Baseball - Blue Jays bring baseball fever back to Toronto

Even with Toronto still caught in winter's icy grip, baseball fever is again sweeping across the hockey-mad city as the Blue Jays get set to embark on their most important campaign in 20 years.

Reuters

Not since the Blue Jays put Canada on the baseball map with World Series triumphs in 1992 and 1993 has the spotlight been so focused on Major League Baseball's most northern outpost.

Blue Jays wunderkind General Manager Alex Anthopoulos, who was 15 years old the last time Toronto won it all, pulled the city out of the baseball doldrums with a whirlwind offseason that transformed the Blue Jays from American League (AL) East bottom feeders into favorites to reach the World Series.

With Blue Jays owners Rogers Communications ready to ante up, Anthopoulos hit the market like a kid with his dad's credit card, first grabbing All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes and starting pitchers Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson from the Miami Marlins as part of a 12-player deal.

He then signed drug-tainted hitting machine Melky Cabrera from the San Francisco Giants before landing knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey, the reigning National League Cy Young winner, from the New York Mets.

In what was seen as Anthopoulos's most daring move, the young general manager brought back an old hand to guide his team, rehiring John Gibbons, who went 305-305 during his stint as manager of the Toronto from 2004-2008.

"Our team is better, there is no doubt about it," assured Anthopoulos. "I don't know how many wins we are going to have, the playoffs, World Series all that kind of stuff.

"But I do know we are getting better and I'm really excited, this is the best talent we have had since I've been here."

Fans are no less excited as the April 2 home opener sold out in minutes, a buzz that the team hopes can last through the dog days of summer and help carry the team back to the Fall Classic.

GLORY DAYS

When Toronto last celebrated a World Series victory, Canada had two baseball teams, Hank Aaron was Major League Baseball's home run king and the game had yet to be tainted by steroids.

The Montreal Expos, where Anthopoulos began his career as an unpaid intern, have since relocated to Washington to become the Nationals, leaving the Blue Jays to carry the flag alone.

Four members of those championship Toronto teams - Roberto Alomar, Paul Molitor, Rickey Henderson and Dave Winfield - are in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the long-time radio voice of the Blue Jays, Tom Cheek, has died from brain cancer.

Cheek's immortal call of Joe Carter's dramatic ninth inning title-clinching walk-off home run in Game Six of the 1993 World Series remains an iconic Toronto sporting moment.

"Touch 'em all, Joe! You'll never hit a bigger home run in your life!" Cheek cheered as Carter rounded the bases in what remains the last postseason game in franchise history.

Since those glory days it has been 19 mostly frustrating and unrewarding seasons spent at the bottom of a division dominated by the big-spending New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

But this season, 20 years since the Blue Jays' last World Series win, there is reason for optimism in Toronto.

Dickey, who has been handed the opening day assignment, is the ace of revamped starting rotation that features Buehrle, Johnson and holdovers Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero.

The Blue Jays will also not lack for power at the plate with an arsenal of big bats.

The big gun remains Jose Bautista, who led the AL in home runs in 2010 and 2011 with 54 and 43, respectively, and will try to return to top form after a wrist injury limited the big-swinging Dominican to 92 games and 27 homers last season.

Backing up Bautista are fellow Dominicans Edwin Encarnacion and Cabrera.

Encarnacion crushed a career-high 42 homers and 110 RBI last season while Cabrera is expected to be a productive addition to the batting order but comes to the Blue Jays with considerable baggage coming off a 50-game doping suspension.

Prior to being suspended, Cabrera was hitting .346 for the Giants and would have won the National League batting crown had he not asked to be removed from contention for the honor.

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