HAGERSTOWN -- Everything the Baltimore Orioles have done in the off-season has been positive. So says the man who created much of what the world champion Toronto Blue Jays represent in baseball competence. Pat Gillick, the general manager, also wants it understood he welcomes the challenge.
Gillick, at a banquet appearance here, agrees the Orioles will be a strong force -- "the team to beat," he acknowledges. The perceptive, highly-acclaimed executive, an alumnus of the Orioles' farm system, also claims the way owner Peter Angelos has spent top dollar for free agents doesn't surprise him.
"Usually, when a new owner enters the game, he is immediately aggressive," Gillick said.
"Mr. Angelos is making a statement. He has spent money and the Orioles have made significant advances."
Still, the Blue Jays, with a magnificent stadium topped by a retractable roof that makes it the park of the future, will continue to be a dominant team. The crowds reach capacity proportions for every home game, and the Blue Jays are free-spenders in the marketplace.
As for the impact the Blue Jays have had on baseball in Toronto, it's interesting to hear Gillick say when the American League put a franchise there, in 1977, not one high school played the game. Now more than 30 have teams. "Not just in Toronto but all over Canada there has been a tremendous increase," he added. "It helps the popularity of any sport to have youngsters participating."
So Canada, at the grass roots, is doing more than producing hockey players. This adds to the development of baseball, of what historically is America's national pastime, and in future years will serve to broaden the spectator base. Right now, the Blue Jays post automatic sellouts and Gillick mentions the city traditionally supports a "good product but not a sub-product."
He's pleased to say the Blue Jays, because of the way tickets are scaled, pay more money to visiting teams than any club in the majors. Last year, the Blue Jays' payroll was baseball's highest.
"The way the Players Relations Committee calculated last year we were at $48 million, but how we figured it was $51 million," Gillick said. "We'd have been over $60 million had we kept certain players. Right now, we're at $39 million."
Gillick, despite runaway economics, doesn't like the salary cap concept. "To me that doesn't reflect free enterprise," he said. "It certainly doesn't sound like it. Management and players are in this together, but we are entirely different. They aren't us and vice versa. We favor sharing revenue with small-market teams. That happens now to a certain extent in the way we pay off record percentages in gate receipts to visiting clubs."
Joe Carter is the highest-paid Blue Jay at $25 million and this week John Olerud signed an extension for $17 million. Gillick is high on young Olerud. He observed him as a college player and believes his future is unlimited.
"I believe he'll be a consistent .330 to .340 hitter," Gillick said. "He is highly disciplined at the plate and has always been that JTC way. He doesn't go for bad pitches. Too often this puts him deep into the count. What made him impressive when we drafted him is he has the ideal mental aspect as well as the physical part."
The Blue Jays' farm system has been productive, which has paid off in five divisional titles, two pennants and two World Series victories. Not bad for an expansion team. There were 12 graduates of the Jays' minor-league operation on their roster in 1993. The objective is to win and develop at the same time.
Gillick's visit found him as the guest of honor at a civic banquet co-sponsored by the Hagerstown Suns and Home Federal Savings Bank. He spent several hours visiting with Winston Blenckstone, the Baltimore-born owner/president of the Suns' franchise.
"I've known Winston a long time," Gillick said. "I like the way he operates. Minor-league club officials never get the credit they deserve. He was outstanding when he had our affiliate in Myrtle Beach [S.C.], and his work in Hagerstown continues at the same level."
Kris Harmes, a young catcher owned by the Blue Jays, says Gillick knows every player by first and last name in the entire farm system. And Blenckstone points out in training camp Gillick's office is located in the minor-league compound, where he concentrates on the young players that represent the future.
That's Gillick, age 56, who may in time, providing he doesn't retire, be placed alongside of such superb off-the-field officials as George Weiss and Branch Rickey. That would ultimately mean Hall of Fame consideration. It's not out of the question.