IT has become a truism that championship baseball teams must have both a special team chemistry and the right star players to win. Lose either element and it may take years to put Humpty back together.
But the Toronto Blue Jays are in full pursuit of their second world championship in a row, despite losing a truckload of talent. To fill the slots, the team's management has boldly blended rookies with veterans from other teams around a nucleus from last year's roster. It's a whole new recipe for winning.
Now the Blue Jays, who locked up their third straight American League East division title Sept. 27, get to test that contrarian formula again. They meet the American League West champions, the Chicago White Sox, in a playoff series beginning tonight in Chicago. The winner plays the National League champions in the World Series.
Yet for fans, sportswriters, and even the Blue Jays team president, the marvel is that this team full of new players has gotten this far and melded so well.
``It's very difficult to keep a team together because of free agency and the money involved,'' says Jim Hunt, veteran sportswriter for the Toronto Sun newspaper. ``Proof of that is that no team has repeated back-to-back [World Series] wins since the [New York] Yankees did it in the 1970s. The Jays might.''
Blue Jays President Paul Beeston immediately ticks off for a reporter a list of 10 high-profile, highly paid players who are no longer with the team, including outfielder Dave Winfield and pitchers Jimmy Key, David Cone, and Tom Henke. Keeping last year's players would have upped the team's payroll to $66 million from $46 million. The team could not afford it, he says.
Not that the Blue Jays' management has been particularly frugal. The team leads the major leagues in spending about $48 million on player salaries this season, Beeston says. ``It is not something we're proud of,'' he says, ``but we're not about to apologize, either.''
Beeston and General Manager Pat Gillick kept the nucleus they thought they needed to win. Still on board are such luminaries as first baseman John Olerud, catcher Pat Borders, second baseman Roberto Alomar (Most Valuable Player in the 1992 World Series), outfielder Joe Carter, pitcher Todd Stottlemyre, and others. The Jays also did not hesitate to make what now appear to be some very astute trades and free-agent acquisitions to fill holes with strong but somewhat less expensive talent.
DESIGNATED hitter Paul Molitor and pitcher Dave Stewart came on before the season started. Former Jays shortstop Tony Fernandez rejoined in May, and premier lead-off hitter Rickey Henderson came over in August from the Oakland A's. The combination still may leave the team short in the pitching department, which has been shored up with young players from the Toronto farm system like Mark (Huck) Flener.
But while filling holes was important, Beeston says, the key element was whether the team could absorb the new players without missing a beat.
``You always have to be concerned when you change the makeup of your team,'' Beeston says. ``With Molitor and Stewart, we knew we were not only getting superb ball players, but classy individuals as well. We were adding guys with experience.... We knew we were going to get that drive.''
Molitor, who came over from the Milwaukee Brewers, is a six-time all-star player with a .303 lifetime batting average. He is currently having his best year at .334 and has become a soft-spoken leader on a team whose quiet confidence was missing in last year's championship club, close observers say.
``It always helps to have one [championship] behind you,'' Molitor told the Monitor. ``Last year helped the guys to relax more this year. You have veterans who have been through this before. This team doesn't seem to rattle easily.''
After what Molitor describes as the ``tremendous turnover'' of new players replacing last year's players, ``it took awhile for this team to gain its own identity, distinct from last year's team.'' The distinguishing feature of the club, he says, is its ``unselfishness.''
Says Molitor: ``It's anything but self-centered. It's not a matter of guys saying `you cost me that run.' Instead, you have guys picking each other up'' after mistakes. Die-hard fans have taken notice both of the team's attitude and the smart moves by management.
``Everybody was sad to see Winfield go,'' says Peter Marrett, a St. Catherine's, Ont., high-school principal at the team's last home game. He wore a Blue Jays jersey and dark glasses, and a Jays cap studded with Blue Jays pins. ``But looking at this year's results shows how shrewd Toronto's management was.''
Similar sentiments are echoed by college student Darson Simair, a flowing Blue-Jays-monogrammed nylon cape worn Superman-style around his neck and trailing over the back of his wheelchair, his face painted blue with a foam Blue Jays head and crest perched on his own.
``I love the Blue Jays,'' Mr. Simair says. ``I think they should have kept [pitcher Jimmy] Key. But management obviously knew what it was doing.''