Rebuilt Blue Jays ready for resurgence
Back on that October night in 1993 when Joe Carter launched his home run off Mitch Williams that won the World Series, Toronto was on top of the baseball world.
The Blue Jays were back-to-back champions, selling out every game at a rollicking SkyDome, with its first-of-a-kind moving roof. The first team to draw 4 million fans in a season, Toronto hosted the 1991 All-Star game, beat the Braves in the 1992 World Series, then followed up with a dramatic win over Philadelphia. They had the highest payroll in the game and a lineup loaded with talent.
''The fans were so behind us it was incredible,'' recalled bullpen coach Pat Hentgen, who pitched for both championship teams. ''That `93 team, we had a heck of a deep pitching staff. We had two-way players. We had guys that could play defense and run the bases and hit.''
Two decades later, after a long time out of the limelight, Toronto is fielding a team that could recapture those glory days, and put the city back on the major league map, thanks to a whirlwind of winter moves.
There's speed in table-setters Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera. There's power in sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. There's pitching, with Cy Young knuckleballer R.A. Dickey at the top of a deep rotation.
And for the first time in a while, there's belief.
''It's been a long time, but everybody's excited,'' said John Gibbons, starting his second stint as Toronto's manager. ''We're excited. We expect a lot. A lot is expected out of us. It could turn into just like it was back in `90s. That's the goal.''
The Blue Jays haven't been back to the postseason since Carter's famous homer in Game 6 finished off the Phillies, meaning any fan who isn't a college graduate is probably too young to even remember it. But after remaking the roster in a winter flurry of trades and free agent signings, they're being tabbed to end that playoff absence, the third-longest active drought in baseball. Only Pittsburgh (1992) and Kansas City (1985) have been waiting longer.
''You look on paper and Toronto should be in the World Series,'' Red Sox manager John Farrell said. ''The talent they've added is substantial.''
Farrell knows the Blue Jays better than most: He managed them the past two seasons before leaving to take over in Boston.
''They've added a lot of very good players and there's been a lot of players return from health issues of a year ago that give them a deep lineup,'' Farrell said. ''They've got power. Their rotation is much improved. They're a good team.''
Hopes for a resurgence in Toronto are helped by the fact that the traditional powers in the AL East, New York and Boston, look less formidable than in years past. The Yankees are wracked with injuries to key starters, while the Red Sox are coming off their first 90-loss season since 1966.
Toronto, meanwhile, bulked up like no other team in baseball, netting Reyes, right-hander Josh Johnson, lefty Mark Buehrle and utilityman Emilio Bonifacio in a massive trade with the Marlins, landing reigning Cy Young winner Dickey from the Mets, and signing Cabrera and infielder Maicer Izturis as free agents.
Hentgen expects the all-Dominican quartet of Reyes, Cabrera, Bautista and Encarnacion will be ''a force to be reckoned with'' at the top of the lineup. He raves about the rotation, where right-hander Brandon Morrow is the only holdover. Lefty Ricky Romero remains in the organization, but was sent to the minors as the opener approached following a shaky spring.
''The starting pitching that they've added this winter has been incredible,'' Hentgen said. ''It keeps the bullpen rested and gives a team a chance to win every night. It's an incredible offseason for us. We're excited.''
During the down years, the Blue Jays saw interest slip well below the giddy heights attained by Carter and Roberto Alomar. They introduced promotions like low-cost season passes and two-dollar Tuesdays to try and bring fans back.
There's no need for that anymore. Interest has soared, those cheap deals are gone or being phased out, and there's a big buzz around baseball in Toronto again. Over the winter, replays of 1992 and 1993 World Series drew big audiences, with fans dissecting the action on Twitter as they relived their memories.
Toronto's April 2 home opener sold out in minutes, the second straight year that's happened. Team president Paul Beeston has said ticket sales are up ''dramatically,'' adding that a strong start could see attendance top the 3 million mark. Last year the Blue Jays drew 2.1 million, a 15.5 percent increase from 2011 and their biggest year-on-year rise since 1989.
Hentgen said he stills gets chills when he thinks back to his title-winning days in Toronto. Blue Jays fans of a certain age remember the good times, too. This year, a whole new generation hopes it will get to enjoy that experience, too. After a frustrating run on the fringes, it's all about October in Toronto.