Toronto Blue Jays – Great Moments in Spring Training History
By Ari Shapiro
Jose’s contract. Edwin’s contract. Aaron’s biceps. Stroman’s knee. Saunder’s other knee. Pillar’s eye. Devon’s shoulder. Tulo’s health. Gibby’s future.
As the first spring training game of 2016 unfolds, we look back at some of the fantastically strange and wildly unpredictable moments in Blue Jays history which influenced an entire season – for better and for worse.
Baseball arrives to Canada as 12 established and time-honoured American League teams attempt to divvy up the superfluous “talent” available on their respective rosters, much to the chagrin of the newest kids on the block, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Seattle Mariners.
However, with no minor league affiliates in place to develop their own talent pool and limited to a veritable hodge-podge of unproven rookies and discarded veterans – the team finds itself the victim of an unfair expansion system which denies them the right to pursue star free agents or draft new players. It’s slim pickings with minimal expectations but the awesome feeling of having baseball in the city is enough to appease the fans. For now.
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The first ever manager in club history (Roy Hartsfield) and his intrepid general manager (Peter Bavasi) work in tandem to establish a bona fide culture of old-school baseball fundamentals and etiquette which include: a strict dress code, golden era hirsute grooming standards, and a post-war “traditionalist” policy of never, ever turning away autographs or cussing in front of fans. Doug Ault hits two storybook home runs in the opener. The team finishes with 107 losses and will spend the first three years of existence as humbled cellar dwellers.
Early rumblings out of camp reveal a growing rift between players and owners which eventually reaches a boiling point resulting in 38% of games lost during the year and a split-season format. For the young Blue Jays looking to create momentum under manager Bobby Mattick, the year is essentially a tale of two baseball teams.
The first half is absolute misery (16-42, .276) and represents a significant step backwards for the club – almost everything that could go wrong essentially does (Len Barker makes sure of that). However, the second season (21-27, .438) demonstrates a leap towards respectability and the sweet taste of competitive success.
Barfield, Bell and Moseby play together for the first time and usher in a new era of outfield excellence. Second baseman Damaso Garcia erupts for a .375 clip in the second half. Dave Stieb puts together the first of many dominant seasons in establishing himself as a true ace with a winning record (11-10, 3.19) and a less than media-friendly disposition to match.
“For the young Blue Jays looking to create momentum, the year was essentially a tale of two baseball teams. The second half was a leap towards respectability and the sweet taste of competitive success.”
The players officially go on strike in June and don’t return until the end of July, resulting in a bizarre year which changes the fortunes of the franchise permanently. It’s estimated that over $146 million is lost in player salaries while the owners suffer to the tune of $72 million. Although the strike is ultimately initiated by the player’s association, it’s generally regarded as having been completely provoked by the owners due to their perception of having lost “bargaining power” during the previous year of unprecedented free agents signings (43 players received contracts over $1 million).
With Bobby Cox in full control of his team and looking to build on the previous three years of progress, the Jays find themselves heading into spring training on a mission to conquer the American League East. During March exhibition games, Cox declares a highly controversial platoon system for his third basemen and catchers meant to preserve their health throughout the gruelling 162 game regular season. This is not only met with initial resistance but is universally criticized by many sports pundits and local writers as being completely unorthodox and ill-advised.
Ultimately, Rance Mulliniks, Garth Iorg, Buck Martinez and Ernie Whitt find themselves rotating on a team with the best outfield in baseball and a strong rotation (Stieb-Alexander-Key-Clancy) who all finish above expectations. Armed with a deep bullpen (35-20 with 47 saves!) and stellar defense, this team goes on to win 99 games and captures the American League East crown before losing to the monster Hall-of-Famer that is George Brett and his ridiculously scrappy group of Royals (#dejavu).
It’s worth noting that this is also the first year MLB changes their best-of-5 league playoff format to a best-of-7 series. To characterize a failure to advance whilst up three games to one in the ALCS as “disappointing” would be a true understatement. The best outfield in baseball concurs.
Even the most cynical fan couldn’t predict the absolute mayhem of the 1988 season. Spring training is overshadowed by the completely unnecessary rift between the reigning AL MVP and a stubborn manager who also presided over one of the worst stretch run collapses in recent memory to end an otherwise outstanding 1987 campaign. George Bell finds himself branded as the team’s designated hitter in favour of a career .202/0.0 WAR hitter who lasts half a season before being claimed by the Phillies.
Although manager Jimy Williams eventually admits the error of his ways in supporting rookie left fielder Sil Campusano, one wonders how much magical influence Dominican uberscout Epy Guerrero had with the front office at this stage. His legendary instincts furnished the franchise with premium talents the likes of Bell, Tony Fernandez, and Carlos Delgado – but sadly this rare misstep was an example of overestimating the talent and underestimating the chemistry of the ball club. The Jays go on to finish the season in third place with 87 wins and find their karmic balance ruthlessly sabotaged and on display when Stieb loses back-to-back no-hitters with two outs and two strikes in the ninth inning.
After a 3-12 exhibition start to a year that was high on the promise of following up with the previous year’s 84 wins and five straight seasons of improved performances, it all comes crashing down horribly during the opening weeks of spring training when manager Tim Johnson becomes the first casualty of the season.
His apocryphal accounts of combat duty in Vietnam and claims of a phantom UCLA basketball scholarship eventually destroys his relationship with players, management, and fans alike. Jim Fregosi (who lost the initial job to Johnson earlier in 1998) finds himself in control of a rudderless team which stumbles out of the gate and finishes in third place at 84-78.
Without Roger Clemens and his triple crown efficiency, the team never finds their groove – although the fans are delighted with the impressive maturation of Carlos Delgado and Shawn Green. They are also stunned by the forced retirement of perennial mascot and ubiquitous sports icon BJ Birdy in favour of unproven neophytes Ace and Diamond. I still haven’t fully gotten over that decision yet.
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As the franchise celebrates their 30th anniversary, an increasingly beleaguered J.P. Ricciardi finds himself desperate to rebound from a losing season with the ballyhooed offseason acquisitions of Troy Glaus and Lyle Overbay – effectively giving the team half a dozen players who play first, third, and DH. Even with FIVE all-stars on their roster (Glaus, Wells, Halladay, Ryan, Rios) and a strong second place finish in the division (87-75), a dark cloud seems to linger around this team at every corner – which is a shame given that it was probably the most promising of the Ricciardi era.
Rios develops a serious staph infection on June 28th which curtails his tremendous season and is never the same again. Glaus hits a paltry single home run on national television at the derby. Vernon Wells signs a seven year contract worth $126 million incurring the guaranteed wrath of fans for the next half decade. John Gibbons thrashes Ted Lilly inside the clubhouse after nearly blowing an eight-run lead against Oakland during the summer. Shea Hillenbrand caps off the year with his infamous “this is a sinking ship” graffiti and is traded for the misery that will be Jeremy Accardo. At year’s end the team rushes out and signs Frank Thomas…and Gregg Zaun…as free agents.