Just to make things a bit more interesting in what promises to be the most competitive race in the majors, the top two teams in the American League East played a quick game of chess in early April. New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner made the first move, taking the best closer in the game, John Wetteland, from the Montreal Expos for a reported $2 million in cash, a minor leaguer and a player to be named later. The following day the Toronto Blue Jays countered, swapping three prospects to the Kansas City Royals for 1994 American League Cy Young winner David Cone. After the trade was completed, Toronto president Paul Beeston left a message on Steinbrenner's answering machine. "Check," Beeston said and then hung up.
"Who will get to say checkmate?" asks Blue Jay designated hitter Paul Molitor.
Probably Steinbrenner, who, before he started moving pawns around this spring, proved to be equally adept at Black Jack. In December the YANKEES, who had the best record in the American League when the strike hit last August, strengthened their rotation by trading for 1993 Cy Young winner Jack McDowell. In so doing, New York not only acquired the American League's winningest pitcher of the '90s, but it also added a player with the staying power of that pink bunny in the battery commercials.
While pitchers nowadays routinely head to the showers before the seventh-inning stretch, McDowell just keeps on going and going. In the three most recent full seasons, 1991 to '93, he pitched 38 complete games and averaged 257 innings for the Chicago White Sox. In 25 starts last season Yankee ace Jimmy Key (17-4) pitched 168 innings, had one complete game and was usually taken out after about 110 pitches. Right now you can pencil in McDowell to pitch more innings than anyone else on the Yankee staff.
"The biggest impact I have on this team is my consistency," says McDowell, whose out-of-uniform uniform is a PROPERTY OF PEARL JAM T-shirt, long shorts, Doc Martens with gray socks and Buddy Holly shades. "I will give you as many innings as I can go and as many starts as I can. These days there is so much specialization in baseball, but I'm more of a throwback."
Cone, another throwback—he missed one start in the past seven years—played the last two seasons in Kansas City but is now back in the Toronto uniform that he wore the final seven weeks of the BLUE JAYS' 1992 world championship season. "The last time around, every start was crucial since it was a pennant race," says Cone. "This time the transition is easier. I get a full year." However, while Cone isn't the same power pitcher he was three seasons ago, he is every bit as effective. "I learned it was better to get a hitter out on one pitch than on eight pitches," says Cone, who was 16-5 with a 2.94 ERA in 1994. "Now I use the defense more."
Last season Toronto, the two-time defending world champ, endured its first losing season in 12 years, struggling, in particular, on the mound. So when Cone arrived at the Blue Jay training camp this spring, outfielder Joe Carter dropped to his knees and cried, "The savior Coney." But even if Cone performs miracles on the mound, Toronto needs to have closer Duane Ward, who missed last season with a rotator cuff injury, back to full strength just to have a chance of catching the Yankees.
Speaking of closers, until the Baltimore ORIOLES signed 10-year veteran Doug Jones three weeks ago, their bullpen was also a concern. After free agent Lee Smith, who saved 33 games for Baltimore in 1994, signed with the California Angels, it appeared that the Birds had little choice but to open the season with Armando Benitez, 22, who had pitched only 10 innings above Double A, as their closer.
However, with Jones on hand, the Orioles now can ease Benitez into the ninth-inning relief role. He will start the season as Jones's setup man, and then, new Baltimore manager Phil Regan hopes, he will take over as closer sometime in June. While Benitez throws heat—his fastball was clocked at 100 mph a few times during his three-game stint in the big leagues last season—Jones throws humidity.
Jones, who had a 2.17 ERA and saved 27 games for the Philadelphia Phillies last year, makes batters sweat with his 70-mph change-up. Those deceived by his release swing wildly, long before the ball reaches the plate. "It could be very hard for hitters to make that adjustment, going from Benitez to Jones," says Regan. Or vice versa.