Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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Sports column

December 20, 2012

Blue Jays could be on the verge of a return to greatness

BLUEFIELD — Call it bad timing for Dennis Holmberg. Call it a bad time for all baseball fans.

The Toronto Blue Jays were the two-time World Series champions, and were expected to be a threat for a third.

Dennis Holmberg, who has been the manager of the Bluefield Blue Jays for the last two seasons, was promoted to Toronto in 1994 to become the bullpen coach.

Unfortunately the Blue Jays would not win the World Series that season. Of course, neither did anyone else. Toronto’s next playoff appearance will their first since Joe Carter’s dramatic home run brought Canada its second championship in two years back in 1993.

Toronto has struggled to contend in the American League East with the Yankees and Red Sox and the improved play of the Rays, but that could be ready to change. The Blue Jays have totally revamped their pitching staff, added some lumber in the lineup, even traded their manager and are actually the favorite according to some oddsmakers to not only return to the postseason, but even win the World Series.

That worries me. There aren’t a lot of Toronto fans south of Canada that I know of, but I am one of them. I like the additions of Josh Johnson, R.A. Dickey, Mark Buerhle and Jose Reyes, but the same sentiments were made of the Marlins last season and that didn’t work out so well. Here is hoping for better results from the Jays.

Now back to Holmberg. A part of the Toronto organization for 35 years, Holmberg was excited to get his major league opportunity way back in 1994.

“That was an experience I will never forget,” said Holmberg, during an interview last summer. “Anytime you got to the big leagues as a coach or a player it counts for something.”

He got his shot, replacing John Sullivan as bullpen coach. Unfortunately, any chances of the Blue Jays winning a third straight World Series were dashed by greed.

“That was an exciting moment in my life, but unfortunately it was a bad year in terms of that was the strike year of 1994,” Holmberg said.  “The players went out on strike in August.”

That’s right. For those folks out there 25 years of age or younger, the Blue Jays have been to the playoffs in the past and we did go without a World Series in 1994. An event that survived two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Black Sox scandal, earthquakes, artificial turf, cookie cutter stadiums, the designated hitter, wild card playoffs, interleague play and Bud Selig was done in by the desire for more money.

It’s happening all too often now. The NHL is AWOL, the NBA played a shortened season last year and the NFL was in lockout mode, threatening last season as well.

Back in ’94, the rumors were rampant that the players were going to walk out after the games of Aug. 11. The Blue Jays were sitting at 55-60 that night, having won an 11-inning affair against the Yankees, but were still feeling good about their chances. That would be it for the season.

“We were really trying to defend back-to-back world titles and we were probably in fourth (actually) third place, but playing better,” said Holmberg, whose boss was Cito Gaston, who has served two stints as manager in Toronto.

The Toronto coaching staff returned to Yankee Stadium the next day, but the players were nowhere to be found.

“We were in New York and the game was canceled,” Holmberg said. “None of the players came to the ball park due to the union’s request and we figured they would be back tomorrow, they are not going to strike.”

That proved terribly wrong. There would be no pennant races, no playoffs, no World Series, no baseball at all.

“Two days, three days, four days, we were on a plane and went back to Toronto and it turned into the playoffs canceling and the World Series being cancelled,” Holmberg said. “It spilled over into spring training in ’95.

Much like the NFL used replacement players during a strike in 1987 , major baseball considered doing the same that season.

“We had scab players. Those guys were looking to sign and cross the line and that was ugly,” Holmberg said. “Organizations were shuffling coaching staffs and deciding whether or not they were going north or stay in the minor leagues.

“I really thought major league baseball was going to open the season with guys that had been released and just play the game for the fans. I think we lost a couple of weeks before they settled and we went back to work.”  

Baseball in Toronto, however, has never been the same. At least they still exist. The Expos, who had the best record in baseball when the strike began in ’94, never recovered. Eventually Montreal lost its team to Washington, D.C.

 The Blue Jays, who for 25 years were run by Paul Beeston and Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick, finished in last place in each of their first six seasons in the league, but were second in 1984, followed by their first division title in 1985, and between then and 1993, Toronto won five divisions and two World Series crowns.

They were the model baseball organization, and Holmberg credited that front office stability for helping to build a franchise that used to draw more than four million fans a season.  A change in ownership brought less of a commitment to baseball and it showed on the field and in the Rogers Centre _ then Skydome _ bleachers.

“Here is the ownership group that is really not funding much money to go

out and sign free agents, draft high school kids and pay them

accordingly so there was a down time for 3 or 4 years and it was tough,” Holmberg said.

Thankfully all of that appears to have changed. Toronto had been stuck in mediocrity for so long that from 1995 through 2005, the Blue Jays had eight losing seasons and never finished above third place in a division dominated by the Yankees and Red Sox.

They have gone through nine managers since 1997, including Gaston twice and they hired current manager John Gibbons for a second time. They even traded their last manager in what has been a busy offseason for the Jays.

The Blue Jays have had five .500-plus seasons over the last seven, and with Yankees and Red Sox getting old and fading, the Rays, Orioles _ who finally snapped a 14-year run of losing records last year _ and the Blue Jays are ready to take over control of the A.L. East.

Toronto has seen an opening and they’re trying to make an impact. They have done this before over the years, from acquiring Roger Clemens in the late 1990s to signing Vernon Wells to perhaps the worst contract in all of sports, but nothing ever worked before.

This time, perhaps, the Blue Jays will back. Holmberg can only hope.

“I have been with Toronto for 35 years and they have been a great organization,” Holmberg said. “It has been a little bit of a roller-coaster ride, but the first 25 years were consistent management starting with ownership and they created a real good wholesome family atmosphere.

“There were a lot of good things going on over there.”

Finally, the good times might be back.

— Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph, and a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays. He encourages feedback at bwoodson@bdtonline.com

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