Free Agency, Pressure Erode Top Teams

Joe Carter, an outfielder for the Toronto Blue Jays, knows about performance swings. Three years ago, he hit a World Series-clinching home run off Philadelphia pitcher Mitch Williams to seal the Blue Jays' second straight championship.

But the next year he was helpless to halt the team's slide to a sub-.500, third-place finish. Last season, the team hit bottom, finishing 30 games behind the division-winning Boston Red Sox and tied with Minnesota for baseball's worst record.

Speaking of how quickly the mighty can fall, Carter fingered free agency and the pressures of being No. 1 as the major culprits. "In this age of free agency and big salaries, you're always going to have a lot of players changing teams," he said while waiting out the rain in Boston's Fenway Park. "It hurt [to see teammates leave], but I made a commitment to the Blue Jays and signed a four-year deal, and I will honor that."

Carter is one of the few veteran players left from the world-championship squad. He is encouraged by the progress of a young Toronto team now in third place. The secret to staying in contention, he says, is to stay focused on playing well, and not try to make up too much ground in a hurry. "Eight games back is not that big a deficit," he says. "But it's a matter of how the team is playing. It can't lack confidence and not be playing well."

For his part, Carter continues to be a crack run generator and on Monday was leading the American League in runs batted in, with 34. He is also an eager spokesman for the Online Scouting Network, an Internet service that helps high school and junior college athletes who might otherwise be overlooked in the recruiting process to earn college scholarships.

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