'Champion' Jays refuse to concede


DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Toronto Blue Jays own a special place in baseball's strange new landscape. They are the defending World Series champions, and they are trying to rebound from a disappointing 1994 season.

The players strike wiped out the World Series, keeping the world championship in Toronto on a technicality, but the Blue Jays are not the team to beat in the American League East. They stood well behind the New York Yankees and Orioles when the season was cut short last August, so it may be awhile before they regain the swagger that developed when they were dominating the division from 1989 to 1993.

"I guess technically we are [the defending world champion], but I don't think anybody looks at it that way," said first baseman John Olerud. "The Yankees were running away with it last year. I don't think you put a whole lot of stock in that kind of thing anyway. Every year is a new year."

The front office has stepped forward again to assure that the club gets off to a fresh start. The Blue Jays reacquired 1994 Cy Young Award winner David Cone and added veteran Danny Darwin to shore up the starting rotation. This may not be the super team of the early 1990s, but it isn't exactly a Canadian club on the rocks, either.

The Yankees had acquired starter Jack McDowell and stopper John Wetteland, outflanking the rest of the AL East after posting the best record in the league in 1994. It was going to take a blockbuster move by the Blue Jays just to keep pace with the front-office machinations of their most dangerous divisional rival, but the Toronto front office has a habit of making the big move at the right time.

Enter Cone. Former general manager Pat Gillick always found a way to improve the club when other teams seemed helpless to make a deal. New GM Gord Ash apparently has picked up right where Gillick left off, acquiring the league's top pitcher when no one else even knew he was available.

"This club expects to win," said Cone, who was acquired once before by the Blue Jays -- to help the club down the stretch in 1992. "The organization expects to win and is committed to do whatever it takes, maybe because they have more resources than some other teams."

Maybe because the Blue Jays compete at the front-office level with the same aggressive attitude that has made them a consistent winner on the field. Even when they were dominating the AL East, they never seemed to let any artificial turf grow under their feet.

"It's a little bit of a chess match," said veteran Paul Molitor. "When someone makes a move, you try to respond as best you can. It's kind of point/counterpoint. It's nice to be on a team that can take some risks."

Of course, the Blue Jays can afford to take chances, because so many of their big gambles have paid off. They created a divisional dynasty several years ago with the dramatic deal that sent Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez to the San Diego Padres for Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar. They gambled on an erratic outfielder named Devon White and watched him become one of the most dangerous leadoff hitters in the game. They risked millions to lure an injury-prone Molitor away from Milwaukee and he responded with two outstanding seasons.

Now Cone and Darwin have been added to a rotation that already includes Juan Guzman and Pat Hentgen.

"It's a great feeling," Olerud said. "You always feel like you've got a chance. If you're in the race and you need somebody, you go out and get somebody. You're always in the hunt for the division title."

Except last year. The Jays tried to get by without injured closer Duane Ward and fell by the wayside. They finished five games under .500 -- 16 games behind the first-place Yankees -- and had particular trouble competing against AL East teams (13-22). It was the first time some Blue Jays players had ever experienced the flip side of success.

"That's about as close as I've been to not being in a pennant race," Olerud said. "You get a little spoiled. You get into certain situations and you just expect to win. But we lost Duane Ward and Danny Cox -- a couple of good, experienced guys who had been real effective for us. When you lose those guys, you really learn to appreciate them."

The Blue Jays hope to have Ward back eventually, but in the meantime, they'll have to depend heavily on their explosive offensive lineup to cushion the late innings. The top five hitters in the order -- White, Alomar, Carter, Molitor and Olerud -- need no introduction, but the club also could get a big contribution from promising outfielder Carlos Delgado, who peppered SkyDome with 450-foot shots last April before AL pitchers caught up with him.

The Yankees and Orioles appear to be deeper, more resilient teams, but everyone is gearing for a tough three-team race.

"I think that's pretty much the consensus," Molitor said. "Those three teams appear to be the strongest. But I've seen enough strange things happen that you can't count on those teams to be successful. Boston and Detroit could give you trouble."

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