CLOSE BUT NO CIGARS/AL EAST
This is an article from the March 23, 1998 issue
Hard to believe it has been just four seasons since the Blue
Jays' Joe Carter launched the final pitch of the '93 World
Series over the leftfield wall at the SkyDome and skipped around
the bases like a giddy child. At that glorious moment Toronto
was baseball's model organization. Winners of back-to-back world
championships, the Blue Jays had stable ownership, a brilliant
general manager, a respected veteran manager, a state-of-the-art
stadium and the league's best attendance. Now they have none of
that. They don't even have Carter anymore.
Righthander Pat Hentgen, who was completing only his second full
year in the majors that memorable night--two seasons, two World
Series rings--is one of just three players remaining from the
'93 team. "I didn't grasp the moment as well as I should have,"
Hentgen says. "It all happened so fast and I was so young and I
guess I thought we would just keep on winning forever."
General manager Gord Ash watches videotapes of those Series
games each winter, trying to transport himself back to a time
when he was the assistant G.M. of a baseball juggernaut on a
remarkable run of 11 straight winning seasons, including five
American League East titles. "Talk about spoiled," Ash says.
"Everything we did for a decade seemed to work great, but you
don't realize how fragile success is until you try to duplicate
it. There is a cyclical nature to professional sport. Even the
Montreal Canadiens have had droughts."
The Blue Jays have endured four straight seasons under .500,
finishing fifth, fourth and fifth in the East the past three
years. With so many of the elements that fortified the franchise
now lost, dissipated or replaced in recent years, it is fair to
wonder if Toronto can regain its momentum anytime soon.
Despite rumors in the past year that the franchise was about to
be sold, it is still on the market. SkyDome, once an attraction
in itself, has been upstaged by the newer retro parks, like
Camden Yards and Jacobs Field. After drawing more than four
million in '91, '92 and '93, the Blue Jays drew just 2,589,297
last season, ninth in the majors. This was particularly
troubling because Toronto had outbid the Yankees for free agent
Roger Clemens. His salary helped jack up the payroll nearly $20
million to $48 million for '97, but even with a Cy Young
Award-winning performance by Clemens, the Blue Jays' attendance
increased just 367 fans per game over the previous year, leading
to reported losses of $21 million. Part of the apathy can be
attributed to the major leagues' worst offense--Toronto finished
last in the league in batting average, runs, slugging percentage
and on-base percentage, and when Carter left he took 16% of the
team's RBIs in '97 with him.
Ash has struggled to fill the shoes of his wily predecessor, Pat
Gillick (now the Orioles' general manager), who built the Blue
Jays by developing young players and filling holes with seasoned
veterans. Ash is trying to follow the same game plan, but things
have not gone as swimmingly. For instance, after failing this
past winter to acquire Paul Molitor, Chili Davis, Chuck
Knoblauch or Mike Lansing to jump-start the offense, Ash instead
signed free-agent closer Randy Myers to a three-year, $16
million contract, stocking a position the team was not
particularly desperate to upgrade. (Toronto did acquire Jose
Canseco, Mike Stanley and Darrin Fletcher to bolster the
offense.) Also, the recent string of disappointing seasons led
to last September's firing of manager Cito Gaston, who had
shepherded the Blue Jays for nine years. He was replaced by Tim
Johnson, who has never managed in the majors.
On that fateful evening when Carter hit his shot heard round the
world, Johnson sat on his couch in Great Falls, Mont., pumping
his fist with joy. Johnson, who played in Toronto as a reserve
infielder in '78 and '79, was the Expos' bench coach in '93, and
he could never have imagined he would be the Blue Jays' manager
just four seasons later. "Thinking back, that night seems like
10 years ago," Johnson says. "I remember being so happy for
Toronto, and I felt like I played a little part in bringing
Toronto to the peak of the baseball world. Now I have the tough
task of bringing back that feeling you get when everybody else
wishes they could trade places with you." --T.C.