Long Gone Again?

April 18, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

Anaheim, Calif. -- Could it be happening again? The Toronto Blue Jays have been the scourge of the American League East for the past five years, leaving frustrated division rivals to wait, hope and prepare for the year that the string runs out.

This is supposed to be that year. The Orioles spent $43 million to overtake them. The other members of the realigned (but not substantially redesigned) AL East made improvements, too, while the Blue Jays stood pat and suffered a pair of major setbacks in spring training.

The Blue Jays apparently lost Joe Carter to a broken thumb and definitely lost closer Duane Ward to biceps tendinitis. Surely this would be the year that they began their inevitable decline. Nobody stays on top forever.

Could it be happening again? They always seem to find a way, even if it means Carter's jumping into the league RBI lead, broken thumb or not, and Todd Stottlemyre's jumping into the bullpen to be the substitute closer. They always seem to find help, this time in the form of a 21-year-old rookie who entered yesterday's play leading the American League with seven home runs.

Carlos Delgado. His name already has become a household word in Toronto, where a couple of his home runs are still rattling around the outer reaches of the spacious SkyDome. It is becoming a dirty word in Baltimore, where there is room to wonder whether the Blue Jays have found a way to land on their feet again.

"Welcome to Toronto," said Carter, who has gotten off to one of the best starts of his career. "We don't rebuild; we just reload."

It could happen again. The Blue Jays have intimidated the rest of the division with a dazzling display of front office magic that has turned the club into a divisional dynasty.

This is all new to Delgado, who was a Double-A prospect without a position halfway into spring training. He agreed to move from catcher to left field for a chance to join the best offensive lineup in baseball. No one had any right to think it would turn out so well so soon.

He made an immediate impact, putting a dent into the Hard Rock Cafe -- two decks up in right field at SkyDome -- on Opening Day. He hit one off the restaurant above center field the next night. The Chicago White Sox were convinced. Then he hit one against the Seattle Mariners, three at Oakland and one Friday night at California.

L It isn't just the number of homers, but also their distance.

"Don't ask me how I do it," Delgado said. "I don't know. I'm not trying to swing hard, I'm just trying to swing quick."

No one in the Blue Jays organization is surprised that Delgado can hit for power. He hit 30 home runs in the pitcher-friendly Single-A Florida State League in 1992 and hit 25 in Double-A last year. The only thing that was unexpected was his ability to adapt to major-league pitching so quickly.

"It's a lot of fun to watch a guy like him," said first baseman John Olerud. "He makes it look so easy. I know in my first couple of years, I struggled. It always seemed like a lot of work. He makes it look too easy.

"I'm sure he's going to have times when he struggles, but you've got to like his approach."

It's happening again. The Blue Jays have dipped into their "other" player development system and pulled another good Latin American player into the major leagues. Delgado was signed in Puerto Rico not long before Major League Baseball decided to extend the free-agent draft to that baseball-rich area. The Blue Jays organization continues to be the dominant major-league influence in the Caribbean countries, and that commitment has paid off again.

The Blue Jays also brought up rookie shortstop Alex Gonzalez this year. He was born in Miami, but his arrival also helps the club project a positive message to young players in Latin America. Little wonder why the two-time defending World Series champions have been able to outflank the Orioles (and everyone else) for so long.

"The Blue Jays have been one of the smarter organizations," said veteran Paul Molitor. "They've known when to spend money to fill holes, and they've known when to use their system to help. We were able to bring up two talented kids to plug holes this year."

They always seem to find a way, whether by acquiring help at just the right moment or developing talent at just the right pace. Two years ago, general manager Pat Gillick came up with David Cone to help nail down the club's first world championship. Last year, he went out and got Rickey Henderson for the stretch drive. This year, the rest of the East is waiting for the other shoe to drop -- in the form of another blockbuster trade -- but maybe it already has.

"You lose a couple of guys, but then you're able to bring up guys like Delgado and Gonzalez," Carter said. "They are both great, but this guy [Delgado] is the real deal."

The veterans know what this means. It means that they just might be able to threepeat. It means that the rest of the division is getting that "Oh, no, not again" feeling. It means that the AL East is only there for the

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