SPORTS

THE PASSPORT SERIES

THE BLUE JAYS CARRY CANADA’S HOPES INTO THE PREMIER EVENT OF AMERICA’S NATIONAL PASTIME

JAMES DEACON October 20 1992
SPORTS

THE PASSPORT SERIES

THE BLUE JAYS CARRY CANADA’S HOPES INTO THE PREMIER EVENT OF AMERICA’S NATIONAL PASTIME

JAMES DEACON October 20 1992

THE PASSPORT SERIES

SPORTS

THE BLUE JAYS CARRY CANADA’S HOPES INTO THE PREMIER EVENT OF AMERICA’S NATIONAL PASTIME

Ninety minutes after the Toronto Blue Jays clinched a historic place in baseball’s World Series last week, the cavernous interior of SkyDome was empty and almost dark, lit only by a few work lights high above in the roof's superstructure. Team attendants had cleared the Jays’ dugout of bats, helmets and towels, leaving behind the sticky byproduct of life on the bench—spilled Gatorade and spewed tobacco juice. Gone was the resounding cacophony of 51,335 delirious fans celebrating the team’s first-ever pennant. Instead, out of the gloom came the echo of one of baseball’s purest, sweetest sounds—the emphatic snap of ball meeting glove. In the bullpen beyond the left-

field fence, pitcher Jack Morris was warming up. Morris had abandoned the interviews and champagne showers still bubbling on in the clubhouse, and, with pitching coach Galen Cisco and reserve catcher Mike Maksudian, was already getting ready to carry Toronto’s hopes into Game 1 of the Series against the Atlanta Braves. The time to really celebrate was not at hand—yet. “It’s great to be here and all,” said Jays manager Cito Gaston a few days later at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, “but we want to win it all.”

Two down and one to go. Already champions of their division and the American League, the team of Americans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who play in Toronto carried the hopes of

Canada into the premier event of America’s national pastime. In a three-way compact, the players, the city and the country all sought a World Series victory—now. The players’ urgency comes from veterans like Morris, Dave Winfield and Joe Carter, who understand that such chances do not come around very often. “I’ve played really hard for a long time, but I wasn’t lucky enough until now to be a part of a team—a real team,” a drenched Winfield said after the Jays defeated Oakland four games to two in the American League playoffs last week, sending thousands of screaming, banner-waving fans parading along downtown Yonge Street. The Jays also face an off-season of potential change, with up to a dozen players eligible for free agency and no guarantees that they will all be back next season. “I’ve put eight years of my life into this team, and I wanted to be a part of winning a pennant,” said relief pitcher Tom Henke, whose contract expires at the end of the season. “I don’t know what will happen this winter, so it was important to me to do it now.”

The city wants it badly, too. Having lost its bid for the 1996 Summer Olympics to Atlanta, Toronto civic officials would like nothing more than to deprive Atlanta of its first World Series championship. And there is added incentive in

this tale of two cities: Atlanta manager Bobby Cox and third-base coach Jimy Williams are both former Blue Jay managers, while Toronto manager Cito Gaston—the first black ever to lead his team to the World Series—used to play for the Braves. Gaston was also well aware that, to a certain extent, a whole country was rooting for his club. “We represent Canada,” he said, “and we're proud of that.” Added Winfield: “We’re keenly aware that we don’t represent just one little burg. We represent an entire country.”

In fact, the Braves-Jays clash presented an intriguing political matchup. The best-of-seven autumn ritual pitted the self-styled “America's Team,” which developed a national following via owner Ted Turner’s superstation TBS (carried by cable companies across the United States and Canada), against what is arguably Canada’s team. Toronto may be the city that Canadians love to hate, but a recent Gallup poll showed that, for the majority of Canadian respondents in all provinces except Quebec, home of the National League’s Montreal Expos, the Jays were the team they loved to root for most.

One fan, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, even suggested that, like the Jays, the Yes forces in the Oct. 26 national referendum would ultimately prevail. (Unlike the Yes campaign, however, the Jays are favored to win.) Some partisans suggested that the feel-good mood of a Jays triumph might actually influence the referendum vote. “It’s great the Blue Jays made the World Series,” said Michele Stanners, executive director of Calgary’s Together For Canada Committee. “It will make a difference. These sporting events heighten people’s emotions. The referendum is an emotional decision, and this is the only Canadian team— even if the players are American—to make it so far.”

In Atlanta, where the locals’ moose-and-

Mounties knowledge of Canada certainly did not include the constitutional referendum, Braves’ fans were still primed for an out-of-theordinary showdown. “People are very excited about hosting the first international World Series,” said Mike O’Connor, station manager at the city’s Z93 classic-rock radio station that printed 2,000 “Bash the Birds” T-shirts. “The deep South is probably the centre point of patriotism in America. So I imagine it will be extremely high on nationalistic feelings.” At the Jocks & Jills sports bar in the Atlanta suburb of Norcross, 44-year-old plumber Wayne Peek was asked whether he had any objections to the Braves playing a Canadian team in the World Series. “You gotta understand, we’re not that way,” he replied. “You’re coming to the deep South now. Everybody’s welcome down here.” But, Peek added: “No hard feelings when we walk away with the Series. It’ll take five games—we don’t want to beat you too bad.”

At the Canadian consulate in Atlanta—paradoxically located in Turner’s CNN Center— communications officer Mary Jane King said: “This is the last outpost of Canadian civilization. We’re just camped out here.” Officials estimate that up to 5,000 Canadians live in Atlanta, 10 of whom work at the consulate. And on the morning after the Jays captured the American League crown, employees placed a tongue-in-cheek note on the office door: “Due to unprecedented demand, the Canadian Consulate General is only able to accept congratulations from Blue Jays fans between the hours of 10 and 11 a.m.” No one offered any congratulations at all. However, said consul general James Elliott, a 55-year-old native of London, Ont., “I’ve had more television time in the last two days than I’ve had in the last two years.” And what did the reporters want to know? “They asked, ‘Do you drive on the right side of the road in Canada? And how do you get to

Toronto from here?’ I told them, “Well, you go up 1-75, and when you get to Detroit you turn right.”

The pennant-winning Jays are a far cry from the modest group assembled for the team’s inaugural season, 1977. The entire payroll of that club was less than $3 million—compared to the $5 million that the Jays now pay Morris each year and the team’s tab of $48 million. “We had a good time,” said first-base coach Bob Bailor, the team’s first selection in the expansion draft that year. “We played to win, and the people supported us. When we didn’t win, they stUl supported us.” The team and its city made all the right moves from the start. Even the weather had its charms: as if to reinforce the image of the Great White North, it snowed for the home opener at Exhibition Stadium, a place that could be cold in summer, let alone in a spring storm. But with the help of the grounds crew, the Jays played and won that game against the Chicago White Sox.

Like their national sibling, the Montreal Expos, who were formed in 1969, the Jays learned that a strong minor-league system and scouting staff were critical to surviving north of the border. Free agents tended to stay away because of tax considerations or because, as Morris put it recently, “this is a foreign country.” Both very good and very lucky, the Jays system soon began to produce genuine prospects: outfielders Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield; infielders Tony Fernandez, Alfredo Griffin and Damaso Garcia; and pitchers Dave Stieb and Jimmy Key. In inter-league deals, general manager Pat Gillick poached a brace of emerging stars such as Henke, infielders Kelly Gruber and Manuel Lee, and sluggers George Bell and Fred McGriff. In 1985, the Jays triumphed in 99 out of 162 games—still a team record—and this season the club won 96 games and drew a league-record 4.1 million fans to the SkyDome.

Around the major leagues, the rise from expansion club to serious contender was considered nothing short of miraculous. And more miracles were expected. Gillick now says that expectations outstripped reality. “A lot of teams have good ball clubs but still don’t win,” he said. “There are a lot of factors that go into winning that you don’t have any control over.” The 1985 team, he said, which squandered a 31 playoff lead over Kansas City, could not stop the Royals’ George Brett. In 1987, injuries to Fernandez and catcher Ernie Whitt crippled a team that seemed to have the American League’s Eastern division sewn up, only to lose its final seven games. The 1989 Jays, Gillick said, simply were not good enough to beat the formidable Oakland A’s in the championship series. And in last year’s playoffs against the Minnesota Twins, he added, “we just didn’t play well.”

For Bailor, the original Blue Jay, the “choke” label that followed those late-season disappointments is simply not warranted. “You have to remember, us and the Seattle Mariners came into the league at the same time, and the difference is night and day,” Bailor said.

“They’ve had only one winning season, and this organization is being criticized for not winning the big one. Seattle would love to be criticized for not winning the big one.”

Still, as each Jay defeat revealed another hole, Gillick and team president Paul Beeston proceeded to fill them in. They crafted a risky high-stakes deal two winters ago with San Diego, giving up the moody but brilliant Fer-

nandez and the awesome McGriff for Carter and a young second baseman with tons of potential, Roberto Alomar. For this year they acquired Morris, Winfield and, near season’s end, starting pitcher David Cone.

In the process, the Blue Jay brass changed a good team into one that might be great. The Jays at least showed signs of greatness through the season in winning what turned out to be

baseball’s most competitive division, the American League East. Milwaukee clung to contention right to the final weekend, but Toronto won the games it had to win. And in the playoffs against Oakland, the Jays took revenge for the beating they absorbed in 1989, when stars Rickey Henderson and José Canseco trampled a game but undermanned Canadian club.

"This team,” said Winfield in one long breath, “has heart, it has character, it has pitching, hitting, defence, it clawed back from deficits, didn’t listen to negative press, pulled together on the field and off, and had a lot of fun.” Whatever might happen against Atlanta as the series switched to Toronto this week, the Jays and their fans will always have that marvelous moment last week in the final game against Oakland, when outfielder Candy Maldonado made the final out to clinch Toronto’s World Series berth.

The SkyDome crowd, already roaring, erupted into what, in effect, was a mass exorcism of disappointments past. There was pure joy on the field, where the players rushed out of the dugout and toppled into a joyous heap, and the feeling extended to the team’s senior managers in their private box above home plate. Henke, summoned from the bullpen to nail down the victory for sterling starter Juan Guzman, said afterwards that the emotions inside the dome during those last outs left him struggling for control. “I think that it’s great to be able to bring a World Series here for the Canadian fans who have supported us all along,” he said in the frenzied dressing room after the game. “I can’t tell you how good that feels.”

The Braves, of course, had their own moments of glory. They demonstrated Yogi Berra’s it-ain’t-over-’til-it’s-over adage by winning their series against Pittsburgh in the bottom of the ninth inning of the seventh game—on a two-run, two-out single by former Jays farmhand Francisco Cabrera. Optimistic Toronto fans had to remind themselves that Atlanta is essentially the same team that just missed last year, losing the seventh game of the World Series in the 10th inning to the Minnesota Twins and Morris, then their ace hurler. Atlanta has strong starting pitchers in Steve Avery, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz; young guns such as slugging outfielders Ron Gant and Dave Justice; and tremendous leadership from thirdbaseman Terry Pendleton, the 1991 National League Most Valuable Player. What makes them even better, Cox says, is having been in the Series before—losing, and wanting to make good on their second chance. Looking for weaknesses in the Braves’ roster, observers in Atlanta last week could only cite the team’s bullpen, which is good but not great.

Despite all the media focus on the diamond battle for national pride, politics seemed at best remote to the gaggle of players and reporters hanging around the batting cage last weekend

in Atlanta. The players were loose, slapping batting-practice fastballs, nonchalantly fielding grounders and razzing Jays centre fielder Devon White, who last week narrowly escaped injury in an accident while taking a test drive in a $130,000 Mercedes. (“Hey Devo, don’t go test-drivin’ my car!”) The American reporters talked about the World Series as the first that required two currencies and customs checks; and some acted as if Alomar—a three-time all-

star who was chosen the Most Valuable Player in the Oakland series—had just appeared from nowhere. “Where’ve you been hiding this guy?” a local radio reporter asked Gaston in Atlanta. Gaston, not suffering a fool gladly, turned away without answering.

The inference, clearly, was that all the Blue Jays’ attendance records and winning seasons have largely been lost in transmission across the border. If nothing else, this World Series will showcase to I Americans a team that Canadians have been proud of for g 16 years. Winfield, the 41jg year-old slugger whose £ youthful enthusiasm for the ^ game—not to mention his undiminished skills—have been an inspiration to his teammates, is equally appreciative of the opportunity Toronto has given him. “I’m just savoring it, really savoring it,” he said. But when asked if the Blue Jays had achieved their goal by winning the pennant, he responded sharply, promising: “Hey, it ain’t over.” This Blue Jay team, it seems, was not interested in second-best.

JAMES DEACON in Atlanta with correspondents ’ reports