Do you know us? We play at the site of the Canadian National Exhibition, which is what we have become. Our team is hounded by more TV stations than any other, and our logo is second only to the Maple Leaf in national recognition. But we're still greeted with quizzical looks south of the border. It's O.K. with us, though. Now that October's here—and in Octobers to come—you're going to see a lot more of us than you have ever seen of Alan Thicke.
The Toronto Blue Jays, owners of baseball's best record, do have an identity crisis. But it's nothing a credit-card commercial or a world championship won't cure. In 1985, their year of winning inconspicuously, the Blue Jays boast of no MVP or Cy Young candidates. The only household name in their history was Danny Ainge, who batted .220 in three seasons and now goes to his right for the Boston Celtics.
The Jays are just too damn consistent. They have held first place alone in the AL East since May 20, and since the All-Star break have never lost more than two in a row. Three threats by the Yanks—one in July, one in August, one in September—were methodically quashed. "We're consistent because we strive to be consistent," says third baseman Rance Mulliniks. "We just have good pitching and good players throughout the lineup." Not exactly charismatic. But the Jays aren't bothered. "It really doesn't matter to us how much publicity we get," says centerfielder Lloyd Moseby. "Our peers respect us. Teams that owned us in our Heckle and Jeckle days fear us now."
Toronto's transformation from cartoon screwups to prime-time players is the result of some intriguing work by general manager Pat Gillick, who personifies the team's effective, low-key style. The 48-year-old Gillick would rather glean another's knowledge than revel in his own, and his is formidable. While a minor league lefthander in the Orioles' chain, he earned the nickname Wolley Segap—which is Yellow Pages spelled backward—for his near total recall. The handle proved to be prophetic. Gillick has let his fingers do the walking through distant lands and rival organizations to find some incredible bargains. Six of Toronto's regulars, its winningest pitcher and its bullpen closer were stolen, figuratively speaking, from other teams. No other G.M. dials for information as often as Gillick.
October 6, 1985
Perhaps the best way to explain Toronto to those down under is by reviewing whence the Jays came. Toronto's imminent division title is founded on the usual suspects—speed, balance, pitching, defence (that's how they spell it up there). How the suspects were rounded up is the real Toronto story. Indeed, to the roster of organizational approaches must now be added another style, the Blue Jay Way. Eh?
LESSON 1: Manifest Destiny
Nine years ago, the franchise's founding fathers set forth a 108-page manual on how the team would be run, detailing personnel roles, objectives and philosophy. Corporate hokum? Maybe. But the Way was paved with this commitment to standards. "Though it's a business and a sport, it's really a business," Gillick says. "And when a guy goes to the ballpark every day—whether he's in the front office or out on the field—he has to know what to expect from us and what we expect from him."
Underlying this manifesto was concern for the individual. That's the touch of N.E. (Peter) Hardy, the Jays' chief executive officer. He visits all of Toronto's farm teams annually, offers financial counseling to players, throws elaborate family picnics for the Blue Jays and takes small groups of players and their wives out to dinner. "Anybody with that much authority who talks to you sincerely as an equal has to be a good person," says veteran first baseman Willie Upshaw. Relief pitcher Bill Caudill was undecided about signing with Toronto until he sensed the club's support from casual conversations with team secretaries and other people in the front office. Says Caudill, who has pitched with five other teams, "This is by far the classiest organization I've ever played for."
LESSON 2: Be a Good Scout
Two of the first people Gillick hired after joining Toronto in August of 1976 were super-scouts Bobby Mattick and Al LaMacchia, who had 77 years of professional experience between them. Even more significant than the Jays' company policy was the plan these three drafted in a Kansas City restaurant that first winter. "We decided to build a good farm system and to always try to get young players from other organizations," LaMacchia recalls. "Then we'd go for the best athletes in our draft." It sounds simple but it's nowhere near that easy. The Seattle Mariners, born in the same year and bred with basically the same philosophy, have yet to crack .500. Obviously, Toronto's trio has exhibited a fine eye for talent. They also love what they do. "I've been with a lot of organizations," says Mattick, 69, who managed the Jays in '80 and '81. "And a lot of them say they work hard. But they don't."
Crucial to the Jay Way has been the front office's abiding belief in its own judgment. Toronto plucked third baseman Kelly Gruber from the Cleveland Indians two years ago in the major league draft for $25,000. Two weeks ago, as a late-season call-up, Gruber got the game-winning hit in the 14th inning of a 2-1 win over Milwaukee. "A lot of guys ask me, 'How can you go out and pick up a guy who hit .243 in Double A?' " LaMacchia says. "But when we broke Gruber down in high school, we saw his tools. Once he develops them and lets them take over, he's going to be a real good player."
Seeming disappointments to other chains become mainstays to the Jays. Catcher Ernie Whitt, infielder Garth Iorg and pitcher Jim Clancy were all picked up in the 1976 expansion draft. By clever use of the major league draft, Toronto has acquired Upshaw, leftfielder George Bell, pitcher Jim Acker, infielder Manny Lee and outfielder Louis Thornton, as well as Gruber. Doyle Alexander, whose 16 victories lead the staff, was signed after the Yankees released him, and reliever Tom Henke was taken from Texas as compensation for the Rangers' signing of Cliff Johnson—since returned—as a free agent. Third baseman Mulliniks and second baseman Damaso Garcia arrived via trades. The man behind all these moves has, of course, been Gillick.
LESSON 3: Never Stand Pat
In many ways, Gillick is the Blue Jays. His style is the team's: energetic but casual, enthusiastic but professional. "We knew when we came in as an expansion team we'd have to be aggressive to get talent," says Gillick, kicked back in his office in his usual corduroys and cowboy boots. "No one was going to just give it to us." Not intentionally, anyway.
Gillick's personnel judgments are not questioned. "There's only one difficult part of the game." says Paul Beeston, the Jays' business V.P., "and that's judging players. After that you're a McDonald's franchise." As general manager, Gillick has used every legal measure to get his mitts on prospects. He has gone as far as Taiwan and Australia (where he has a part-time scout) looking for a single player. He turned the major league draft, designed to free up players stuck in overstocked franchises, into a raid on promising minor-leaguers. (Thanks partly to Gillick. the purchase price for such players has been increased from $25,000 to $50,000.) And he has developed one of the game's best pipelines to the Dominican Republic, where four of the Jays come from. It was also where he met his German-born wife, Doris, then a stewardess with Pan Am. Gillick was there in '68 on, yep, a scouting mission.
And, of course, he has made a few calls—on the average, five hours' worth a day, $75,000 worth a year. From memory, the sly Segap can punch up phone numbers of teams, scouts, players or sportswriters for that one byte of information that might make or break a deal. "His mind is incredible, it's like a computer—what do they call it, a multi-frame?" Beeston says. "You know, the big one." Gillick has even dialed some of the opposition's operatives, guys who deal with players day to day, to check up on possible tradees. "Someone lower down in an organization is often flattered you want his opinion," Gillick explains. Flattered enough to provide useful information.
From his mother, a silent screen film actress, Gillick got his knack for memorization; from his father, the sheriff of California's Butte County and a fine minor league pitcher, his investigative and baseball acumen. At Ridgewood Military School in Woodland Hills, Calif., he was already exchanging vital stuff with another future general manager; Gillick was the center for quarterback Bobby Beathard, now G.M. of the Redskins. By 17, with an IQ that tested at 169, he had gone on to USC, where he earned a B.S. in business and a spot on the roster. He opted for the minors over the FBI in 1959 ("My application was already in to J. Edgar Hoover"), and had a 45-32 career in five seasons. One of his minor league managers. Earl Weaver, predicted that Gillick would someday be a general manager. "He memorizes The Sporting News," said Weaver at the time. In 1963 Gillick opted for the majors over the minors when he joined the Astros' front office. He went to the Yankees in '74, but when George Steinbrenner refused to guarantee him the sort of authority he wanted. Gillick jumped ship and joined the Jays.
He swears his goal this year wasn't to take the division, but merely to win 96 games and to develop some young talent. "Even if they were losing he wouldn't be biting his nails because he knows he has done a good job," Doris says. "He's very quiet when the team is going bad. When things get too good, that's when he goes nuts. Poor Patrick. He's weird."
LESSON 4: Women and Children First
Security. Stability. Safety. The franchise fosters the notion of Fam-i-lee—but to Muzak.
"There's a certain stability we like to have in the organization," Gillick says. "Most of the guys are married, they've got a kid or two and they've got a sense of responsibility." The fact that Toronto is a relatively crime-and grime-free city only makes the outsiders feel more at home. For a team so young (DHs aside, the average age is 28.5), it's incredibly low-key and sober.
The Way with contracts is also geared to safe assurance, with most of the Jays tied into three-year pacts with options that are renewed based on performance. By going this route, the Jays have been able to hang on to their flock—and keep their payroll down to 10th in baseball. Toronto catcher Buck Martinez says, "Ninety percent of the players are concerned about security. If you give them good money and guarantee it, they'll jump on it. Especially if they're on a good team in a good city with good management and a good playing situation."
LESSON 5: All in Good Time
Like many of his charges, manager Bobby Cox is somebody someone else gave up on. After almost four years of guiding Atlanta toward respectability, owner Ted Turner canned him in 1981, saying, "If we hadn't just fired Bobby and were looking for a new manager, he would be one of the leading candidates." Oh.
Cox retired as a player at 30 with a bum knee, a .225 average and the respect of his Yankee manager, Ralph Houk, who called him "one of the best team players I've ever managed." In his first coaching job in Fort Lauderdale, Cox had 38 players to instruct three times a day without any assistants, so he lived in the clubhouse. "I don't miss it because there was so much work," Cox says, "but I did love working with the kids and seeing the progress."
His first Toronto team left room for progress, going 78-84 and tying for sixth place in '82. But he knew apocalypse wasn't then. "Everybody in the organization knew it—we had to have patience," says the 44-year-old Cox, who bleeds blue without blubbering about it. "We had to have faith that what we were doing would pay off." He stuck with a player until the player gave up on himself. "Guys go out there playing with a lot of confidence," says Iorg, who has thrived in Cox's platoon system. "That's what he instills. If you screw something up. it's forgotten when the game is over."
In the last three seasons the Jays are an impressive 276-203. In none of those seasons have the Jays lost more than six games in a row.
LESSON 6: Field the Right Guys
A sensible ball club gets the players to fit its park. An AstroTurf stadium accents speed. Therefore the Jays are the most aggressive team in the league. They're second in the AL in steals, and they're last in sacrifice bunts. They lead the AL in times caught stealing, and they're third in avoiding double plays. Without any player in the top five of any batting category, Toronto has developed the game's best team attack. No Jay may drive in or score 100 runs, but each spot in the order may drive in and score 60.
Toronto's Dominican double-play combination typifies its top-to-bottom strength and aggressiveness. Leadoff man Garcia, 28, has been criticized for walking just 15 times, but his hard-swinging ways set the tone. "When I got here nobody said this is the way you have to walk." says Garcia, batting .286 with 28 steals. "They say this is the way you have to hit." Shortstop and No. 9 hitter Tony Fernandez, 23, has made Garcia's leadoff hole an RBI spot by hitting .285, beyond expectations for him.
Typical of the team's balance is unheralded rightfielder Jesse Barfield, 25, finishing his first year as a regular. Last week he was a 20-20-20 vision as he recorded his 27th homer, his 21st steal and his 21st outfield assist. "I'm an optimistic guy," says Barfield, who is disputably the team's most valuable player. "Life is a self-fulfilling prophecy." Who could have prophesied, though, that this ninth-round pick in 1977 would now be hitting .290 with 84 RBIs?
LESSON 7: Call to Arms
For two years the Jays have been knocking on the door. This year they have enough arms to open it as well. The staff leads the league in ERA. and the bullpen has a league-high 47 saves—up from 33 last season. "The most important thing about pitching is that it keeps you out of a slump." Mulliniks says. "We know the pitchers will keep us in the game. So if we don't play well one day, it doesn't affect us the next."
The assembling of the staff has been Gillick at his finest. When he lost two-fifths of this season's starting rotation to injuries and ineffectiveness, he had on hand such castoffs as Tom Filer (7-0). His bullpen acquisitions of Caudill and Gary Lavelle enabled former stopper Dennis Lamp to become a middle reliever, in which capacity he's 11-0. When Caudill faltered, Gillick trotted out Henke, who was overpowering Triple A batters. Henke was chosen after Gillick called an ex-Texas exec to get the inside word on the 6'5" righty. The Rangers apparently had shot Henke's confidence—"depreciated the value of this asset they had," in Gillick's words. In two months with the Jays, Canada's Goose has 13 saves and a 1.45 ERA.
LESSON 8: Be Careful Out There
For the stretch drive Gillick picked up a pair of experienced DHs with Disturbing Histories, Johnson and Al Oliver. He consulted three Jays vets before reacquiring Johnson, who nearly provoked two fights in his previous Toronto stint. He dug deeper on Oliver. "The guy always showed up to play, was never late," Gillick says. "He talked a lot, but never did he say anything malicious."
"This is the same type of team we had in Pittsburgh in '71," Oliver says. "Guys in their second, third, fourth years, very talented and very confident." After a win in Texas in August, Oliver chartered two buses to bring 50 players, coaches, wives and children to his house in Arlington for a party. On the cake was inscribed LET'S GO TO THE WORLD SERIES.
That would be the icing on the cake for the Blue Jay Way.