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The Blue Jays think he can, but in 785 at bats at Syracuse, their Triple A club, in 1978, '79 and '80 he hit just .239, the same figure he had in 419 at bats in the bigs before this season. That's consistency, but the Blue Jays expect more than that from the man who has been handed the third-base job. Doerr, one of baseball's most respected hitting coaches, projects Ainge as a .280 to .300 hitter with 15 to 20 home runs. "It's just a matter of getting to know the pitchers and learning to relax," says Doerr. "The number one thing in hitting a baseball is not to be afraid of it. Danny isn't afraid. Second, you have to work. Danny will do the things it takes to make him good."
Despite that ringing endorsement, Ainge might have opted for pro basketball if the helter-skelter NBA game were more like the rah-rah collegiate version. Baseball's other attractions for Ainge include less hectic traveling than in basketball, a greater chance for a long career and a part-time home in Toronto, where the Mormon church is strong. But the most intriguing theory as to why he chose baseball is that it's the sport he has mastered least. His family, his teammates and Arnold all agree this may be the reason, and so does Ainge.
"I think there's something to that, even if it's kind of subconscious," he says. "I had to prove myself this year in basketball, and I think I did. Now it's the same in baseball. I don't think I've even played close to my ability yet.
"I've failed at things before. I think I've failed at baseball the last three years. I've set goals for myself, and I haven't come close to them. If I keep failing for a certain period of time, I'll definitely try something else. Basketball? Probably. But, really, I don't know if that option will still be open to me. I hope so. But, to tell you the truth, I rarely think about failing. I don't let it enter my mind."
Others have considered it, however. Some of Ainge's teammates have doubts about his ability to be an everyday player. Others resent the preferential treatment given him since he signed his first contract in August 1977, a few weeks before the start of his freshman year at BYU. The deal guaranteed Ainge that the next summer he'd be sent directly to Syracuse. He was then sent up to the big club for 87 games in '79 and 38 games last season, all without any spring training. Ainge admits that not having to spend any time in the low minors was a major factor in his signing a three-year Blue Jay contract worth $500,000 in September of last year. It contains a no-pro-basketball clause that has the aching-for-Ainge NBA crying.
"Because we're an expansion club, there are a lot of young players here who wouldn't make it with some other teams," says Outfielder Rick Bosetti. "Danny has proven he's an exceptional athlete, but whether he can play at the major league level remains to be seen.
"We all knew he wasn't dogging it when he was away playing basketball and stuff, so there wasn't much resentment. But there's a lot of feeling that Danny was in the right place at the right time. He had negotiating power because of basketball. If one of us went in and tried to negotiate a contract on the statistics he had, we'd get nothing."
The Blue Jays and Ainge contend that his stats are misleading. "A .239 average is not too bad for a boy with no spring training who jumped right out of American Legion ball to Triple A," says Doerr. And Ainge contends that dividing his time and concentration between two sports has hurt him. "I've got to improve now that I've made a firm decision," he says. "I'm a baseball player and I'm going to start playing like one. Missing time has always been a factor and so has the fact that I've experimented so much at the plate. [The Blue Jays even let him switch-hit for a while in 1979, and he went 2 for 8 lefthanded. He may go back to it.] In the past three years I'd experiment with different stances in the middle of a game. The way things have gone, the experimenting became more important than the game because we were so far out of it. But my stats have suffered for it."
There is also the question of Ainge's readiness to take over third. He's always been a slick fielder, but he spent his entire amateur career as a shortstop. When he got to Syracuse in '78, he was converted into the world's tallest second baseman, and he was still at second when Toronto brought him up for the first time in May of '79. In his first start for Toronto last season he was in leftfield, and he eventually played all the outfield positions, as well as second, third and designated hitter. When Toronto became satisfied with Damaso Garcia's play at second, Ainge went to Syracuse to learn how to play third. But following an injury to Barry Bonnell in August, Ainge was recalled to play center, where he remained until his return to school on Sept. 2.
In the off-season the Blue Jays made no effort to re-sign incumbent Third Baseman Roy Howell and, with their typical Danny-can-do-it thinking, left the position to Ainge. Says Bonnell, one of three other Mormons on the team, "He's going to be good someday, but he's really kind of untried and untested. I'm glad they have that kind of confidence in him, and I hope he plays real well, but I think it's a pretty big gamble."