SPORTS

A nose dive for the mighty Blue Jays

ROBERT MILLER October 28 1985
SPORTS

A nose dive for the mighty Blue Jays

ROBERT MILLER October 28 1985

A nose dive for the mighty Blue Jays

SPORTS

Their dreams of baseball glory were gone with the wind, a chill October breeze that blew steadily toward right field in Exhibition Stadium. And the youthful Toronto Blue Jays were as heartbroken as their supporters across Canada were despondent. But last week the Blue Jays’ socalled “Drive of ’85”—a summer-long quest for a berth in

what would have been the first truly international World Series—became the “Dive of ’85,” and their otherwise excellent season was over.

Improbably, the Blue Jays lost the final three games in a best-of-seven American League pennant series with the more experienced but less talented Kansas City Royals. As a result, the 82nd renewal of the World Series, which began on the weekend, emerged as an all-Missouri affair—with the Royals hosting the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals.

The Cardinals, who won four games in a row from the Los Angeles Dodgers after losing an opening pair in the National League playoff, were 2-to-l favorites to defeat the Royals, according to Las Vegas bookmakers. The series matched the Cardinals’ superior speed and more accomplished hitting against the Royals’ stronger pitching. As well, it pitted the managerial abilities of the Cardinals’ wily Whitey Herzog, 54—he managed Kansas City from 1975 to 1979, winning three western division titles before moving to St. Louis in 1980—against the Royals’ imperturbable Dick Howser, 49. But above all, it promised to provide a showcase for the talents of St. Louis shortstop Ozzie (The Wizard of Oz) Smith, 30, and Kansas City third baseman George Brett, 32, each of whom won the most-valuable-player award in his league’s championship series. Indeed, it was the indomitable Brett—one of the best hitters in baseball history—who led the Royals in

their surprising comeback against the Blue Jays. Said Brett, gracious after Kansas City’s 6-2 victory stunned Toronto in the final game: “They didn’t choke. We just played better.”

The Royals also took advantage of the wind which gusted in from Lake Ontario and turned two routine fly balls into a home run and a triple,

driving in a total of four Kansas City runs. For their part, the Blue Jay hitters were unable to respond against pitchers Bret Saberhagen, 21, and Charlie Leibrandt, 29. Throughout the series Blue Jay batters outhit Kansas City by a substantial 65-51 margin. But often they were unable to drive runners home, stranding a total of 49 in the seven games. Said disconsolate Blue Jay manager Bobby Cox, 44, whose team had led the American League east division from May until the regular season ended on Oct. 6: “I thought we would win it. I’m just sorry we lost on a pop-up.” Added right

fielder Jesse Barfield, who watched in frustration as the wind changed a soft fly by Kansas City catcher Jim Sundberg, 34, from a certain catch into a three-run triple: “It was a bad experience for us.”

Among the most distraught of the Blue Jays was star pitcher Dave Stieb, who threw the fateful pitch to Sund-

berg. Stieb, a 27-year-old right-hander with a lifetime contract worth a reported $25 million, started the final game with a chance to be the hero of the series. He was overpowering in winning the first game by a 6-1 score. Then, pitching with only three days’ rest, he was effective—if uncharacteristically wild—in helping the Blue Jays win the fourth game 3-1. Finally, when the series reached game seven, Cox turned to Stieb a third time—again with only three days’ rest. But Stieb, a fierce and often temperamental competitor, could not sustain his normal level of excellence. He grew visibly

tired by the middle innings, and in the sixth he loaded the bases by walking two Royals and hitting another. Cox debated briefly whether to relieve Stieb but decided to let him pitch to the light-hitting Sundberg. One pitch later the Blue Jays’ season was all but over—and Stieb was walking, head bowed, toward the showers. After the game he avoided reporters, remaining in the players’ lounge, crushed by disappointment.

The Royals’ victory was only the fifth instance in baseball history of a team rallying from a 3-1 deficit to take a seven-game series. Indeed, after Toronto scored three ninth-inning runs to win the fourth game in Royals Stadium on Oct.

12, a Blue Jays advance to the World Series seemed inevitable. But a strong pitching performance by left-hander Danny Jackson, 23, gave the Royals a 2-0 win in the fifth game and the series moved back to Toronto.

To pitch game six Cox called on veteran righthander Doyle Alexander, 35, but he lasted only 5Z3 innings against Mark Gubicza, 23, a lightly regarded Royals right-hander whom the Blue Jays had hit hard earlier in the year.

While Gubicza pitched effectively, Alexander gave up three runs, including another home run by Brett, and left the game furious with the umpires, who continued to provoke controversy with their calls. Indeed, by game six the partisan Blue Jay fans were sarcastically cheering whenever the umpires made the correct decision on obvious plays. But once again the Blue Jays squandered scoring chances, and the Royals emerged with a 5-3 victory. Suddenly, the series was tied at three, and thousands of once-confident Toronto fans began to wonder whether their team’s stumble would develop into a pratfall.

While the Blue Jays seemed to be tense, if not grim-faced, before the seventh game, a grinning Brett was relaxed enough to appear briefly on NBCTV and tell fans across the continent to “have fun—and enjoy the game.” Barely three hours later Brett and his teammates were pouring champagne

over one another and looking ahead to the Cardinals and a World Series showdown in the “Show me” state. Said Howser, who had lost 11 consecutive postseason games as a manager before Brett’s hitting overcame the Blue Jays in game three: “Our pitching shut them down pretty consistently.” Added Royals’ pitching coach Gary Blaylock: “Good pitching stops good hitting, and our guys proved it.” While the Royals were celebrating in the visitors’ clubhouse, the dejected Blue Jays were seeking consolation in the knowledge that they were a talented team with a promising future. Said third

baseman Rance Mulliniks, 29: “This is a young club, and it is going to be in a World Series soon.” Added 28-year-old Damaso Garcia, the Dominican Republic native who plays second base for Toronto: “Next year we are going to be right back here—in contention.” For his part, the normally affable Lloyd Moseby, 25, the Blue Jays’ centre fielder, admonished reporters for being negative, declaring: “We had a great season. Write about that.”

Indeed, the team’s season-long success made last week’s losses all the more shocking for the Blue Jays and their supporters. Including the play-

offs, Toronto won 102 games while losing only 66 in 1985. And the team drew more than 2.5 million fans to an inadequate stadium and developed millions of followers across Canada as it continued to win. Canadians from coast to coast watched the Blue Jays on the CTV and TSN television networks and listened to them on radio. And as the possibility grew that a Canadian-based team would reach the World Series, even Canadians unfamiliar with baseball began talking about the Blue Jays.

While politicians, including Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, declared themselves to be ardent Blue Jay supporters, Toronto hoteliers and restaurateurs began anticipating an October bonanza from visitors drawn by the excitement of a baseball championship. Patio bars in midtown Toronto built temporary grandstands, installed outsized television screens, printed special tickets and offered patrons hot dogs and peanuts. Souvenir and Tshirt manufacturers began making World Series-related products. And Labatt’s—one of the club’s principal owners—released a series of TV commercials thanking the Blue Jay fans who had “helped make the dream come true.” But the dream fell one victory short—just as it had for the 1981 Montreal Expos, who lost at home to the Dodgers in the ninth inning of the deciding game in the National League championship series.

Although the Expos failed to improve the following year, the Blue Jays may well. For one reason, Pat Gillick, the club’s executive vice-president, is already planning to seek another lefthanded starting pitcher, a full-time designated hitter and a spare outfielder to buttress what is already one of the strongest teams in baseball. For another, the 1986 Blue Jays will have the benefit of the team’s 1985 experience—including the hard lessons learned in its last-minute collapse against Kansas City. Indeed, the Royals had the benefit of five previous appearances in postseason play when they overtook the Blue Jays.

In winning the American League championship last week the Royals also won a bet for Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft, who had offered to sing 0 Canada in a downtown Kansas City plaza if the Blue Jays won. The loser was Ontario Premier David Peterson, who settled his debt on the eve of the all-Missouri World Series. Peterson sat at an upright piano on the steps of the Queen’s Park legislature building in Toronto, where he played and sang a number from the musical Oklahoma! The refrain’s first line: ‘Ev’rythin’s up to date in Kansas City.”

—ROBERT MILLER in Toronto