Toronto Blue Jay third baseman Garth Iorg sat in his locker Sunday afternoon contemplating the Jays' 2-0 whitewashing by the Kansas City Royals, a game that postponed, at least for the moment, Canada's first-ever pennant. The scrappy Jays still held a three-games-to-two lead in the best-of-seven series, which would now return to Toronto, giving Iorg and the Jays a feeling not just of confidence but of manifest destiny. "We'll beat them up there," Iorg smiled. "Maybe we're supposed to win this thing in Canada."
Over in the Royals' dressing room, the feeling was less of manifest destiny than of destiny squandered. "It's amazing what a fine line it is between winning and losing," said catcher Jim Sundberg. "We could be sitting here with a championship now."
Indeed they could have. If only the Blue Jays, a team that supposedly was too young to win, had not twice turned losses into victories when K.C. failed to nail down the last three outs in Games 2 and 4. If only pitching and one great big bat—George Brett's—were a match for pitching and nine small ones. If only, if only, if only....
The series, the first American League championship to be played on foreign turf, as well as the first played entirely on phonyturf, opened on Tuesday in Toronto's Exhibition Stadium on an overcast yet temperate 63° evening that answered, for now anyway, the Four Nagging Questions: Could postseason baseball and the Great White North coexist without kindling and mittens? Could the Jays, possessors of a 24-26 record against lefthanders during the regular season, hit the southpaw starters of the Royals? Could Dave Stieb, the best 14-13 pitcher ever to scowl and stomp from a rubber, rebound from an end-of-season fizzle (he won only one of his last six starts)? And, finally, would Kansas City manager Dick Howser, the losing skipper in nine straight playoff games, finally break his maiden? The envelopes, please. Yes. Yes. Yes. And no, not yet, not now, maybe never.
Game 1, a 6-1 Blue Jays win, belonged to Stieb, the enigmatic Stieb, as he has come to be known—he of the smallest ERA (2.48) in the league and the grandest, most insufferable ego. The only people to touch Stieb during his eight masterful innings (no runs, three hits, eight strikeouts, one walk) were the indomitable Brett (2 for 3, one double), pinch hitter Dane Iorg (a double) and a 19-year-old stripper by the name of Juanita Smith, who led off the second by loping in from the rightfield stands and Morganna-ing Stieb on the kisser. "I'm going home now, and I'll be blowing kisses to him on TV, and then I'm going to work," she said shortly after being escorted from what she had turned into Exhibitionist Stadium. Her show at the Chez Paris in Mississauga began at 11.
Had Juanita waited a couple of innings she could have seen the whole show at the ball park, too. By the third, the Jays had converted a succession of carpet-scooting seeing-eye base hits into a 5-0 lead that chased Royals starter Charlie Leibrandt (17-9, 2.69 ERA). So much for the question of whether Toronto could hit lefties. The Royals had no chance of overtaking Stieb. Summed up K.C.'s Willie Wilson, "The way Stieb pitched tonight, you wonder how he ever loses."
The way the Royals played in Game 2—an odd one—you wonder how they ever win. Every time the Royals made a mistake, it cost them a run. Every time the Blue Jays made one, they scored. Brett started the shenanigans when, with one out in the fourth and the Royals leading 3-zip, he bobbled a ground ball to third hit by George Bell. Cliff Johnson, Toronto's DH, followed with the Blue Jays' first hit off southpaw Bud Black (10-15), a double down the leftfield line. Here comes Bell. Up go the arms of Jays third-base coach Jimy Williams. There goes Bell. Here comes a helium balloon from Lonnie Smith, an outfielder so bad he recalls visions of Leon (Daddy Wags) Wagner. Bell scores easily.
With two out, none on in the sixth, Black plunked a curveball off Bell's belly that sent Bell stalking toward the mound, gesturing and taunting, the only show of passion in what was otherwise a remarkably brotherly series—fittingly, since it featured Garth and Dane Iorg, the first brothers to oppose one another in postseason play. "They pick on me because I'm Dominican," said Bell. "They probably think I'm a hot dog."
Not impossible. Certainly more logical than the supposition that Black would want to put the tying run at the plate. A single, a wild pitch and a single followed, and the game was tied.
Cut to the top of the 10th. Both clubs had their top relievers in—Tom Henke for the Jays, Dan Quisenberry for the Royals—and each had already been nicked for a run. Enter Lloyd Moseby, Toronto's garrulous, theatrical centerfielder. With two out and the go-ahead run on second, K.C.'s Frank White hit a sinking line drive to center that Moseby charged and appeared to catch off his shoe tops. Second-base umpire Ted Hendry should have made the call. Rightfield ump Dave Phillips, 70 feet away, ruled no catch, which handed the Royals a 5-4 lead. "I caught the baseball," said Moseby later. "I wouldn't be out there acting the fool in front of 100 million fans if I didn't catch the baseball."
For the 34,029 Blue Jays fans—the smallest postseason crowd since 28,136 showed up in Baltimore in 1974—the bottom of the 10th was a blunderful inning. First shortstop Onix Concepcion allowed leadoff hitter Tony Fernandez to reach first when he double-pumped on Fernandez's chopper to short. Fernandez advanced on a groundout. Up stepped the ubiquitous Moseby, who kept delivering at critical moments the entire series. He singled to right. Here came Fernandez. Up went Williams' arms—and by now you know what that meant. There went Fernandez.
Five-five. Strange goings-on out there, not the least of which was the 17 seagulls that chose that moment to congregate in short rightfield, nibbling on the debris flung from the stands at Phillips. Quisenberry tried to pick Moseby off first, but watched his perfect toss bounce bye-bye off Steve Balboni's glove, allowing Moseby to trot into scoring position. One out later Moseby scored on Al Oliver's single to left, and Toronto had a 6-5 win and a two-game lead as the series adjourned to Kansas City.
Asked how many playoff games he had now lost in a row, Howser replied good-naturedly, "I don't know. I lose track when I can't count them on two hands." The correct answer was 11.
But all things must pass, and the Royals, who had a 10-game postseason losing streak of their own dating back to the '80 World Series, finally won one for the popular Howser. More accurately, Brett won one for Howser, putting on a show Friday night in Game 3 that ranks with the great performances of all time. Brett hoisted the Royals back into the series with a 4-for-4 night that included two homers, four runs scored and three ribbies in the 6-5 comeback win. He also made the play of the series.
Brett had already homered off Doyle Alexander (17-10) in the first when he pulled a Brooks Robinson to keep the Blue Jays off the board in the third. Lunging to spear Moseby's shot down the third-base line—robbing him of a double—Brett leaped and threw home as his momentum carried him into foul territory, nailing Damaso Garcia at the plate.
Brett hammered a double off the top of the rightfield wall in the fourth, eventually scoring on a sacrifice fly to give the Royals a 2-0 lead. But in the next inning the Blue Jays erupted for five runs off Cy Young candidate Bret Saberhagen (20-6), chasing the 21-year-old righthander in favor of Steve (The Beast) Farr. Farr responded with 4‚Öì innings of scoreless relief. Brett, meanwhile, hauled the Royals back into the game. In his third at bat off Alexander, he hit a towering two-run blast to left center that tied the game 5-5. "The best part about it was seeing the look in the eyes of some of the guys I had played with for so long, guys like Frank White and Hal McRae, when I came back to the bench," Brett recalled later. Big as saucers, no doubt. Thank god, he's on our side.
Leading off the Royal eighth, Brett hit a forkball into right off Toronto's Jim Clancy, who was making his first relief appearance of the season. "We really cursed out George when he only came up with that single," said Royals catcher John Wathan. After a sacrifice, a ground-out and an intentional walk, up to the plate stepped Balboni, the leading candidate for the Royals' No. 1 goat—0 for 11 to that point in the series, four Ks, two errors, a lifetime postseason average of .048 (1 for 21). The mighty Balboni (36 HRs) took a rip and—bloop—up, up, up went the sphere; down, down, down. The 200-foot blast dropped in the exact center of nine converging Blue Jays as Brett scored the eventual winning run.
Fittingly, Brett caught Moseby's foul pop-up for the final out of the game, after which he was mobbed by teammates. They had not won, so much as he had refused to let them lose. "Waiting for that pop-up to come down I suddenly thought, 'I'm going to give this ball to Dick,' " Brett recalled later. And he did, shoving it into Howser's chest.
"It was a Hall of Fame performance," said Howser, who pointed out that Brett had connected on a changeup, slider, fastball and forkball for his hits. "How're you gonna defense him?"
Don't pitch to him. The Blue Jays had learned their lesson, and in Game 4 they followed that old baseball maxim: Never let a player with a lifetime contract beat you. It was Stieb against Leibrandt again, a rematch of Game 1, only this time Stieb took the bat out of Brett's hands. "I'd seen all I needed to the night before," Stieb allowed, a formidable admission given the source.
The game was scoreless until the bottom of the sixth when Lonnie Smith led off with a walk. Wilson followed with a hit-and-run single. First and third, none out, Brett up. He had already been intentionally walked in the first. After a discussion between manager Bobby Cox and Stieb, they decided to put him on again.
The ultimate compliment, walking the bases full rather than watching Brett crack the ball game open with his bat. At first the strategy seemed to have backfired when Stieb walked McRae to force in a run. But then he got Pat Sheridan on an infield pop-up and White to hit into a double play. The 1-0 lead held up until the ninth.
The Royals were three outs from tying the series. Then the incredible happened. The nearly unimaginable. Garcia, Toronto's leadoff hitter, walked. No one could remember the last time that Garcia had received a base on balls. "June?" guessed Moseby. "July maybe?" In 627 plate appearances this season, Garcia had walked only 15 times. "Anytime I see something white, I swing," said Garcia afterward. "One time I swing at the foul line because I see white. Someday maybe I swing at Frank White. The pitcher knows one thing: I'm going to use that lumber."
Moseby was up next. Always Moseby. He ripped a Leibrandt fastball into the gap in right center, which drove Garcia home all the way from first, tying the score. The Jays were alive and sensing the kill. Howser called for his ace, Quisenberry, but the Quiz was no mystery to Toronto for the second straight time in the series. Bell looped a soft liner to center to put runners on the corners, then pinch hitter Oliver hammered a "rising changeup" ("Strangest thing I've ever seen," Oliver said later) into the rightfield corner for a two-run double that completed the ninth-inning comeback. Henke got the 3-1 win, his second of the series.
In Sunday's Game 5, Royals southpaw Danny Jackson, 23, did Howser one better than a well-pitched, low-scoring game. He gave the Royals a shutout. Good thing, too. The anemic Royals managed just two runs against Toronto's Jim Key and Jimmy Acker. Brett drove in the eventual game-winner in the first inning on an infield out; the second run came across on Darryl Motley's sacrifice fly. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, squandered eight hits and a walk, leaving the bases loaded in the sixth and stranding runners on second and third with no one out in the fifth. Another rally was doused when Bell tried to go from first to third on a single to left with none out in the fourth, testing Smith's arm. Bell beat the throw, but—surprise!—umpire Dale Ford called him out. "We try to run as much as possible on certain outfielders' arms," said Cox. "I saw the replay, and he was safe. That might have been the ball game."
Bell suggested that maybe the umpires wanted to keep a Canadian team out of the Series. Something about television ratings. "I wish the Toronto team was American," he groused. "I think maybe this series be over already."
No rush, George. Did you ever stop to consider, maybe you're supposed to win this thing in Canada?