Sports

CONTENDERS OR PRETENDERS?

The Jays and Expos look to the playoffs—but they have to get through July first

MICHAEL SNIDER July 21 2003
Sports

CONTENDERS OR PRETENDERS?

The Jays and Expos look to the playoffs—but they have to get through July first

MICHAEL SNIDER July 21 2003

CONTENDERS OR PRETENDERS?

Sports

The Jays and Expos look to the playoffs—but they have to get through July first

MICHAEL SNIDER

THE BEST PLACE to watch a ball game is about 20 rows up behind home plate, just slightly askew of the batter. You can see the ball go through the strike zone right into the catcher’s mitt, and from that close you can hear clearly when a guy has crushed a pitch by the explosive crack of the bat. It’s late June, and the Expos are in town for a threegame series just before the Canada Day weekend. The SkyDome is open and a fresh evening breeze mixes with the fading sunshine as it pours down at an angle. The announcer reads the lineups after the anthems; I overhear a 10-year-old ask her dad what a DH is. The popcorn man sprints to the bottom of the stairs, turns and slowly walks back up, hollering, his head on a swivel. As the Jays take the field in the top of the first, 24,000 fans rise from their seats and cheer.

For a Canadian baseball fan, it’s a great sight, and I don’t mean simply seeing both teams on the same diamond. The Blue Jays and Expos entered the contest as surprising overachievers in their respective leagues. After a dismal April, Toronto spent the next two months leading up to the Montreal series riding an offensive wave that placed it first in the American League in batting average, runs scored and hits, winning nearly seven of every 10 games. The no-name Expos had been equally as impressive, sitting eight games over .500, thanks primarily to some young pitchers. Both seemed to be writing their own storybook seasons, sitting mere games behind their respective division leaders and in good position for a run at a wild card spot. Exciting, isn’t it? Maybe this will be the year a Canadian team gets back into the post-season. Hey, anything can happen, right? Right?

Well, don’t hold your breath. Following the all-Canada series, the Jays went on a dismal road trip, losing five of seven games, and then returned home to drop three straight to the second place Boston Red Sox. The Expos, meanwhile, dropped three of four to the division-leading Atlanta Braves, before losing two out of three to the second place Philadelphia Phillies.

It gets worse. After this week’s All-Star break, Toronto plays its next six against Boston and New York, making it a total of 12 games against these powerhouses sandwiched around the break. Montreal gets a brief respite, playing host to the Florida Marlins, but then faces Philly and the Braves again before the end of the month. It’s something called divisional play, where teams in the same division play each other more often than teams in other divisions.

But the odds were stacked against our boys even before their post-Canada Day slumps. Toronto’s payroll (US$51 million) is half that of Boston’s (US$100 million) and one-third of New York’s (US$153 million). Montreal faces a similar scenario in the National League East. The Braves spend US$106 million on players, the Phillies US$70 million and the Expos US$52 million. While there are examples of rich teams that lose (New York Mets) and poor teams that win (Kansas City Royals), baseball is a money game. In the past eight World Series, nearly all of the contenders—with last year’s champion Anaheim Angels the sole exception-placed in the top half of the league in payroll. The Yanks, there for five of the past eight World Series, have ranked no lower than second. This year, Montreal and Toronto

I ALMOST RESENT THEM, playing so well in the first half of the season, giving us hope, before slumps knock them down the standings

come in at 20th and 21st in total payroll, respectively, out of the 30 Major League teams.

But hey, it ain’t all bad. Who doesn’t like watching the smoke clear at SkyDome after Carlos Delgado or Vernon Wells has lit up an opposing pitcher? The Jays are seeing a renaissance of power thanks to the big bats of the all-star duo—Canada’s bash brothers. They’ve combined for nearly 200 RBIs in just

half a season, with Delgado on pace to become the first player in 65 years to knock in more than 165 runs. As a team, the Jays have posted some of the most impressive offensive numbers in the bigs. Up to last Friday, Toronto ranked second in the American league in team batting average (.290), hits (943), runs (539), RBIs (521) and slugging percentage (.479).

But while Toronto’s offensive numbers are impressive, its pitching—especially the bullpen—is depressive. They have ace Roy Halladay and veterans Cory Lidie, and Kelvim Escobar, but the Jays lack an effective fourth starting pitcher, let alone a fifth. But even more of a sore point is the bullpen, which is supposed to put out late-game fires, not ignite them. In the past two weeks the Jays relievers managed to blow a five-run lead against the Baltimore Orioles and a fourrun lead against Boston.

The Expos are another story. Abandoned by their city, abused by former owners, and largely ignored by Major League Baseball, they’re perennial underdogs, an afterthought. Baseball tried to get rid of the Expos last year by reducing the number of franchises from 30 to 28, basically scrapping the team and dispersing its players. Court action kept Montreal (and the Minnesota Twins) alive, but recently interests in Portland, Ore., Washington, and Northern Virginia have all pitched plans for buying and moving the club. Some experts expect an announcement as early as this week as to where—and when—the club will go.

But despite all that, the Expos still find a way to win and I just wish I could see them regularly on the tube. They play something called little ball: get a guy on first, steal second, bunt him to third and bring him in with a sacrifice fly or grounder to the right side. Simple, effective and under-rated as a manner of playing the game. Led by Frank Robinson, a no-guff manager and baseball icon, the team overcame a 21-game road trip to start the season and injuries to key players to be sitting three games out of wild card contention at week’s end. Wouldn’t

you love to see what these guys could do with a healthy lineup, a stable home and 30,000 fans cheering them on? Me, too, but I don’t plan on moving to Virginia.

To make matters worse for the Expos, it seems like everyone in the National League has a shot at the wild card spot. There are eight teams within five games of the wild card; in other words, eight teams that will be looking to add talent before the July 31 trade deadline rather than sell it. Despite having one of the game’s most creative general managers in Omar Minaya, budget restrictions will limit the Expos’ options even if they’re in a shopping mode before the deadline.

The Jays still hope to be within striking distance of the playoffs by the month-end trading deadline. By then, both the Expos and

the Jays will have decided to either roll the dice and make a run for the post-season by buying a pitcher (jays) or a power hitter (Expos), or throw in the towel by trading away some of their high-priced free agents, in return for acquiring low-cost prospects that might be an important cog two years from now. For the Jays, there’s always a return to Plan A. General manager J.P. Ricciardi has said 2005 will be Toronto’s year, and has been busy acquiring talented, lower-paid youngsters like last year’s rookie of the year Eric Hinske, along with Frank Catalanotto and Reed Johnson.

As I make my way out of the park, the teams are long gone down their tunnels for a shower and some dinner. It was a good game, well pitched until the ninth inning

when the Expos reliever walked in the Jays’ winning run. And I got to see the Expos play, my team, the club I secretly wish could do something beyond miraculous and shove a post-season berth right back in baseball’s face. I realize I almost resent both teams, playing so well in the first half of the season, giving us hope, before injuries begin to take their toll, pitchers get tired, and slumps and swoons knock them down in the standings. I can’t help it. I’m a fan. But no matter what happens over the next two weeks, whether the Jays and Expos emerge as contenders or pretenders, or whether the Expos will stay in Montreal for another season, at least for now, I’ll mutter that depressing old line laced with hope and regret: There’s always next year. Iffl