About 30 minutes before the Toronto Blue Jays were to play the
New York Yankees on July 5, a Blue Jays employee rushed into the
office of club president Paul Beeston to deliver a bulletin that
had been evident to everyone else for three months: There was a
power malfunction at the SkyDome. "It's a problem with the
wiring," the employee said. He was referring to panel number 3
of the retractable roof, but he just as easily could have been
talking about the Toronto offense.
With the faulty roof closed on a 77[degree] afternoon, the Blue
Jays were as shut out as the sunshine, losing to the Yankees
8-0. O, Canada, indeed. Through Sunday the Blue Jays had scored
zero, one or two runs in 31 of their 87 games. And despite
winning three of four games with the last-place Red Sox in
Boston last week, Toronto (43-44) trailed the first-place
Baltimore Orioles by 11 1/2 games and wild-card leader New York
by seven in the American League East--not exactly where Roger
Clemens thought he'd be when he picked the Jays as a free agent
last December. "We should be above .500, and we're not," Clemens
said last Thursday. "That means we're underachieving. When you
look at the big picture, we're not a threat."
Only spectacular pitching from Clemens (14-3), who set a Blue
Jays record with 16 strikeouts on his return to Boston last
Saturday (box, page 94), and Pat Hentgen (9-6) has kept Toronto
on the fringe of contention. The Blue Jays' troubles extend
beyond the most inept offense in the American League. The second
leading home run hitter in franchise history--and one of the
most loquacious players in baseball--has stopped talking to most
of the local media; the manager refers to his tenure in the past
tense; the president is abdicating; the absentee owners are
selling; the fans are staying away; and the club continues on
one of the most precipitous slides from a world championship by
any team that didn't happen to sell a fellow named Babe Ruth
The landscape around the Blue Jays has appeared so bleak that
you expect Pathfinder's Sojourner to come whirring through the
clubhouse at any moment. That signs of baseball life in Toronto
are so difficult to detect is a stunning turnaround from only
four years ago, when the Blue Jays won a second consecutive
World Series and, with their packed houses and the homiest
environment since The Donna Reed Show, established themselves as
a model franchise. "The honeymoon is over, I guess," says Joe
Carter, the heretofore affable slugger who regularly bolts the
clubhouse without comment.
Toronto is languishing in a purgatorial state, waiting for the
fate of manager Cito Gaston to be decided; waiting for a group
of local investors to purchase a majority interest in the team
from the Belgian brewery that is selling it; waiting for
Beeston, the first employee hired by the franchise, in 1976, to
bid adieu; and waiting for the front office to start either
unloading veterans or adding others for a run at the American
League wild-card slot. "We're in no-man's-land," general manager
Gord Ash said before the All-Star break. "We're not in the
wild-card race, nor are we out of it. We're not going to run the
white flag up until the last possible moment."
Said Beeston, "The sale of the club has dragged on too long. I
haven't been in the clubhouse for a month because I don't know
what to say. I can't lie to the guys."
Ash opened the second half of the season by imploring Gaston and
his staff, at a pregame meeting last Thursday, to show more
enthusiasm and to push the Blue Jays harder, because they had
become "too quiet." Ash said he is "not intending to fire the
manager or the coaches," but he acknowledged that "we have too
many people on staff wondering where they'll be in a month, too
many people wondering what their severance package will be. I
felt I had to say something."
Gaston responded with typical blandness, "I'm not going to agree
with that, and I'm not going to disagree with that."
Only once in their 20-year history have the Blue Jays fired a
manager during the season, and that was when Beeston persuaded
Gaston to replace Jimy Williams early in 1989. Gaston has become
the lightning rod for the Jays' recent struggles. A Toronto Sun
fax and E-mail poll published July 2 found that 49.2% of
respondents held Gaston most accountable for the state of the
Jays, and 66.9% said he isn't the right man to manage them. On
June 25 The Toronto Star published a cartoon of Gaston sleeping
in the dugout with a DO NOT DISTURB sign around his neck and a
wine bottle tucked beside him in the bat rack. "That's as low as
it gets," Carter says. "Now fans are running down to the dugout,
yelling things at me and Cito. They get their cue from the media."
Gaston's easygoing, understated manner once suited the Blue Jays
well, especially in the championship years of 1992 and '93, when
strong leaders like David Cone, Paul Molitor, Jack Morris and
Dave Winfield dominated the clubhouse. Gaston has been less
successful with teams that require a firm hand. For instance,
after a 13-12 loss to Boston on June 25, in which Hentgen was
left in for eight innings and was tattooed for 11 runs and 13
hits, including five homers, four players anonymously cited by
the media asked why Gaston allowed Hentgen to absorb such a
pounding. "I have 2 1/2 starting pitchers and a tired bullpen,"
Gaston replied, referring in part to starter Juan Guzman's rehab
from a broken right thumb. "What do you want me to do?"
Since Toronto won the 1993 world title, only Tom Kelly of the
Minnesota Twins (225-283) has lost more games than Gaston
(226-279) among American League managers. Gaston is the only
manager in history to have presided over three straight losing
seasons immediately after winning the World Series. The only
other club to have done that was the Red Sox after winning the
'18 World Series. Boston embarked on a string of 15 consecutive
losing seasons, waiting only until after the second year of that
decline to change managers. Speaking as if his time in Toronto
were already up, Gaston says, "I'm so happy Paul made me take
this job. It's been good for me. I'm glad I've had this
experience. I wouldn't trade it for the world."
Beeston has announced that he will leave the Blue Jays
soon--though he has not specified when--rather than stay on with
the prospective owners, who have spent the past month examining
the franchise's books. Beeston will probably accept an offer
from Major League Baseball to serve in a new position, chief
operating officer, a sort of deputy commissioner.
No person better exemplifies the Blue Jays' familial touch than
Beeston. He annually sends front-office personnel, including all
secretaries, on a road trip. Four days before the All-Star Game
he summoned Clemens and Hentgen to his office to dole out bonus
checks for being named to the American League team. Clemens,
hardened by a less harmonious relationship with the front office
during his 13 seasons in Boston, was stunned. He said, "Why are
we getting this now? We haven't even played the game yet."
"You made it. Why should I have to wait until next week?"
replied Beeston, who was the person most responsible for
bringing Clemens to Toronto. Now Clemens has neither Beeston nor
a pennant race to count on.
Despite shelling out a ton of Canadian bacon to land Clemens
(the equivalent of $24.75 million in U.S. greenbacks over three
years) and swelling its payroll to $45.5 million from $28.5
million, Toronto has gained only 533 paying customers per game
over last year's average crowd. Attendance is 32,133 per game,
or 17,154 less than in 1994.
For the fans who do show up, the Blue Jays do little on the
field to encourage them to return. Not only did they have the
worst home record in the league (20-29) at week's end, but they
were also woefully dull on offense. They had by far the worst
slugging and on-base percentages in the league, while scoring
the fewest runs and hitting for the lowest average. Their
batting average was .243; no American League team has finished a
season with such a poor mark since the Yankees hit .241 in 1990.
Toronto's significant off-season acquisitions have had mixed
results. Clemens and outfielder Orlando Merced (who is batting a
team-high .285) have played to form, but catcher Benito Santiago
(.197) and second baseman Carlos Garcia (.224) have looked
weaker than the Canadian dollar. Young players brought up
through the farm system, such as shortstop Alex Gonzalez,
designated hitter Carlos Delgado and outfielder Shawn Green
(whose three-week benching in May and June underscored Gaston's
lack of faith in him) have progressed slowly.
Carter, Santiago (coming off a career power year with the
Philadelphia Phillies in which he hit 30 home runs) and third
baseman Ed Sprague combined to hit 96 homers and bat .254 last
year, but through Sunday they had only 24 home runs and a .224
average. The double play combination of Gonzalez and Garcia was
hitting .231 with 112 strikeouts and only 30 walks. "It's a lack
of strike-zone discipline," Ash says. "We strike out too much,
and we don't walk enough. We don't swing at strikes. We get
ourselves out, and everybody knows it."
"All we can do," Gaston says, "is ride the storm out and hope
the storm doesn't last the whole year. If it does, we're in
trouble." The series against the Red Sox, who have the
third-worst pitching staff in the league, perked up the Blue
Jays slightly. Twenty-one runs in four games qualified as an
outburst for Toronto, which had scored only 26 runs in its
previous 11 games. But the indoor gloom of the SkyDome figures
to be trickier to fix than panel number 3, and the Jays' two
most entrenched fixtures besides Beeston--Gaston and Carter,
whose contract expires after this season and who has veto power
over a trade--could be sent away. Carter, who is nine home runs
short of George Bell's Toronto record of 202, left the clubhouse
after the July 5 defeat without his trademark smile or the
comfort of the security for which the Blue Jays were once
renowned. "It may come to the point where my time is up here,"
he said. "Everything is up in the air. It's a whole different
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON A tip on how feeble the Jays' bats are: At .285, Merced leads Toronto in hitting by a wide margin. [Orlando Merced swinging and missing ball]
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Gonzalez (8) has contributed to the Blue Jays' decline by failing to live up to expectations. [Alex Gonzalez dropping ball while tagging baserunner]
THE BIG SLIDE
The Blue Jays' plunge since their 1993 World Series victory is
the second-steepest four-year fall by a world champion in major
league history. Here are the six teams with the worst World
YEAR TEAM RECORD PCT.
1914-17 PHILADELPHIA ATHLETICS 233-377 .382
1994-97 TORONTO BLUE JAYS 228-280 .449*
1919-22 BOSTON RED SOX 274-324 .458
1904-07 BOSTON RED SOX 281-328 .461
1992-95 MINNESOTA TWINS 270-311 .465
1984-87 BALTIMORE ORIOLES 308-339 .476
Source: Elias Sports Bureau
The landscape around the Blue Jays is so bleak, you expect to
see Sojourner whir through the clubhouse.
"It's a lack of strike-zone discipline," Ash says. "We get
ourselves out, and everybody knows it."