First, everyone wanted to know about Donscam. Lou, did Mattingly really get hurt wrestling with Bob Shirley? Then there were the trades for Mark Salas and Mike Easier. Are these signs of panic, Lou? And, of course, the looming specter of the owner. Have you talked to Steinbrenner, Lou? Are the coaches taking lie-detector tests?
Yankee manager Lou Piniella surveyed the reporters who confronted him before his team suffered defeat No. 3 in the three-game series last week with Toronto that changed the leadership of the American League East. "We'll be all right," Piniella said. "But right now, we're not the story. Why's everyone in my office?"
By now the Blue Jays are accustomed to being, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story. In a 10-day span they went from two games behind the Yanks to three games in front of them by sweeping three from the Orioles in Toronto, those three from the Yankees in New York—by a combined score of 22-3—and by taking three of four from the Orioles in Baltimore. Before Sunday's 8-5 loss to the O's the Jays had extended their club-record winning streak to 11 games, and after it they had a 39-21 record, the best in baseball. Meanwhile George Bell had made himself the front-runner for MVP with a four-game binge of five homers and 14 RBTs, which extended his major league leads in each category. Tony Fernandez made a once-in-a-lifetime play, which teammate Rick Leach says Fernandez makes once a week. The bottomless bullpen won or finished eight straight victories and yet, shrugged Tom (the Terminator) Henke, "Nobody knows us."
As the Blue Jays became the first AL East team since the '83 Orioles to take over first place after mid-May—and did it in Yankee Stadium—they remained last in the league in road attendance and ignored in the All-Star voting. Bell, for instance, was running eighth among AL outfielders, four places below Bo Jackson. "I guess we're the best team that no one knows," said pitcher John Cerutti.
"People think we're a bunch of Canadians," said first baseman Willie Upshaw, of the Blanco, Texas, Upshaws.
Even if the nation's fans confuse George with Eric Bell and Willie with Cecil Upshaw, the battered Yankees knew who was coming to town on Monday, June 8, and they prepared for a siege. With Rickey Henderson disabled because of a pulled hamstring and Don Mattingly out with an injured back (a batting practice injury, the Yankees maintained, not the result of horseplay), New York promptly traded pitcher Joe Niekro to Minnesota for the lefthand-hitting catcher Salas. "The Yankees are the only team that trades starting pitchers for third-string catchers for one series in June," said one pinstriped pitcher. The Yanks even had pitcher Bob Tewksbury, whom they had brought up from Columbus, hanging around just in case he was needed to start Tuesday night's game.
So, after the Blue Jays' opening-night 11-0 blowout, there was Tewksbury in front of his locker saying, "I don't know whether I'm pitching tomorrow night against Toronto or Wednesday against the Toledo Mud Hens." Before the Jays left town Steinbrenner made another trade (to reacquire Easier), was trying to make two more and was publicly threatening to send last year's 18-game winner, Dennis Rasmussen, to the minors.
Nothing the Yankees did mattered. It was the baseball equivalent of the Lakers against the Romanian basketball all-stars. "We can do a lot of things well," said Blue Jay manager Jimy Williams, "and New Yorkers saw almost every one of them."
Always it began with power and ended with pitching. Yankee ace Rick Rhoden had sailed into the fifth inning of the opener, down only 1-0, when rookie Fred McGriff blasted a fastball into a crowded runway halfway up the third deck in rightfield for a two-run homer. The McCoveyesque lefthanded slugger was one of three Jay starters developed in the Yankee farm system—or one more than the Yankees had in their own lineup that night. "Our reports say to use righthanders against them," said Piniella afterward. "But as that thing went into orbit, I decided to heck with that, I was pitching Ron Guidry in the second game [instead of Tewksbury]." Before Piniella could think again, Bell hit one even farther from the right side of the plate, a three-run shot that went over the corner of the upper deck in leftfield.
Dave Stieb, trying to shake off arm problems, pitched seven shutout innings, beating the Yankees for the first time since 1983 and winning his third consecutive start for the first time since July 1984. He walked two men with an 11-0 lead in the eighth and was gone in favor of Mark Eichhorn. "Why tempt fate," says Williams, "when I've got the best bullpen in baseball?"
On Tuesday Jesse Barfield, who led the league with 40 homers last year and also trails Bo Jackson in the All-Star balloting, welcomed Guidry to his first start with a first-inning, opposite-field homer. Guidry was gone after four innings of a 7-2 rout that featured not one but two Yankee manager ejections. Piniella was tossed in the fifth for arguing a call at second base, and his successor, third base coach Mike Ferraro, got the heave in the sixth. Cerutti, meanwhile, did what he had dreamed about since he was 18. While pitching for Christian Brothers Academy in Albany, N.Y., nine years ago, Cerutti had a record that paralleled Guidry's for the Yanks. When Guidry went to 13-0, Cerutti says he did too. "I always dreamed I'd face Guidry in the Stadium and beat him," said Cerutti. He imagined the final score would be 1-0, but he led 7-0 in the sixth. Naturally Williams didn't let him finish. After Cerutti gave up a two-out single and a walk, he was gone. Eichhorn, Jeff Musselman and Henke handled the closing ceremonies.
On Wednesday the Yankees went with their most reliable starter, 44-year-old Tommy John, who has been, says Piniella, "tougher than when I hit against him in the late '60s." So Jimmy Key had to pitch like an ace, and he did. When a Yankee error forced John to pitch to Bell with two on in the third inning, George cranked another three-run homer, and Key had enough for an eventual 4-1 victory. He wasn't about to finish after 7⅖ innings with a 3-1 lead, of course. Enter Henke, he of the astounding 11 saves, 1.06 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 34 innings.
There was little Blue Jay jubilation after the series. "We've matured a lot in the two years since we first won the division," said Henke. "Then we were the 'up-and-coming Blue Jays.' We were excited and sometimes nervous and emotional. Now we know what we are and what we can do."
In addition to its power and pitching, Toronto is also bulging with speed and depth. "They can outdefense anyone in this league," says Piniella. Little Manny Lee stepped in at shortstop in the Yankee series opener when Fernandez was shaken up and made a dazzling play deep in the hole. He also cracked a 400-foot triple. But lest anyone forget who is the best shortstop in baseball, in the finale Fernandez crossed second base for a Henry Cotto ground ball, and, as he raced at full speed into right center, twisted his torso and fired a sidearm strike that, said Cerutti, "made my shoulder twinge just watching it."
"We get used to those things," said Williams. "But that doesn't mean there's anyone else on earth who could have done it, because there isn't."
So effective is Toronto's bullpen that the starters have completed only eight games. Furthermore, the Blue Jays have not lost a game in which they've led past the seventh inning and, from the eighth inning on, they've outscored the opposition 76-22. Through last week the Blue Jay relievers had averaged 3⅖ innings per game, had a combined 2.66 ERA with 15 saves, only three blown save opportunities and a 12-5 won-lost record. "And it's going to get better now that we have Gary Lavelle back to give us two lefthanders," says Williams.
"The key is depth and contrast," says Eichhorn. And Williams mixes his relievers well. The primary lefthander is rookie Musselman (4-2, 2 saves), who has the best stuff of any Harvard-educated stockbroker. Lavelle is the middle man, along with fireballing rookie righthander Jose Nunez. Then you get the big righthanders, Eichhorn and Henke. "I come in there and throw my 72-mile-an-hour Frisbees," says Eichhorn. "So when Henke comes in, it looks like he's throwing 150 miles an hour." He's not so far off. A JUGS gun has registered Henke at 102 mph.
Eichhorn was just another minor leaguer without a future in February 1986 when the Jays invited him to spring training because they needed arms to throw batting practice. He hadn't had much success throwing over the top or submarine, so one day that spring he tried something in between—and added a little sidestep after releasing the ball, which makes him look as if he's skipping rope. Lo and behold, he went on to win 14 games, save 10 more and fashion a 1.72 ERA. "I think a lot of people thought I might be a fluke because I was so different," says Eichhorn. He is so different that he pitches nearly every day. "The way I throw, I never get tired," he says. Adds Henke, "And because we have so much depth, I never have to go more than a few outs."
But at the very heart of the Blue Jays are the three stars: Fernandez, Barfield and Bell. Fernandez's 213 hits in 1986 were the most ever by a shortstop. His hands work the bat the way Rod Carew's did, and defensively he is better than Ozzie Smith at everything except backflips. Barfield has a Gold Glove and a home run title. And this is the year that the rest of the world is finally joining the American League in learning about George Bell.
"You either love George or you hate him," says A's manager Tony LaRussa, who once managed Bell in winter ball. "He struts, he challenges and, most of all, he intimidates. But if you know him, you love him."
"My image hasn't been too good," Bell concedes. "It mainly comes from Boston." In 1985 he charged Red Sox pitcher Bruce Kison after Kison threw at Ernie Whitt's head and hit Bell. "Maybe I haven't helped myself by not talking to the media very much," he says. Actually Bell talks, but he seems to enjoy promoting his image as a tough guy. After the last game of the Yankee series, he told several radio reporters that he didn't give interviews then proceeded to ramble on for 10 minutes.
"George is maybe the toughest, most intimidating player in the league," says Yankee broadcaster Ken Harrelson. "That image helps him because pitchers are afraid of him." He is also close to being the best player in the league, as his recent club records (11 homers and 31 RBIs in May) attest.
"He's the voice and soul of this team," says Cerutti. Indeed, on buses and in the clubhouse, it is Bell who makes everyone laugh. Says Leach, "Having a locker next to George is like being next to David Letterman." Bell left 38 passes at the box office each night in New York. So it may have been one of Bell's compatriots who on Wednesday hung a Dominican flag over an outfield railing. When security guards removed it, touching off a small hassle, Bell—one of Toronto's four Dominican players—had a laugh in left-field. During the '85 playoffs he was reported to have said that umpires don't like Canadians or Dominicans. Bell claimed he was misquoted and quit talking to the press for a while.
"Most of George's problems are in the past," says coach Cito Gaston. "He plays hard because he hates to lose. But off the field he's a different person." The people in his famous baseball hometown of San Pedro de Macoris are prime beneficiaries of his generosity. "I love San Pedro and I owe it a lot," says Bell.
When the Blue Jays flew off to Baltimore, Piniella was left to answer a million questions in the Bronx. "Our starting pitching is out of whack right now," he said. "We don't have Henderson and Mattingly, which is like Toronto being without Bell and Barfield. We're going to be all right. No one's panicking."
But was Steinbrenner listening to Billy Martin, who wants to get out of the broadcast booth and back into the manager's job? Was the owner really going to administer lie-detector tests to determine the truth about Mattingly's injury? Was he going to make more trades?
What does all this mean, Lou?
"It means," said Piniella, "that Toronto is really good, and that if we're going to win, we have to beat them. But I said that in March."