Did the Toronto Blue Jays buy it? Can the Baltimore Orioles seize it? Might the Milwaukee Brewers swipe it? Or will all three contenders continue to dance around the American League East crown as if it were a Mexican hat?
The Blue Jays, possessors of first place since June 20, made their best pass at snatching the title last Thursday, when they sent two prospects to the New York Mets for righthanded ace David Cone in one of the season's most shocking trades. But the deal failed to send an immediate seismic shiver through the division. On Friday night at Toronto's SkyDome, Milwaukee historically and hysterically shellacked the Jays 22-2, and the following day the Brewers ran rampant with eight stolen bases en route to spoiling Cone's debut with a 7-2 win. Toronto responded with a 5-3 win on Sunday to keep the Brewers 4½ games back, but the O's lurched to within 1½ games of first, and the Jays found themselves in a familiar struggle to find their late-season stride.
Both of Toronto's rivals politely concede that the Blue Jays are the team to beat. Baltimore general manager Roland Hemond, whose club won four of six last week, put a strangely positive—or positively strange—spin on the Cone coup. "It indicates they felt compelled to make a trade to try to stay ahead of us, which is a credit to our club," Hemond said.
Milwaukee outfielder Darryl Hamilton had a similar take. "The pressure is on the Blue Jays because they have the resources, because they made the trade," Hamilton said. "When you think about Milwaukee, you think about beer. But we've got guys who have big hearts."
The hearts of Toronto fans customarily climb up their tracheae this time of summer. The Blue Jays have won the American League East two of the last three years but have made an adventure of a number of pennant races, earning the ignominious nickname of the Blow Jays. Anxiety is doubly high in Toronto this season, given the team's high expectations (anything less than a first-ever World Series appearance will be a disappointment) and its uncharacteristically high ERA (4.22, third worst in the league at week's end). Jack Morris, who was 17-5 through Sunday, and Juan Guzman, 12-3, have been outstanding, but the the rest of the starters have gone 26-38.
Hence the deal for the 29-year-old Cone, the National League strikeout leader and by general consensus one of the top five pitchers in baseball. Like a limo driver, Toronto general manager Pat Gillick is particularly adept at making stretch pickups. During previous pennant drives he has acquired pitchers Mike Flanagan (1987), Bud Black ('90), John Candelaria ('90) and Tom Candiotti ('91), as well as outfielders Mookie Wilson ('89), Candy Maldonado ('91) and Dave Parker ('91).
None of those acquisitions, however, compares with the Cone deal. "We needed something like this," said Toronto outfielder Joe Carter the day of the trade. "We've been coming to the ballpark on an even keel for a while. Now there's a feeling like, Wow, let's go. It's like Christmastime again."
And just how did Toronto's division rivals allow Cone to clear waivers and fall into Gillick's hands? While it's not true that the major leagues' waiver rules are scrawled on scraps of parchment and can be comprehended only by a battery of Franciscan monks, they are hideously complicated. Even some front-office pros have been baffled by them. (See former Chicago White Sox general manager Larry Himes, who came under fire from fans in 1990 when he failed to block the division-leading Oakland A's from picking up Willie McGee and Harold Baines for the pennant drive.)
The brief explanation of how a pitcher of Cone's caliber could be dealt after the July 31 trading deadline, when players must clear waivers before they can be traded, is that he and hundreds of other players went through waivers en masse in early August. At the time, Cone's inclusion on the waiver wire seemed of little import—after all, the Mets were still in contention—so no team, Toronto included, claimed him. But over the next three weeks the Jays' arms went kaput, the Mets hit the skids, and Gillick shrewdly wheeled for a deal with New York.
He had young talent to offer (neither infielder Jeff Kent nor outfielder Ryan Thompson—presumed to be the player to be named later in the Cone trade—was sure to be protected in the upcoming expansion draft) and the money to spend (Cone's salary, on a prorated basis, will come to nearly $1 million for the remainder of the season). Even if Cone, a free agent at year's end, doesn't sign with the Jays, they will be compensated by the team that does sign him, with a No. 1 pick, and possibly another high selection, in the 1993 draft. "If you're fighting for a pennant and you can get a guy of Cone's ability, you take your chances with eating his salary," says Gillick. "There's a chance you'll increase attendance in the course of the season, and he might help you get to the World Series."
Cone arrived in Toronto on Friday and seemed happy to be a rent-an-ace. He was certainly glad to escape the moribund Met clubhouse. "It's been like a renewal," he said. "In a matter of 48 hours I feel like I've been turned around."
Wide-eyed and eager to please, Cone sat counting to 10 during a TV sound check. "Want me to do it in French?" he asked. "Un, deux, trois, quatre...."
That night, his counting-en fran‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºais or otherwise—was taxed mightily by the numbers Milwaukee put up: 22 runs on 31 hits to tie the 91-year-old modern record for most hits by a team in a nine-inning game. The Brewers' number 8, 9 and 1 batters went a combined 16 for 21. Cone began charting the game but stopped in the fifth. "He probably had to ice his wrist," said Toronto starter Jimmy Key.
Milwaukee righthander Cal Eldred kept trying to convince himself that he was in a 0-0 game. "I know that sounds wild, but that's what they tell us to do," he said afterward. "My teachers always told me I didn't have much imagination. I showed tonight that I do."
Although the Brewers entered the series having lost three straight games in New York, they sent the Jays' ERA from ninth to 12th in the league with Friday's eruption. The Brew Crew, the American League's most larcenous team, then set a club record with those eight steals—a not-so-surprising development, considering that Cone has allowed more stolen bases than any other pitcher in baseball this season.
Cone gave up seven runs in 6⅖ innings on seven hits and seven walks before being lifted. The defeat left him with a 3-4 record and a 5.07 ERA since July 17, when he threw 166 pitches against the San Francisco Giants. Cone, however, dismisses the notion that his arm is weary. "This wasn't what I was looking for, but I'll get better," he said on Saturday. "I started to press when we were having trouble scoring runs."
Cone received a warm reception from the Toronto fans—though those paying homage by wearing Coneheads had to doff them once play started because they obstructed sight lines—and so did Guzman on Sunday. Coming back after missing four starts because of shoulder soreness, Guzman pitched four strong innings before leaving with a 4-1 lead.
Of the three contenders, Toronto has the least difficult schedule down the stretch, followed, in order, by Baltimore and Milwaukee. However, the order of pressure is exactly the reverse. Blue Jay manager Cito Gaston, in particular, seems to be feeling the heat, often taking refuge behind closed doors to avoid reporters' questions. With Cone, though, the Blue Jays like their chances. "One of these days," says Toronto reliever Tom Henke, "we're going to trick some people and win it all."