Cheer up, Bowie Kuhn. Forget, for a moment, that Charlie Finley is suing you for $3.5 million. Forget about Marvin Miller, the Messersmith decision, Peter Seitz, Ted Turner, Jerry Kapstein, additional agents—free or otherwise—and all those congressional subcommittees that want baseball in the nation's capital. Yes, forget 1976, Commissioner, for as 1977 dawns there is good news for a change: the Toronto Blue Jays and the Seattle Mariners, those latest creatures of American League expansion, are already boffo at the box office and chances are good that they will not play like the original Mets when they take to the field this spring.
Toronto has sold about 7,000 season tickets, and the Blue Jays have not begun their high-pressure sales pitch to the local business community. "We may reach 20,000 season tickets," says one optimistic club official. Don't laugh.
Toronto is one of the wealthiest areas in North America, the headquarters city for most Canadian businesses, and Torontonians are well known, and well appreciated, for supporting losing teams, which the Blue Jays will be for at least their first few seasons. The Toronto Maple Leafs have not won the Stanley Cup in almost 10 years, but they have sold out every home game—more than 1,200 in all—for the last 30 seasons. The Toronto Argonauts, the only Canadian Football League team that has never won the Grey Cup, again averaged almost 50,000 paying spectators per game this past season despite another last-place finish in their conference.
The Blue Jays have sold their radio contract and are negotiating a lucrative television deal. And the hottest selling items around snowbound Toronto during the Christmas rush were Blue Jay sweat shirts, T shirts, mugs, glasses and lamps.
January 10, 1977
"Everyone's talking about the Blue Jays now," says Mike Cannon, a Canadian who recently joined the club's front-office staff after 5½ years with the NHL Players' Association. "To most people around Toronto, the big thing is that we've got to beat the record of the Montreal Expos in their first season in the National League. We've got to win at least 53 games this year—one more than the Expos won back in 1969."
Cannon's introduction to baseball has not been without minor embarrassments. Last September he accompanied Pat Gil-lick, Toronto's vice-president of player personnel, to a meeting in Baltimore, and while watching the Orioles take batting practice, he asked Gillick "Say, do teams always hire kids like that to pitch batting practice?"
"Know who that kid is?" Gillick said.
While even the most optimistic Toronto fans confidently expect that snow will force postponement of the Blue Jays' April 7th home opener against the Chicago White Sox in 35,000-seat Exhibition Stadium, there are no such fears in Seattle, where the Mariners will play their games in the air-conditioned, 60,000-seat Kingdome. Seattle still is smarting from previous experiences with expansion franchises. The city has suffered through one new American League team (the ill-fated Pilots of Ball Four infamy, who skipped to Milwaukee after a single disastrous season), a new NFL club (the low-flying Seahawks, who lost 12 of 14 games in their 1976 debut) and an NBA franchise (the not-so-super SuperSonics, who have made the playoff's only two times in their nine years).
Fortunately for Seattle, the Mariners have not followed the Pilots' tack. The 1969 Pilots charged some of the highest prices in baseball to watch one of the sport's worst teams, and only about 685,000 people availed themselves of the opportunity. The new Mariners have priced their tickets between $1.50 and $5—among the lowest scales in baseball—and, as a result, have sold some 4,000 season tickets. They also have the Kingdome at their disposal, not Sicks' Stadium, where Pilot fans always arrived with their umbrellas. "The Kingdome is a big selling advantage," says Les Smith, one of the Seattle owners. "People can plan far in advance and know the games will not be rained out."
It is probably only a coincidence that a born-and-bred National Leaguer—Peter Bavasi, the 34-year-old son of Buzzie Bavasi, who was general manager of the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers for 17 years and now is president of the San Diego Padres—is in charge of Toronto's baseball operation. Last season Toronto expected to be a member of the National League, not the American. At that time Toronto investors reached an "agreement in principle" to buy the San Francisco Giants for $13.25 million and move them to Canada. But while Torontonians were celebrating the acquisition of another losing team, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone obtained a restraining order against the sale and Kuhn put a hold on franchise shifts. Soon after, Giants Owner Horace Stoneham sold the team to San Francisco interests, and Toronto was left with nothing.
"The political wolves were at my door," says Metropolitan Chairman Paul Godfrey, "I had rebuilt a stadium with taxpayers' money and had no tenant. The National League showed a great deal of indecision. The league could have moved the Giants here or given us an expansion franchise. I think we would have had a love affair with the Giants unprecedented in baseball." Godfrey's lingering resentment is understandable. Toronto would have been a natural National League rival for Montreal, and because the Expos have been baseball's worst-run expansion team, Toronto certainly would have profited by comparison.
Peter Bavasi, who was general manager of the Padres, seems aware of the pitfalls that face an expansion team. "You realize the importance of patience when you handle a team like ours," he says. "If you draft young, as we did, you have to bite the bullet. You don't want to make wholesale changes too quickly. If you do, you wind up mixing and matching and eventually rebuilding. The same goes for financing. In San Diego we had to trade three good pitchers—Pat Dobson, Fred Norman and Dave Giusti—for financial reasons. If we had bitten the bullet and made other financial adjustments, we would have been sitting pretty. But we had no other choice. Fortunately, we have the financial resources in Toronto to forestall any such difficulties."
Nevertheless, Bavasi has already made a few intriguing deals. He selected Rico Carty from Cleveland in the expansion draft, then promptly returned him to the Indians in exchange for young Catcher Rick Cerone and handyman John Lowenstein. He also drafted Pitcher Al Fitzmorris, a 15-game winner last season, from Kansas City and shuttled him off to Cleveland for Catcher Alan Ash-by and utilityman Doug Howard. Now Bavasi has a surplus of young catchers, and the California Angels, among other teams, have made attractive offers for Ashby. Bavasi has hired Roy Hartsfield, who worked for him in the San Diego system, as field manager and Bob Miller, an original New York Met, as pitching coach. "Maybe they'll start me on opening day," says Miller.
No chance. If Miller pitches for Toronto, not even Bowie Kuhn would have much to cheer about.