It was the early 1990s and Pat Gillick was busy shedding his image as the Toronto Blue Jays’ stodgy general manager, making bold trades for the likes of Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter and Devon White and signing big-name free agents such as Jack Morris and Dave Winfield.
In 1992, when the Blue Jays won their first of back-to-back World Series, their $49-million (all currency U.S.) payroll was tops in the major leagues.
Does any of this have a familiar ring?
Some 20 years later, the Blue Jays are again the talk of baseball after current GM Alex Anthopoulos consummated a series of dizzying trades and off-season signings, taking on more than $200-million in guaranteed salaries in the process.
The result is a totally revamped roster with the addition of 10 new players, five of whom have combined to play in 12 All-Star Games.
The Blue Jays are hoping their gambit will mark a return to those glory days when the franchise was routinely in the playoff hunt and playing before packed houses at Rogers Centre, formerly known as the SkyDome.
“Back then everybody was wondering, did Pat Gillick make all the right moves to put this team over the hump?” said Pat Tabler, who was a member of those championship teams from the early 1990s. “Now everybody’s wondering the same thing about Alex Anthopoulos.”
On Wednesday, the Blue Jays will take their first step toward what they hope will be the redemption of the franchise when they stage their first official spring-training workout for pitchers and catchers in Dunedin, Fla.
Opening day of the 2013 regular season is April 2 at home to the Cleveland Indians and the Blue Jays have already been installed as favourites to win the World Series by Las Vegas bookmakers.
“We would like to get some swagger back,” Toronto president and chief executive officer Paul Beeston said. “We would like to get a little bit of arrogance back. We’ve been humbled, and rightly so because we haven’t had the performance, so we can’t complain.
“We had to put the team together and we think we’ve done it.”
Since their last World Series title, in 1993, only once have the Blue Jays finished higher than third place in the American League East. Toronto’s winning percentage over those years was .490.
When you figure that New York Yankees were playing at a .599 clip over the same time span and the Boston Red Sox at .550, it is not hard to understand the plight Toronto was facing within its own division.
Now the Jays believe they’ve made the right moves that will make them contenders again.
In late November, Anthopoulos orchestrated the huge 12-player swap with the payroll-shedding Miami Marlins, gathering up most of their top talent, including shortstop Jose Reyes, starting pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, and speedy utility man Emilio Bonifacio.
Shortly after, Anthopoulos took a gamble and signed free agent left fielder Melky Cabrera, coming off a 50-game suspension last year with the San Francisco Giants after getting nabbed for steroid use. Cabrera was hitting .346 and making a strong bid to win the National League batting title when he was suspended.
Not done yet, Anthopoulos then swung another trade, with the New York Mets, landing Toronto knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey, the NL’s reigning Cy Young Award winner.
Pat Hentgen, the Blue Jays bullpen coach, was just embarking on his pitching career with Toronto in 1991 when Alomar, Carter and White all landed with the team. The Jays captured the AL East that year with a 91-71 record but were defeated in the championship series by the Minnesota Twins, who went on to win the World Series.
In 1992, the Blue Jays won it all after Morris, Minnesota’s best pitcher, joined the ranks, along with Winfield.
“Anything less than a World Series appearance would have been considered a failed season,” said Hentgen, who said he sees a lot of similarities between that 1992 outfit and the 2013 edition.
“On the ’92 team we were extremely athletic and I see the same thing with this current outfit with Reyes, [Maicer] Izturis and Bonifacio up the middle and Brett Lawrie at third,” he said.
Morris, who will join the Blue Jays as their radio analyst, said it will be important for the team’s existing players to help the newcomers feel comfortable.
“For guys who have never been traded before there’s always that anxiety of not knowing how you’re going to fit in,” Morris said. “You don’t want that to become a distraction. That’s what can create animosity.”