The team had just traded its extremely talented player-of-the-year, the prickly reliever Mike Marshall to the Dodgers for outfielder Willie Davis. He flew to town and a press conference was scheduled. Someone tapped me on the shoulder as I hammered away on the old IBM Electric, likely putting together the career stats on the deposed Pepe Mangual or journeyman hurler John Strohmayer, or maybe Bill Stoneman. In any case, I looked up and was bathed in light. There stood this tall, skinny, tightly muscled god-like man with a furrowed, weather-beaten, extremely lived-in face, all dressed in fur from his Cossack mink hat down to an outrageous full length mink coat.
Say hello to Willie Davis. That vision of sartorial splendour became my own lasting image whenever someone would bring his name up. Davis was an interesting character but only with the Expos for that one year before wearing out his welcome via his frustrating L.A. Cool in what was a fiery Gallic town.
For old-school execs, team president John McHale and GM Jim Fanning the decisive moment came on June 3, 1974 vs. the Padres as Derrel Thomas lofted a deep but catchable flyball to right/centre that Davis loped after and turned into an inside-the-park home run. He was voted Expos' player-of-the-year and quickly moved on to the Rangers.
The next time I saw someone that reminded me even remotely of the character that was Willie was in watching an interview with another Los Angeles legend (Compton actually), hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg, in the '90s. I found them both full of the ultimate charismatic cool, not handsome, not ugly, but engaging, funny and self-assured with a slightly dangerous edge. You were forced to stare, shake your head and just smile at the character they had created for themselves.
But Davis was also a great ballplayer. A track star in high school, he could make contact reach base and he could outrun flyballs. The lasting on-field career image is of Willie going from home to third on a triple or first to home on a ball in the alley. It was like watching a two-legged greyhound. He made another long-strider, Hall-of-Famer Andre Dawson, by comparison look awkward and slow. Rest in Peace Willie.
On to the mailbag.
Q: Hi Richard:
So far so good with the young studs. Randy Ruiz and Jose Bautista have kept it going and I am looking forward to this year. My question to you is this, if Ruiz keeps it up, is there a place for him on this club and not as an occasional pinch hitter. I love an underdog, and he's my man this year. Reminds me of Rocky Nelson when I was a kid. What are your thoughts
Marty Greenberg, Toronto
A: Well, if your idea of “young studs” is Bautista at 29 and Ruiz at 32-years-old, then I'll agree with you. I love the Ruiz story too, but there is a caveat here. Ages-old baseball thinking is that the three worst places to evaluate the potential of a major-leaguer are: 1) September when the rosters are expanded; 2) Winter Leagues and 3) spring training games. All three of those are what has made Ruiz, the 32-year-old minor-league star from the Bronx, seem so appealing. What Ruiz does have going for him is an impressive, if under-appreciated minor-league resume, including last year's player-of-the-year honours in the AAA-Pacific Coast League and an obvious passion for playing baseball. Being a righthanded hitter with lefty swingers at first base (Overbay) and DH (Lind) there is room for him to make this Jays team and get some meaningful at-bats. As for Bautista, the biggest thing he has going for him is that manager Cito Gaston does not want to start the year with Lind and Travis Snider playing the corner outfield positions from a defensive standpoint. Bautista can defend, throws well and is Gaston's choice for the top of the order. It seems when asking for volunteers to bat leadoff, everyone else takes one step back leaving Bautista as the man. This Jays season can be “entertaining” without being “winning”.
Q: I have been to the first three games in Dunedin and there has been no sign of Johnny Mac. Do you know what his situation is?
Ted Taylor, Redington, Fla.
A: It's not a case of “me” knowing what the situation is with John McDonald, it's a case of everyone in the world knowing what the situation is. The guy has nothing to prove to Jays' brass so what's the point of having him play a lot early on when you have a chance to evaluate a plethora of other relatively unknown hopefuls, some that will be important in a couple of years when Johnnny Mac is headed into retirement. McDonald will make all the plays in the infield, save your pitchers a few runs with his glove, then hopefully lob a few soft line drives onto the outfield grass at opportune moments or move a runner over for the guys at the top of the order. He's not going to add anything more. He will play more as the season approaches and the minor-leaguers have left.
Q: Who are some of the prospects that have caught your eye and might someday be in the bluejays lineup?
Frank Corea, Kamloops
A: On the pitching side, there's the obvious one in Doc-bought Kyle Drabek, there's last year's No. 1 pick, Chad Jenkins and under-the-radar relieve Dan Farquhar. Reliever Merkin Valdez is an imposing figure on the mound but highly inconsistent. I still like Josh Roenicke's stuff, but he'll probably start in Vegas until his command emerges. As for position players, catcher J.P. Arencibia is trying to show that his physical issues were the problem last year, while Brett Wallace is quietly working hard to impress his bosses and move his mid-season arrival date up in replacing Overbay at first.
Q: Hi Richard,
Love the blog. Just wondering if you were aware of the new Jays pricing strategy. It seems that the price has increased significantly for "premium" games against top teams, and for every weekend game. It seems that the most marked increase has been for the most affordable tickets in the outfield and upper deck. Have the Jays given any reason for this? It seems like a real slight to the fans who actually go.
Jonathan Weier, Toronto
A: The Jays have had different prices for premium games for a few years now. I believe they have just streamlined the process for 2010, meaning more games in fewer categories. One of the big issues was that I have concerned friends who approached me earlier in the winter that some of the real bargain dates like the Star's Toonie Tuesday had not been replaced by anything that would offer the discerning shopper a chance to bargain-hunt for his sports entertainment value. Those same friends later came back and said that the Jays have addressed that concern. If you want to attend 10-15 games there is still value to be had. I would suggest calling the Jays' ticket office and asking for a list of special dates. The upper deck seats at the Dome are still one of the big entertainment values in T-O sports and a great place to take a young baseball player to teach him about the game. Great view of the defence, positioning, reacting without the ball, etc.
Q: Hi Richard,
Are the managers/coaches of the minor league teams with the big league teams during spring training? For example, where do the majority of the Fisher Cats players go to get into shape? And have you seen Sal Fasano and the Fu Manchu yet?
Derrick Crowe, Toronto
A: A select number of the minor-league coaches and managers are with the major-league camp early on before minor-league camp officially opens which in the Jays' case is this week. Its mainly the minor-league guys that live in the Tampa Bay area that volunteer to come over early and hit fungoes to the infielders and throw extra b.p. The Jays' major-leaguers start off at the Bobby Mattick Training Centre (aka the Englebert Complex) for the first few weeks before setting up at Dunedin Stadium when the games start. The 200 or so minor-leaguers then take over at Mattick with some lucky ones being called up periodically to fill in on Jays' road trips and select home games. As for Sal Fasano, you always knew that when his playing days were done that he would be back as a coach. He's one of those guys that has so much to give back to the game. Also, he's one of the guys in all his rotund glory that fans relate to and say, “Hey if Sal can play major-league baseball then there's a chance for anyone. He has not been in major league camp, but with a couple more off days built into the sked, I'm sure I'll be over to the minor-league camp to say hello. He's a hard man to miss.
Q: So, 'splain to me why the heir apparent at first is Brett Wallace? Surely with the deficiencies of Edwin E and the lack of progress of Kevin Ahrens the long range challenge is at 3rd? Surely Ruiz and Dopirak can keep first warm until the right free agent bat comes along and who knows, maybe Dopirak can be the answer. He can't be any worse than Overbay!
R. Murphy, Hacketts Cove N.S
A: Your logic makes some sense and maybe in fact they could re-think the Wallace situation in the immediate future. The original thought was that with Overbayy having one relatively reasonable year left on his contract and Wallace being a hitter more than a glover, that they bring him in, nurture him at first base then bring him up when he's ready with a chance to get something for Overbay at the deadline. However where does that leave the team's No. 7 prospect David Cooper? Where does that leave Ruiz and Dopirak? Behind the one-year of Encarnacion at third, there's only a thin Blue line of Kevin Ahrens and Scott Campbell. But I think they will stay the course with Wallace and he will be the first baseman of the future.
Q: There is something I don't understand. How can a team named the Blue Jays wear black uniforms? It would be like the St. Louis Cardinals wearing blue. Has there been any talk about switching the uniforms to a blue colour? And not the powder blue. The blue jay may be the most beautiful and easily recognized bird there is and yet the Toronto Blue Jays won't use the blue colour from the blue jay. Why not just take a picture of a blue jay, and have that has the Toronto Blue Jay logo. Like St. Louis and Baltimore.
Scott Prentice, Fonthill
A: Many other Jays' fans agree with you. In fact one of the funniest signs at the Rogers Centre is the one just inside Gate 9 (and I assume every other gate) that warns fans entering the stadium that the wearing of “gang colours” is not allowed. Then you enter and see your own baseball team wearing “gang colours”. It's all about national marketing. The Jays were well down the list when they wore blue and moved up when they brought in the more threatening black. Hey, the Reds don't have a third uniform that's black do they? But I guess powder blue is not a cool gang colour unless you're the Johnny Kerr Fan Club Gang.
As an observation, I think it would be safe to say that the J.P. Riccardi regime didn't do as well at player development as the Oakland A's given that they had the same drafting process but different player development outcomes. Do you agree? On that same point, AA has talked extensively about improving drafting and player development and we have seen many new scouts being hired. But what is happening on the player development side? Other than hiring more coaches, what is changing? Training techniques?
Duncan Cameron, Mississauga
A: The A's and Jays obviously have had the same drafting philosophy because of the Billy Beane-Ricciardi connection. I think the major difference in this past decade and why the A's have been to the playoffs and the Jays haven't has been the superior use of player inventory effected by Beane. The A's have used minor leaguers developed in their own drafts to trade for necessary parts to maintain a competitive team (albeit in the AL West) and have also traded players that they developed and knew they would not be able to keep like Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, then Dan Haren and many others. The A's under Beane have been pro-active. The Jays under Ricciardi were re-active.
As for the Jays player development, a big part of the difference is Tony LaCava's desire to place young prospects at levels where they can succeed. That means that the high school crop from the bountiful 2007 draft will likely repeat with their farm teams of a year ago in order to restore confidence and get them back on track to the majors – Justin Jackson, Ahrens, infielder John Tolisano and others. Patience is a virtue.
Q: Love your mailbag even though I may not agree on all aspects. What's with the negative perception of Gaston as a manager. He managed talent laden teams much like Joe Torre or Tony LaRussa but they get lumped in the category of great managers while Cito is sucking on lemons. What's the deal?
Olin Lovely, Yellowknife
PS - Didn't you say the Jays were going to have Chone Figgins on their 10-11 roster?
A: Gaston is a man for whom I have always had great admiration and I felt also that he was not getting enough respect for winning two World Series in the '90s, when LaRussa was getting all the genius credit for managing a bunch of musclebound chumps who won one World Series thanks in part to an earthquake that allowed them to get by with a two-man rotation in a four-game sweep of the Giants. Cito has every reason in the world to believe that public disrespect cost him a follow-up[ job in '98 after he was fired by the Jays at the end of the previous season. However, after 11 years off and with a team that has taken steps backwards since the heady second half of the 2008 season when he took over, Gaston is not the man for this job moving forward. That much has been acknowledged by the Jays in affirming that this is his last season as manager before stepping up to the front office. The negative perception of Cito this spring is because he is throwing off vibes that make you wonder. Gaston hgas always been a better manager with a good team, much like Joe Torre. Development cannot be quantified in the standings and is not his strength. It's not the best situation for the Jays. But I do admire Gaston and like him as a man.