Now Or Never

The A's and the Jays, two teams for whom next year is too late, dueled in the ALCS
October 18, 1992

Monday was Thanksgiving Day in Canada, and as Canadians gathered at their dinner tables, they had much to be grateful for: the bountiful gifts of Roberto Alomar, the humanity of Dennis Eckersley, and the three-games-to-two lead held by their Toronto Blue Jays as the American League Championship Series returned to Canada for Games 6 and 7.

Monday was also Columbus Day in the U.S., and in commemoration of the quincentennial of Columbus's voyage, the Oakland Athletics, who don't usually lose Championship Series, had discovered a whole new world of inept fielding, rash baserunning and incendiary relief pitching. "We sure didn't look like the A's, did we?" said Eckersley after Game 4 on Sunday. But the A's could at least be grateful that, thanks to a 6-2 victory in Game 5, they were still alive.

When the series started, on Oct. 7, there was so much talk of showdowns, hired guns and the last roundup that one might have thought that the opposing managers were Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. "I know I'm a hired gun," said Toronto (for now) pitcher David Cone, who was acquired from the New York Mets in August even though he can become a free agent in the off-season. "But it beats sitting in my Manhattan apartment, planning a slow Caribbean vacation."

The preponderance of potential free agents on both sides lent a certain finality to the proceedings and put both teams on edge. Said Oakland (for now) pitcher Ron Darling, "We know this team will be substantially different next year, and that has put everyone in a bad mood. We really want to win this thing."

The quickest way to put a Blue Jay in a bad mood was to ask him about his team's Blew Jay past: Toronto lost the playoffs in 1985, '89 and '91. "To hell with history," said Toronto (for now) outfielder Joe Carter. Or, as teammate Candy Maldonado put it, "If I was living in the past, my grandmother would still be alive." Then he added, "The past is in the past."

Despite their previous performances, the Blue Jays were clear favorites. They had the superior lineup and better pitching, plus the presence of postseason ace Jack Morris, who was signed for a fistful of dollars last December, and the world's oldest 100-RBI man, 41-year-old Dave Winfield, who was signed for a few dollars more the day after Morris.

Canadian fans and sports sections were so torn between hope and desperation that it was clear to even a casual observer that the national psyche was at stake. The Toronto Sun actually called on Canadian psychic Anthony Carr for his Game 1 prediction. Carr said that because Morris was a Taurus, the pitcher would be irritated most of the day and that "this could culminate in his blowing the game." Also at stake was the job of manager Cito—rhymes with hotseato—Gaston. Pundits and fans alike worried that he would be overmatched by Oakland's Tony La Russa, and even before the first pitch, Torontonians assumed that if the Jays blew this series, Gaston would be told to be on the next stage out of town

In keeping with the Western theme, these were the first five episodes:

Gunfight at the Blue Jay Corral. What, you might ask, were the two fans in gorilla suits doing in SkyDome's leftfield seats before Game 1? They were holding up a sign that read DAVE WINFIELD SAYS GO BANANAS, and they were tossing bananas, dozens of them, to the crowd. It seems that Winfield, disappointed that Blue Jay fans hadn't been more vociferous during the season, made a public plea for more noise. So, perhaps fueled by the bananas, the Toronto fans, two of whom were film stars Michael J. Fox and John Candy, nearly raised the retractable roof of SkyDome, which remained resolutely closed on a nice night by order of American League president Bobby Brown.

Still, it seemed more like a duel in the sun with Morris, wearing his cowpoke mustache, and his opposing gunslinger, Dave Stewart, on the mound. And when the Jays came from behind in the eighth inning to tie the game at 3-3, the fans were going crazy, Black Jack was in command.... But the psychic was right. Harold Baines led off the ninth by homering on Morris's second pitch, Eckersley closed out the 4-3 A's victory, and the fans headed up the aisles, resigned to defeat once more.

Similarly crestfallen were the writers who had the task of pulling Baines's teeth after the game. Harold is a nice fellow, but the word laconic does not do him justice. Nor does stoic. Baines, totally deadpan, said only this of his home run: "It was a very special moment for me." Smile when you say that, podnah.

Lonesome Jay. What, you might ask, were the two guys wearing rubber coneheads doing in the Blue Jays' bullpen before Game 2? They were relievers Mike Timlin and David Wells, and they donned the headgear to inspire Toronto's starter, Cone. Not that Cone needed much inspiration: The rent-a-pitcher made fools out of the A's most of the night. But he did get a boost from Kelly Gruber.

Once voted Toronto's most popular athlete, the Jay third baseman had hit only .229 with 43 RBIs this season and was booed mercilessly by the fans and ostracized by his teammates, who tired of his series of seemingly minor injuries. In the bottom of the fifth Gruber came up against Mike Moore with a man on first and nobody out. As he left the on-deck circle, a fan yelled, "You better bunt, you bum." Gruber hit Moore's first pitch over the fence in left, and all was forgiven. After Tom Henke nailed down the 3-1 victory for Cone and the Jays retired to their clubhouse, Gruber was asked if he felt redeemed by the homer? "Ask the fans," he said. He smiled when he said that.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Toronto fans may have had Michael J. Fox and John Candy, but Oakland had Nina Hartley. She, too, is a film star (My Bare Lady, Debbie Duz Dishes I, II and III), and she caused quite a stir as she paraded through the stands of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum before Game 3 in her gold lamè bikini top. Unfortunately for A's fans, that was about as good as it got on Saturday.

With the score tied at 2-2 in the bottom of the fourth, the bases loaded and none out against a struggling Juan Guzman, the Athletics' Mike Bordick lofted a fly to short rightfield that Carter did a little dance under—two steps back, three steps forward, two steps back. Confused by the dance, third base coach Rene Lachemann decided to send Oakland (for now) slugger Mark McGwire, who had tagged up at third. "Lach said, 'Get going,' and I went," said McGwire. "I don't have the greatest speed in the world. I don't have any speed, in fact."

McGwire was out by the proverbial mile, and opportunity was lost. Lachemann later took full responsibility. "When you're the third base coach, you have to walk the fine line between being aggressive and being stupid." he said. "I crossed that line. It was a stupid mistake."

It was one of many by the A's, who left 11 men on base, had three errors, threw three wild pitches and gave up three unearned runs in a 7-5 defeat. Ms. Hartley, perhaps best known for her performance in Saddletramp, expressed concern. "We need to tighten up on our errors," she told the San Francisco Examiner.

The Unforgiven. How do you explain how the A's became the Jays in Game 4? How can you figure Oakland turning a 6-1 lead ' after seven innings into a 7-6 defeat in 11 innings? How can you figure Eckersley—51 for 54 in save opportunities this season—blowing the 6-2 lead he was entrusted with in the eighth? "I'd trade the 51 saves for one out," said the Eck. "I just couldn't stop the bleeding."

A's starter Bob Welch had gone further than anyone had expected, one batter into the eighth. That batter was Alomar, who doubled. Jeff Parrett replaced Welch and gave up singles to Carter and Winfield. Not to worry, thought the Oakland fans, here comes the Eck.

But the Eck threw dreck. John Olerud singled in a run and Maldonado another. When Eckersley finally struck out Ed Sprague to end the inning, he pumped his fist emphatically. "I thought the worst was over," Eckersley said. "It was make-believe time."

Reality led off the ninth in the person of Devon White, who singled and went to third on an error. That brought Alomar to the plate and a certain sense of dèjà vu. "I saw Kirk Gibson all over again," said Toronto shortstop Alfredo Griffin, who was the shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers when Gibson homered off Eckersley to win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. Said Alomar, "I'm not thinking homer there, but I think he thinks I'm looking for a pitch on the outside, so I think he's coming inside." He did. Alomar turned on the fastball, and as the ball flew into the right-field seats, Alomar raised both hands high. "I'm a little guy," he said, "but I guess the little guy became a big guy."

The homer tied the score at 6-6, but the A's could have won the game in their half of the ninth. With pinch runner Eric Fox on third with one out, Oakland (for now) catcher Terry Steinbach grounded to second. For some unfathomable reason, Fox took off for the plate. Alomar tossed the ball to Borders, and Fox was out by a proverbial two miles. "Four times he was told not to go unless the ball went through the infield," said La Russa. "What are you going to do? He said he wanted to score the winning run."

After Toronto took the lead in the 11th on a Borders' sacrifice fly, Henke came on to get his third save of the series. The role reversal was complete. That should have been Eckersley out there, shaking his teammates' hands.

In the morgue that was the A's clubhouse, Eckersley willingly bore the blame for, as he called it, "Gibson 2." Then he tried to explain what had happened. "This game is weird, man," he said.

Over in the happy Toronto clubhouse, Alomar shrugged and said, "This is a weird game, my friend."

High Noon. There was a vulture circling over the coliseum at noontime on Monday for the start of Game 5. The A's, however, were not dead.

In fact, they pretty much had their way with Cone. Ruben Sierra, who had said after Game 2, "Next time, it will be different," hit a Cone fastball for a two-run homer in the first and chased him in the fifth with an RBI single. But the real hero of Oakland's 6-2 victory was Stewart, who threw a seven-hitter in what may have been his last appearance for Oakland. If it is, the A's should start thinking about retiring No. 34—he has meant that much to them over the past seven years.

"The best example of what he means to us was today," said La Russa. "Sometimes there's no justice in baseball, like yesterday when Eckersley got hit. Today there was justice in Stew's complete game."

"It did cross my mind this might be my last game with the A's," Stewart said. "But more important, I just didn't want to go home after today. This team deserved at least one more game."

And he made sure they got it. As for the Jays, they got their chance to prove once and for all that the past is in the past.

PHOTOV.J. LOVEROAlomar's ninth-inning homer in Game 4 was the big blow in Toronto's stunning comeback. PHOTOMICKEY PFLEGEROakland fans were dismayed by the sight of un-Athletic play. PHOTODON SMITHIn his zeal to be a game winner, Fox became a goat when he was tagged out by Borders. FOUR PHOTOSCHUCK SOLOMONWith plays like this scintillating stop in Game 1, Gruber helped atone for a sorry season.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)