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Blue Jays seek to gain respect, shed perennial bridesmaid role

The Toronto Blue Jays are a team with good gloves, but so far all they've caught are bouquets. As they begin their 12th season, they are still seeking to win their first pennant and change their role as the perennial bridesmaid of the American League. ``The guys here are not hungry, they're starving,'' says veteran outfielder Jesse Barfield, whose team has averaged 92 victories over the past five seasons (second only to Detroit's 93), but has made zero trips to the World Series.

The appetite of Barfield and his teammates has been whetted by two memorable collapses in the last three years. In 1985, they won the rugged AL Eastern Division and built a three games-to-one lead in the championship series, only to lose to the Kansas City Royals.

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Last year, the Blue Jays found new ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, as they dropped their last seven regular season games and vaporized their 3-game advantage over the Tigers.

With last year's MVP, George Bell, leading a power-packed offense, and with one of baseball's best pitching staffs, the 1988 Blue Jays again figure to be hard to beat.

But that was supposed to be the story of the 1987 season, too. Instead, Toronto's hopes ended in a three-game sweep by Detroit and a horrendous slump by Bell, who finished with 47 home runs and 134 RBIs, but misplaced his bat when the Blue Jays most needed it.

Toronto manager Jimy Williams shrugs off his team's second-place finish. ``We had a great season and one bad week,'' he explains.

Injuries in that last week to all-star shortstop Tony Fernandez and catcher Ernie Whitt may have made a difference in the final standings. The Blue Jays, however, have also gained a reputation for being unable to win the games that really count.

``It's frustrating knowing you went through the whole season and everything drops out,'' says pitcher Jim Clancy, who posted 15 victories to no avail.

Now it's a new season, and hopes are high again, but the team has already experienced some internal problems and injuries (including one that put last season's top winning pitcher, Jimmy Key, on the 15-day disabled list) while getting off to a 5-7 start.

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The turmoil centered on an off-season decision in which Toronto management, in offering Bell a two-year, $4 million contract, insisted that he move from left field to designated hitter. The change was designed to preserve the 28-year-old superstar's fragile knees and open up outfield space for speedy rookies Sil Campusano and Rob Ducey.

The volatile Bell griped about his status during spring training, even boycotting one game, and he wasn't the only unhappy one.

``We had one of the best if not the best outfield in the league,'' said right fielder Jesse Barfield, referring to the troika of himself, Bell, and Lloyd Moseby. ``Everyone was working in unison. The chemistry is shot right now and we have to rebuild it.

``We used to kid each other about who was going to be the first DH, and it's not funny anymore.''

Despite the dissension, management stuck with its position, starting the season with Bell the DH. As for George, he let his bat do the talking, shattering a major league record with three home runs on Opening Day and continuing to hit well (.405 with four homers and nine RBIs in his first 12 games).

Bell remained in the DH spot for most of the first two weeks, playing left field in a few games only because of a minor injury to Moseby. But with the team struggling, management has abandoned the experiment at least for now, and he is back in left field regularly.

Ironically, Toronto's late season failings and internal disagreements have overshadowed how far the team has progressed in a relatively short time. Born out of the American League's expansion in 1977 and baptized with a 54-107 won-lost record, the Blue Jays became pennant contenders within seven years and have not had a losing season since.

Most expansion teams have not fared nearly so well. Even the New York Mets, despite their famous 1969 world championship and another pennant in 1973, took more than two decades to begin winning consistently. And the Texas Rangers (nee the Washington Senators) have seldom come close to pennants in their almost 30 years of operation.

Moreover, the Blue Jays have done everything a successful major league team is supposed to do. They have faithfully developed a farm system, which has produced most of their present stars. The home-grown outfield has paid off handsomely. Together with Bell's mammoth numbers, Barfield has averaged 32 home runs and 92 RBIs over the past three seasons, and Moseby chipped in last year with a career high 26 homers and 96 RBIs.

Another case in point is shortstop Fernandez, whose .322 batting average and 32 stolen bases in 1987 combined with his formidable defensive skill to make him one of the best in the business.

When their relief pitching proved deficient, the Blue Jays went resolutely through a succession of replacements until they found Mark Eichhorn and Tom Henke, who some people feel pack the best 1-2 punch in the majors. Eichhorn has won 24 games in relief over the last two years while setting up many of Henke's 61 saves.

Toronto made similar adjustments to the starting staff. After realizing that highly touted pitcher Dave Stieb was not enough of a superstar to carry the team, the Blue Jays diversified their portfolio. Stieb's 13-9 record surely helped last year's run to the wire, but Key (17-8), Clancy (15-11), and late season acquisition Mike Flanagan provided the balance and depth necessary for a legitimate contender.

The Blue Jays have also developed a strong pipeline to the sandlots of Santo Domingo, which have supplied them with a king's ransom in baseball talent. Along with Bell and Fernandez, Toronto has claimed up-and-coming outfielder Campusano, second baseman Manny Lee, and pitcher Jose Nunez from the Dominican Republic.

Considering their hard-earned assets, the real story of the Blue Jays may be why they haven't received more respect. A major reason, say the players, is their Canadian heritage.

``People in the United States don't want a Canadian team to win,'' claims Barfield.

Adds Rob Ducey, the only native Canadian on the Blue Jays, ``I think if we were one of the American cities, people would look at us as a much better team than they look at us now.''

Although he was in the minor leagues in 1985, Ducey recalls a pivotal September series in New York during which the Blue Jays endured considerable anti-Canadian sentiment and even the botching of the Canadian national anthem.

``We don't put down American teams coming to Canada,'' he says. ``We should be treated with the same respect.''

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