Friday, March 31, 2006


Play Ball-2006

The Toronto Blue Jays open their regular season on Tuesday, April 4, 2006, at 7:15pm.

In many ways, the first game of a baseball season is similar to the opening night of a theatrical production. The curtains open, for the first time. The players are ready, the spectators present, and the production begins.

Watching the activity taking place in the southern United States is like peeking behind the curtain before the play begins. When one leaves the northern climate to view the boys of summer in February or March, the experience is enhanced.

When a team has new personnel, we peek a little more keenly behind the curtain to see what goods the producers and directors have in store for the fans in the upcoming season.

We find that the supporting cast---those considered to play secondary roles---are working hard in case circumstances dictate they are needed.

In sport, injuries often influence the success or failure of a team. From the get go, the manager considers the condition of his players when filling out the starting line up card. Last season, the Jays’ “Doc” Halladay fielded a line shot off his shin, and spent the rest of the season on the shelf. The moment he hit the dirt, you could hear the collective sigh of disappointment from the Blue Jays’ brass.

Ten years ago, I got my first taste of spring ball in Florida. It is indeed a thrill---one that no fan should miss. You cannot help but catch an instant feel for the game---the usual colour and pageantry, the stretching and jogging in the outfield, the pop of a catcher’s glove warming up a pitcher, the sweet sound of a ball well hit in the middle innings.

Disney has a baseball complex near the Orlando site. The Atlanta Braves work out their winter kinks there, and I witnessed a glimpse of the season preparation there.

A couple of weeks ago, I had another look at the spring activity in Dunedin. The Jays have called Dunedin home since their inception. They play at Knology Park, nestled centrally in the town on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

The Game Program is a must---and most informative, especially for the casual fan. Latest line ups, photos of the current roster, news and views from Major League Baseball. ( And, just in case you had forgotten on your flight south, the words for “O Canada” are prominently displayed on page one.

The Jays and the Pittsburgh Pirates got under way at 6:06pm. Pleasant, shirt-sleeve conditions enhanced by Vernon Wells’ first home run of the season---in the bottom of the first inning. The Jays went on to thump the Pirates, with timely hitting and solid pitching. Gustavo Chacin started, without his sunglasses. He notched three strong innings, and was followed by Walker, Ryan, Speier, and Schoeneweis to seal the deal

Adams at short and Hill at second were solid up the middle. They seem to be working out nicely together with management hoping to erase memories of “O Dog”---Orlando Hudson, who was traded in the off-season. Both Hill and Adams served as the brunt of a pre season prank when they watched, in amazement with the other players as a small plane towed a banner across the Florida sky---with a proposition of marriage from Aaron to Russ. Now legal in Canada, if they insist.

Another great Canadian tradition, a Labatt’s Blue at the ball park---available in Dunedin---at almost the same price as it is at the Rogers centre in Toronto. Dig deep.

With Wells coming around, with newcomers Troy Glaus and Lyle Overbay supplying power in the middle of the line up, with Alex Rios and Eric Hinske battling for position in the outfield, the Jays will put up some runs.

Good health remains an important issue with the pitching staff.

Expectation for the Jays runs high---albeit slightly moderated from a couple of months ago—when the pundits had them hoisting the hardware in October, 2006. The doubts remain, and the Yankees and the Red Sox are not expected to roll over and expire just yet. A long, tough season ahead. I will see you at the Rogers.

James Hurst

Saturday, March 18, 2006


Miracle on Dirt

The Canadian entry in the World Baseball Championship has been eliminated in the preliminary round. A little surprising, but not unexpected. Two teams advanced from each “Pool”, and the Canadians were in the soup with South Africa, The United States, and Mexico. The Americans and the Mexicans moved on.

The South Africans were not expected to get to first base. They jumped on Canadian pitching early in their tilt, and the Canadians fought back to steal a win in the late innings.

The Mexicans simply taught the Canadians a lesson. Like all Latin American nations, baseball is most important to them. They came to play, and had their fans with them---complete with whistles, drums, and sombreros.

The Americans have fielded another “Dream Team”. That phrase came from the basketball teams from the U. S. that trounced the opposition for many years in the Olympics and the World Championships. Those days are gone, and announcers dare not use that phrase again---referring to the round ball game.

Since this is baseball’s first foray into the World Championship, the Americans did assemble a cast of baseball’s best. It is a given that it is America’s game. Their annual championship is called the World Series---but this is the first time that the world has truly been involved in the quest to find the best---using all of their best players.

The Americans got a wake up call against the Canadians. Since this is early in the season, most of the pundits agreed that the tournament would favour the pitchers. The batters need more at bats to get their timing down. They need to face live pitching in game situations. And it always must be remembered that batters need to be successful only once every third bat to be highly regarded as hitters---with an average of .333.

That theory favouring the pitchers went out the window in the game between the Yanks and the Canucks. Midway through the affair, the Canadians checked the scoreboard and found they were ahead 8-0! Mercy, mercy, mercy!

There are mercy rules in place in the preliminary rounds, and the Americans were on the precipice of disaster. They dodged that bullet, and moved on to the second round, to meet much stiffer competition---in the form of the Mexicans, the Koreans, and the Japanese. The end result of that quartet was that the Asians moved on, and the North Americans stayed home.

Cuba is facing the Dominican Republic in the other semi-final. Both teams were expected to do well in the tournament, but the Cubans are always a mystery---never seen in the United States, always tucked away from the media spotlight.

It was exciting to see the entire staff of the Cubans perched on the edge of the dugout for the last few innings of its important game against the Puerto Ricans. They cheered every pitch. They bolted for the playing field at inopportune times. They shouted, they howled, they ragged the umpires. They were immersed in the game. They acted like amateurs, although I suspect that they are reasonably well taken care of by Fidel and his ministers.

The next Classic is scheduled for 2009. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig indicated in a recent interview that he was thrilled with the event this year. He also indicated that there would be some tinkering with the format for the next event.

It is difficult to find the perfect circumstances for the perfect tournament. Complaints arose about the timing---the players had just completed winter baseball, and were not ready for the shock of real competition. Hogwash. Today’s athlete is ready. They can no longer afford to lollygag around during the off season. The days of golf and brew are over. The job has become a year round effort, and the good players work the hardest to stay sharp.

The rest of the baseball people are now grinding it out in Arizona and Florida. It won’t be long before they head north, in quest of the other World Series Championship.

The newcomers in the Jays camp are sharpening their tools for the grind of the 2006 season---for the crisp spring days in Hogtown, for the dog days of summer anywhere, and for the late September excitement of a close pennant race. Names like Burnett, Molina, Glaus, and Overbay will become household names in Ontario before Canada Day.

We can hardly wait for the home plate umpire to point to the starting pitcher, and shout “Play ball”.

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