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Jays get input from familiar source

Several methods are used to prepare for the 50-round baseball draft and evaluate more than 1,500 players. Sometimes, a team's own players can provide important insight into a potential draftee.

This year, the Blue Jays set their sights on a left-handed starting pitcher, with Cal State-Fullerton's Ricky Romero at the top of the list, and they drafted him with the sixth overall pick.

Toronto's Reed Johnson, taken in the 17th round from Fullerton in 1999, happened to be familiar with the junior lefty – Titans alumni are a pretty tight group. In fact, Johnson had faced him twice in the annual alumni game, staged every January, where major leaguers such as Phil Nevin, Mark Kotsay, Mike Lamb, Kirk Saarloos and other prominent former Titans come back to take on the current crop of George Horton's players.

Occasionally, even alum Kevin Costner will get in on the action.

"I was 2-for-4 against him, but the two outs were strikeouts," Johnson said of Romero.

But according to Toronto's leadoff man, what the Blue Jays were most interested in was Romero's makeup. Johnson said he was a "perfect fit for what we're trying to do in Toronto. [Jays general manager] J.P. Ricciardi is all about chemistry. He's not into a few star players and fill in the rest. He wants a group of guys who put the team first, and are all about the same level in terms of talent, but just hard-core baseball guys."

What's especially encouraging for Toronto, after its first 90-loss season in 15 years, is that the Jays' Double-A team in New Hampshire, the Fisher Cats, is coming off the organization's first minor-league championship ever above the Class A level. Two standouts from that team are already making significant contributions in 2005, ahead of team projections: Aaron Hill and Gustavo Chacin.

Hill was the MVP of last summer's Futures Game in Houston, and the shortstop is only in the majors because of Corey Koskie's injured thumb. He has been brilliant defensively at third base and has become such a consistent run producer that he might be in the big leagues for good, even after Koskie returns at the end of the month.

Chacin leads all rookie pitchers in starts, wins and ERA and gives the Jays another coveted lefty to go with Ted Lilly in a division where Ricciardi loves to have left-handed pitching to match up with the Yankees and Red Sox. The Jays hope Romero can join those two in the rotation in the near future.

Johnson said the recent rift between Lilly and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg is overblown. Arnsberg expressed frustration over his lefty's ineffectiveness and perceived lack of intensity. It's not a new criticism of Lilly, but Johnson said Lilly is frustrated, too. As we reach mid-June, April and May have been like spring training for Lilly, who missed March with shoulder tendinitis.

No holiday for Halladay
The linchpin of Toronto's staff is Roy Halladay, the 2003 Cy Young Award winner, who battled his own shoulder problems last season but this year has been in line for his second Cy Young.

Johnson said the best illustration of Halladay's competitiveness is the extremes he'll go to during preparation. A bit of a fanatic himself, Johnson remembers showing up at 7:30 a.m. in Dunedin, Fla., for the Jays' first intrasquad game this spring. It was a 1 p.m. game.

Johnson was stunned to find out he wasn't the first one there – Halladay was fully dressed (including his cleats), going over the hitters he would face. He spent the rest of the morning talking to the guys on his side about how to pitch Johnson, Vernon Wells and Eric Hinske. That's how badly he wanted to win and do well in an intrasquad game.

Teammates forever
Toronto's bench coach is longtime Jay Ernie Whitt. Like the players, and the rest of John Gibbons' coaching staff, Whitt wears a patch on his uniform sleeve with the initials B.M., D.A., and J.C. on it, along with the words, "Teammates Forever." But perhaps no one wearing that patch on the field feels the significance of it as deeply as Whitt.

The initials are for Bobby Mattick, Doug Ault and John Cerutti, all longtime and beloved members of the Blue Jays family.

All three passed away unexpectedly within a short time of one another at the end of 2004. While Mattick was 89 years old, he was "sharp and active as ever," said Whitt, and threw out the first pitch on the last day of the season in Toronto in front of a heartfelt gathering of Jays' personnel that, like Mattick, spanned the franchise's 29-year history.

Mattick joined the Jays as the scouting supervisor in 1976, helping draft the inaugural team. He spent two years managing in 1980 and 1981 and played a major role in the scouting and development of the 1992 and '93 championship teams. Mattick died two months after that Oct. 4 ceremony that capped 71 years in professional baseball.

Although Ault had health issues for some time, no one suspected they were serious enough to end his life at age 54, less than a week after Mattick passed away. An original Blue Jay, Ault hit the first home run in team history and played in Toronto from 1977 to 1980.

But the most shocking of all, especially for Whitt, was Cerutti's death. Cerutti, who pitched for the Jays from 1985 to 1990, had returned to the team as a broadcaster and was staying in the SkyDome Hotel last season. On Oct. 3, 2004, the day before Cerutti's final appearance, he was found dead in his room.

Whitt had spoken to him the day before, and they were planning a golf outing in Florida for the next Friday. Ernie still gets emotional when he talks about it, and that represents what these three long-standing members mean to the family of the lone Canadian franchise in the major leagues.

Are Cubs overexposed?
The Jays made their first-ever visit to Wrigley Field last week and stunned the Cubs (who were fresh off an unheard-of 6-1 West Coast trip), by winning their first two games in the friendly confines. Although the Cubs pulled out the finale, Dusty Baker wonders whether, in interleague competition, his team isn't at least slightly hampered by the immense television exposure it gets.

While all teams have the same video resources to watch each other's games and break down individual pitchers and batters, the Cubs are constantly on clubhouse televisions, especially when they're playing a day game and the other teams are gathering during the afternoon of their night games.

If nothing else, Baker feels opposing pitchers and hitters are more "familiar" with their Cubs counterparts, having been able to watch them on WGN-TV on such a regular basis. Whether it enhances performance, (the Blue Jays I spoke to, and other writers and broadcasters, felt it had no effect), opposing teams at least know what most of the Cubs players look like, and some of their tendencies, far more than they know about a team like Toronto, which broadcasts in Canada and is rarely if ever seen on national TV in the United States.

Somewhat surprisingly, Baker isn't opposed to the imbalance in competition brought on by the natural rivalries incorporated into the interleague schedule. "These things go in cycles, and you never know," he said. "Next year, the Royals might be up and the White Sox down. It tends to even out over time."

That's a pretty generous assessment considering the Cubs have an extra series with the White Sox, the team with the best record in baseball. Meanwhile, they are trying to catch a Cardinals team that gets an extra series with Kansas City, currently the worst team in the American League, and one that has had only one winning season during the eight years of interleague games.

Speier sweats it out
Drenched in sweat so profuse it looked as though he was literally melting, Cubs third base coach Chris Speier tried to keep from perspiring to the point of expiring in the shade of the Wrigley Field dugout.

The 54-year-old had just completed his weekly ritual of running the entire upper grandstand at the park, on the hottest and most humid day in Chicago this year. Speier does it not only at ancient Wrigley but also at every visiting ballpark. He says the inclusion of RFK Stadium for the Washington Nationals has had a particularly cruel effect on his ritual.

"Far and away the largest upper deck in the major leagues, and I've run pretty much every one of them," Speier said. "It took me an hour and a half."

By contrast, Wrigley Field's upstairs workout is "about an hour, and most are about 45 minutes."

But this torturous grind, which most players wouldn't even consider, let alone on a weekly basis, isn't the thing Speier most fears in his big-league travels. Speier says the most difficult thing for him to endure during a big-league game is to watch his son, Jays right-hander Justin Speier, pitch for the opposition. Fortunately, it didn't happen during Toronto's recent visit. Justin's sister Ericka also came to town for the family showdown, and they enjoyed a few meals together, but Chris Speier didn't have to contend with watching his team rally against his son from 60 feet away in the third-base box.

The most painful night for Justin's father was a game in Oakland last year, when he was serving as Ken Macha's bench coach. Justin gave up the game-winning hit to Damien Miller in the bottom of the 14th inning to finally decide what had been a scoreless game.

Speier doesn't know how other fathers – such as Bob Boone and Buddy Bell – can deal with it, but he's glad Justin's in the other league now. There are no more mixed emotions like when he had to tease Miller after that extra-inning win: "Why couldn't you have just hit one out earlier off some other reliever? You had to beat my kid?!"

Gary Miller is a reporter for ESPN's major league baseball coverage.