COVER

THE HOTTEST TEAM IN THE RACE

HAL QUINN September 15 1986
COVER

THE HOTTEST TEAM IN THE RACE

HAL QUINN September 15 1986

THE HOTTEST TEAM IN THE RACE

COVER

The smile is dazzling, even in the bright sunlight of a September afternoon. The gait is smooth, relaxed, giving off just subtle hints of a cockiness or at least of a rock-solid confidence. The hints are not missed by his admirers, who arrive at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium long before game time to watch Blue Jay Jesse Barfield who, with his towering home runs and rocket-like throws from right field, has become a symbol of the Jays and their dramatic late entry in the pennant race of 1986. They come to cheer Barfield’s powerhitting partners in the outfield —George Bell and Lloyd Moseby—and Toronto’s acrobatic shortstop, Tony Fernandez. They come to cheer on the Jays’ pursuit of the Boston Red Sox.

Said Barfield: “I think everybody is extremely excited about what we’ve done the last couple of weeks. If we stay healthy, we’re going to be tough to beat.”

Rivals: Unlike last year, for the majority of the 1986 season the Jays were not that hard to beat. The Red Sox quickly pulled away from the defending American League (AL) champions and, indeed, from the rest of their rivals. Throughout baseball, the bright promises of March faded and the brave flourishes of July and August died away.

While the Jays led the league in runs scored, their pitching faltered and even Barfield’s bat fell silent. But as August gave way to Sep-

tember, the pitchers found the strike zone and the vaunted Toronto outfielders’ bats began striking in unison (page 39). And finally the essence of major league baseball—a pennant race—is beginning to unfold.

Of the 26 teams that opened the 1986 season in pursuit of four division

championships, just seven contenders remain. The New York Mets in the National League East (NL), the season’s best team, now simply await an opponent from the West—Houston, or perhaps Cincinnati. In the American League West, the California Angels’ lead over the Texas Rangers is just slightly uncomfortable.

But in the AL East, a ! September showdown awaits. The pennant race in baseball’s most competitive division is now reduced to two teams—the Boston Red Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays. By the end of the month they will have played each other six times and the race will likely have been run. Said broadcaster and former New York Yankee shortstop Tony Kubek: “It may come down to those six games, and it will be the team that’s not frightened that will win it.” Trip: The teams began their trip to this month’s confrontation in April. The Blue Jays, in just their 10th year in the league but as defending champions in the East, expected to arrive on schedule. The Red Sox, in their 85th year but as the fifthplace finishers in 1985, expected to arrive late, but still fresh. But this season it was the Sox, not the Jays, who led the division from the j middle of May. And it was Boston’s pitching, not Toronto’s, that sideÏ tracked the Detroit Tio gers, New York Yankees £ and Baltimore Orioles. Still, as Boston sped toward the pennant, To-

ronto, despite some problems, managed to steadily shave the Red Sox’ early lead. Now, with the 162-game season drawing to a close, in front of tens of thousands of fans and millions of television viewers, the men in Sox and Jays uniforms will fulfil their childhood fantasies and pursue their lifelong dreams. Said Blue Jays catcher Buck Martinez:

“From our very beginnings in the game, this is what we play for, the pennant race. It is the only thing in baseball.”

Mirror: For the Jays, the race is the mirror image of last year’s. Then, they were the leaders, relentlessly pursued by the Yankees. Now, they pursue Boston and will have to play 10 of their last 13 games in opponents’ parks. For the Red Sox, this year is a welcome reversal of last season. Then, they trailed the Blue Jays by 20 ^2 games. Last weekend they narrowly led the Jays, and will be playing at home in their final 10 games. And while the Jays gradually crept past the Tigers,

Orioles and Yankees into second place, the front-running Sox withstood repeated challenges amid constant reminders of the team’s history of faltering in the stretch. Said Kubek: “The other teams—Detroit, Baltimore and New York—have all made their runs at the Sox, and they have all been beaten back. Now it’s the Blue Jays’ turn. Those flourishes are exhausting mentally and physically. This month we’ll see how much the Jays have left.”

Swept: The defending champions’ late-season rush began slowly. The Blue Jays were in last place on June 3 and 10 games behind Boston on June 15. At the midseason all-star break, the Jays were in fifth and 10 xk games back. Through July and August the Sox could only guess who their primary competitors would be. In June Boston had won all three games over the Yankees in New York and then swept the Orioles in three games in Baltimore. When the Tigers made their charge after the all-star break, Boston defeated Detroit five times in seven games. But as the summer neared an end, it became clear that the Sox would worry only about Toronto in the final month.

Many Red Sox players say they are ready for the Jays’ challenge and prepared to turn it back. They have the

league’s winningest pitcher in Roger Clemens. And they have one of the game’s best hitters, in third baseman Wade Boggs, to go with sluggers Jim Rice and Tony Armas. Not content with success, they recently acquired outfielder Dave Henderson and short-

stop Spike Owen from the Seattle Mariners. The Sox’ starting pitching staff was solidified by the earlier arrival of veteran pitcher Tom Seaver from the Chicago White Sox and encouraged by the outstanding relief pitching of rookie Calvin Schiraldi.

And the team is led by one of the game’s fiercest competitors and best designated hitters, veteran Don Baylor, who arrived in a preseason trade with the Yankees.

The Sox had a winning record against the Jays last season. Boston took nine of 13 games from Toronto and won four of their seven meetings earlier this year. Said Boston reliever Joe Sambito: “Look at Toronto.

When they won their ninth straight game last week, they were still SV2 games back. If we went out and won nine in a row, we could go and hide. They know they can’t keep winning like that, but that’s what they have to do to stay in it. I’m glad we are where we are—being chased.”

Foundering: Toronto manager Jimy Williams and team executive vice-president Pat Gillick both say that the Jays’ chase began on Aug. 24. The team, powered by outfielders George Bell, Jesse Barfield and Lloyd Moseby, led the league in runs scored, but was foundering. The starting pitching rotation was missing a beat every fourth game when Dave Stieb arrived on the mound. The pitcher with the AL’s lowest earned run average in 1985 threatened to have the highest in 1986. After a series of shaky early performances, lefthander Jimmy Key recovered and was pitching well. Righthander Jim Clancy was having the best season of his career, and left-hander John Cerutti was proving that he belongs in the major leagues.

Struggle: Critical trades in early July sent malcontents Doyle Alexander and Jim Acker to Atlanta in exchange for two other pitchers: Joe Johnson, who quickly won four games for Toronto, and Duane Ward. While last year’s relief ace Dennis Lamp struggled with his control, and. injuries sidelined Gary Lavelle and Tom Filer, rookie reliever Mark Eichhorn and Tom Henke were having sensational years. But the Toronto momentum stopped abruptly when Stieb was given the ball. All that changed in Minnesota.

The Red Sox’ season-long march has been sustained by Clemens, the AL’s starting pitcher in the all-star game against NL starter Dwight Gooden of the high-flying New York Mets (page 42). The remarkable 24-year-old right-

hander won his first 14 games of the season, one short of the American League record for most consecutive wins at the start of a season. It was the Jays who stopped Clemens’s string. Essentially, the Sox were almost guaranteed a victory every fourth game. At the same time, every fourth Toronto game, Stieb and his teammates were virtually guaranteed a loss.

Said Williams: “Dave

was giving up runs quickly in almost every game, falling further behind and not giving us a chance to come back.

But in that Minnesota game, he gave up three quick runs, then really bore down and shut them out for 5% innings.

That was the turning point. He stayed with it and we were able to come back and win the game in the 10th inning.”

Dismal: In his next two starts, Stieb pitched well and won one game, raising his record to a still-dismal five wins and 10 losses. Said Gillick: “Our outfield had been outstanding, as was our relief pitching and our shortstop, Tony Fernandez. Eichhorn was having one of those fantastic years that you never really expect. The only thing really lacking was a few quality starts from Stieb. Then he turned it around in Minnesota. Stieb keeping us in his games gives us a chance.”

Sitting on their lead, the Sox, too, like their chances. Said Boston pitcher Bruce Hurst: “I’m excited about it. By the time we play them [on Sept. 19], it’s either gonna be a dogfight or it’ll be all over. We’ll either be ahead by three or four or we’ll have a seven or eight game lead.” But in a rare loquacious moment, the determinedly reticent Bell commented: “Their lead means nothing now, it’s as if we’re tied. It will come down to our series with them. We just have to win it.”

Fights: The first three meetings will be held in Toronto. The Jays will have a far friendlier audience there than they will on the last weekend in September in the sometimes hostile confines of Boston’s Fenway Park. There have been bad feelings between the teams since they brawled in

June of last year. The fighting broke out after Boston’s Bruce Kison (since retired) hit Bell with a pitch just after Ernie Whitt stroked a grand-slam home run. Bell charged the mound and aimed a karate kick at Kison, and the

team benches emptied on to the field. According to Boston pitchers Bob Stanley and Steve Crawford and first baseman Bill Buckner, Bell is their public enemy No. 1. But, said the Jays’ Martinez: “I don’t think there is any

lingering animosity between the clubs. It’s right up there out front.”

The Jays have impressed rivals

around the league. Said Cleveland In-

dians manager Pat Corrales: “I like the Blue Jays. They are more talented that they were last year, and they should go farther. They can beat you with the bats, with their speed and with their gloves.” If a Toronto glove wins the series, it will likely belong to

shortstop Tony Fernandez. At 24, and already considered the best defensive shortstop in baseball, Fernandez has added a .300 batting average this year. Whitt says that Fernandez, despite his youth, is a “team leader on and off the field” and a leading candidate for the league’s most valuable player (MVP) award. Added Whitt: “ Most

teams have perhaps one candidate. We have three—Fernandez, Bell and Barfield—but that will probably just split the vote.” Said Jays third baseman Garth Iorg, who has been with the team from the beginning: “If Tony is not the MVP, then I just can’t imagine who is. Who would you trade him for? No one.”

Fernandez, however, downplayed the importance of the MVP award. He added: “If we get some individual recognition, it’s nice. But our main goal is to win the championship for the organization.” To do that, the Jays will most likely have to beat the Red Sox in old Fenway Park, with its nooks and crannies, its taxing “Green Monster” wall in left field and its boisterous Red Sox fans just an arm’s length away. Said Martinez: “Just walking into Fenway is exciting. There is so much history there, going all the way back to Babe Ruth, then Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, right up to Carlton Fisk. And having the chance to go in there in September in a pennant race is a thrill for both clubs.” The boys of Boston and Toronto now carry their dreams into autumn, and the race will decide whose will come true.

HAL QUINN

ANN FINLAYSON

DAN SHAUGHNESSY