Jays full of hope as spring training opens
DUNEDIN, Fla. — The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” blared from the press box Monday as Jose Bautista cracked balls from the batting cage at the Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.
The morning sun beat down on this sleepy slice of Florida while Bautista swung to Billy Corgan singing “Believe, believe in me, believe. That life can change, that you’re not stuck in vain. We’re not the same, we’re different tonight. Tonight, so bright.”
Pitchers and catchers don’t report until Tuesday but hopes are already sky high around the big-spending Blue Jays (73-89 last season, fourth in the AL East) in the wake of acquiring R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, Maicer Izturis and Emilio Bonifacio.
“We were, I think, hopefully optimistic last year. But I think this year we expect to win, that’s the difference,” said Brandon Morrow.
“If everybody plays to their abilities, to their expectations, I think we’re going to have a great year,” he added.
“This team is built to win and that’s all I’ve ever wanted. Just to get a chance to win,” added fellow pitcher Ricky Romero.
But then he sounded what could be a familiar note of caution this spring training,
“On paper, we’re a great team ... (but) it doesn’t matter what kind of team you have on paper, you’ve still got to go out there and play. If anything, the target’s grown a little bit on us. Obviously teams are going to want to beat us and they’re going to see what we’re all about. We’ve got to come with it and prove that we belong in that elite company.
“But as of now we really haven’t done anything, other than make the moves, yeah. But other than that, we’ve still got to go out there and play.”
Manager John Gibbons, in his second stint at the Jays’ helm, looked to balance optimism and realism.
“I’m new coming back so there’s excitement there for myself. But the talent Alex (GM Alex Anthopoulos) has assembled speaks for itself. Now we’ve got to go out and play good baseball. You’ve still got to win a lot of ball games.
“But there’s times you come in and you think ’Well if everything goes right, we’ve got a shot at this.’ But legitimately maybe you don’t. But now we feel we’ve got one of the better teams in baseball. But until you go out and do something on the field, that only takes you so far. But it does create that buzz and that atmosphere and the expectations. But that’s what you want in this business.”
Seven buts, for those counting.
Still the manager was clearly enjoying the moment Monday, renewing acquaintances or shaking hands with new friends.
“This place was a special place to me in my first go-round,” said Gibbons, who was in charge from 2004 to 2008. “So to be coming back makes it a little easier to settle in. I’m enjoying it.”
Looking for Gibson was like playing Whac-a-Mole. He was popping up everywhere, always with a smile.
One moment, he was behind the outfield fence, peering through mesh at Romero throwing off a practice mound. Then he was kibitzing with one of his coaches or keeping an eye on a player tossing the ball in the outfield.
Bautista was all business, yelling “Hey we haven’t even officially started yet. Jeez. Tomorrow,” as he passed a media scrum around pitcher Drew Hutchison on his way to the field.
The Jays slugger bypassed the media on his way back to the clubhouse, saying he had to complete his workout. Later, he sent a message via a club official that he was running late and wouldn’t be speaking to the media.
“We need him,” Gibbons said of Bautista, whose 2012 season was cut short by wrist surgery. “If we’re going to do anything, he’s got to be a big part of that.
“We’re just going to take it slowly with him but he has no complaints now. What you’ve got to guard against is when he’s feeling too good, is you rush it. Because you’re still getting game competition, you’ve still got to work your way into that. So we’ll keep an eye on him.”
Prize pitching acquisition R.A. Dickey took to the field early, throwing the ball to Jays minor league pitching co-ordinator Dane Johnson in the outfield. No stranger to handling pitchers, Johnson gave it his best shot but was confounded by the knuckleball, even when Dickey announced it was coming.
“Sorry,” Dickey said after yet another ball handcuffed Johnson.
“Don’t apologize,” said Jays bench coach DeMarlo Hale, clearly liking what he was seeing.
Whatever happens with the Jays, their journey will clearly be all the more interesting with the multi-faceted Dickey on board. The Cy Young award-winner was all smiles Monday as he dipped his toe into spring training with the Jays for the first time.
“Every season, both literally and figuratively in your life, is a little bit different,” he said. “This isn’t any different than that in the sense that it’s a different group of guys, it’s a different team. I’ve been here what four and a half hours. It hasn’t been much of a spring training yet. And I’m looking forward to getting to know the guys and really engage a lot of different personalities on the team.”
The 38-year-old Dickey also sees tremendous potential in a pitching rotation that will likely see him flanked by Morrow, Buehrle, Johnson and Romero.
“It’s an opportunity is what it is,” he said when asked about the stellar starters. “It’s an opportunity for us to kind of put our stake in the sand, so to speak as a staff. We have the names and the pedigree to be able to do that. And hopefully I think we’ll all see it as a disappointment if we can’t carry this club.
“We’re not always going to be able to carry the club, because it’s the Al East and it’s a tough division and we’re not perfect. And hopefully the offence will be able to carry us when we can’t pitch as well as we hope.”
No ordinary athlete, Dickey recently travelled to India with his two daughters to work with the charity Bombay Teen Challenge, which is devoted to saving women and children from human sex trafficking.
“It continues to be something I think about regularly,” he said.