Blue Jays' last postseason appearance was in a different era
It may not have been obvious at the time, but when Joe Carter's home run sailed over the wall to win the 1993 World Series for Toronto, a distinct era in baseball history came to an end.
That was the last postseason before the wild card, as well as the last before a labor dispute wiped out the World Series the following year. Later in the 1990s, interleague play was introduced, and now the sport has instant replay and even a clock to speed up play.
Perhaps most significantly, that 1993 season was the culmination of a superb stretch for baseball in Toronto - and Canada in general. Now there's only one major league team north of the border, and the road back to relevance has been a lengthy one for the Blue Jays.
''It's really, really neat to see the stadium full,'' said Pat Hentgen, a 19-game winner for the 1993 Blue Jays. ''It's just been a long time coming.''
The Blue Jays won their first AL East championship in 1985, and by the early `90s, the only thing that had really eluded them was an extended postseason run. They finally broke through with World Series titles in `92 and `93.
Their success coincided with a 13-year stretch in which the New York Yankees failed to reach the playoffs. Instead, it was Toronto that became a model franchise in that division, aggressively signing free agents like Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor and trading for stars like David Cone and Rickey Henderson.
''You're talking about a pretty darn good powerhouse, year after year,'' Hentgen said.
Hentgen was in his first full season in the majors in 1993, and after that, he didn't participate in the playoffs again until 2000, when he was with St. Louis. In 1994, baseball realigned from four divisions to six and added wild cards.
''I think it's better now,'' Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. ''It keeps most teams in it till the end. It keeps fans interested. There used to be teams that would run away with it and the rest of the division had no chance come August.''
The extra postseason spots have been of little use to the Blue Jays, though. From 1994-2014, Toronto won no division titles and managed only one second-place finish in an AL East dominated by two big spenders, the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.
The Blue Jays were under .500 when a strike ended the 1994 season. That year is remembered more for Canada's other team. The Montreal Expos were 74-40 with a roster that included Pedro Martinez, Larry Walker and John Wetteland, but the strike ended that team's hope of making it three Canadian championships in a row.
The Expos faded badly after that and moved to Washington following the 2004 season. Suddenly, the Blue Jays were Canada's lone representative in the majors, and their postseason drought dragged on.
But unlike in Montreal, where attendance dropped precipitously, the Blue Jays had enough decent seasons to keep fans interested. Last year's 83-79 performance - when Toronto drew nearly 2.4 million fans at Rogers Centre - was fairly typical.
That ballpark, originally called SkyDome, was quite a spectacle when it opened in 1989 with its hotel and retractable roof. The Blue Jays drew over 4 million spectators in 1993, and fans have waited a while for a chance to host a postseason game again.
Thursday's opener of the AL Division Series against Texas will have downtown Toronto buzzing - and general manager Alex Anthopoulos realizes his team is representing more than just its city.
''I know we're the Toronto Blue Jays but we're also the Canada Blue Jays,'' he said. ''You see the support we've gotten on the road. I can't imagine everyone who's coming on the road is coming from Toronto.''
It was Anthopoulos who helped engineer the team's drive to a division title this year. The Blue Jays were 50-50 when they acquired shortstop Troy Tulowitzki in a blockbuster deal with Colorado. Then left-hander David Price was traded from Detroit to the Blue Jays. Suddenly, it seemed like the early `90s again in Toronto, with the Blue Jays adding more stars for the stretch run.
Those wild cards, which didn't exist the last time the Blue Jays were in the playoffs, had kept Toronto very much within striking distance of a postseason spot, even before those big trades. Then the Blue Jays took off, rolling to a 93-69 record and winning the division by six games.
That set the stage for Thursday, when Price will take the mound and throw the first postseason pitch in Toronto since Carter's home run.
''You just kind of feel the excitement,'' Gibbons said. ''No doubt about that.''