SPORTS

A golden championship season

The Toronto Blue Jays battle for a berth in the World Series

JAMES DEACON October 14 1991
SPORTS

A golden championship season

The Toronto Blue Jays battle for a berth in the World Series

JAMES DEACON October 14 1991

A golden championship season

SPORTS

The Toronto Blue Jays battle for a berth in the World Series

Just hours before they clinched their division championship last week, ensuring a berth in this week’s American League Championship Series (ALCS), the Toronto Blue Jays worked out with all the seriousness of kids at a summer camp. Pitcher David Wells tracked down fly balls in the outfield with lumbering abandon, left-fielder Candy Maldonado did a poor imitation of a third baseman and right-fielder Joe Carter heckled slugger Dave Parker in a comic attempt to disrupt the veteran’s batting practice. What might appear to be

undisciplined mayhem, however, is not likely to change, even in the playoffs. Officials of both the Jays and the Minnesota Twins, their opponents in this week’s best-of-seven-game ALCS, insist that players who stay relaxed are better able to handle the pressure of a pennant race. “Having fun at the ball park is a key element in the success of both clubs,” said Andy MacPhail, general manager of the Twins. “When the game becomes a job for you, you lose some of your ability to compete. You have to retain some of that little-boy enjoyment of playing.”

Call it the Squeaky-Clean Series. Not only do the Jays and Twins play baseball with childlike zest, but they represent cities known as nice, clean places to live. Although some Canadians might beg to differ, Ontario’s capital retains its “Toronto the good” image in the United States. Meanwhile, the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the urban epicentre of a state known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, bear little resemblance to such gritty baseball capitals as Chicago and New York. In fact, if the ALCS were a movie, it would have no trouble

with censors. The teams’ organizations are also PG-rated, providing stable, family-like environments for their players. The Twins even devote five color pages in their 1991 media guide to snapshots of the players with their wives and children.

Although such homespun virtues may not excite the U.S. television executives who pay $1.6 billion for the right to broadcast major-league baseball, they are cherished by the polite citizens of Toronto and Minneapolis who will pack their domed stadiums for the postseason party. With apologies to author Garrison Keillor, creator of the fictitious Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon, Toronto and Minneapolis are places where the men are strong, the women are handsome and the baseball teams are well above average.

The Blue Jays and Twins began the season on vastly different footings. The Jays, who have twice before reached the playoffs but have never appeared in a World Series, were rebuilt last winter through trades and free-agent acquisitions, and oddsmakers favored them to win the American League’s eastern division. The Twins, meanwhile, had fallen from 1987 World Series champions to last place in the AL West in 1990, and were expected to finish well behind the powerful Oakland Athletics and Chicago White Sox. Like the Blue Jays, however, the Twins made successful personnel changes during the past two years and transformed the I franchise into the bookmakers’ curI rent choice to reach the World Series ;5 against the champions of the National I League—the Pittsburgh Pirates or Q the Atlanta Braves. Although the Jays and Twins played a season-ending, three-game series against each other, players from both teams said that the outcome of the championship battle was impossible to predict. Said Parker, a playoff and World Series veteran: “The regular season goes out the window because, in a short series, it’s all about who’s hot and who’s not.”

Among many disgruntled fans, the Jays have a reputation for being the team that is not hot when it counts. The franchise has been a competitive and financial success overall since its inception into the American League in 1977. It has strung together nine straight winning seasons and set baseball’s all-time attendance record—a remarkable 4,001,526 fans—this season at SkyDome. But the Jays squandered a three-game-to-one lead in the 1985 ALCS and eventually lost four games to three to Kansas City; dropped their last seven games of the 1987 regular season to hand the title to Detroit; and were eliminated in five playoff games by Oakland in 1989.

According to the Blue Jays, the 1991 squad is different. They say that the team is stronger defensively, led by the all-new outfield of Carter, Maldonado and especially Devon White,

the graceful centre fielder, and by Roberto Alomar, the acrobatic second baseman. The trade for knuckleballer Tom Candiotti and the emergence of Juan Guzman, the hard-throwing rookie whose 10th straight win on Oct. 1 broke the Jays record for consecutive victories, have strengthened the team’s pitching. “I think that this club has stronger pitching and is better defensively than those other clubs,” said designated hitter Ranee Mulliniks, a veteran of the 1985 and 1989 Jays teams. “And I believe that you really do win with pitching and defence.” That combination is widely credited with staking the Blue Jays to their third division championship. Early in the season, with slug-

DUEL OF THE DOMES

PITCHING: The Jays have the deepest staff in the American League, and will start Jimmy Key, Juan Guzman, Tom Candiotti and possibly Todd Stottlemyre. If the bullpen loses sore-armed Tom Henke, Duane Ward is a capable closer. Twins starters Jack Morris, Kevin Tapani and Scott Erickson have won more games than Toronto’s threesome, and stopper ft Rick Aguilera is reliable. Edge: Jays

HITTING: The Jays have some power, but their biggest asset is the speed of Devon White and Roberto Alomar and the clutch hitting of Joe Carter. The Twins have the best team batting average in the American League, largely because of outfielder Kirby Puckett, catcher Brian Harper and designated hitter Chili Davis, among others. Edge: Twins

FIELDING: The Jays are spectacular in centre field with White, at second base with Alomar and at third base with Kelly Gruber, but ordinary elsewhere. The Twins are not as flashy but make fewer errors, and have excellent overall outfield defence with Puckett, Dan Gladden and Shane Mack. Edge: Twins

BENCH STRENGTH: In Mookie Wilson, Pat Tabler, Rene Gonzales and Ranee Mulliniks, the Jays have a wealth of veterans who can rise to the occasion. The Twins have to hope that their starters stay healthy because, aside from infielder AI Newman, their bench lacks experience. Edge: Jays

ging third-baseman Kelly Gruber out of action with a thumb injury and first-baseman John Olerud floundering with a paltry batting average, Blue Jay pitchers were responsible for making up for the team’s offensive shortcomings. Starting pitchers Todd Stottlemyre, Jimmy Key and Wells all began the season strongly, and the short-relief tandem of Duane Ward and Tom Henke approached perfection when called upon to protect a lead.

Still, the Jays have missed some of what they gave up to rebuild the team. They lost sluggers George Bell and Fred McGriff in the offseason, and only newcomer Carter proved to be a consistent home-run threat. Instead, the Jays attack is often spearheaded by the speed of its first two hitters in the batting order, White and Alomar. Said Parker: “We need Devo and Robbie to have a good series to make this offence work well.”

The team that the Jays face this week has been largely overhauled since it won the World Series in 1987. Only seven members of that 24-man roster remain. In the past two years, the Twins added pitching stars Kevin Tapani and Rick Aguilera by trade and Jack Morris from the free-agent market, and saw second-year right-hander Scott Erickson blossom into a potential Cy Young winner as the AL’s best pitcher. And the Twins led the AL in team batting average, largely on the performances of such longtime stars as centre-fielder Kirby Puckett and such newcomers as designated hitter Chili Davis, who joined the team this season as a free agent.

Officials of both clubs conceded that no matter who wins, they will pay for their success. MacPhail said that after winning the 1987 World Series, Minnesota lost many of its players because it could not afford to pay them what the market would bear. He said that the 14 players from that squad who are still in baseball now eam a combined annual salary of more than $25 million, which is about the same as the Twins’ total 25-man players’ salary budget for 1991. “We are in a small market, and we really can’t take the economic pressure that goes along with winning,” he said. But Blue Jays president Paul Beeston, whose budget was padded by an estimated $50 million this year from ticket revenues, predicted that his payroll might increase by as much as 25 per cent next season.

On paper, the style and strengths of the AL finalists are so similar that the series should be tight and entertaining. Both have arguably the best pitching staffs in their divisions. Both are defensively sound and have players with character and experience. “We match up well with the Blue Jays,” MacPhail told Maclean ’s. “I think the games will be close and the series will go six or seven games.” But Beeston, who had just watched the Jays’ dramatic comefrom-behind conquest of the California Angels to clinch the division last week, said that he liked his team’s chances. “It’s going to be tough, but the American League East hasn’t been a picnic either,” he said while ducking the spray of champagne in the winners’ raucous locker room. He added: “It should be a lot of fun from here on in.” And fun, in the Squeaky-Clean Series at least, is what baseball is all about.

JAMES DEACON