Guzman, who had the league’s lowest earned-run average. “Consistency—that’s what you need to gain respect,” says Hentgen, “and that’s what Roger has done for 13 years. Any pitcher is going to look up to a guy like Clemens.”

It may take fans some time to get used to the “Rocket” in blue. Clemens once proclaimed he would never pitch in Boston in anything but a Red Sox uniform, a quote that is sure to haunt him in July when the Jays play their first 1997 series at Fenway Park. “He’s one of those guys who you associate with a certain team, like Kansas City and George Brett, or Minnesota and Kirby Puckett,” says Jays’ slugger Joe Carter. Clemens, meanwhile, hopes to wake up Toronto’s notoriously passive crowds. “I don’t want quiet,” he says. “I want them to come in from work, loosen their ties and take off their jackets, get them a beer and dog or whatever, bring the little ones and get ready to yell and scream.”

Sitting in his windowless office at Memorial Stadium in West Palm Beach, Felipe Alou wants to get one thing straight: Montreal does not have bad fan support. ‘To me, we have the

best fans in baseball,” he says. “Just look at the kind of players we lost over the years, and yet we still draw 1.3,1.4 million people. I’d like to see that in any city in America.”

Actually, out of 14 teams in the National League, the Expos finished 11th in attendance—and nearly a million fans behind the Blue Jays. In recent years, what the Expo fans have witnessed is the departure of a veritable all-star team. But Alou has a remarkable talent for making do. Most seasons, the 61-year-old native of the Dominican Republic has guided his low-budget collection of kids and castoffs into contention in the National League East, largely by convincing his players that if they do all the little things right, the big wins will come. “He uses the whole bench, not just nine guys, and he knows the game—the pitchers, the batters, how to position the infield,” says Moncton native Cormier, who previously toiled for St. Louis and Boston. “He’s the best I’ve ever played for.”

This season may be Alou’s toughest test, however. Of the team that finished second in the National League East with an 88-74 won-loss record, he said goodbye to his top starting pitcher (Jeff Fassero), his closer (Mel Rojas) and even his own son—power-hitting outfielder Moisés Alou. The manager hopes 23-year-old Ugueth Urbina, a hard-throwing Venezuelan, can recover from off-season elbow surgery well enough to fill the closer’s role. And Vladimir Guerrero, a 21-year-old outfielder from the Dominican Republic, has been the swinging sensation of spring training. But amid all the on-field turnover, Alou—a major-league outfielder for 17 years before taking to the dugout—remains calm. “He’s like this guy who sits up on top of a mountain,” says catcher Darrin Fletcher. “People climb up and he tells them parables on the meaning of baseball.”

As he tries to piece together a team, Alou is also trying to regain his health. He had two operations in the off-season, one to mitigate an enlarged prostate and the other a biopsy of a spot on his bladder that, happily, turned out to be benign. He still does not feel 100 per cent, but he prefers to keep working. “This is what I’ve been doing since I was 18—I would like to finish my career here,” he says. “If I’m still healthy after that, I think I’ll go fishing.”

He feels at home in Canada, partly because of its tradition of opening its doors to the world. He remembers as a boy hearing about families that escaped the brutal regime in the Dominican Republic and were welcomed into Canada. He also remembers the rare opportunity to manage he found in Montreal. “The fact that there are minority managers on the two major-league teams in Canada [Toronto’s Cito Gaston being the other] has to do with the way Canada is and the kind of people there are here,” he says.

Last December, Alou signed a contract extension through the 1999 season that eased worries that he, too, might leave. “We all need enough money to raise our children, and I ?A still have young kids [aged 5 and 10], £ but this is my place,” he says. “My 1 wife [Lucie] is from Montreal and my I children are Canadian citizens. There § are some things that are more impor| tant than the $1 million I might have g made somewhere else.” If only a few « of his ball players felt the same way.

JAMES DEACON at spring training