SPORTS WATCH

Walking all the way to the cellar

The old New York Yankees never got tired of winning the pennant, whereas the Blue Jays are a grisly sight after a mere two seasons

TRENT FRAYNE September 4 1995
SPORTS WATCH

Walking all the way to the cellar

The old New York Yankees never got tired of winning the pennant, whereas the Blue Jays are a grisly sight after a mere two seasons

TRENT FRAYNE September 4 1995

Walking all the way to the cellar

SPORTS WATCH

TRENT FRAYNE

Q: How come the Toronto Blue Jays, World Series champions in 1992 and 1993, crashlanded next door to the cellar in 1994 and 1995? Why so far so fast?

A: Consider the following:

“The walks’ll kill yuh’.’ —Del Bissonette, 1949.

“I threw strikes. ” —Fergie Jenkins, 1976.

“Too many teams; not enough arms. ”

—Tony Kubek, 1995.

Adelphia Louis Bissonette came down from five years as the first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers to manage the minor-league Toronto Maple Leafs in 1949. He had a long, sad face, big front teeth and dark circles shadowing both eyes, prompting the ballplayers to call him “Rack” behind his back, short for raccoon.

The ball club wasn’t much, an assortment of aging guys on their way from the majors to oblivion and kids hoping to get up there some day soon. They travelled by train, enabling two of us scribes—Gord Walker for the Toronto Star and me for the old Toronto Telegram—to sit in Bissonette’s compartment and listen to him talk baseball as we rolled through the night from town to town— Newark, Syracuse, Baltimore, Montreal and the rest. About pitching, Del had this one ongoing philosophy: ‘The walks’ll kill yuh.” The reason the walks’ll kill yuh was not just that they gave batters a free ride to first, but also that the players in the field gradually lost concentration, began to relax and soon were missing balls they should have caught.

Ferguson Arthur Jenkins is a solidly constructed 6-foot-5, a solemn-faced Canadian from Chatham, Ont., a baseball Hall of Famer who pitched for two seasons for the Boston Red Sox following seven for the Chicago Cubs and two for the Texas Rangers. In sbe of those years with the Cubs he won 20 games or more, a remarkable feat for a guy compelled to work his home games in windy little Wrigley Field, one of the cosiest parks any-

The old New York Yankees never got tired of winning the pennant, whereas the Blue Jays are a grisly sight after a mere two seasons

where, a vine-adorned anachronism that even today basks in unmerited encomiums from baseball sentimentalists.

In the spring of 1976 at Winter Haven, Fla., I asked Jenkins in the Red Sox clubhouse what the secret was in hanging up that remarkable record in Chicago. He frowned in thought, as though it were a new question, then said, “I threw strikes.”

That slowed me. “If the ball’s over the plate,” I muttered, “don’t guys whack it?”

He was patient. “You have to have something on the ball,” he said. “But if you throw strikes nobody gets a free ride and your own guys stay sharp behind you.”

Anthony Christopher Kubek is voluble and warmhearted, a rangy guy who played shortstop and the outfield for the Yankees for nine seasons beginning in 1957 and who performed in six World Series. After that, he was a Blue Jays television broadcaster for 13 seasons, ending in 1989. In all those years, Tony never seemed to tire of supplying Toronto scribes with time, anecdotes and inside glimpses of the game. These days he lives in Appleton, Wis., where I phoned him just the other day. I said that the Yankees never wearied of winning the pennant when he was

there, whereas the Blue Jays are a grisly sight after a mere two seasons. How come?

“Pitching,” he said. “Pitching and expansion. When I played, there were eight teams in each league. Now there are 14 in each. That adds up to 12 more teams, which means 120 more pitchers. Too many teams; not enough arms. Look up the bases on balls.”

Such a revelation. Blue Jays pitchers through Aug. 20 had walked more batters than any team in either major league, the 28th worst staff. A race for the pennant? No. A race for the playoffs? No. But here lurks a dogfight with the Chicago White Sox for the lead in bases on balls—481 to 476.

By contrast, only two teams in the entire National League had reached even 400—the Florida Marlins at 401 and Philadelphia at 400. Of course, these days, in having attained rock bottom, the Blue Jays have assembled a staff unrecognizable from the one that razed Atlanta in the ’92 World Series. Strong arms have gone elsewhere (David Cone, Jimmy Key, Tom Henke, Todd Stottlemyre, David Wells) or have been encased in mothballs (Jack Morris and Duane Ward). Now the Blue Jays totter along with a roster of strangers—Crabtree, Carrara, Cornett, Rogers, Hurtado, among a cast of thousands.

By no coincidence, runaway division leaders have pitchers who get the ball over the plate. The Cleveland Indians, once the American League’s laugh leader, now own the best won-lost record in the AL and show the fewest walks, at 327. The Red Sox, well in front in the AL East, are third in fewest walks. In the other league, Cincinnati and Atlanta, miles ahead in their divisions, are among the most frugal of walks-givers— third and fourth overall, at 308 and 314.

Unlike the Blue Jays, Atlanta has kept its World Series staff virtually intact—indeed, the Braves even improved it by luring baseball’s top pitcher, Greg Maddux, to Georgia. In the ’92 World Series, Steve Avery, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were the starters, and they’re still taking their regular turns.

Still, it is worth noting that whereas the Blue Jays fell to pieces between 1993 and 1994, the Yankees of the Kubek era rolled along to 10 pennants in 12 years under Casey Stengel. What accounted for such grand consistency? Part of it was the fact that it occurred before free agency, when the option clause in contracts gave owners a lifetime lease on a player’s services.

“And part of it was the vastness of the Yankee Stadium outfield before the park was renovated 20 years ago,” Kubek says, rattling off the former dimensions—“461 feet in centre-field, 457 in left, 367 and more to right-centre. What a pitcher’s paradise the old stadium was for guys like Ralph Terry, Jim Bouton, AÍ Downing and Whitey Ford. They could throw strikes and, if somebody happened to cork one, Mickey Mantle would go and get it.”

Whereupon there was a long silence at the other end of the line. Was Ma Bell sleeping? No, Tony Kubek was ruminating. “It’s like they say,” his voice broke the spell. “If you ain’t got pitchin’, you ain’t got mithin’.”