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Soul of Blue Jays has flown the coop


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- A baseball season without a defending World Series champion?

Weird idea, huh? Very weird. Vaguely resembles one of those cockamamie propositions the owners have trumped up to get more money out of the TV networks. Wild-card playoffs. Interleague games. No defending champ. "Twilight Zone" stuff.

But it's really happening this season. Just ask Paul Molitor.

"I signed with the defending champs," he was saying yesterday in the Blue Jays' clubhouse at Al Lang Stadium, "but this isn't really the team that won. It's significantly different."

Score another bizarro point for baseball's big-money madness. The Blue Jays won the Series last October, but a different team will defend their title this year.

Should we call them the Red Jays? The Hosers? The Colts?

"We're gonna be a little bit different than what people are used to seeing in the Blue Jay uniforms," manager Cito Gaston said, "but we'll still be called the Blue Jays."

No way. Not with Ed Sprague playing third base, Derek Bell in left field and someone named Eddie Zosky at shortstop. Those aren't the Blue Jays.

Not with Molitor, a lifetime Brewer, at designated hitter. Not with Dave Stewart, the soul of the Oakland A's, in the rotation. Those are certainly not the Blue Jays.

Not without Kelly Gruber and Manuel Lee and Candy Maldonado and Tom Henke and Dave Winfield and Jimmy Key and David Stieb and David Cone, all prominent or longtime Jays who left last winter. It can't be the Jays without them, can it?

"It will be, it will be," Gaston said soothingly. "It's just baseball, especially the way it is with the money today. Players move on. The game moves on. People move on and forget the way things were."

The way things were last year, the Jays had power, defense, a deep rotation and flawless bullpen. Burdened by the club's history of folding when it mattered most, they delivered elegantly.

"I'm not sure people realized how good we were until afterward, when players started leaving," Gaston said. "We had a very nice club with a lot of talent. That's why we won the World Series."

Had the Jays chosen to reassemble the group, their payroll would have exceeded $50 million this year. You just can't sell enough tickets to pay that tab.

But Jays general manager Pat Gillick didn't want the club back intact anyway. He didn't bask in the Series victory so much as start scheming to win another. It's his job, of course. And he was worried about complacency.

"I think he saw from the example of some other clubs that you can't go with the same group and hope to be successful," Molitor said. "You could see he was very concerned about the danger of complacency setting in. He wanted an atmosphere in which players would still be hungry."

Whether he succeeded is one of the issues on which the season will turn. Youngsters such as Sprague and Bell are hungry to prove they're everyday major-leaguers. Molitor is hungry to win a Series. Yet Jays insiders have noted the absence this spring of a purposefulness that existed before winning the Series. One player told a reporter: "They're certainly not working us very hard."

In any case, having established that these Jays won't measure up to last year's -- "You can't argue with the opinion," Gaston said -- the question becomes, of course, how good will they be?

Remember, this is a team with Molitor, Jack Morris, Juan Guzman and Joe Carter. As a structure, it's not lacking for cornerstones.

"We'll be OK," Gaston said. "We'll have less power and more speed. We'll certainly have as good a shot as anyone. Who can say what will happen? We may not be up to last year, but I think we're still a better team than we were in '91, when we won a division."

Regardless of what happens, the manager will not whine about the circumstances that stripped his team of so many essential parts.

"We knew before last season that we wouldn't be able to bring a lot of people back," he said. "We were set up to win [in '92]. I'm happy for the guys who [left and] signed nice contracts. My only regret is we won't be together when we get our Series rings on Opening Day."

It will be a weird day. The team will celebrate, but almost half the celebrators will be elsewhere. A replacement team will wear the uniforms. A replacement defending champion. They're certainly not the Blue Jays. Not the Blue Jays we knew so well, at least. You can't even ask them about choking anymore.

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