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Toronto Blue Jays
Righthander Pat Hentgen, who was completing only his second full year in the majors that memorable nighttwo seasons, two World Series ringsis one of just three players remaining from the '93 team. "I didn't grasp the moment as well as I should have," Hentgen says. "It all happened so fast and I was so young and I guess I thought we would just keep on winning forever."
General manager Gord Ash watches videotapes of those Series games each winter, trying to transport himself back to a time when he was the assistant G.M. of a baseball juggernaut on a remarkable run of 11 straight winning seasons, including five American League East titles. "Talk about spoiled," Ash says. "Everything we did for a decade seemed to work great, but you don't realize how fragile success is until you try to duplicate it. There is a cyclical nature to professional sport. Even the Montreal Canadiens have had droughts."
The Blue Jays have endured four straight seasons under .500, finishing fifth, fourth and fifth in the East the past three years. With so many of the elements that fortified the franchise now lost, dissipated or replaced in recent years, it is fair to wonder if Toronto can regain its momentum anytime soon.
Despite rumors in the past year that the franchise was about to be sold, it is still on the market. SkyDome, once an attraction in itself, has been upstaged by the newer retro parks, like Camden Yards and Jacobs Field. After drawing more than four million in '91, '92 and '93, the Blue Jays drew just 2,589,297 last season, ninth in the majors. This was particularly troubling because Toronto had outbid the Yankees for free agent Roger Clemens. His salary helped jack up the payroll nearly $20 million to $48 million for '97, but even with a Cy Young Award-winning performance by Clemens, the Blue Jays' attendance increased just 367 fans per game over the previous year, leading to reported losses of $21 million. Part of the apathy can be attributed to the major leagues' worst offenseToronto finished last in the league in batting average, runs, slugging percentage and on-base percentage, and when Carter left he took 16% of the team's RBIs in '97 with him.
Ash has struggled to fill the shoes of his wily predecessor, Pat Gillick (now the Orioles' general manager), who built the Blue Jays by developing young players and filling holes with seasoned veterans. Ash is trying to follow the same game plan, but things have not gone as swimmingly. For instance, after failing this past winter to acquire Paul Molitor, Chili Davis, Chuck Knoblauch or Mike Lansing to jump-start the offense, Ash instead signed free-agent closer Randy Myers to a three-year, $16 million contract, stocking a position the team was not particularly desperate to upgrade. (Toronto did acquire Jose Canseco, Mike Stanley and Darrin Fletcher to bolster the offense.) Also, the recent string of disappointing seasons led to last September's firing of manager Cito Gaston, who had shepherded the Blue Jays for nine years. He was replaced by Tim Johnson, who has never managed in the majors.
On that fateful evening when Carter hit his shot heard round the world, Johnson sat on his couch in Great Falls, Mont., pumping his fist with joy. Johnson, who played in Toronto as a reserve infielder in '78 and '79, was the Expos' bench coach in '93, and he could never have imagined he would be the Blue Jays' manager just four seasons later. "Thinking back, that night seems like 10 years ago," Johnson says. "I remember being so happy for Toronto, and I felt like I played a little part in bringing Toronto to the peak of the baseball world. Now I have the tough task of bringing back that feeling you get when everybody else wishes they could trade places with you."
by Tim Crothers
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