Koch flays the Jays

BOB ELLIOTT -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:41 AM ET

Billy Koch is paying for a coffee in a convenience store at the corner of Douglas and Sunset Point in Dunedin, Fla.

Despite the darkened store, Koch is wearing wraparound sunglasses and has the defiant air that closers get.

We've seen it in from Woody Fryman, Jeff Reardon, John Wetteland and Duane Ward.

We asked Koch, released five days ago by the Blue Jays, if he was going to play with another team.

"Nope," the relief pitcher said firmly.

"I'm going to make the Toronto Blue Jays pay every cent of my salary."

The Jays are on the hook for Koch's $950,000 US salary. If a team had an injury and needed an arm, it could add Koch at the prorated major-league minimum of $320,000.

"To be released after four outings? What's four outings in the spring? Nothing," Koch said. "They can pay my gas money for my car, they can pay to fill up my 240-gallon tank for my 30-foot Pursuit, they can gas up my jet boat and our three jet skis."

That's a lot of gas.

"Nothing against the city of Toronto or Jays fans," Koch said. "I love the city and the fans treated me well."

Whether this is bullet-proof bullpen bravado that closers need, or whether Koch will change his opinion a month down the road remains to be seen. But that's what Koch was saying yesterday.

"I read in the paper they say I didn't work hard," Koch said. "Talk to any pitching coach or strength coach I've had. I lift, run a little, do agility drills and play long toss.

"I can't run and haven't run as much as everyone else in four years. Why? Because my back hurts. Say I threw a horse-bleep pitch, don't attack my work ethic."

Nonetheless, Koch will be at Tropicana Field on Tuesday to see the Jays play the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. And he'll bring along a few hundred pals.

Last fall, Koch spoke to his friend Karen Ross-Lundquist's Grade 4 class at Bellair Bluffs, near Clearwater Beach, Fla. Afterward, he fielded questions.

Which team do you want to sign with, he was asked by the students? Choice No. 1 was Tampa Bay, then the Jays.

Can you get us tickets?

Sure, Koch said.

Days later, J.P. Ricciardi called to offer a contract. So Koch, who lives in the Clearwater area, bought 80 tickets for the students and their family members for the Rays-Jays game next Tuesday.

He then bought tickets for classmates of his children, Amanda in Grade 4 and Joey in Grade 2. Another 160 tickets, 240 in all.

At the Blue Jays training camp this spring, Koch dropped his kids off at school every morning and a few times was late reporting for work.

"The Jays knew I was dropping them off and said it wouldn't be a problem," Koch said.

For the first time, Koch spent Easter Sunday morning at home, with his wife, Brandi, and Amanda, Joey and Madison, age four. They did the Easter egg hunt. After dark, Koch put on a giant Easter Bunny costume.

"My wife said 'what's that on the lawn?' The kids looked out and for two seconds they didn't know what to think, then they recognized it was me hopping up and down. It was 130F degrees inside the suit."

Koch was the Jays' first-round pick in 1996 and a stand-up guy when he signed. That was the year of the Atlanta Olympics, the year of the loophole free agents.

Clubs had to make drafted players an offer within two weeks of the draft. That summer many teams told the Olympians to go win the gold, beat Cuba and then we'll talk.

A funny thing happened, as agents called teams on the fact they had not made an offer.

The commissioner's office ruled four were free agents and that the players, some Olympians, some high-schoolers, were going to the highest bidders:

Matt White ($10-million signing bonus) and Bobby Seay ($3 million) signed with the Devil Rays, while Travis Lee ($10 million) and John Patterson ($6.075 million) joined the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Jays had failed to make an offer to Koch in the required time frame, so he could have joined the others. Instead, he signed with the Jays for a bonus of $1.45 million.

That's not hayfeed, but he didn't try to parlay the loophole into $10 million. No wonder Jays president Paul Beeston had scout Ted Lekas drive to Hicksville, N.Y., from Worcester, Mass., with a case of Dom Perignon and a stack of Kodak film for Koch's shutterbug father, Bill.

"Remember when Paul Quantrill got in the snowmobiling accident?" Koch asked.

Quantrill broke his right leg in 1999. Initially, Quantrill said he did it tobogganing but soon fessed up.

"Paul was wrong, but (then Jays GM) Gord Ash did the right thing restructuring the deal (when he could have voided the contract)," Koch said.

"That wouldn't happen now. It's more of a cut-throat organization compared with what it was."

In his return to the Jays this spring, Koch allowed eight hits and five runs in three innings and was roughed up in an intrasquad game.

Koch picked up his children at school after he was released and "a couple of teachers came over and said they were sorry," Koch said. "I said 'it's their call.' "

Then, the kids piled in and Koch asked: "What would you think if I didn't play this year?"

The kids cheered.

The next day, Koch pulled up in front of the school and a child yelled 'Billy Ball Player, Billy Ball Player, are we still going to the game next week?'

"Not only are we going," Koch said, "but I'll be sitting with you and we'll be holding up signs reading 'Go Devil Rays!' "


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