BASEBALL 1993 : A Tough Act to Follow : Departure of Crowd Favorite Winfield Puts Pressure on New Blue Jay Molitor
As long as Paul Molitor can replace Dave Winfield as the designated hitter, as long as Toronto is able to find a fifth starter who can win at least 10 games, then the Blue Jays will win the American League East.
That’s if they beat Baltimore.
But repeat as world champions? If they beat Atlanta.
“This is a very good ballclub,” right fielder Joe Carter said. “I know a lot of people are going to compare this team to last year’s team, and that team was an awesome team, with a lot of strengths and not too many weaknesses.
“This year, there are a couple of question marks going into the season. We’ve shifted more from a power team to a team that is going to steal a lot of bases. Once the season starts, I think people will look back and say this is going to be a great ballclub.”
The fans have their doubts. The Blue Jays returned to the SkyDome in March for two exhibitions against the Dodgers. At the time, they had won only three spring games and lost 12. In the first game, the Dodgers, the team with the worst record in baseball last season, routed them, 11-4.
“I got home last night, and my wife said, ‘We can’t even win one at the ‘Dome?’ ” said Henry Morrison, who works at the stadium. “This town is terrible for jumping on and off the bandwagon. With only three wins, they are wondering why we gave Winfield away. Now, everyone is looking at Molitor to take his place. But the fans can be nasty.”
During the winter, the Blue Jays lost nine players from their 25-man roster to free agency, 13 players from the 40-man roster. Seven were an integral part of the team that won the World Series, including designated hitter/outfielder Winfield, Candy Maldonado, shortstop Manny Lee, third baseman Kelly Gruber, and pitchers David Cone, Jimmy Key and Tom Henke.
“I wish those guys were going to be here opening day, so I could give them their (World Series) rings,” Toronto Manager Cito Gaston said.
That’s not the only reason Gaston wishes they were here.
Toronto, one of the richest franchises in baseball, also had the highest payroll last season--$45.5 million--and for the second consecutive season, the club had total attendance of more than 4 million, the best in baseball. But the club’s profit was only $6 million.
General Manager Pat Gillick’s goal was to keep his payroll the same this season, and he accomplished that by re-signing only Carter and limiting his free-agent signings to Molitor and pitcher Dave Stewart, who the club announced Saturday will miss the first four to six weeks because of a torn muscle in his right elbow.
“There were two reasons we let those players go,” Gillick said. “Some of them declined in talent, and the other was that we could not afford them. We wanted Winfield back because he was good for our club and good for our community, but we couldn’t agree on the number of years.
“I feel we can put a competitive club on the field this season with a chance to win.”
Gaston’s questions center on shortstop and third base, left vacant by the departure of Lee and Gruber. Gaston is looking to Ed Sprague and Tom Quinlan at third, and to Dick Schofield, backed by Alfredo Griffin, at shortstop.
With the departure of Maldonado, Derek Bell had been expected to play left field, but he played poorly this spring. So, Gillick traded Bell to San Diego last week for Darrin Jackson, a talented young center fielder who hit 38 home runs over the last two seasons.
The rest of the position players remain from last season, giving the Blue Jays a strong top five in their batting order: Devon White, Molitor, Roberto Alomar, Carter and John Olerud.
If Toronto gets into trouble, some predict it will be because of its pitching. The Blue Jays need another starter, especially after Stewart’s injury. In addition to right-handers Juan Guzman, Jack Morris, Todd Stottlemyre and Stewart in his rotation, Gaston said he wants another pitcher who can win at least 10 games. Al Leiter is emerging as the probable candidate, or it might be Pat Hentgen.
In the bullpen, Duane Ward will replace Henke as the closer, leading some to believe that Henke won’t be missed as much as Ward will be in the setup role. Left-hander David Wells, who was vocal about wanting to be a starter, fell out of favor and was put on waivers. Right-handers Mark Eichhorn and Mike Timlin, who has pitched well, and left-hander Ken Dayley figure to be in the bullpen.
But the fans’ biggest question seems to be about Molitor, Winfield’s successor. The two players couldn’t be more different.
Winfield, 41, is a power hitter with an outgoing personality who rallied the fans last season by challenging them to be more vocal. He became the heart of the community and the soul of the team.
Molitor, 36, was a fixture with the Milwaukee Brewers for 15 seasons, batting .303 and stealing 412 bases.
The Blue Jays lured him with an offer of a three-year contract worth $13 million and an option year bringing the total to $16 million. The Brewers didn’t match it.
Molitor is not comfortable in his new surroundings. He said he is accepted by the players and the fans, but it has been a difficult move. He knows what Winfield meant to last year’s club, and is also aware that if the team struggles early, the fans are going to blame him.
“I’m trying my best to separate any comparisons between Dave and myself, but actually, comparisons are inevitable,” Molitor said.
“I’m not the type of player Dave Winfield is. But Dave was a free agent like myself who came here and signed primarily as a designated hitter, and I’m here to replace him in a role that he did very effectively.
“And Dave had the big episode with the fans last year where he challenged them to make noise at SkyDome because he said they were too laid back. The fans got real into that and respected it and kind of established a relationship. So he created in a one-year period a pretty large role for himself in terms of fan support.
“They are looking for someone to replace that, and I’m the guy. I’m going to try to do basically what I have always done.”
When the Blue Jays played the Dodgers in the two exhibitions, they brought nearly their entire roster north. The fans responded, with about 78,000 attending the games. But it is clearly a love-hate relationship.
Four pitches into the first game, after the Dodgers’ Jose Offerman hit a home run, the crowd began to boo. When Eric Karros singled home a run, what appeared to be a full beer was thrown out of the upper deck. The fans even booed Guzman.
Earlier that week, a fan phoned a local newspaper office to demand that the Blue Jays stop calling themselves world champions because of their Grapefruit League record of 3-12.
“We are the World (Series) champions, and that will make it harder because everybody is out to get us,” Carter said. “But come opening day, bring your lunch, because it’s going to be a dogfight.”