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Jack McCallum
April 20, 1981
His sublime basketball career at BYU over, Danny Ainge has been declared the messiah at third for the Blue Jays
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April 20, 1981

Thank Heaven For Danny

His sublime basketball career at BYU over, Danny Ainge has been declared the messiah at third for the Blue Jays

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ST. PETER [leading Ainge away]: Well, come along. We've got a press conference at one—there are a few journalists up here, believe it or not—and a speech at two. We'd like you to speak on "How I Beat Notre Dame." You'd be surprised at how many people up here want to hear that one. Then an infield clinic at three and a jump-shot clinic at....

If you think heaven can hardly wait for Danny Ainge, you should have seen the Blue Jays earlier this spring. Four weeks into spring training, the third baseman Toronto Vice-President Pat Gillick calls "the next Brooks Robinson" hadn't even caught a pop fly, much less charged a swinging bunt and whipped a throw to nab somebody by an eyelash at first.

The day the Blue Jays opened spring training, Ainge was leading Brigham Young's basketball team to an 80-69 victory over Colorado State. The day the Jays opened their Grapefruit League schedule, Ainge was practicing for the NCAA playoffs. The day the Jays played their fifth exhibition game, Ainge was scoring 37 points in a victory over UCLA. The day the Jays played their 10th game, Ainge wrote himself into the NCAA history books by beating Notre Dame on a frantic, full-court drive. But last Thursday, the day Toronto opened the 1981 season, Ainge was right where the Blue Jays wanted him, starting at third base against Detroit.

Ainge's performance in Toronto's 6-2 loss was uneventful—0 for 3, with a walk, and no chances in the field. But it was remarkable that he was even in the lineup after just 10 Grapefruit League at bats. The original plan was for him to stay in Florida to work on his hitting and join the team in late April. But Ainge had been in camp only four days when he cornered Manager Bobby Mattick and told him he was ready to start an exhibition game. Like magic, the next day's lineup card read "Ainge, 3B." Ainge had three hits in his 10 at bats and fielded well, too, so Mattick and Gillick decided he was ready.

"I'd spent an hour and a half every day just hitting down there," says Ainge. "Compared to the spring training I'd had before [none], it was real concentrated, real good work. They thought I looked comfortable at the plate and I was. I wanted to be in there Opening Day."

For a while, it looked as if Ainge wasn't even going to make it to Florida before Opening Day. The season began only 18 days after BYU lost to Virginia 74-60 in the NCAA Eastern Regional final, but just 10 days after Ainge's first appearance in spring training. Instead of reporting right away, he and his wife, Michelle, spent a week in New York City, seeing a movie (The Devil and Max Devlin) and a musical (A Chorus Line) while Ainge waited to receive Kodak's player of the year award, voted to him by the college coaches. After the Kodak presentation he played in an all-star game in Philadelphia on the Sunday between the NCAA semifinals and final. Through all this, the Toronto management remained very understanding.

"We felt it was something we owed to [BYU Basketball Coach] Frank Arnold," says Gillick. "He really wanted Danny to play in the all-star game because it was good exposure for the BYU program. We've had such good cooperation over the years that we let him do it." Ainge, for his part, couldn't understand why anyone would be upset. "I don't know how my teammates could complain about it too much," he said before heading south. "They've had the whole winter to sit back and think about the upcoming season. I think it's only natural that I take a little time off after a long basketball season to get excited about baseball."

On Monday, March 30, Ainge finally arrived at the Blue Jays' camp in Dunedin, Fla. to meet management, teammates, press and the bat and glove he hadn't touched since the previous September. After suiting up at 3. p.m., he walked to the press room and spent the next hour answering questions. Meanwhile, the good-natured Mattick was chafing to get him outside to play baseball. Finally, everyone followed Ainge onto the field, looking like the uninvolved trailers on one of his one-man fast breaks, and watched him hit against a pitching machine fed by batting instructor Bobby Doerr. Next, Gillick, a former Triple A southpaw in the Baltimore organization and a man not insensitive to a good photo opportunity, played catch with Ainge to warm him up. Then, Ainge fielded Mattick's ground balls at third for 15 minutes before calling it quits.

The workout was inconclusive. Ainge didn't look like Brooks Robinson, and he didn't look like Brooke Shields. But he was there at last, and that's all anyone really cared about.

Ainge, Daniel Ray, 22, 6'5", 185. Bats right, sometimes left, throws right. Dribbles left, right, behind his back. Signs autographs, plays tennis and uses the fork lefthanded and righthanded. But lives down the middle. All the way. NBA immortal Walt Frazier called him "the baddest guard in the country," and USC Football Coach John Robinson once said Ainge could play both wide receiver and safety for his team. He has also conquered golf (he once played with a five handicap), bowling (227 high game), swimming, diving, backgammon, chess and the public-relations curriculum at BYU, and Michelle says he can change the diapers of their 16-month-old daughter, Ashlee. Yes, in the storybook tale of Danny Ainge, the kind of balanced-mind-and-body story that would have made even stern old Brigham Young smile, there remains only that age-old baseball concern: "Can da bum hit da coive?"

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