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Economic struggles continue for Jays, Expos

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April 8

In Toronto, where SkyDome once was packed daily, the Blue Jays drew fewer than 15,000 fans for three consecutive games earlier this week. In Montreal, there will be no Expos games on television, and the only games on radio are in French, and even then, there will be four games that aren't broadcast at all.

It's not as if these two teams are the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Washington Wizards. The Blue Jays are one of the best young teams in the American League and are considered to have a near-even shot at making the playoffs. The Expos have one of the game's best players in Vladimir Guerrero and are perhaps the NL's fastest-rising team.

What people pay to watch is not the problem.

The two grand Canadian cities have different problems, but they share an economy and its exchange rates and sports' cultural contrasts that right now have Major League Baseball concerned that the game is indeed played at a disadvantage in Canada.

In Toronto, where the Jays won two World Series championships and generated such revenues in the early '90s that they had the highest payroll in the business, GM Gord Ash says, "We understand where we are, and if we win the way we think we can, the fans will come back."

In Montreal, owner Jeffrey Loria's right-hand man David Samson says, "We are in a battle for the survival of baseball in Montreal," a battle some in baseball are worried is too much like the French and Indian War.

"We haven't had a lot of success for a few years now," says Ash. "The Maple Leafs (who have the third-best record in the NHL's Eastern Conference) hold a lot of interest, as they should. Basketball interest is very high because of Vince Carter. We appreciate that. If we play well with this team I think our fans will like us, because we have so many players who play so hard, then when the hockey and basketball seasons are over, the fans will come back. This is still a great baseball city, and will be if we make a run at the playoffs."

Tony Batista
Tony Batista has hit four home runs in the Blue Jays' first five games this year.
It will be a shock if the Blue Jays do not go down to the wire in contention for a playoff spot, although because of the economy and skeptical owners, Ash has to maintain a mid-level payroll, barely more than that of the '93 champs.

If David Wells' back holds up, he is supported by three extraordinary young arms in Chris Carpenter, Roy Halladay and Kelvim Escobar. The Jays have a dominant closer in Billy Koch and a star in Carlos Delgado. Shannon Stewart is also nearly a star, as is Raul Mondesi. Homer Bush has turned out to be a terrific player, while Jose Cruz Jr. is off to a better start, and even if he falters, the Jays have Vernon Wells waiting in the wings. And don't forget about third baseman Tony Batista, who could hit 30 homers this year.

Because Ash was able to clear more than $3 million in the David Segui-Brad Fullmer swap, he has the cash stashed away to go get another starting pitcher when one becomes available.

"We've let clubs know that when they are interested in trading pitching, we are interested and willing to trade some young talent," says Ash.

He can say that because the Blue Jays always have had young talent, which is why they have been able to persevere through ownership and economic issues. Other teams draft pitchers in the first round and have to hold their breath. The Jays got Carpenter, Halladay and Koch with first-round picks in a four-year span.

In fact, ignoring their last two selections, who haven't had time yet to make it, the Jays have an incredible record -- every one of their first-round picks in the '90s, discounting the last two, has played in the majors: Steve Karsay, Shawn Green, Stewart, Carpenter, Kevin Witt (still an everyday prospect), Halladay, Koch and Vernon Wells.

Oh, yes. The '98 pick was shortstop Felipe Lopez, presently at Double-A Knoxville and in one poll conducted last winter rated the best shortstop prospect in the game, ahead of Rafael Furcal, Alfonso Soriano and others.

"The Blue Jays have more talented middle infield prospects than most entire divisions combined," says one club official.

Lopez and second baseman Mike Young (.313 with 36 doubles and 30 steals at Class A Dunedin last year) are at Knoxville. Shortstop Cesar Izturis is 20, and he hit .308 with 32 steals at Class A. Second baseman Brent Abernathy, 22, is coming off a Double-A season in which he had 56 extra-base hits and 34 steals. The Jays' Triple-A squad in Syracuse also has five young starting pitchers, as well as Wells and power-hitting prospect Andy Thompson.

"We have had a very consistent talent pool over the years, and while there has been good coordination between scouting and development, the real reason we've been able to persevere as we have is because of the scouting," says Ash.

The constant has been scouting director Tim Wilken, whose track record makes him one of the most successful men in the game. In '97, USA Today criticized Toronto's selection with the fifth pick as being an economical pick, citing that Baltimore got the real deal lower in the round with Darnell McDonald while the Jays had to take the cheap way out with Vernon Wells. Yeah, right. Wells was Wilken's guy, and is a star who only needs more experience in order to excel. By the way, McDonald did cost the Orioles more than Wells did the Jays.

Meanwhile, one of the reasons Loria purchased the Expos was because of "their track record in developing talent," which has been remarkable since they've gone through five scouting directors in 10 years.

Talent no longer is an issue, six years past the strike that cost the Expos the chance of making the World Series. Revenue is the issue.

Loria has said, "We'd like to be 30th (in the majors), not 80th," in jest, but right now they're looking at $200,000 Canadian -- which translates into $120,000 U.S. -- in broadcast revenues, which is just enough to pay Trac3 Coquillette.

It had been suggested that the fact the Expos will not give their rights away just to get on TV or English radio is an indication that Loria is planning to take the next flight to Northern Virginia, if he can beat John Henry and his Marlins there first.

"It's just the opposite," says Samson. "The fact that we're trying to get real revenues is proof that we're trying to make it work here. If we were going to move, we'd take what we could get and beat it. We're fighting a culture that makes baseball in Montreal impossible to exist. They're used to getting the baseball product for nothing." In virtually every negotiation, TV people tell Loria, "We can put 'Columbo' re-runs in French on and make more money."

"We're trying to build long-term viability," says Samson. So they're going to the people. The idea is to try to get fans into the park, then if the attendance grows and they're able to get a younger audience, perhaps the media will respond. So, every night, Loria, Samson, GM Jim Beattie and other Expos officials greet fans and go through the stands.

Baseball will survive in Toronto -- not as prominently as it did a decade ago -- as long as the talent keeps flowing in. As for Montreal, survival there isn't as certain.

Braves and more Braves
  • Several times this spring, John Schuerholz was asked if the Braves planned increased security when they get to New York because of John Rocker. Each time, Schuerholz replied, "No more than usual. We always have extra security in New York. Just about every team does." Then he would look at the reporter with a 'shouldn't-the-Mets-and-the-Mayor-be-worried-about-security?' expression. From the Braves' standpoint, the Rocker affair has run its course, and what may or may not happen in New York is a New York problem.

    "They had one radio talk show host (Don Imus) suggesting they have 'D' battery night," says Schuerholz. Because Schuerholz and Braves team president Stan Kasten feel so strongly about fan behavior, Kasten is working with Turner Field security to draw up a Fans' Code of Conduct.

    "We believe that fans should behave, to protect the majority of fans who want to bring their kids and don't want to fear for their safety, the safety of players, and don't think they have to listen to streams of obscenities," says Schuerholz. "This is part of the integrity of the game. The idea of a code of conduct for fans across the game is an idea that should be explored, and we are trying to be out front with it."

    It will not be an easy code to implement, but it's an idea that certainly should be put into place at this point.

  • The Braves have won eight straight division titles and are favored to win this year. Yet, they have five players 22 or younger -- Andruw Jones (turns 23 on April 23), Bruce Chen, Kevin McGlinchy, Luis Rivera and Rafael Furcal -- and have no qualms about throwing Furcal, who played in the South Atlantic League last year, or Rivera, who didn't win a game in that same league a year ago, into the pennant race. "It wouldn't be possible to contend and constantly develop without having a manager who buys into development, and has the guts to win or lose with kids," says Schuerholz.

    Rivera, who had a great winter in Mexico, is considered a potential Mariano Rivera, but could end up the fifth starter, since Schuerholz's lieutenant, Brian Murph,y keeps telling his boss that Rivera had a great changeup when he started two years ago.

    Schuerholz also thinks that now that Steve Avery seems to have re-discovered his post-surgery delivery and is up around 82 mph, "that he could possibly come back up in late May or June" if he continues to develop. "There's no reason he won't add another three or four miles an hour, and with his changeup and winning makeup, Steve can win throwing in the mid-80's. He's a special guy," says Schuerholz.

  • With Rocker and Rudy Seanez due back in the next two weeks, Kerry Ligtenberg throwing very well and Mike Remlinger proving he can close, Schuerholz thinks by midseason this will be the best bullpen the Braves have had in what is now a 10-year run.

    Around the majors

  • Buck Showalter on Tony Womack at shortstop: "Look, he's going to make 20 errors, but he's going to make some outstanding plays, as well. We need him in our lineup, and there's no other way we can have Tony, Erubiel Durazo and Travis Lee in the lineup at the same time."

    Showalter also believes that once Matt Mantei is back, the Diamondbacks may develop a very strong bullpen. "I actually believe that Byung-Hyun Kim could be a starter, because he's so filthy throwing from the side that he can get left-handed hitters out," says Showalter. "You don't see many sidearmers who can do that. And we have this kid Vincente Padilla (a 22-year-old Nicaraguan) who could really be something."

    Of course, in the meanwhile, Mike Morgan got his first save in nine years Wednesday. So Morgan's last two saves have been for Todd Stottlemyre and Ramon Martinez. The save for Martinez came during the 1991 season, when both played for the Dodgers.

  • The early line on Mariners closer Kazuhiro Sasaki -- called "Daimaijin" in Japan after a mythical hero -- is that he is very good. "He doesn't have an overpowering fastball, but he spots it well," says Boston catcher Scott Hatteberg. But Sasaki does have a good breaking ball, a nasty split he can use because he gets ahead with his fastball, and a terrific mound presence.

    Sasaki can pitch down in the zone, which some Asian pitchers struggle to do in this country. That's what the Red Sox found this spring with veteran Korean left-hander Sang Lee. "Their game is to pitch up and play the fly balls," says Red Sox pitching coach Joe Kerrigan. "But you cannot do that here. The fact that you see 160-pound guys hitting balls out to the opposite field in BP, and (with) the shrinking ballparks, you have to keep the ball on the ground as much as possible." That's why so many general managers look first at groundball/flyball ratios, then walk/strikeout ratio when studying pitchers' statistics.

  • In order to try to hold Boston's pitching staff together early in the season until Bret Saberhagen comes back and Sun-Woo Kim ("He could be our No. 2 starter," says catcher Tim Spehr) is ready, Kerrigan is trying to get Jeff Fassero and Pete Schourek to consistently throw sinkers. Fassero struggled in his first start, but 11 of his 15 outs were ground balls, and the only ball pulled by a right-handed batter was a broken-bat double by Alex Rodriguez. Schourek had resisted change in the past, but after being released by the Pirates, has started to listen since GM Dan Duquette signed him.

  • The Mariners, under the leadership of perhaps the finest Pacific coordinator in the game, Jim Colborn, have opened a camp in Beijing.

  • When you see shots of Pacific Bell Park in the next few weeks, you will see the vision of a man, Peter Magowan, who has loved baseball as much as anyone you will ever meet, which differentiates him from most owners. It's got as many nooks, crannies and unusual possibilities as any park in the game, with high walls and low walls. "People love that," says Magowan, "after all, Fenway has the highest and the lowest walls in all of baseball." Anytime one sees it on TV, it will clearly be San Francisco. "People tell me, 'San Francisco isn't a baseball town,' " says Magowan. "I don't agree. People never had a chance to be fans at Candlestick. For the players, we'd come off a good road trip and there'd be 10,000 in the park. My hope is that this park makes San Francisco a great baseball town."

    The Wall Street Journal pointed out that several owners did not like the fact that Magowan paid for the park privately -- after all, blackmailing cities is the American sports way -- but in years, this will make what once was a black hole of a franchise viable, as revenues shoot from an average of $60 million the past few years to $120 million this season.

  • Yes, the Rangers are concerned about the bite on Jeff Zimmerman's sinker. He allowed five runs in his first 43 appearances last season, four runs in his first outing this week, and did not have a strong spring.

  • Tony Gwynn got his 3,000th hit in Montreal. Cal Ripken this week will likely get his 3,000th in Kansas City or Minnesota.

    News and notes

  • This is what makes Dusty Baker so special. When the Giants signed Russ Davis, Dusty called Davis' agents and several friends to find out his interests, his personal and professional hot buttons, and insecurities.

    "After Russ' relationship with Lou (Piniella)," says one former Mariners teammate, "Dusty was the perfect manager."

    Baker is signed only through this season, but Giants owner Peter Magowan insists that they will keep him where he wants to manage, in what the world will soon discover is the best baseball park ever built.

  • The consolidation of the umpires isn't producing many aberrations. Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez got east-west strikes, as normal, from umpires who used to work the other leagues. One problem came from respected NL ump Ed Rapuano, with Chuck Finley Wednesday in Baltimore. Finley is tough to call the first time, as he creates a unique downward angle at 6-foot-7 with his over-the-top delivery; his fastball drops down across the knees at the plate and ends up almost on the ground when it reaches the catcher's glove.

  • So, the Indians thought they had a closer problem? Well, bench coach Grady Little could be Charlie Manuel's closer, as Manuel was ejected in two of his first three games as Cleveland's manager.

    Of course, the fact that it came against Mike Hargrove made things testier, as there is no love lost between Hargrove and his former hitting coach. Hargrove felt that Manuel's relationship with GM John Hart undermined him.

    Hargrove's new front office has its problems, as well, with several of the baseball people brought in last year by Frank Wren, who was fired last year, already searching for new jobs. And now the club has to deal with Jerry Hairston asking to be traded.

  • During spring training, there was a major media push in New York to trade Alfonso Soriano in a package for Jim Edmonds. Not that Edmonds isn't an extraordinary player, but he would have played left field and batted sixth. The Yanks decided to keep Soriano, to either use him if they had a major injury, or to use him as a bargaining chip to acquire pitching, if that's what they need come June.

    Well, Scott Brosius is down for at least a month, and Soriano should now step right in. The injury might actually turn out to be a blessing, since it will get Soriano experience in the field and in the nine hole in front of Chuck Knoblauch and Derek Jeter, and could make him an extremely valuable part of their lineup at a number of positions (second base, shortstop, third base, left and center field) down the stretch because of his speed and lightning-quick bat.

    How tough is Mariano Rivera? On opening night, he allowed a run for the first time since July 27. How did that happen? Well, it turns out he was so sick he had been vomiting in the clubhouse during the fourth inning, then went out, closed the game and afterward didn't tell the media about how sick he was.

  • Angels GM Bill Stoneman was lampooned when he told other GMs in spring training that he thought his club could compete in the AL West. But the Angels' lineup -- if healthy -- is one of the best in the league, featuring Mo Vaughn and Tim Salmon.

    With Darin Erstad now freed up from hamstring problems and attacking the ball as he did two years ago, he makes the team go. Allowing Garret Anderson the freedom to play center field and letting it fly at the plate could also make him an All-Star.

    "You'll see that the player that benefits most this season is Garret," says Edmonds. "He's always had great talent, he's never been appreciated."

    Rod Carew, who was let go after last year, worked tirelessly and cared about his hitters, but Erstad and Anderson may be at the point where they need to not be so clinical at the plate.

    Ramon Ortiz threw 91 mph, with an occasional 93, Thursday in Lake Elsinore and will be back in the Angels' rotation sometime this week.

  • In Texas, hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo helped Gabe Kapler quicken his swing, and it's paid off. That's all Paul Konerko did last season, and he's now one of the best young hitters in the American League.

  • Jorge Posada coming off a disappointing '99 season, told coaches at the start of spring training, "I want to hit like Paul O'Neill," and by the end of March showed a marked improvement from his struggles of a year ago and is so far off to a tremendous start.

  • The Blue Jays outbid Boston for released DH Todd Greene. "He's a good gamble, as long as they don't catch him," says one AL scout. "He can't catch because of his shoulder. But a couple of years ago, no one could get a fastball by him. Then he became so pull-conscious that pitchers got him out with fastballs and breaking balls away. If he'll re-adjust, he can help Toronto."

    The Jays already have Marty Cordova, who was released by Boston in spring training. There is some feeling that Boston moved on Cordova shortly after a PRC memo reminding clubs that the top salary for a released player was $1M. But the consensus in the Red Sox organization is that Dan Duquette didn't want to chance Cordova getting enough at-bats to make the walk-on a three year, $8.8 million deal, especially after he saw former Frontier League designated hitter Morgan Burkhardt in spring training. The 28-year-old, switch-hitting Burkhardt almost certainly will get a shot in Boston if he gets off to a good start for Triple-A Pawtucket.

    Burkhardt is a great story, as he played four years for the Richmond Roosters in an independent league before signing with the Boston organization last season. He hit 39 homers between Single-A Sarasota and Double-A Trenton, then led the Mexican League in homers and RBI.

    "When I didn't get drafted out of high school, my big-league dreams were over," says Burkhardt. "So this is all like a dream. I loved playing in the Frontier League, because I love baseball. I wasn't playing there to get noticed, I played because that's what I enjoy doing. Sure, I worked a lot of jobs; I made $600 a month, tops. But there are a lot of people in this country who go out after work and play baseball or softball. I just got lucky, I guess."

  • From the department of "This is not the way to impress your new boss while you are rehabbing:" Rockies pitcher John Thomson ran his Corvette into a parked car, careened into a house and his car ended up in somone's living room.

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  • The List: Bad contracts

    Gammons: It's a long season, but ...

    Gammons: Leaving Florida
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