Spring notes: A lot at stake for Jays on fringe

Returning stars tune up for the season while roster hopefuls live and die with each pitch. (Photo: Matt Antonacci)

Returning stars tune up for the season while roster hopefuls live and die with each pitch. (Photo: Matt Antonacci)

By: J.P. Antonacci

Canadian Baseball Network

Don’t despair, baseball fans. Winter may have returned with a vengeance, but Canada’s team, the Toronto Blue Jays, has again embarked on its quest to bring a championship north of the border. 

To get the inside scoop for Canadian Baseball Network readers on the team’s pre-season preparations, we joined hordes of Canadian snowbirds who decamped to sunny Florida to take in some spring training action. Escaping the cold was, we assure you, merely a fringe benefit of this fact-finding mission.

LIVING AND DYING WITH EACH PITCH

Spring training is a time of contrasts. The final scores are irrelevant – the Jays had losing Grapefruit League records both years they won the World Series. Star players gradually tune up for another long summer, while those trying to make the team live and die, professionally speaking, with each pitch.

John Gibbons encourages his players – including those fighting for a roster spot – to take the long view of the season’s opening six weeks in the Florida sunshine.

“You’ve got the up-and-coming prospects – here’s their chance to go out and experience the game at this level, even though it’s still just spring training,” the Blue Jays manager said after a recent game at the team’s spring training home in Dunedin.

“Then you’ve got some guys who are knocking on the door for a while (and) they haven’t quite made it. So they’re pressing – they try to do the right thing on the field, have a big ballgame, just to get our attention,” Gibbons continued. 

“Then you’ve got some of the guys who have a legitimate shot of making the team if they play well down here. So it’s definitely a big difference in emotion in all the different guys.”

Managing his players’ emotions throughout the spring is just as important for Gibbons as calling the plays on the field.  

“I’m definitely conscious of all that, what they’re going through, and if it looks like somebody’s a little too tight or trying too hard, I might have a few words for them,” Gibbons said. 

“The thing about baseball, the harder you try in this sport, the worse it gets. With some other sports, you can run harder, you can hit a guy harder. The more effort, sometimes, in baseball, the worse it gets. And maybe me saying something to them might relax them a little bit.”

SIZZLING START FOR JOEY BATS

Jose Bautista’s bat can change the game even when the game doesn’t count. On March 2, down 4-1 after the Philadelphia Phillies hung a four spot on a dejected Brett Oberholtzer, Joey Bats blasted a three-run shot in the bottom of the frame to tie the score.

That was Bautista’s second home run of the spring, and he would have had his third that same game if a section of the left-field wall at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium wasn’t raised to protect an adjacent school. As it were, a scorcher off Bats’ bat clanged off the mini-Monster, and he settled for a loud single.

After player and club basically backed into a reunion when the slugger’s expected free agent market didn’t materialize in the offseason, Bautista has reclaimed his title of fan favourite with a sizzling spring.

His batting eye certainly looks to be intact. In a game against the Tigers, Bautista worked pitcher A.J. Achter to a 3-0 count, fouled off two pitches and then walked on an inside pitch. A few games earlier, Bautista saw two strikes, nodded to himself, and calmly stroked a base hit up the middle on the next pitch.  

Prior to each game, Bautista jogged in alone from the right-field clubhouse after his teammates were already in the dugout and play was about to start. The returning star didn’t break stride or break into a smile as he breezed past cheering fans who are no doubt buoyed by once again having the bearded basher in the Blue Jays lineup every night. 

HELLO, FRIENDS – JERRY IS BACK

It was great to see broadcaster Jerry Howarth around the batting cage, chatting with players and coaches and jotting down stories he’ll use on the radio throughout the season.

In November, Howarth announced that he had prostate cancer, but reassured Jays fans that an MRI had caught it early and he expected a full recovery. While recuperating from surgery, Howarth walked indoors at Cloverdale Mall in Etobicoke every day, gradually building up his strength. 

The genial broadcaster says he is now at full health and raring to go for his 36th season of calling Blue Jays baseball. He urges all men over 45 to have annual PSA tests and stay on top of their prostate health so they too can strike out cancer should the need arise.

OMAR’S STILL GOT IT

The most nimble Tiger on the field before Toronto’s March 1 tilt against Detroit might have been third base coach Omar Vizquel. The retired shortstop, known for his defensive wizardry, took a few quick steps to his right and jumped to barehand a ball grounded foul, much to the delight of the Tigers fans in the bleachers.

“He’s still got it,” opined one observer. “Omar could suit up and play short this year,” his seatmate nodded.

During batting practice before the game, Vizquel – who ended his all-star career with a season in Toronto – obliged a fan’s request to “flip your hat around one last time.” Backward went Vizquel’s lid and, true to form for the prolific bunter, he squared around on the next fly ball hit his way.

DIAMONDS IN THE SUN

This spring marks the Blue Jays’ 41st year in Dunedin, the club’s pre-season home since forming in 1977. Throughout the summer, Florida Auto Exchange Stadium hosts the Dunedin Blue Jays, and the bleachers are decidedly roomier. The Single-A team will typically draw only a tiny fraction of what the major-league Jays do in February and March.

That makes sense, but also seems a shame. It’s a charming park, if a bit bedraggled ¬– dent marks from foul balls line the upper grandstand, where ushers unroll wrinkled blue tarps to block the sun. But the stadium’s no-frills nature affords Dunedin fans a level of access to the stars of tomorrow that Rogers Centre patrons can only envy.

However, it was explained by employees of the team store – whose business falls off a cliff once the big leaguers skip town – that the debilitating summer heat and daily downpours dampen the allure of a day at the ballpark for Floridians who would rather tan by the beach or stay indoors.

At spring training, however, we heard nary a peep of complaint from the snowbirds filling the bleachers, the Canadian cold replaced by the gentle rhythms of baseball in the sunshine.