Toronto Blue Jay pitcher Dave Stewart was sitting at his locker, shaking his head and muttering. "I can't believe where we are," he said. "It's a joke." The Blue Jays were in Milwaukee on this afternoon of June 29, but Stewart was referring to their standing in the American League East—last place, 15½ games out of first. Having lost 10 games in a row, Toronto, with a 31-43 record, had the third-worst record in the majors. "I've never been on a team that played this badly for this long," Stewart added. "And I played in Texas when we lost around 100 twice."
It's no joke. Nowadays the two-time world champion Blue Jays are, as Toronto third baseman Ed Sprague puts it, "dazed and confused. We'd like to know what the hell's going on here."
A year ago the Jays had a devastating lineup that overpowered opponents; a starting pitcher, Juan Guzman, who hardly ever lost; the top closer in the game in Duane Ward; and an intense desire to repeat as World Series champs. This year they have none of that. "It's like someone else stepped into our uniforms," says backup catcher Randy Knorr.
On June 26, in the ninth inning of a 7-1 loss to the Baltimore Orioles, it looked as if the Marx Brothers were wearing Toronto white and blue. The O's had the bases loaded and one out when the Jays turned a routine double play ground ball into a comedy of errors—literally. In a matter of seconds Toronto made two errant throws and dropped the ball on a tag at the plate, allowing three runs to score without getting a single runner out. "Ugliest thing I've ever seen," Stewart said.
It has been that kind of year. Instead of picking up where they left off in '93, the Blue Jays have regressed clear back to 1981—when they lost a team-record 12 games in a row. But not even that horrible '81 team, which had Danny Ainge playing second base, went through a stretch rivaling the one the '94 Jays endured from June 19 to 27, during which they scored a total of nine runs in eight games. In fact, in the 18-year history of the franchise, the club had never scored so few runs over an eight-game span. Pat Hentgen had to throw a three-hit shutout against the Brewers on June 29 to snap the 10-game losing streak—the third longest in team history.
"It would take a major miracle to get back in this race," said the 37-year-old Stewart, who at week's end had struggled to a 5-8 record and a 6.20 ERA. Still, there are plenty of reasons to keep an eye on Toronto the rest of the season, albeit mostly negative ones:
•After dropping three of four games to the Milwaukee Brewers and then two of three to the Kansas City Royals last weekend, the Jays were 13 games under .500 (33-46) and on pace to finish with the worst winning percentage (.418) ever by a defending world champion. The mark is held by the '91 Cincinnati Reds, who were 74-88, for a .457 percentage.
•Toronto could become the third team in history to fall from first place one season to sole possession of last the next, joining the 1915 Philadelphia A's and the '93 Oakland A's.
•The Jays' run of 11 years finishing above .500 is in jeopardy.
How did this team drop so far so fast?
The plunge began last winter, when replacements weren't found for leftfielder Rickey Henderson and shortstop Tony Fernandez, free agents who were not resigned. Also, next to nothing was done to upgrade a pitching staff that was barely adequate in '93. The pool of free-agent pitchers was weak, and Toronto general manager Pat Gillick was outbid for starters Mark Portugal and Tim Belcher. Gillick also tried to trade for the New York Mets' Bret Saberhagen during spring training, but such a deal would have involved losing a top prospect, and the organization had decided to hold on to its young players. Thus, the Blue Jays started the season with only one pitcher who hadn't been with the organization in '93—reliever Greg Cadaret. He was released on June 9.
Perhaps the pivotal day for the Blue Jays, however, was Jan. 4, when Ward woke up with a stiff right shoulder. He made some throws that day, but the next morning he was in severe pain when he tried to brush his teeth, and he was eventually found to have biceps tendinitis. Last Thursday, Ward pitched in a game for the first time this season when he threw one inning for the Jays' rookie league team in Dunedin, Fla. As of Sunday the Toronto bullpen had 12 saves, which tied them with the Chicago White Sox for the fewest in the American League. At the same point in '93, Ward alone had 22 saves; he finished the season with 45. What's more, the Jays' second-best reliever last year, Danny Cox, also made his '94 debut for Dunedin last week, beginning his comeback from an elbow injury.
The haplessness of the Toronto pen was never more evident than on April 15, when the Blue Jays took a 13-6 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning against the California Angels. Relievers Mike Timlin and Todd Stottlemyre gave up seven runs in the ninth, after which rookie Scott Brow yielded the game-winner in the 10th. It was only the third time in 30 years that a major league team had taken a seven-run lead into the ninth inning and didn't win. According to Toronto manager Cito Gaston, after that shocking defeat his players started wondering how many runs they had to score to win.
The Jays pulled themselves together briefly, winning their next six games, but suddenly they stopped hitting—and haven't hit since. "Now the pitchers say, 'Can't you get us four runs?' " says Sprague. Between April 24 and July 3, Toronto scored fewer than four runs in 38 of its 62 games. First baseman John Olerud's two-run double on June 28 ended a streak of 80 innings in which Toronto had not scored more than one run. "We had a minicelebration after Johnny's hit," said the team's designated hitter, Paul Molitor. "It was a long time since we'd put a crooked number up there." Two nights later Olerud ended another ignominious streak by hitting the first home run by a Toronto regular in 379 at bats.
But of all the distressing statistics produced this season, the one that most defies belief is this one: The Blue Jays are last in the league in runs. Coming off a year in which they scored a club-record 847 times, beating opponents with power, speed, patience and intelligent hitting. Toronto hasn't been nearly as selective at the plate in '94. Its bases on balls have dropped dramatically, strikeouts have increased, and the team's batting average is off .011 from the same point a year ago. On June 28 catcher Pat Borders illustrated the offense of late when, with two outs, the Jays down by a run and the bases loaded in the seventh, he swung and missed a neck-high pitch on 3 and 2.
The only regulars producing at a '93 rate are Molitor, who was batting .328 at week's end, and second baseman Robby Alomar (.330). After driving in a major league record 31 runs in April, despite playing with a broken thumb, rightfielder Joe Carter knocked in 36 runs the next two months combined and hit only .175 in June. "Maybe I should break it again," says Carter.
While Olerud was hitting .290 with six homers and 41 RBIs through Sunday, that was a huge drop-off from the .407, 14 homers and 64 RBIs he had at the same point in '93. The fifth batter in the order, Olerud has been pitched around this season partly because the number 6 hole has produced a .213 average and 34 RBIs—both lows for the league. That spot is usually filled by Sprague, who was batting .230 with 22 RBIs as of Sunday. "When you go 0 for 35 [as he did in May], it's tough to rebound," says Sprague, who hit .260 with 73 RBIs last year. "I've gone from thinking I'm going to have a great year to battling to have a decent year." The Jays have gotten the fewest RBIs in the league from their third basemen (20) and shortstops (19) and the second fewest from their catchers (26).
It's bad enough that Toronto's heavy artillery is out of commission. Even worse is the performance of the team's starting pitchers. The biggest disappointment has been Guzman, who entered the season with a 40-11 career record and a 3.28 ERA. At week's end he was 6-9 with a 6.21 ERA. For three years he won without throwing many strikes, as hitters consistently chased his darting slider. This year they've figured him out, and they're forcing him to throw the ball over the plate. Also, while Guzman says he's healthy, some of his teammates believe his elbow is hurting. He didn't look too good last Thursday, when he lasted only 1⅖ innings in a 9-2 loss to the Brewers. "I had nothing," he said afterward.
With each defeat the sense of resignation in the Toronto dugout grows. "They look real flat," says Oriole reliever Mark Williamson. "They don't look like they know they can beat us. Before, even if we got the lead, there was an air about them. Now I don't feel they've got that presence. They're kind of dead. You can feel it in the ballpark, too. There's been no life."
The Blue Jays deny they have become complacent, pointing out that they were unemotional and businesslike when they were winning. Maybe they're just worn down. Toronto was in a pennant race each of the past seven years, and having to play 29 postseason games the last three years might have taken its toll. Nevertheless, this season Gaston has yet to hold a team meeting, toss a chair or flip the postgame spread of food. "That would be out of character," he says. "When the manager panics, the players panic."
Being 15½ games out on July 3 isn't cause for panic? "Maybe we need to get a little more emotional," says Sprague, who privately has pitched a few fits over his own slump. "Other teams see it—we seem dead."
Toronto is so far out of it that the local media have backed off. Even the sports talk-show callers who begged for Gaston's head with each loss last summer have left him alone this year. And Gillick, who will retire from the front office in October, has been subjected to very little second-guessing.
His late-season deals, in which prospects were traded for valuable veterans, helped clinch two pennants. In 1992 he gave centerfielder Ryan Thompson and second baseman Jeff Kent to the Mets for pitcher David Cone; Thompson and Kent weren't going to beat out Devon White and Alomar, respectively, anyway. Last year Gillick sent pitcher Steve Karsay and outfielder Jose Herrera to Oakland for Henderson. Even though Henderson didn't play well for Toronto, Alomar says, "his presence helped us win." Karsay's presence in Toronto might have helped the Blue Jays this year.
Gillick does regret losing pitcher Jimmy Key to free agency after the '92 season, but the New York Yankees offered Key a four-year, $17 million contract, while the Blue Jays wouldn't budge from their offer of three years, $12 million. Through Sunday, Key was 12-2 with a 3.36 ERA for the first-place Yankees. Gillick also wanted to keep Cone after the '92 season, but he wasn't prepared to match the $9 million signing bonus the Royals dangled in front of Cone, who at week's end was 12-4 with a 2.68 ERA for Kansas City. Gillick also wanted to re-sign Fernandez last winter, but the shortstop wanted a three-year, $12 million contract—twice what Gillick was willing to pay. At week's end Fernandez was hitting .296 for the Reds.
So it appears that Gillick's final acts as general manager will be to trade veterans—Stewart? Borders?—to contenders down the stretch. What a switch, eh? "I've been here since the club started in 1976, and I'm sort of satisfied with what we've done," says Gillick. "I will not leave frustrated."
He will leave without a three-peat, and the 1972-73-74 Athletics will remain the last team to have won three consecutive World Series. Blue Jay coach Gene Tenace played on those Oakland teams. "In our third championship year, we lost our eighth game in a row, in Milwaukee," says Tenace. "So [Oakland owner] Charlie Finley brought Bear Bryant in to talk to us. Bear didn't know anything about baseball, but he knew about complacency, and that winning is winning in any sport. We went out and won that night. Charlie looked like a genius."
Gillick smiled and said, "Maybe we'll bring the Bear back."
Too late now.