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A Spring Classic
Tom Verducci
April 13, 1998
Why wait five months for a meaningful series when the Blue Jays and the Rangers were offering up the next best thing on the season's opening weekend?
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April 13, 1998

A Spring Classic

Why wait five months for a meaningful series when the Blue Jays and the Rangers were offering up the next best thing on the season's opening weekend?

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Bosnian, himself a former Texas pitcher, had the distinction of surrendering the first big league hits of both Oates and Johnson. "Him, too?" Bosman says of the Blue Jays' manager. "It's not as if they had all that many, either. With all due respect, of course."

Johnson, an infielder who batted .223 for his career, had only 282 more hits—none a home run—after his single off Bosman in 1973. He ended his career backing up Danny Ainge on the '79 Jays, who lost as many games (109) as any American League team in the past 59 years. Johnson's '98 Blue Jays were sliding in an ominously similar direction after becoming one of four Toronto teams to begin a season 1-3. The Blue Jays had only 13 hits total in games started by Helling and Minnesota's Bob Tewksbury and LaTroy Hawkins, who were a combined 19-34 last year. No wonder the SkyDome DJ chose to play 4 Non Blondes' What's Going On? before last Saturday's game.

Johnson, 48, is not one to panic, even if his lineup that day included his third lead-off hitter in four games (Alex Gonzalez) and the well-coiffed, if not sure-handed, Canseco as his fourth leftfielder. Johnson was once a Dodgers farmhand on the verge of being shipped off to Vietnam when the O'Malley family pulled strings to get him assigned to Marine reserve duty near Dodger Stadium. He became a mortarman—probably, he says, because his superior officers knew of his hardscrabble youth in East LA. The son of a grocer and a housemaid spent six off-seasons teaching soldiers about the munitions with which they could kill or be killed.

Since his retirement as a player, Johnson has seen more leagues than Jules Verne. He managed in the Pioneer League, the California League, the American Association, the Mexican Winter League, the Arizona Fall League and the Dominican Winter League before reaching the American League. "I don't have an ego," says Johnson, who proved that during some rare playing time in the disastrous 1979 season when he marched into manager Roy Harts-field's office, pounded the desk and proclaimed, "Sit me or trade me!"

Since their back-to-back world championships in 1992 and '93, the Blue Jays have lost 1.5 million fans and more games than every team in the league except Minnesota and the Detroit Tigers. Johnson, who succeeded the fired Cito Gaston, hired one of his best friends in baseball, Maury Wills, to emphasize baserunning in spring training. He also assured 25-year-old rightfielder Shawn Green, who held a two-year lease on Gaston's doghouse, that he would play every day, bat third and be free to steal bases whenever he wanted. "It's new to me to have this kind of faith shown in me," says Green.

After three games, though, Green was hitless, and the Toronto offense conjured repeated references to last year. By Saturday morning the karma was so bad in the clubhouse that first baseman Mike Stanley, one of eight off-season acquisitions, began loosening up his teammates. "It's time to turn the page," he said. "We've got seven guys who weren't in the lineup at this time last year. The comparisons aren't fair. I felt like we were being victimized. So I told some of the guys, like Shawn Green, to just go out and have fun."

Green perked up with his first hit, an RBI and a stolen base, but it was Canseco who delivered the big blow. He snapped a 2-2 tie in the sixth with a home run off Oliver. Stanley followed with a dinger of his own. When Oates reluctantly turned matters over to his bullpen, Toronto tacked on five runs in the eighth for a 9-2 win. "I knew it couldn't continue the way we were going," said Canseco, a reclamation project at 33 after six unremarkable seasons in which his durability and dedication were questioned. Canseco has averaged only 99 games per year since 1992.

In Toronto, his fourth address in that span, Canseco has found a home to his liking. He enjoys hitting at the SkyDome—he ripped another dinger on Sunday, giving him 15 home runs and 42 RBIs in 43 career games there—as well as making occasional forays into its outfield. "No wind and no sun," he said. On Saturday he speared a fly ball, his only chance, with an effort that drew razzing from the Toronto relievers behind the leftfield fence. "We didn't recognize him out there," lefthander Dan Plesac said of the poseur who went cap-less even for Opening Day introductions. "It's the first time we ever saw him with a hat on. We never knew he had one."

Toronto began last season with an extra-inning loss after closer Mike Timlin blew a ninth-inning lead by serving up a home run to Norberto Martin of the White Sox. The Jays never recovered, a fact they say has no bearing on this season. "The intensity is better on this club," says righthander Pat Hentgen. "The chemistry is better."

Timlin is gone, replaced by the reliable Randy Myers. First baseman-DH Carlos Delgado, who hit 30 home runs last year and was thought to be out until June with a shoulder injury, is expected back in three weeks. The schedule is kind: 26 of the first 31 games are against teams that had losing records last year. Even the two curved, marble-topped tables that formed a circle in the center of the clubhouse were reversed on the eve of the opener, a purposeful nod to a turnaround season.

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