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Commentary : Let's Hear It for Baseball's Best Team--the Blue Jays

September 22, 1985|KEN DENLINGER | The Washington Post

Now that Pete Rose has scratched his way past Ty Cobb and George Steinbrenner has shut his mouth for a few seconds, now that Dwight Gooden has a few days off before his next shutout and nobody has pointed a drug-tainted finger at anyone in hours, perhaps there are a few moments for some kind words about the best team in baseball.

Yeah for the Blue Jays!

Theirs has been the quiet quest this season. They have not climbed past anyone immortal, just to the top of the alleged toughest division in both leagues. Casual fans probably can name as many players who failed with the Blue Jays as are leading them to glory.

Toronto is the team that many seers of sport picked to win the AL East this season and then picked to fold several times later. Could the Blue Jays really whip up on the defending champions, the Tigers, in a critical series, especially with Sparky Anderson reminding about the perils of their lofty perch?

"They got no lead; they got nothing," Sparky chirped shortly after the Blue Jays gained the division lead May 20. Later, after the Tigers won the final two games of an early-June series and narrowed Toronto's margin to 6 1/2 games, Anderson insisted: "They let us back into Palm Springs, where we are in the penthouse, just waiting and relaxing."

The Tigers will be relaxing, some of them perhaps even in Palm Springs, come the playoffs and World Series. There was an element of self-destruct about Detroit; even so, to prove they could direct their own destiny, thank you very much, the Blue Jays swept a three-game series in Toronto a week ago.

About those other birds, the Orioles. There was considerable speculation that once Earl Weaver traded his pitching wedge for his pitching stats Baltimore would at least challenge, if not pass, the Blue Jays. There were six head-to-head chances, in late July and early August; Toronto won five of 'em, including two 10-inning games at home immediately after the strike, when Orioles hopes again were keen.

Having shot down their two obvious threats, the Tigers and Orioles, the Blue Jays got the heaviest assault from the late-charging Yankees. On a surge under Billy Martin, the Yankees won 11 of 12 and closed to 2 1/2 games behind the Blue Jays before last week's showdown in New York.

Few remembered that the Blue Jays had been efficient, if not extraordinary, under pressure earlier. Judging by the pre-series hype, you thought for sure they would flee the Bronx not only losers in all four games but also minus their beaks and tail feathers.

The Yankees' history includes 33 World Series, plus Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, one theory went; the Blue Jays' history includes no World Series, plus Doug Ault and Danny Ainge. In addition, the Yankees had the home-thug advantage.

"The ghosts of Yankee Stadium are gonna be waiting," Tommy John, and others, insisted. "It's '78 all over again."

The reference was to the Yankees being 14 games behind the Red Sox on July 19, then eventually beating them for the division title in a playoff. Golly, the Blue Jays were just a year old in '78. And they proceeded to act their age in Game 1: shortstop Tony Fernandez made two seventh-inning errors, the Yankees rallied for six runs and won, 7-5.


There was a choking team, all right.

The Yankees.

Or at least in Steinbrenner's mind. The Yankee ripper was absurdly merciless, even by his standards. So, naturally enough, even the Blue Jays' most joyous feats were upstaged. Nobody could avoid Steinbrenner's stupid sass. How dare the likes of Doyle Alexander and Rance Mulliniks upstage the millionaires he hires, and then hounds.

The four-game series ended:

Blue Jays 3.

Yankees 1.

For the season, make it game, set and Blue Jays serving for the match. At midweek, Toronto was 36-24 against AL East competition and close to the .642 winning-percentage posted by the runaway Tigers last season.

This is being accomplished with no Blue Jay among the top 10 hitters in the American League, with no Blue Jay among the leaders in runs batted in and runs scored. Two Yankees (Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield) lead the AL in game-winning RBIs; two Orioles (Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken) are among the top seven. No Blue Jay is in sight.

Even the supposed savior of the bullpen, Bill Caudill, is out of favor, reduced to mop-up relief while unheralded Tom Henke is the dependable late-inning stopper, with 92 mph heat glowing from a 6-foot-5 generator.

For his statistical resemblance to the San Diego Goose, Gossage, Henke is called "the Canada Goose." Since being recalled from Syracuse on July 28, Henke has won three games and saved 12; his earned run average is 1.50 in 22 games.

Like the rest of the fluttering Blue Jays, and their town, Henke will be fun getting to know during a postseason that will end closer to November than September. Justice demands that they clobber the Yankees again in their season-ending three games, whether they mean anything or not.

So start rummaging for a topcoat.

And maybe even a passport.

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