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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.

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.

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