A Spring Classic Why wait five months for a meaningful series when the Blue Jays and the Rangers were offering up the next best thing on the season's opening weekend?

April 12, 1998

With 25,509 people in the seats, as was the case for the opener
of a three-game series between the Toronto Blue Jays and the
Texas Rangers last Friday night, SkyDome becomes a large-scale
psychiatrist's riddle. Do you see the stadium as half full or
half empty? The first weekend of the baseball season would
separate the optimists from the pessimists, the contenders from
the pretenders and, with any luck, the Blue Jays' offense from
that of the Maple Leafs.

A better riddle might have been this: Why did Toronto and Texas
play to as many empty seats as occupied ones in the Blue Jays'
home park? Didn't Torontonians grasp the magnitude of this
series? Here were the Jays, whose hitting last year was the
worst in any full season in franchise history (.244), and the
Rangers, whose pitching last year was the worst in any full
season in franchise history (4.69), both fancying themselves as
pennant-worthy ball clubs. No need to wait until September to
find out if either was legit. An April showdown between teams on
the bubble would be as exciting as an Iowa caucus.

Except for the lack of queues for the $3.55 gourmet pretzels,
the signs were everywhere at the SkyDome that this was a huge
series. The winningest pitcher in major league history from
North Dakota, righthander Rick Helling, started Game 1 for
Texas. Blue Jays manager Tim Johnson manipulated his roster as
carefully as he once assembled shells while teaching mortar
technology to Marine grunts going off to Vietnam. You want big?
Billy Bob Thornton was there. Jose Canseco actually wore a cap.

Each team entered the weekend having split its season-opening
two-game series. Toronto, with six lineup spots turned over
since last July, had scored only five runs against the lowly
Minnesota Twins. Texas, with a largely unchanged pitching staff,
surrendered 13 runs to the Chicago White Sox; the Rangers won
when their fearsome attack exploded for 20 runs and a
franchise-record 23 hits. So questions remained when the
resistible force met the movable object. "It's important for
us," Blue Jays general manager Gord Ash said last Friday,
"because we need to establish we're a good team at home. We
weren't last year."

Alas, Toronto came away from the series as the more suspect
team. It dropped two of the three games while ending the first
week of the season batting .205 with only 32 hits in five games.
Texas won the deciding game of the series 6-5 on Sunday with the
kind of formula that could make it a force in the American
League. Resourceful righthander John Burkett and closer John
Wetteland, who took care of the final four outs instead of the
usual three, rendered the Rangers' dubious middle relief corps
unnecessary. Texas's postseason chances are simple to calculate:
The Rangers, who have outspent every other team in baseball
except the Baltimore Orioles, New York Yankees, Cleveland
Indians and Atlanta Braves, are cooked if their starters don't
pitch deep into games. Said Texas manager Johnny Oates, his eyes
twinkling, "We'll make it work."

Oates manipulated his rotation specifically for this series,
holding out his biggest winner from last year, lefthander Darren
Oliver, for Saturday, the Rangers' fourth game of the season.
That tactic would enable Oliver to pitch twice in five days
against Toronto (the teams meet again this weekend, at the
Ballpark in Arlington), against which he was 5-1 with a 1.10 ERA
in 10 career appearances. It also meant that Helling, who bumped
incumbent Roger Pavlik out of the rotation with a splendid
spring training, would start on Friday night.

Helling is a pivotal member of an unpredictable rotation. Fellow
starters Oliver, Burkett, righthander Bobby Witt and off-season
addition Aaron Sele, another righthander, have each won 13 games
in a season--and lost 12. None have a career ERA better than
4.00. "Everyone talks about how we don't have that one guy who
stops losing streaks," Oates says. "I like to think I've got six
guys who can continue winning streaks." Oates's six-pack
includes a premier closer, Wetteland, but no top-notch setup
men, especially with righthanders Danny Patterson and Xavier
Hernandez on the disabled list. "I know they want to know who
the phone is for when it rings in the bullpen," Oates says. "but
I told all the relievers to be ready to be used in any spot.
It's not what I prefer, but that's how we have to do it for now."

The 6'3", 220-pound Helling, 27, is the best pitcher born in
North Dakota, which is not unlike being the best surfer from
Arkansas. As a senior he transferred from Fargo's Lakota
High--"When I left, the class size dropped from 13 to 12,"
Helling says--to nearby Shanley High, the alma mater of Roger
Maris. That year he accepted a scholarship to play linebacker at
North Dakota. "Growing up, I figured if I was going to be a pro
athlete, it was definitely going to be in the NFL," he says.

But after a disillusioning redshirt football season, he
transferred to Stanford to pitch. The Rangers made him a
first-round pick in 1992, traded him to the Florida Marlins four
years later, then reacquired him last season in a trade two
months before Florida won the World Series. "I've spent most of
my career bouncing back and forth between starting and the
bullpen and the major leagues and minor leagues," Helling says.
"This is the first time I feel like I have a full chance to make
30 or more starts."

Helling solidified his spot by shutting out Toronto on four
singles, 5-0. More important, he kept the Texas bullpen door
safely shut. "Get ahead, stay ahead, use your head," is how
Rangers pitching coach Dick Bosman described Helling's outing.

Bosman, himself a former Texas pitcher, had the distinction of
surrendering the first big league hits of both Oates and
Johnson. "Him, too?" Bosman says of the Blue Jays' manager.
"It's not as if they had all that many, either. With all due
respect, of course."

Johnson, an infielder who batted .223 for his career, had only
282 more hits--none a home run--after his single off Bosman in
1973. He ended his career backing up Danny Ainge on the '79
Jays, who lost as many games (109) as any American League team
in the past 59 years. Johnson's '98 Blue Jays were sliding in an
ominously similar direction after becoming one of four Toronto
teams to begin a season 1-3. The Blue Jays had only 13 hits
total in games started by Helling and Minnesota's Bob Tewksbury
and LaTroy Hawkins, who were a combined 19-34 last year. No
wonder the SkyDome DJ chose to play 4 Non Blondes' What's Going
On? before last Saturday's game.

Johnson, 48, is not one to panic, even if his lineup that day
included his third leadoff hitter in four games (Alex Gonzalez)
and the well-coiffed, if not sure-handed, Canseco as his fourth
leftfielder. Johnson was once a Dodgers farmhand on the verge of
being shipped off to Vietnam when the O'Malley family pulled
strings to get him assigned to Marine reserve duty near Dodger
Stadium. He became a mortarman--probably, he says, because his
superior officers knew of his hardscrabble youth in East L.A.
The son of a grocer and a housemaid spent six off-seasons
teaching soldiers about the munitions with which they could kill
or be killed.

Since his retirement as a player, Johnson has seen more leagues
than Jules Verne. He managed in the Pioneer League, the
California League, the American Association, the Mexican Winter
League, the Arizona Fall League and the Dominican Winter League
before reaching the American League. "I don't have an ego," says
Johnson, who proved that during some rare playing time in the
disastrous 1979 season when he marched into manager Roy
Hartsfield's office, pounded the desk and proclaimed, "Sit me or
trade me!"

Since their back-to-back world championships in 1992 and '93,
the Blue Jays have lost 1.5 million fans and more games than
every team in the league except Minnesota and the Detroit
Tigers. Johnson, who succeeded the fired Cito Gaston, hired one
of his best friends in baseball, Maury Wills, to emphasize
baserunning in spring training. He also assured 25-year-old
rightfielder Shawn Green, who held a two-year lease on Gaston's
doghouse, that he would play every day, bat third and be free to
steal bases whenever he wanted. "It's new to me to have this
kind of faith shown in me," says Green.

After three games, though, Green was hitless, and the Toronto
offense conjured repeated references to last year. By Saturday
morning the karma was so bad in the clubhouse that first baseman
Mike Stanley, one of eight off-season acquisitions, began
loosening up his teammates. "It's time to turn the page," he
said. "We've got seven guys who weren't in the lineup at this
time last year. The comparisons aren't fair. I felt like we were
being victimized. So I told some of the guys, like Shawn Green,
to just go out and have fun."

Green perked up with his first hit, an RBI and a stolen base,
but it was Canseco who delivered the big blow. He snapped a 2-2
tie in the sixth with a home run off Oliver. Stanley followed
with a dinger of his own. When Oates reluctantly turned matters
over to his bullpen, Toronto tacked on five runs in the eighth
for a 9-2 win. "I knew it couldn't continue the way we were
going," said Canseco, a reclamation project at 33 after six
unremarkable seasons in which his durability and dedication were
questioned. Canseco has averaged only 99 games per year since
1992.

In Toronto, his fourth address in that span, Canseco has found a
home to his liking. He enjoys hitting at the SkyDome--he ripped
another dinger on Sunday, giving him 15 home runs and 42 RBIs in
43 career games there--as well as making occasional forays into
its outfield. "No wind and no sun," he said. On Saturday he
speared a fly ball, his only chance, with an effort that drew
razzing from the Toronto relievers behind the leftfield fence.
"We didn't recognize him out there," lefthander Dan Plesac said
of the poseur who went capless even for Opening Day
introductions. "It's the first time we ever saw him with a hat
on. We never knew he had one."

Toronto began last season with an extra-inning loss after closer
Mike Timlin blew a ninth-inning lead by serving up a home run to
Norberto Martin of the White Sox. The Jays never recovered, a
fact they say has no bearing on this season. "The intensity is
better on this club," says righthander Pat Hentgen. "The
chemistry is better."

Timlin is gone, replaced by the reliable Randy Myers. First
baseman-DH Carlos Delgado, who hit 30 home runs last year and
was thought to be out until June with a shoulder injury, is
expected back in three weeks. The schedule is kind: 26 of the
first 31 games are against teams that had losing records last
year. Even the two curved, marble-topped tables that formed a
circle in the center of the clubhouse were reversed on the eve
of the opener, a purposeful nod to a turnaround season.

Half full or half empty? Just call the Blue Jays the optimists
club. It's all they have to go on for now.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS SMOKIN' Woody Williams and the Blue Jays got hot--for one game. COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON THAT'S A REACH Given a chance to show his stuff, Toronto's Green started slowly at the plate and came up empty-handed in the field. [Shawn Green reaching to catch foul ball] COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON STRETCHER Texas's Fernando Tatis was doing handstands at third base last Saturday in a futile attempt to prevent a Blue Jays victory.

You want big? Billy Bob Thornton was there. Jose Canseco
actually wore a cap.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)