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.