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Blue Jays try to stay focused

    Toronto using spring to recapture chemistry lost after an off-season of turmoil.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 5, 1999

DUNEDIN -- Discard the distractions. Forget the past. Both catch phrases apply to the mood in the clubhouse at Englebert Complex as the Blue Jays opened spring training last week.

After a hectic off-season of embarrassing revelations, complicated business decisions and a staggering trade of star pitcher Roger Clemens, the buzz word in camp is . . . focus.

“The main thing for our club is to focus on baseball right now,” manager Tim Johnson said. “We had a great year last year, 88 wins. We had great chemistry in the clubhouse, nothing interfered with that. The focus is carrying what we did last year into spring training and to carry on.”

Added catcher Darrin Fletcher: “I think the nature of baseball forces you to become focused. As far as that off-season stuff happening, a lot of us didn’t even read what was going on. Obviously, some of us are aware of what happened, but we can’t let that bother us.”

More than ever, the challenge for a Blue Jays club that won 88 games last season and was far more competitive than most predicted will be to keep its eyes on staying with the power teams of the AL East.

It might be asking a lot, but what team captain Carlos Delgado, upcoming outfield star Shawn Green and former Cy Young Award winner Pat Hentgen must do is remove the shrapnel from a turbulent off-season.

The Jays must at least try to maintain continuity in their pitching staff, with David Wells and without Clemens. Wells is back where he started his major-league career, and although the Toronto lifestyle will pale in comparison to the one he enjoyed in New York, the hefty lefty will need to be an ace if the Jays are to be competitive.

“We made a big deal about Roger, but I don’t see anyone in here holding his head down,” Fletcher said. “We have a lot of good young players and guys (like Wells) who have had success at the big-league level. There’s no reason why we can’t start off strong.”

The time is ripe for Wells to ingratiate himself to his new teammates who might have been bitter toward Clemens in the end. The five-time Cy Young winner and key clubhouse leader demanded to be traded and complained about the competitive potential of the club.

Hentgen originally took offense to Clemens’ comments.

“I said those things because we won 88 games last year, and I think we’re more competitive team right now. I think we’re way more competitive than when he came here in 1997,” Hentgen said at the time.

The Jays also must try to forget Johnsongate. After one year as manager, Johnson’s credibility came under question when he admitted he lied about serving in the Marine Corps in the Vietnam War. To be sure, the Vietnam fiasco won’t go away soon. As media friendly as he can be, Johnson still will have to field numerous questions about his fabricated experiences, and the team will have to deal with public relations dilemma that could arise in U.S. stops.

Jays manager Tim Johnson looks over his pitching prospects as they throw in Dunedin.
[Photo: AP]
“The support that I have gotten from the Blue Jays organization and the players has been tremendous,” Johnson said. “It’s something I have to work on every day. That was a load off my back after a 30-year guilt.”

The Jays need to fill the void left by the departure of slugger Jose Canseco, who brought not only a big bat but an equally big presence in the clubhouse. Canseco, who turned down an offer from the Blue Jays to sign with the Devil Rays, hit .237, with 46 HRs and 107 RBI last season.

Equally significant is the health of reliever Paul Quantrill, who broke his right leg in a snowmobile accident. Days before pitchers and catchers were due to report Feb. 22, Quantrill walked into the locker room with the help of a cane. He said he will be ready to return by May.


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