With 25,509 people in the seats, as was the case for the opener of a three-game series between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Texas Rangers last Friday night, SkyDome becomes a large-scale psychiatrist's riddle. Do you see the stadium as half full or half empty? The first weekend of the baseball season would separate the optimists from the pessimists, the contenders from the pretenders and, with any luck, the Blue Jays' offense from that of the Maple Leafs.
A better riddle might have been this: Why did Toronto and Texas play to as many empty seats as occupied ones in the Blue Jays' home park? Didn't Torontonians grasp the magnitude of this series? Here were the Jays, whose hitting last year was the worst in any full season in franchise history (.244), and the Rangers, whose pitching last year was the worst in any full season in franchise history (4.69), both fancying themselves as pennant-worthy ball clubs. No need to wait until September to find out if either was legit. An April showdown between teams on the bubble would be as exciting as an Iowa caucus.
Except for the lack of queues for the $3.55 gourmet pretzels, the signs were everywhere at the SkyDome that this was a huge series. The winningest pitcher in major league history from North Dakota, righthander Rick Helling, started Game 1 for Texas. Blue Jays manager Tim Johnson manipulated his roster as carefully as he once assembled shells while teaching mortar technology to Marine grunts going off to Vietnam. You want big? Billy Bob Thornton was there. Jose Canseco actually wore a cap.
Each team entered the weekend having split its season-opening two-game series. Toronto, with six lineup spots turned over since last July, had scored only five runs against the lowly Minnesota Twins. Texas, with a largely unchanged pitching staff, surrendered 13 runs to the Chicago White Sox; the Rangers won when their fearsome attack exploded for 20 runs and a franchise-record 23 hits. So questions remained when the resistible force met the movable object. "It's important for us," Blue Jays general manager Gord Ash said last Friday, "because we need to establish we're a good team at home. We weren't last year."
Alas, Toronto came away from the series as the more suspect team. It dropped two of the three games while ending the first week of the season batting .205 with only 32 hits in five games. Texas won the deciding game of the series 6-5 on Sunday with the kind of formula that could make it a force in the American League. Resourceful righthander John Burkett and closer John Wetteland, who took care of the final four outs instead of the usual three, rendered the Rangers' dubious middle relief corps unnecessary. Texas's postseason chances are simple to calculate: The Rangers, who have outspent every other team in baseball except the Baltimore Orioles, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves, are cooked if their starters don't pitch deep into games. Said Texas manager Johnny Oates, his eyes twinkling, "We'll make it work."
Oates manipulated his rotation specifically for this series, holding out his biggest winner from last year, lefthander Darren Oliver, for Saturday, the Rangers' fourth game of the season. That tactic would enable Oliver to pitch twice in five days against Toronto (the teams meet again this weekend, at the Ballpark in Arlington), against which he was 5-1 with a 1.10 ERA in 10 career appearances. It also meant that Helling, who bumped incumbent Roger Pavlik out of the rotation with a splendid spring training, would start on Friday night.
Helling is a pivotal member of an unpredictable rotation. Fellow starters Oliver, Burkett, righthander Bobby Witt and off-season addition Aaron Sele, another righthander, have each won 13 games in a season—and lost 12. None have a career ERA better than 4.00. "Everyone talks about how we don't have that one guy who stops losing streaks," Oates says. "I like to think I've got six guys who can continue winning streaks." Oates's six-pack includes a premier closer, Wetteland, but no top-notch setup men, especially with righthanders Danny Patterson and Xavier Hernandez on the disabled list. "I know they want to know who the phone is for when it rings in the bullpen," Oates says, "but I told all the relievers to be ready to be used in any spot. It's not what I prefer, but that's how we have to do it for now."
The 6'3", 220-pound Helling, 27, is the best pitcher born in North Dakota, which is not unlike being the best surfer from Arkansas. As a senior he transferred from Fargo's Lakota High—"When I left, the class size dropped from 13 to 12," Helling says—to nearby Shanley High, the alma mater of Roger Maris. That year he accepted a scholarship to play linebacker at North Dakota. "Growing up, I figured if I was going to be a pro athlete, it was definitely going to be in the NFL," he says.
But after a disillusioning redshirt football season, he transferred to Stanford to pitch. The Rangers made him a first-round pick in 1992, traded him to the Florida Marlins four years later, then reacquired him last season in a trade two months before Florida won the World Series. "I've spent most of my career bouncing back and forth between starting and the bullpen and the major leagues and minor leagues," Helling says. "This is the first time I feel like I have a full chance to make 30 or more starts."
Helling solidified his spot by shutting out Toronto on four singles, 5-0. More important, he kept the Texas bullpen door safely shut. "Get ahead, stay ahead, use your head," is how Rangers pitching coach Dick Bosman described Helling's outing.