Forget the Tigers.
Suppose for a moment that Detroit didn't exist, that the Tigers were no more real than, say, the New York Knights. Why, baseball would be celebrating that amazing team from up north, that awesome nine atop the American League East, that budding dynasty on the shores of Lake Ontario, the Toronto Blue Jays.
How 'bout those Jays? As of Sunday they were 31-14, 6½ games ahead of their closest pursuer, the Baltimore Orioles, and 4½ games ahead of the next best team in baseball, the Chicago Cubs. The Jays won seven games in seven days through last week, not to mention an exhibition against their Canadian rivals, the Montreal Expos, and they extended their string of victories in one-run games to 17. "We're a thing of beauty," says their .344-hitting poet laureate, Dave Collins, who wants to be a Jay forever.
But alas, Detroit isn't a fidrych of the imagination, and try as they might, the Blue Jays can't forget the Tigers. Toronto isn't the best team in baseball, not the best team in the AL East, not even the best Great Lakes team. At week's end those distinctions belonged to the Tigers, who were 35-8 and winning at an .814 clip. Toronto manager Bobby Cox put the situation in perspective last Thursday when the Tigers were 35-5. "Even if we had won every single game we played this year," he said, "we'd still be leading Detroit by only 5½ games."
The Blue Jays may not be able to maintain their winning percentage of .689, but if they did, and the Tigers still stayed ahead of them, Toronto would become the greatest second-place team in baseball history. In fact, a .689 percentage would have won all but 12 of the 202 pennant or division races since 1900. The Jays would join the ranks of such great second-place finishers as William Jennings Bryan, Alydar, Hannibal—he had the elephants, but Rome had the horses—and Anita Bryant, first runner-up in the 1959 Miss America Pageant. But, as catcher Buck Martinez says, "No one ever said, 'We're Number Two!' "
For most of the season Toronto has been like a gerbil in a wheel, running as fast as it can but not going anywhere. Last week the Jays swept the Twins 3-2, 3-2 and 4-1, but the Tigers swept California 3-1, 4-2 and 5-1 to tie the major league record for consecutive road victories at 17. On Friday, Toronto finally gained on Detroit, beating Cleveland 5-1 behind the pitching of Dave Stieb, while Detroit was losing 7-3 to Seattle. On Saturday, the Jays squeezed out a 2-1 victory over the Indians on George Bell's seventh game-winning RBI of the year, and the Mariners beat the Tigers 9-5.
On Sunday, Toronto took a pair from Cleveland, 6-1 and 6-5, and, incredibly, the Tigers fell again and were on their longest losing streak of the season. In the Jays' first game Luis Leal pitched a four-hitter for his fifth victory without a loss, Willie Aikens hit a three-run double and Bell a two-run homer.
Between games the Blue Jays held a Banner Day contest, and the biggest hand went to a poster that said WE GOT THE TIGERS BY THE TAIL and showed a ferocious Blue Jay pulling on a frightened Tiger.
Toronto won the second game with a two-run rally in the bottom of the ninth, but that wasn't all they had to cheer about. In the second inning, up in the scoreboard room, Paul McGregor pulled off the ticker tape and shouted, "Hey, the Mariners are ahead." When he flashed the Seattle 2, Detroit 1 score on the board a few minutes later, a buzz went through the crowd. The Mariners went on to win 6-1 and sweep the series, so the Jays had cut 3½ games off the Tiger lead in one week, reducing it to five, the slimmest margin since May 6.
The stage is set for the most dramatic two weeks in Blue Jay history. Beginning June 4, Toronto is in Detroit for four games, and the next week the Tigers go to Toronto for three. Because Detroit is only 200 miles southwest of Toronto along Highway 401, the customs inspectors at Detroit and Windsor, Ont. can expect to see a lot of rowdy fans the next couple of weeks.
Last week the Blue Jays were trying very hard to play down their pursuit of the Tigers. Utility man Rick Leach, who started spring training with Detroit, politely begged off any comparison between the two teams, except to say, "It's unbelievable what the Tigers have done so far, but I'm happy to be right where I am."
First baseman Willie Upshaw said, "Are they for real? I've been asked that question a lot, and I'm getting sort of tired of answering it."
Said Martinez, "There are, after all, several weeks left in the season."
Centerfielder Lloyd Moseby (showing remarkable foresight): "The papers have started calling us, 'the frustrated Jays.' How can we be frustrated playing this well? CAN IT LAST? should be the headline in the papers. What will happen when the Tigers fall into a rut? We have to maintain stability till then. There's more pressure on them. As soon as they lose three in a row, the headlines will say TIGERS FALL."
Catcher Ernie Whitt, who grew up in Detroit, said, "There's still a little bit of me that's a Tiger fan. If we can't win it, I'd like them to. They're tough this year. But they're a lot like we are, with the same type of balanced lineup. Truthfully, I think our pitching is a little deeper than their pitching is."
The Blue Jays are eight years old, the same age the Mets were when they became the only expansion team to win a World Series, in 1969. Toronto was built with patience, foresight and players forgotten by the Yankees and other teams, and the man most responsible is the son of a county sheriff and silent screen actress Thelma Daniels, a former lefthander for Earl Weaver who toyed with the idea of becoming an FBI agent before he ended up deciphering scouting reports.
Pat Gillick, 46, is the Blue Jays' vice-president for all baseball operations. He graduated from USC when he was 20, pitched there on teams for which Ron Fairly and Don Buford played, bounced all over the Orioles' farm system with Dave McNally and Steve Dalkowski and ended his career with Weaver in Elmira in '63. Along the way Gillick acquired the nickname Yellow Pages, because of his photographic memory. In 1962 Weaver told a writer, "I don't think there's a line in The Sporting News he doesn't read and remember. His memory is fantastic. I Would have to say he knows more about ballplayers all over the country, from Class D to the majors, than anybody I have ever met."
Gillick got his first front-office job at the age of 26, with Houston, where he helped sign or draft J.R. Richard, Nate Colbert, John Mayberry, Doug Rader, Bob Watson and Cesar Cede√±o. After he'd spent 11 years with the Astros, Tal Smith, then the executive vice-president of the Yankees, brought him to New York, where he helped engineer the trades that brought Willie Randolph (for Doc Medich) and Mickey Rivers and Ed Figueroa (for Bobby Bonds). After two years with the Yanks he was hired to build the expansion Blue Jays.
"Our first priority was a good scouting system," says Gillick, "and we have one that I'm very proud of. We had to use every means at our disposal, the amateur draft and the major league draft, and that's where the scouts come into play." Two years ago Gillick hired Cox to manage, and Cox seems to have the right mixture of patience and firmness for the young Jays.
The major league draft is held annually on the first day of baseball's winter meetings, and it elicits all sorts of giggles from outsiders. Most teams simply ignore it. It works this way: A team can draft any player with more than three years' experience not protected on the 40-man roster of another team, for $25,000—but the drafting team must keep that player on its 25-man roster for the next season.
Two players the Blue Jays acquired that way are in the top 11 in batting: Upshaw and Bell. Two others, Jim Acker and Jim Gott, are on the pitching staff. The rest of the major league teams combined have but nine men on their rosters from that draft.
Gillick had helped sign Upshaw when he was with the Yankees. "He came from a very small high school in Blanco, Texas," says Gillick. "I knew he'd be a long-range project because, although he had the talent, his skills hadn't caught up. But I must say this: Willie turned out to be a much better ballplayer than I thought he would, and the reason is himself. He worked very hard."
Upshaw, a cousin of football's Gene and Marvin Upshaw, had to be carried on the Blue Jays' roster in '78, and he struggled right through 1981, when he hit only .171 as a backup to John Mayberry. "I had a lot to learn," says Upshaw, "but Bobby Doerr, our hitting instructor at the time, took the loopholes out of my swing and helped me with the physical part of hitting. When Cito Gaston became the new batting coach, he helped me with the mental part." Upshaw also worked hard on his fielding, and although his hands occasionally betray him, his range matches any first baseman's in the league.
In a way, Upshaw's development parallels the Blue Jays' own. As of Sunday he was hitting .316 with eight homers and 25 RBIs. Last year he batted .306 with 27 home runs and 104 RBIs. But, like his team, Upshaw is often overshadowed by others.
For the second time in American history, Philadelphia tried to hide a Bell; in 1980 it was to keep Toronto from drafting George. Blue Jay scouts had always liked him, but a shoulder injury limited him to only 22 games in 1980. The Phillies sent him to play for Escogido in the Dominican winter league with instructions to keep him out of the big games so no scouts would see him. But Toronto's Latin American scout, Epy Guerrero, arranged a series of junior varsity games between his younger players at Licey and those with Escogido, and sure enough, Bell played. The Blue Jay scouts liked what they saw and recommended that the team draft him. Bell, too, had to be carried for a year. "Truthfully," says Gillick, "the 25th man on a roster is hardly ever used, so why not use it as an investment for the future?"
Bell is now hitting .331 with 27 RBIs, and last week he drove in the winning run in three games. After emerging as the hero of Saturday's win over Cleveland, Bell joked to reporters that the secret to his success was "fried bananas. They make the blood angry."
Gillick has an excellent trading record, too. Second baseman Damaso Garcia, who's batting .340 with 21 stolen bases, came in a 1979 trade with the Yankees. Shortstop Alfredo Griffin was a gift from Cleveland for pitcher Victor Cruz. Third baseman Rance Mulliniks, who hit .275 last year and led the team with 34 doubles, was gotten from Kansas City for a pitcher named Phil Huffman. Martinez was pried from Milwaukee for outfielder Gil Kubski. DH Cliff Johnson was acquired from Oakland for outfielder Al Woods. "Many times a player becomes available simply because of a personality conflict," says Gillick. "We're willing to take those players after we take a close look as to what went wrong. We've also gotten the short end a few times." Gillick is quick to mention he once traded catcher Alan Ashby to Houston for pitcher Mark Lemongello and two other players.
Gillick made a dandy deal with the Yankees a year and a half ago when he took Collins, pitcher Mike Morgan, first baseman Fred McGriff—and money—for pitcher Dale Murray and outfielder Tom Dodd. Collins, who's excitable, got off to a slow start last year, in part because he wanted so hard to prove to the Yankees that they were wrong. In the off-season Collins coached a reform school basketball team in Cincinnati. "I got so involved in helping these kids whose lives were messed up that I stopped thinking about baseball, and I believe that helped," he says. However, he has inadvertently created a problem for the Jays. They now have four regular outfielders in Collins, Bell, Moseby and Jesse Barfield.
Their record in one-run games is a tribute to the once-maligned relief staff, which hadn't allowed a run in 13‚Öî innings before Sunday's second game. Dennis Lamp, the first expensive free agent the Blue Jays signed (he has a $3.5 million, five-year contract), has eight saves, and Roy Lee Jackson has allowed only three of the 22 runners he has inherited to score. With Stieb (off to his best start—6-1, 2.20 ERA), Leal, Jim Clancy and Doyle Alexander (who cost the Blue Jays all of $40,000), Toronto's rotation is in good arms.
The Blue Jays' pursuit of the Tigers transcends the race for first place—it's also a matter of Lithuanian pride. The five young men who sat in the leftfield bleachers of Exhibition Stadium and led cheers Friday night are members of the Ratas, a Lithuanian sports club. They have a $1,000 bet with five members of a similar club in Detroit. The club in the city that finishes ahead of the other is the winner.
"The Blue Jays are going to go into Detroit and take four in a row," says Al Saplys, 21 and the ringleader. "If it doesn't happen, it's all over."
But Collins, among other Jays, isn't all that concerned with the team's position. "I don't like to run looking over my shoulder," he says. "There's not a thing wrong with coming from behind."