Like Gonzales, Blue Jays put on a happy face


DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Rene Gonzales surveyed the raucous Toronto Blue Jays' clubhouse on a rainy spring training morning. "There's always got to be some jerks on a team," he said. "But I haven't found them yet."

Suddenly he stopped.

"Maybe I'm it," he said.

No chance. Gonzales, 29, was one of the Orioles' most popular players, both with teammates and fans. But such is the state of affairs with the new, improved Blue Jays, he can't even identify a player he dislikes.

The infielder wouldn't have had that problem in the past. If George Bell wasn't using mean-spirited humor to intimidate teammates, then Tony Fernandez was sulking in a corner. To the Blue Jays, the Corleones were a model family.

Except their contracts didn't always translate to hits.

General manager Pat Gillick tried to create a healthier atmosphere with a series of shocking offseason moves, including the trade of Fernandez and Fred McGriff to San Diego for Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar. It remains to be seen whether he created a better team.

If nothing else, the 1991 Jays could help provide an answer to one of sport's most intriguing questions, the importance of team chemistry. They appear less talented after losing Bell to the Cubs as a free agent and dealing Fernandez and McGriff. But it might not matter.

This is still a formidable club, perhaps the best in the AL East. This is also a happy club, for the first time in years. The difference is noticeable, even at this early stage of spring training.

Why, the Jays are still talking about how Carter transformed a dreary situation-hitting drill into an uproarious two-hour competition early in camp. Carter managed one team, Kelly Gruber the other. The losers bought pizza for the winners, each player chipping in $10.

The old Jays would have frowned on such fun. The new Jays went wild over every at-bat. Oh, their free-swinging approach left something to be desired (Plate discipline? Toronto?). It's the thought that counts.

Gonzales joked, "It's amazing how hard guys will try when they're playing for extra topping and anchovies." But others actually believe the drill might prove a watershed moment in franchise history.

"In my 12 years in Toronto's camp, I've never seen one that had better morale -- and that includes the two I ran," said Blue Jays vice president Bob Mattick, the manager in 1980-82.

"It reminds me of '89," said Gonzales, referring to the Orioles' near-miracle season. "The guys are having so much fun, but it's almost like they're on a mission.

"In Baltimore when we went to spring training, we'd take a look around and say, 'Let's see what kind of team we'll have, we'll be OK.' Here they just expect so much. They're not waiting for anything.

"Everyone knows why the changes were made," said Gonzales, who was traded for minor-league pitcher Rob Blumberg partly because George Bell's brother Juan is expected to replace him with the Orioles. "They revamped the whole atmosphere, the makeup of the club."

In time, the overhaul might have the same liberating effect the Eddie Murray trade had on the Orioles. The Jays are the only major-league club with winning records the past eight years, yet they've won only two division titles in that span (1985 and '89). Three times they've finished two games out ('87, '88, '90).

"You could see there was a lot of dissension over here," said Carter, who noticed while playing for Cleveland from 1984-89. "It was like the Yankees of old. They were winning ballgames, but winning miserably."

Still, for all Gillick's work, many believe Toronto can't possibly repeat as the league leader in runs -- even though the four departed regulars (Bell, Fernandez, McGriff and Junior Felix) combined for only 39 more RBIs last season than their replacements (Carter, Alomar, John Olerud and Devon White).

Olerud might erase the deficit himself with increased playing time, and Carter and White will improve the outfield defense considerably. The Jays' lineup was the youngest in the majors last season. It will be just as young, if not younger, this year.

The starting rotation is the nastiest in the division, and free-agent lefty Ken Dayley makes a good bullpen even better. Last but not least, there's the irrepressible Gonzales, who had no trouble acquiring No. 88.

"Nobody had it," he deadpanned.

Gonzales is expected to be a late-inning substitute at short, and he also can spell Alomar at second or Gruber at third. He learned to hate the Jays during his four years in Baltimore -- "I didn't like them. I never liked them." But now he can't even find the team jerk.

"It's a family atmosphere," pitcher Todd Stottlemyre said.

No, not that kind of family.

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