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Tom Maloney

Blue Jays searching for that x-factor Add to ...

Having arrived at the age of 42, left-hander Darren Oliver deliberated long and hard about retirement from baseball over the winter. He had to weigh another grinding tour through a major-league season against missing another chunk of his kids’ rearing years, the oldest of two just entering his teenage years. In the end he left the family home near Dallas to report once again to spring training for the same reason that pent-up Canadian baseball fans are clamouring with unbridled enthusiasm: “To win,” he says.

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Lacking that championship ring, he sees that one last chance in Toronto. What separates a pragmatic Oliver from the fan hype is the reality of unfulfilled dreams on the field. “You’ve got to go out and perform,” he says, simply.

Oliver’s locker is beside Mark Buehrle’s in Toronto’s clubhouse and you’ll hear the same cautionary tones from his fellow lefty about the team’s chances. Because for all the splashy player transactions in the off-season, there are questions remaining to be answered this spring, not least whether this club can percolate the team chemistry that is, arguably, a primary ingredient in a winning formula.

“Last [spring], we had an unbelievable team in Miami but finished last,” incoming shortstop Jose Reyes said, when he arrived at camp a few weeks ago.

The role of of team chemistry provokes the classic chicken-and-egg question – which comes first, winning then chemistry, or chemistry then winning?

“Winning definitely comes first. If you’re winning nobody knows if you have chemistry or not because nobody cares,” says Jose Bautista, the Blue Jays right fielder and clubhouse leader. “But if you’re losing, they’re going to find 17 reasons why. The first one is the manager; he’s always the one to get blamed. Then you go to team chemistry and discipline. But you never hear people say, ‘bad player performance’ and that, to me, is the No. 1 reason.”

How will it all come together? Buehrle and Reyes arrived in the 12-player deal with Miami, which was followed by a seven-player exchange with the New York Mets. There’s a new double-play combination with Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio or Maicer Izturis. Left fielder Melky Cabrera signed as a free agent after serving a 50-game suspension for using a performance-enhancing drug.

Three of the five pitchers in the rotation were not with the club last year. And the roster is likely to include eight or nine players whose primary language is Spanish; when Bautista first reported, he played Latin music from a portable stereo in a corner of the clubhouse but the room on Friday morning was silent except for the TVs showing World Baseball Classic games.

“For me that’s always the key, to mesh the American guys and the Latin guys, that has to happen in order for the clubhouse to be good,” said incoming infielder Mark DeRosa, who’s played with seven teams since 1998. “Obviously you’re going to go to dinner with who you’re familiar with, that’s just human nature. At the same time, I should be able to talk to Jose Reyes [of the Dominican Republic] as easily as I talk to Brett Lawrie [of Langley, B.C.]”

General manager Alex Anthopolous transformed the Toronto clubhouse by importing veterans who know their way around the majors. You could hear that wisdom in Buehrle’s voice on Thursday, as he discussed the finer aspects of his outing in an early spring training game against Baltimore, rather than being troubled about a wild first inning.

“A lot of the veterans in this clubhouse are, financially, really secure, so now it comes down to getting a ring, you know, so how are you going to go about doing that?” DaRosa says. “We spend way more time with the guys in this clubhouse than we do with our own families, so you better enjoy opening that door at 2 o’clock every afternoon.”

As in a business environment, the players understand the goal, and now there is an opportunity if not the challenge to forge a team culture. The difference between a baseball team and many business environments, Bautista points out, is that the players’ work is also their passion, and they are paid supremely well to perform. He compares manager John Gibbons’s task to that of a CEO working with his executives, rather than the employees out on the floor of the warehouse.

“If a manager treats players disrespectfully, it’s kind of like treating the CFO and the COO badly,” he says. “You’re not going to get the best results that way. It’s hard in the baseball world when you’re dealing with a lot of egos, people making a lot of money. It’s hard to make everybody follow one path, to be in one mould. You can’t be that strict.”

Gibbons subtly referenced team chemistry after a three-run walk-off home felled the Jays on Thursday, saying in his laid-back, gosh-darn-it manner that even in spring training, you don’t want to lose games that way. You want to build confidence. J.P. Ricciardi hired and fired Gibbons as Toronto’s previous general manager, and roomed with Gibbons in the minor leagues.

“Players like playing for him,” Ricciardi, now assistant GM with the New York Mets, said during a recent conversation in Port St. Lucie, Fla. “That goes a long way to having an environment where they’ll feel comfortable. He’s a cross-cultural type guy who will get along with the Latin guys as well as the other guys – no problem with that. I think the atmosphere he’ll create [will reflect his personality] – he’s an easy-going guy, and he will let the players play. That’s always conducive to players being in their best environment.”

In the clubhouse, there are obstacles in the way of chem-build. Fan favourite Brett Lawrie, suddenly just another tattooed player coming off an undisciplined sophomore season at third base, is out of action for at least two weeks with what the team called a rib-cage strain. The World Baseball Classic claimed a handful of players for up to two weeks including catcher J.P. Arencibia. An older clubhouse means less time clubbing, more time with young families back at the rented condo.

“It’s hard in spring training because guys are in and out,” Buehrle said. “Being a starting pitcher you don’t go to most of the games. You just do your work and go back. Most of us have families here. Once we get on a plane and head to Philly [just prior to the regular season] together for a couple of days, it’ll start. But I mean, the guys are coming together, we’re having fun, joking around, laughing, having a good time during the stretches.”

Nothing is planned in the way of events, such as a team golf tournament, to purposely bring players together. It will happen gradually over the spring. Bautista has the capacity to establish a mood, on the field and off, with his words and actions. He is likewise optimistic about what he is observing, to date: “All I can tell you is, I’ve seen the camaraderie even though half the clubhouse is new. I see we’re going to have a lot of fun, I see everybody’s allowed to have their own personality – nobody’s critiqued or frowned upon.”

Chemistry has propelled teams such as Mark Messier’s New York Rangers in 1994, and it has sabotaged the mission, such as with the Boston Red Sox last season. Sean Avery seemed to single-handedly destroy the Dallas Stars, yet plenty of teams have overcome locker room friction. The importance of chemistry is an x-factor and in the advent of this season, the Jays understand they have the requisite talent to compete. Otherwise, it’s early days.

“I don’t think it makes a good team into a bad team, or makes an excellent team into an average team,” Bautista said. “If you’re a great team, regardless of team chemistry, you’re going to win.”

When individual performance sags, there are coaches and trainers and nutritionists and clubhouse attendants to help players through the troughs, but sometime the most trusted voice belongs to a teammate especially in the midst of a game. The uniqueness of baseball as a team sport, Bautista points out, is that most actions involve individuality – making the pitch, hitting the pitch, fielding the grounder. Yet a teammate maybe sees a hitch in a pitcher’s delivery, maybe eases a moment of stress. When an infielder or a catcher comes to the mound, the pitcher had best be in a receptive mood.

“It helps in the dog days, and there will be those,” DaRosa says. “If everybody in the clubhouse knows how everybody ticks, knows their personality and character, conversation flows a lot smoother, and guys know it’s coming from a good place. It ends up getting you through the tough times. Anyone can get along when things are going good, but when you go through those down times in the course of a season, you can get out of them a lot quicker when you know the guy next to you cares.”

Buehrle got his ring with the Chicago White Sox, who swept the Houston Astros in the 2005 World Series.

“Everybody likes their chances in spring training but that’s why you play the season,” he said. “In ’05, we had so much go right for us, whether it’s the ball bouncing the right way. It just seems like everything has to go your way to win a World Series.”

A scan of several over/under propositions reveals that Las Vegas oddsmakers anticipate a tightly contested season, with no team predicted to win more than 92 games in a 162-game schedule. If that scenario plays out and team chemistry makes the difference between a couple of victories or defeats, it could make the difference between a trip to the postseason or another season of disappointment for fans of the Jays, who last went to the playoffs in 1993.

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