Otto Velez, an obscure player even by Toronto Blue Jay standards, was enjoying a rare moment before the TV lights in the clubhouse one day last week. A youthful newsman, dapper in a three-piece suit of improbable hue and immense checks, had thrust a microphone in front of Velez and was inquiring what had passed through his mind when he pinch-hit the three-run, eighth-inning homer that had given the expansion team its fifth win in its first week and, astonishingly, a share of first place in the American League East. Velez was glad he was asked that question, because he had an amusing story to relate. It seems he had come to bat somewhat more relaxed than he might have been, since he thought that the score was tied. In fact, it was 3-2 in favor of Detroit, but Velez had been warming up in the clubhouse, don't you see, and was not aware that the Tigers had scored the go-ahead run in their half of the inning.
Velez smiled in anticipation of all those Canadians chuckling before their tellies at his anecdote and began to speak in a lilting Puerto Rican accent: "I'm glad you asked that question. You see, I didn't know...." The cameraman stepped in suddenly. "Oops, sorry, Otto," he said. "We're out of film. Maybe later." Velez was only mildly disappointed. It had been such a banner week for all of the Blue Jays that it seemed obvious this would not be his last moment in the limelight.
Velez and his teammates, most of them either too young or too old for other teams' tastes, had been prepared to accept adversity graciously and entertain their fans in ways other than winning, like doffing their caps after homers or dandling infant spectators on their knees. But in their first seven games, the Blue Jays had won two of three with the White Sox and taken three of four from the Tigers. They were flying high and loving it, though they knew it would not be long before they would come to earth. To a degree, that is exactly what happened at week's end when Toronto went on the road for the first time, lost three at Chicago and fell to third place.
"We have no particular goals," says Blue Jay Manager Roy Hartsfield. "We don't have any phase one, phase two or anything like that. We're not saying how many games we'll win. We're just trying to maintain a positive attitude. If we do, we'll surprise a few people."
That the Blue Jays were winning more than they lost was surprise enough for the 146,041 Toronto fans who showed up for the first seven games. They would have cheered the new team for accomplishing nothing more than lining up in the right positions. In this first glorious week, discontent was registered only over the absence of beer in the ball park. By law, alcoholic beverages cannot be served in any sports facility in Ontario. Exhibition Stadium thus claims the singular distinction of being the only brewless major league baseball park. For years fans of the CFL Argonauts and the NHL Maple Leafs have neatly sidestepped the prohibition by brown-bagging it, but baseball fans are obviously much more aboveboard. At every Blue Jay game last week they set up the plaintive chant, "We Want Beer! We Want Beer!" The beer issue has been the subject of considerable letter-writing to the three Toronto newspapers, which have responded with editorials, and if political soundings are accurate, headier days lie ahead.
The Blue Jays may lack beer, but they are already in the gravy. Because of the relative inexperience of its players. Toronto has the lowest payroll in the majors and, with Labatt brewery—oh, the irony of it!—among its owners, one of the best-heeled front offices. And according to General Manager Peter Bavasi, the Blue Jays took in more money before the season opened than any team has in major league history, about $7 million from the sale of 8,500 season tickets, radio and television time and an appalling array of decals, posters, T shirts, caps, books and even a hit record. The Blue Jays, a disco number performed by a Niagara Falls (Ont.) group known as Paul's People, has surpassed recordings by John Denver and Bette Midler on the local charts. But the biggest sellers have been the Blue Jay decals. "Buzzie wrote me that he saw one on the bulletin board of the Waikiki Country Club," says the 34-year-old Bavasi, who, like everyone else, calls his father, San Diego Padres President E. J. Bavasi, Buzzie.
The promotional success is even more stunning when it is considered that the younger Bavasi had as office equipment "two paper clips" when he took charge last June. He quickly assembled a staff of 42 mostly young, mostly Canadian workaholics who consider a 19-hour day a short shift. "We showered and slept right here in the office," says Bavasi. Reckoning, perhaps incorrectly, that the team they would put on the field would not amount to much, the Blue Jay management decided to provide the fans with every amenity short of the forbidden brew. Players were urged to "establish a dialogue" with the spectators by acknowledging cheers and by making themselves readily accessible to the public.
Toronto fans merit such congenial treatment; they have been grumping for nearly eight years over the injustice of archrival Montreal having a major league baseball team when they did not. Montreal, to be sure, is a bigger and flashier city, a painted madam to Toronto's good gray lady. But Toronto has money and drawing potential—with a metropolitan population of 2.8 million and a regional population of nearly twice that.
Paul V. Godfrey, chairman of the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto (a kind of supermayor of five boroughs), is considered to be the man who was most influential in acquiring the franchise. When he was but an alderman in 1969. Godfrey began badgering Commissioner Bowie Kuhn about the cold shoulder baseball had been giving his city. "Go out and get yourself a stadium, young man," Kuhn advised Godfrey, who is 38 and looks younger. When Godfrey became Metro Chairman in 1973, he instantly appointed a committee to investigate the stadium problem. It was determined that the most economic plan was to expand and install artificial turf in Exhibition Stadium, which the municipality already owned. The tenants, the Argonauts, were agreeable when advised that the remodeling would add 22,000 seats to the structure. The stadium now holds about 43,000 for baseball and 53,000 for football, the extra 9,000 seats being situated too far beyond the portable outfield fences to be suitable for viewing baseball. The stadium project cost $17.8 million, small change when compared with the $875 million or so reqired to build Montreal's Olympic Stadium. "We spent less money on our stadium than Jean Drapeau [Montreal's mayor] spent spilling champagne at the Olympic Games," said Godfrey.
But a ballpark did not immediately mean a baseball team. Godfrey and his friends at Labatt nearly had the Giants last year, but were thwarted at the 11th hour. After that cliff-hanger, things got a bit sticky for Godfrey, who was accused by political opponents of saddling the city with a white-elephant stadium. Then in March of '76 the American League voted to expand. The Blue Jay franchise was awarded to the got-rocks troika of Labatt, financier R. Howard Webster and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.
So now there are players wearing handsome blue-and-white Toronto uniforms. Many are from backgrounds similar to that of 27-year-old Doug Ault. who bounced around the minor leagues for four years trying futilely to break into the Texas Rangers' lineup. To counterbalance the inexperienced Aults on their roster, the Blue Jays have hired such old hands as Ron Fairly, who at 38 still seems to have some magic in his bat.
But clearly the local favorites are unfamiliar players like Velez. who is off to a .286 start; Outfielders Bob Bailor (.368) and Al Woods (.316); 21-year-old fork-baller Jerry Garvin, who won both of his starts; and, particularly, Ault, who leads the team with 10 RBIs and four home runs. Two of those clouts came on Opening Day, when an overflow crowd of 44,649 was on hand at Exhibition Stadium, and Ault doffed his cap in prescribed Blue Jay style following each. He became an instant hero, his performance topping off what was, despite a snowstorm, a warm and sentimental occasion.
"There were 89,000 teary eyes," says Bavasi. Maybe so, but one thing is certain: those people weren't crying in their beer.