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New manager on spot as Jays seek to repeat in tough AL East

Anytime a successful team changes managers, both the front office and the new field leader are on the spot. That's the situation in Toronto this year as the Blue Jays begin defense of their American League East title without Bobby Cox, their pilot for the past four seasons. Cox is still in baseball, but he's now general manager of the Atlanta Braves, who previously employed him as their field manager between 1978 and 1981.

Replacing Bobby in the Toronto dugout is former third base coach James Francis (Jimy) Williams, whose previous experience includes five winning records in six seaons as a minor-league pilot.

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Williams has undoubtedly memorized all the usual platitudes, and can maybe even recite the infield-fly rule backward. But until he produces his first winner at the major-league level, it will be tempting to think that maybe the Jays should have tried harder to keep Cox.

Bobby was and is special: a low-key yet no-nonsense type who was known as a players' manager for his fairness, patience, and consideration. If a player came to Cox with a problem, Bobby would listen, and that problem didn't necessarily have to relate to the playing field.

When Cox arrived in Toronto to start the 1982 season, the Blue Jays (who entered the American League as an expansion franchise along with Seattle in 1977) were just beginning to come of age. There were still some areas that needed to be reinforced, but this was obviously a team about to shake hands with its future.

Although Toronto missed playing .500 baseball in 1982 by three victories, it often performed extremely well. Further personnel changes resulted in two consecutive 89-win seasons, yet the team's record would probably have been even better if Cox hadn't been forced to play musical chairs with his bullpen.

Then last year Toronto became the class of baseball's ``Elite Division,'' the American League East, where only two teams (Milwaukee and Cleveland) were under .500.

While the Blue Jays didn't actually bury the runner-up New York Yankees, who finished only two games off the top, Cox's team never relinquished first place after May 20. In fact, Toronto never lost more than two consecutive games after the July All-Star break.

The American League playoffs, however, were a bitter disappointment for Cox and his charges. After taking a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series against the Kansas City Royals, the Blue Jays as a team began doing imitations of Laurel and Hardy trying to put the mayonnaise lid on the cookie jar. By the time Toronto had corrected its mistakes, Kansas City had won three straight games and the Jays had lost their chance to bring Canada its first World Series.

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Despite that final collapse, however, the Blue Jays clearly have plenty of talent -- especially on the mound, where most games are eventually won or lost. Any manager would like to go into spring training with four starters the equal of Dave Stieb, Doyle Alexander, Jimmy Key, and Jim Clancy, plus a solid bullpen anchored by Tom Henke and Bill Caudill. Last year this sextet and its supporting cast fashioned the lowest team earned-run average (3.31) in the American League.

The Jays were also second last year (behind Boston) in team batting, with a .269 average, although five of their rival teams hit more home runs.

There's room for improvement defensively, where Toronto was only an average team. But Tony Fernandez, who played so well last season after replacing the traded Alfredo Griffin at shortstop, can only get better.

The Blue Jays also have one of the cleverest general managers in the game in Pat Gillick, who over the years has found some incredible bargains, including six of last year's regulars.

So Toronto is certainly capable of winning a division title under Williams, who was an excellent third base coach and whose baseball credentials extend all the way back to 1965, including a brief stint at shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals.

For Jimy, though, it's basically an ``everything to lose and nothing to gain'' situation. If the Blue Jays do win again, people will just assume it was because he inherited Cox's already well-oiled machine. But if they lose, he'll be the one who has to shoulder most of the blame.

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