It was the worst stretch in franchise history — eight days that saw a three-and-a-half-game division lead crumble into nothing. Inside the biggest collapse in Toronto Blue Jays history.

I run the risk of sounding like your bat-guano crazy uncle for caring about this, but it’s a simple statement of fact: A generation of fans have no recollection of Exhibition Stadium. Never saw a Blue Jays game there. Never saw the Argos there. Never saw Toronto Metros Croatia. Never saw that rite of ’80s summers, the Police Picnic.

If you’re in your 20s, you probably couldn’t figure out where the stadium once stood if you were dropped at the Princes’ Gates with a compass. If you’re 35, you might have some vague recollection of a trip to the ballpark as a tyke, bouncing on your father’s knee. Maybe. It doesn’t matter how much of a fan you are; it’s just the timeline. What went down at Exhibition Stadium is stuff you may have read about, that you’ve seen pictures of, maybe grainy videos with graphics that look like hieroglyphics.

So, a bit of personal history: Hundreds of times I and now-doddering thousands went to the Ex. And, no, those of us down on the turf 35 years ago for the Who’s Farewell Tour didn’t get a refund any of the dozens of times survivors of the band have reunited since. An object lesson to never trust advertising, the concert turned out to be a farewell to guilelessness, that’s about it.

I had some strange experiences at Exhibition Stadium, maybe the strangest was in high school back in the 70s when, at an all-comers 10,000-metre race on the track, my friend and I seized the lead on the opening two laps and only then realized that the field included Jerome Drayton, who had won the prestigious Fukuoka Marathon and owned the world record for 10-mile run. He was probably driving home while we were still circling the track, getting our lap times from the Bulova Tower.

Of course, watching the most famous of tenants at Exhibition Stadium was strange enough. Taking in the Toronto Blue Jays at their original home put certain demands upon the ticketholder. If you were born too late, you don’t know what it was like to sit down the right-field line, completely sideways in your seat, with your neck craned 90 degrees to get a look at home plate. Or to be down in the lower rows of the outfield grandstands and have to peer over the fence, any ball making it to the warning track disappearing completely. To look overhead with dread at seagulls. To be chilled to the bone by winds off the lake during an April night game. No, it wasn’t always like that famous first Opening Day against the White Sox when snow fully covered the carpet — sometimes it was colder.

The confines were no friendlier for Tom Cheek and Early Wynn, the Blue Jays’ first radio broadcast crew, who had to look through a frost-covered window at the action. The degree of difficulty only escalated with Wynn’s departure and the arrival of Jerry Howarth in ’82 — Howarth liked a clear view of the action, so even on the coldest nights he insisted on opening the window.

The Jays left their original home in 1989 for the Skydome, a wind-free, lidded-if-necessary stadium built for baseball. And if you’re thinking the game in Rogers Centre gives you any idea what it was like at the Ex, you must be winning some sort of fantasy league of memory.

Gone and mostly forgotten
Generations of fans will never know the experience of sitting on steel benches at Exhibition Stadium, craning their necks awkwardly back toward home plate and glancing up at seagulls with dread.

During the Jays expansion years, in those 100-loss seasons, I had my usual place in Section 7 in the stands. It wasn’t a seat per se; it was an aluminum bench down that crippling right-field line. Suckers in Section 9 were paying two bucks more just to have seats with plastic backs. In Section 7, you could sit in the first row and talk to the right fielders and the visiting team’s bullpen. Some guys wouldn’t shut up. Mickey Hatcher with the Twins was one of the favourites, a complete chatter box. I remember him stuffing towels in his jersey for impersonations of Babe Ruth, as well as his then-pregnant wife.

In ’82 alone, I made it out to almost 40 games, watching Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield. That was at the dawn of sabermetics and its cult leader, Bill James. I was a devout member of James’s statistical church and it caused me some despair how he disparaged Moseby and Barfield. James ranked them as the worst at their positions in that year’s Baseball Abstract. Then again, they were barely in their 20s. Stats didn’t tell you what the eye test did — they both had a ton of raw talent and bright futures — we weren’t talking about Hosken Powell anymore. And when George Bell came along as a Rule 5 pickup in ’84, it was plain to me (if not Bill James) that those three were going to drive the transition of this team from a novelty like those on the CNE’s midway to a thrilling ride like the Wild Mouse.

By 1985, I had one foot in Section 7 and the other in the press box. I was trying to break into the media. I couldn’t quite kick down the front door so I came in the side, writing stories about music and sports for magazines now long gone. One piece took me to the Dominican Republic and that story led to a deal to write a book about the Jays’ operation in the country. Back then, the Jays and the Dodgers pretty well owned the territory.

I wasn’t above cheering for a good story. And the Jays’ AL East championship in 1985 was great for business.

Catch a special edition of the podcast. Gare Joyce, Tom Henke, Jesse Barfield, Jerry Howarth and others take listeners back 30 years to the nightmare that was the final week of the 1987 season.

You have to understand Toronto in the mid-’80s. That whole World Class City thing? Toronto was completely wrapped up in it. Toronto was star-struck. The highest-grossing movie of 1987 was Three Men and a Baby, and people would go the Uptown to pick out the locations around the city where the film had been shot. They’d talk about the time they saw Ted Danson and Steve Guttenberg out for dinner. Toronto wanted its place on the world stage and a World Series would do all that. And in the fall of ’87 it looked like the Jays were going to get there.

Bell was racking up monstrous numbers — his .308 batting average, 47 homers and 134 ribbies would land him the American League MVP. The Jays were absolutely stacked. They allowed the fewest runs in the AL. Their ace, left-hander Jimmy Key, led the league in ERA. Closer Tom Henke did the same in saves. The Jays’ run differential was plus-190. Catcher Ernie Whitt was one of the originals, a survivor of the 100-loss seasons. He has no doubt where to rank the ’87 team.

“It was the best team I ever played on,” Whitt says. “The ’85 team was nice. We won [the division]. But as far as talent goes, I thought we had the best talent at that point in time. [When people talk about the best years in Blue Jays history], I think ’87 was the most underrated team.”

But even deeply invested fans might not remember some of those who made major contributions to the run to first place that September. Some were established players who arrived from elsewhere, like Juan Beniquez and Rick Leach, the former Michigan QB, who backed up the big three in the outfield. Others were products of the organization: Nelson Liriano, who looked like the Jays second baseman of the future; Harvard grad Jeff Musselman, who went 12-5 mostly in relief in his rookie season; and another rookie, Jose Nunez, who went 5-2 and picked up three key wins in September.

Coming into the second last Sunday of the ’87 season, the Jays had won seven straight and were on pace to win 100 games. But that great season would be overshadowed by the worst week in franchise history. And that team with 96 victories and seven to play, didn’t win another game. This is a history of that lost last week — no doubt the most heart-wrenching in Jays history.

Heart of the Order
Bell, left, earned the AL MVP in '87, batting .308 with 47 homers and 134 RBI; Whitt, an original Blue Jay who'd played through the 100-loss seasons, was Bell's protection in the lineup, batting fifth.

A root cause of that lost week went down just days before it all started to go sideways. It was the third inning of the opening game of a four-game series against the Tigers at the Ex. Detroit’s designated hitter that night was Bill Madlock. Madlock slid into second base trying to break up a double play. Okay, not into second base itself — not even into the same postal code as second. It looked like a cold-blooded play intended to take out Tony Fernandez. The Jays star shortstop went down on his right elbow. The tip of it was broken and displaced. Fernandez’s elbow hit the seam where the dirt met the turf. That should tell you just how wide Madlock slid.

An inch or two either way might have left Fernandez with only a bruise. But he landed in the worst possible place. “There was always a lot of talk about how dangerous it was [at Exhibition Stadium],” then assistant GM Gord Ash says. “Around the patches of dirt where the bases were there were these AstroTurf covered pieces of metal that kept the turf in place when they played football. It was very, very hard. [Fernandez] just happened to come down on his elbow right on that piece of metal.”

Fernandez writhed; within seconds you knew he was done for the season. Fans thought that Madlock would get tossed. So did the Jays. He didn’t. The umps didn’t even huddle to discuss it, and Jimy Williams didn’t come out to protest — later he’d tell the media that he hadn’t seen the slide, that he was focused on the play at first base.

Madlock seemed to glory in the role of villain after the game. He stirred the pot. He didn’t trash talk; it was more like passive-aggressive taunting. When asked if he intended to phone Fernandez in hospital, Madlock expressed disbelief. He said, “What am I the Welcome Wagon?”

There had been bad blood brewing for a couple of seasons. The Jays thought Detroit’s manager, Sparky Anderson, was telling his pitchers to brush back hitters. Madlock’s slide just raised the stakes.

The Jays wound up with the W that night — Mike Flanagan got the win; Henke the save. That result seemed less significant than Fernandez’s injury. That single play was a paradigm shift.

Yes, Bell won the MVP, but I’d say Fernandez was the team’s most important player, a No. 3 hitter with big numbers (.322/.426/.805, with 90 runs scored) who played the game’s most difficult and crucial position. The players knew this all along and if fans didn’t before, they found out when the grim fact sank in: The Jays had to go with Manny Lee at shortstop the rest of the way and Lee hadn’t even been on the big club’s roster on September 1. He’d spent the summer in Syracuse, which is to say, he wasn’t even in Fernandez’s league.

With Fernandez as the No. 3 hitter ahead of Bell, the Jays offence had averaged almost six runs a game in September. Over the last seven of the season — including a pair of games that went deep into extra innings — they’d score a meagre 16 runs.

Right elbow, Wrong time
Losing Fernandez to a cold-blooded takeout by Detroit DH Bill Madlock was a crushing blow, costing the team a dangerous No. 3 hitter who also played the most difficult and crucial position in the field.

I had first met Fernandez in the Dominican a month after his first full season in the major leagues. He was playing winter ball for los Tigres del Licey in Santo Domingo. In fact, one night I was stranded at the ballpark and Fernandez gave me a lift back to my hotel. He didn’t have the ride that you’d expect of a major leaguer; it was a rust bucket that was at least five years old and rattling. I figured he had picked it up used with his $3,000 signing bonus and just held on to it. I hadn’t been around major-league clubhouses very long but even in early days I had seen a lot of gold chains thick enough to tow trailers, a lot of diamonds and designer suits. I thought Fernandez had to be the least ostentatious all-star ever. I still think that’s true.

Fernandez’s nickname in the D.R. was Cabeza, Spanish for “head” because his dome was big enough to stretch even the largest baseball caps. I soon came to one conclusion: As big as Fernandez’s head was, there was no getting inside it. The day after he drove me home I thanked him but it barely registered. In BP, he was focused on the game. After the game, his mind was elsewhere.

“I hated the Brewers. They had my number. They’d send a limo to pick me up if it came down to it because they hit me so much they didn’t want me to miss a game.”

There seemed to be some part of him that no fan nor media type could ever reach. I couldn’t put my finger on it — at least, not until I went out to his hometown of San Pedro de Macoris, the famous cradle of shortstops. I wound up at his parents’ home. It was in the shadow of the ballpark. Kids ran around with no shoes. You could see the daily struggle of people just trying to get by. Fernandez grew up in grinding Third World poverty. Could people in Toronto ever relate to his roots? Not a chance. His faith was his compass — it’s impossible for most of us to imagine moving between the two worlds Fernandez navigated.

Back in those days, people talked about Fernandez as a future Hall of Famer. In 1986, his 213 hits set a single-season major-league record for shortstops. Still, when you think of him, you think of him in the field. He was the greatest aesthetic pleasure in those early days. Nothing amazed as regularly as Tony Fernandez going deep into the hole, digging out a ball and then, in a flash, throwing it across his body to first base.

Madlock’s takeout of Fernandez wasn’t just a blow to the Jays in ‘87. It was also the shape of things to come. I’ll be the first to concede that Tony Fernandez had a great career. He’d get his ring in 1993 in his second stint with Toronto and come close to another in Cleveland of all places. But Fernandez fell far short of Cooperstown. When he became eligible in 2007, he received only four votes and was dropped from the ballot. That last week of the ’87 season was the first time we’d say one thing of Fernandez: “What might have been?”

Pain in my heart
Whitt tried to stay ready for action after breaking a couple of ribs in a collision with Paul Molitor. “You see Ernie out there before the game, trying to swing a bat, and you know just how much it hurts,” Iorg remembers. “It was really gutty on his part.”

The fall of the ’87 Jays began with the home team looking to sweep a four-game series against the Tigers on a Sunday afternoon at the Ex in front of 46,000 fans. Toronto had followed the series-opening win with two more. On Sunday, they had a chance to extend their lead over the Tigers in the AL East to four-and-a-half games with just six left to play. Not quite a lock but the nearest thing.
Jim Clancy pitched seven shutout innings before giving way to Tom Henke with the score 1-0. The unlikely leading man of those old Aqua Velva commercials, Henke came in with a league-leading 34 saves — this was his 42nd save opportunity. No need to go to a set-up man; straight to the closer, the lanky guy with the glasses and the high heat. Henke mowed down the Tigers in the top of eighth. Strictly routine. After a scoreless bottom half of the inning, Kirk Gibson led off the ninth. Gibson had had little luck with Henke in the past so he stepped in the box with a light bat he borrowed from Madlock.

Gibson’s heroics a year later with the Los Angeles Dodgers went straight into MLB lore: His pinch-hit homer in the ninth inning off Oakland’s Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the World Series keyed L.A.’s colossal upset of the heavily favored A’s. Still, it’s Gibson’s shot off Henke in the ninth inning of that game that haunts those who used to come out to the Ex.

Henke finished by retiring three in the ninth and a couple in the tenth before giving way to the bullpen. When he came back to the dugout, Henke had reason to worry that the game was going to get away from the Jays. He never suspected that he had thrown his last pitch of the season.

It’s not fair or remotely accurate to say that the Jays missed out on a pennant because of Henke’s failure to keep the slate clean in the ninth that Sunday. But baseball fans have memories that aren’t always fair and accurate. Just look at the previous season. Bill Buckner went underground for years because of a botched grounder in Game 6 that has always been seen as the play that cost the Red Sox the 1986 World Series, even though they had an opportunity win the next night. And in the ’86 ALCS, only days before Buckner’s misplay, there was Donnie Moore, on the mound for the Angels, one pitch away from putting California into the World Series — two away and two strikes to Red Sox slugger Dave Henderson, who then hit a homer to keep Boston’s hopes alive. The Sox won the game and a couple more to move on to the big dance. Moore was a broken man after that. Two years later he took his own life, having shot and wounded his wife with his children in the house.

The way the last week of the 1987 season played out, you’d understand if Tom Henke had taken it hard enough to become a recluse, to feel like he hadn’t been up to his life’s moment. And maybe hard-hearted Toronto fans figured that Henke couldn’t come back — after all, Exhibition Stadium had been a graveyard for relief pitchers. Memories of Joey McLaughlin, Bill Caudill and Dennis Lamp blowing up were still fresh in the collective memory. Would this single lapse against Gibson, one at bat, cast him back with the others?

It was a question many mulled over including a magazine editor who asked me to write about Henke early that off-season. So, as fall gave way to winter, I called Henke. He was back in his hometown of Taos, Missouri — population 758. I asked him if he’d be open to having me visit. I expected to get politely declined — Buckner and Donnie Moore weren’t doing interviews weeks after their awful moments. Henke though gave me something to the effect of “c’mon down.”

“We hit a flock of geese. Juan Beniquez was in the back of the plane making baby noises, like crying baby noises.”

I expected to spend just a couple of hours with him; if I got a whole day, I’d buy a bag of confetti. I ended up staying in Taos 12 days. And while you might have been able to stay in Taos for 12 days without going hunting, you couldn’t hang out 12 days with Tom Henke and manage the feat.

We walked miles from the evening to dawn following his coon dogs up and down muddy hills — all the while I looked for one sign, one tell, anything that gave away a feeling of awful burden. And in time I found … well, nothing. Absolutely nothing.

One night Henke and I were out hunting deer with his uncle Bill, who asked him if he was worried when Gibson got around on his fastball. “Well, I don’t worry,” Henke said. “I mean, I knew he hit the ball a long way, but you can’t be afraid of messin’ up out here. If you’re scared you’re already beat. I figure, so long as I got the ball, the batter’s the one who should be worried. It’s like huntin’—who’s afraid out here? Not the guy with the gun.”

Let the record show that at the time I didn’t have a gun.

Tom and his wife, Kathy, had bigger things on their mind than Gibson’s shot. They were weighing the decision to have a fourth child. Their third, Amanda, was born with Down Syndrome, which upped the chances of another child being born with the condition. “Amanda really put it all in perspective for us,” he said. “Baseball is just a game. It’s just a game.”

The Henkes had a fourth child, a daughter — they decided to get back in the game after life dealt them a significant challenge. By comparison to the Henkes’ family life, Gibson’s homer was a challenge of minor scale. Henke moved on, got his ring (eventually) and had a long career, good to the very end.

Last month, I asked Henke how important it was to come back to his hometown that October. “It was everything,” he said. “Back here in Taos, people were following the Blue Jays because I was playing for them, and they were disappointed with how our season ended. But everyone knew me before and nothing had changed. Out here, I’m Fred and Mary Jane’s son.”
Despite that loss to Detroit, fans in Toronto were euphoric. It was hard for some in the media to stay objective; others didn’t even try. That Monday morning in the Toronto Star, John Robertson was all sunshine and hyperbolic cheer. He wrote: “There were no heads hanging in the Jays clubhouse. Nor should there have been.”

Robertson said despite the loss, the Jays were “ecstatic.” I’ve been in hundreds of clubhouses and dressing rooms and I’ve never been in one where anyone was “ecstatic” after any sort of loss.

If anyone questioned manager Jimy Williams pulling Clancy after seven innings and only 79 pitches that Sunday afternoon, well, John Robertson would have knocked the doubter down. Williams had his critics and Robertson had been among them but now that the Jays had won 19 of 25 in September, Robertson would tell you that, as a leader of men and a strategic genius, Williams was John McGraw, Connie Mack and Casey Stengel all rolled into one.

Shutdown artists
Key, left, had an all-time great season in '87 with a WHIP just over 1.00 and a league-leading 2.76 ERA; Flanagan, a Cy Young winner in '79, was a witty fountain of one-liners.

On Monday night, the Blue Jays played their first in a three-game set against the Milwaukee Brewers. If the Jays swept the last home series of the season, they could start printing the playoff tickets. Well, not quite: Detroit had a four-game set in Baltimore and the Jays couldn’t count on help from the O’s. Baltimore was ahead of only Cleveland in the division and would go on to lose 95 games that year. Still, a sweep of Milwaukee and the Jays’ magic number would be no more than two heading into the final series of the season in Detroit.

It seemed like a pretty ideal situation. After all, the Brewers had nothing to play for. They were out of the pennant race. How motivated could they possibly be? Milwaukee was a real danger, though. Henke was just one of the Jays who dreaded games against the Brewers. “I hated the Brewers,” he says. “They had my number. They’d send a limo to pick me up if it came down to it because they hit me so much they didn’t want me to miss a game.”

I was with Henke — I saw the Brewers as a real threat to play the spoiler. They had the third best record in the American League. They’d wind up winning 91 games. In fact, of all the teams in the AL East, they had the best record against division rivals. The Brewers had won six of their first 10 games against the Blue Jays that season. They had future Hall of Famers in Robin Yount and Paul Molitor, who’d had a 39-game hitting streak earlier that summer.

On Monday night, the Brewers beat the Jays 6-4 with Mike Flanagan giving up four earned runs and a couple of homers in 4 1/3 innings, taking the loss. There were cheers at Exhibition Stadium, though, when the out of town scoreboard showed the Orioles beating the Tigers, 3-0. The magic number for the Jays remained four, and their division lead was still two-and-a-half games.

Tuesday night there were no cheers. Instead, and maybe for the first time, there was a sense of dread. The Brewers 5-3 win wasn’t really the worst of it. Neither was the fact that Detroit was laying a 10-1 spanking on the Orioles. No, the worst came in the bottom of the sixth when Jays catcher Ernie Whitt slid into second base trying to break up a double-play and wound up breaking a couple of ribs on Molitor’s knee — the Jays’ playoff chances taking another blow on that same patch of dirt where Tony Fernandez’s season had ended just days before.

It was clear that Whitt was in a world of pain when he collided with Molitor. He was an Original Jay and he had won fans over with his grit more than his talent. He wasn’t Old School, more like Olde School. A bruise, a cut, a twisted knee, and Whitt would have bounced right up. This time, though, he stayed down. Whitt had to be helped off the field and taken to Mount Sinai for x-rays.

The Jays didn’t even need to know the results from the hospital. They understood what impact the loss of Whitt would have down the stretch. “I only missed a couple of games that year and the quietest that dressing room was that season was after Ernie got hurt,” says Larry Millson, who covered the team for The Globe and Mail. “They knew their chances took a big hit with Ernie out of the lineup.”

Whitt was batting fifth in the lineup, the protection for George Bell, and at 35, he’d never been hotter. He was tied with Bell for the team lead in home runs in September with eight. Jesse Barfield might have been expected to shore up the No. 5 slot but he was playing through a wrist injury and his production was down. On top of that, Whitt, a Michigan native, always tore it up in Tiger Stadium.

Behind the plate, Whitt’s absence was even more problematic. His longtime partner in the catching platoon, Buck Martinez, had retired after the 1986 season. Down to Charlie Moore, a long-past-it veteran who had come over in mid-season, and 21-year-old rookie Greg Myers, who had yet to step into the batter’s box in the major leagues, the Jays struggled to find to a serviceable replacement. The situation was so dire that Pat Gillick actually made calls to GMs trying to trade for a catcher even though any player he landed would be ineligible for the post-season.

Yet some stayed optimistic — hopelessly so. The venerable Al Widmar, Toronto’s pitching coach, told reporters Whitt’s injury would take two or three weeks in recovery. He even suggested Whitt could be back for the World Series.

You’d think Widmar would have known not to get out ahead of himself — after all, he had been Philadelphia’s pitching coach in 1964, the year the Phillies infamously blew a six-and-a-half game lead with 12 to play, losing 10 in a row at one stretch.

All you can say: It was a time of magical thinking.

The next day, thousands lined Bay Street to salute Ben Johnson, the 25-year-old who had beaten Carl Lewis in the 100-metres at the world championships. Officially, Johnson’s time was rounded off to 9.83. Johnson’s slow roll up Bay Street looked like a dress rehearsal for a Jays’ parade, but the Brewers kept messing up the plans.

That night, Milwaukee completed the three-game sweep with a 5-3 victory at the Ex. Juan Nieves pitched a complete game, while on the other side, Dave Stieb gave up four runs in 4 1/3. The longtime ace of the franchise was in and out of the rotation in September. He’d been so dominant for so many seasons it was strange to see him struggle, especially with his control.

Meanwhile in Baltimore, the Orioles once again knocked off the Tigers — this time 7-3. The Jays still had a game-and-a-half lead. They knew that they’d be going into Detroit with some sort of buffer. As it turned out, it would be a single game: The Tigers won 9-5 in Baltimore that Thursday.

The three games in Detroit were playoff games in everything but name. In fact, they were more dramatic than a lot of playoff series.

Still got it
The veteran Flanagan took it to the limit and beyond in the season's second-last game, pitching 11 innings and allowing a single earned run.

Thursday was a day of rest and travel for the Jays — after four losses in four days, that was just what they needed. But even on their off-day the Jays’ run of bad luck held. They boarded a jet for the short hop to Detroit and things went sideways. “Juan Beniquez was in the back of the plane making baby noises, like crying baby noises,” Jesse Barfield remembers. “We hit a flock of geese. [Lloyd Moseby’s wife] Adrienne hit the call button. My wife, Marla, was sitting right beside her. The engine had flamed up. We had to turn around and come back right away and make an emergency landing. That was a bad situation. Juan in the back was going, ‘Ave Maria.’ It got real quiet … a bad situation. We had to take the bus to Detroit.”

Maybe another team has had a flight pre-empted by a flock of geese, but I’m confident none had the league’s best record while still playing for first place on the last weekend of the season.

Most people regarded Exhibition Stadium as hardly a ballpark at all — a makeshift home until a real stadium was built. There was nothing makeshift about Tiger Stadium, though. Everything around the yard had been leveled. It stood alone in an urban wasteland.  

The ’87 AL East was going to be decided on the same grounds where Detroit beat the Cubs to win the 1935 World Series. Baserunners on the Jays and Tigers were going to be sliding into second base where Ty Cobb spiked the loins of middle infielders back before World War I. 

I had been to Tiger Stadium a few times on assignment and as a fan. It was dingy and dark, archaic and cramped in places. Steel beams obstructed the view of the diamond from a few seats. In other words, it was beautiful. A baseball fan couldn’t help but sense the history walking in there. No corporate boxes. No digital Jumbotron. I tried to imagine the stadium without lights. I looked for the bank of them in right field where Reggie Jackson hit an absolute moonshot during the 1971 All-Star Game that Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell described as the hardest hit baseball he had seen in all his time in the booth. If you turned around, you bumped into history.

“The only reason Williams was able to talk Flanagan into coming out of the game is that Flanagan thought Henke was going in. Flanagan never forgave Jimy for that.”

That week, the Star ran a story by a friend of mine, Martin Levin, who was one of the first aboard Bill James’s sabermetrics train. Martin used a complicated formula devised and popularized by James to determine that, in a short series of games between Toronto and Detroit, the Jays would win 70 per cent of the time. Bottom line, Martin wrote, the Jays had two edges, fielding and pitching, while the Tigers’ edge was in run scoring — they led the American League in that department, though the Jays led in run differential. 

Jack Morris had been the ace of the Detroit staff when they won the 1984 World Series after a dominating 35-5 start to the season, and he says that ballplayers can feel what the numbers might not show. “We had a lot of guys from that ’84 team, players who had been around, and I think coming down the stretch we sensed something special was happening,” Morris says.

None of the advanced stats could factor in the absences of Fernandez and Whitt. And because the metrics extended across the full season they didn’t fully factor in the impact of Doyle Alexander, an alum of the ’85 Jays who was traded to Atlanta for Duane Ward in ’86. A year later, Alexander was on the move again — this time the Tigers picked him up, sending Atlanta their best pitching prospect in return, a kid named John Smoltz who’d wind up in the Hall of Fame.

Jack Morris had been Detroit’s ace but he says Alexander was a crucial add for the race to the pennant. “We’re never there without Doyle,” Morris says. “He did everything we asked him to do. He was a pitcher, not a thrower, a real veteran.” 

If they awarded Cy Youngs for half-seasons, Alexander would have been the unanimous pick for the second half of ’87. As it was, based on seven weeks of work in Detroit, he finished fourth in the voting. The 4-3 victory over Jim Clancy and the Jays on a bitterly cold Friday night was Alexander’s ninth win in 11 starts. It dropped his ERA to 1.53, and it left the Tigers and Jays tied atop the division with two games left. Factor in the possible playoff game on Monday and, after 160 games, the pennant had come down to a best two-out-of-three.

Communication breakdown
Williams opened himself up to blame for the collapse on several occasions, most comically (and tragically) in a failed hit-and-run that saw Cecil Fielder thrown out by miles.

When people talk about the great pitching performances in Blue Jays history, Mike Flanagan’s name doesn’t come up as often as it should. But on that last Saturday of the season, Flanagan took it right to the limit and beyond.

Like I said, in 1987 I had one foot in the press box and the other in the stands. I unabashedly thought of Flanagan with my weight leaning on the foot I kept in the cheap seats. Back in the early ’80s, my friends and I made a point of getting to the Ex as soon as the gates opened on game day, especially if the visiting team had a big-name starter going. The O’s were a priority for us. We’d watch Jim Palmer toss and think, “How does he make it all look so easy, so unhurried?” And we’d listen for Mike Flanagan. He was considered the funniest guy in the game, the coiner of nicknames. When Flanagan was in his ’79 Cy Young season, he called the veteran Jim Palmer “Cy Old”. He was a fountain of one-liners.

Upon arrival in Toronto, he wasted no time in cracking up his teammates. When the Jays acquired Flanagan, they dropped Phil Niekro from their roster and Flanagan wound up with the ancient knuckleballer’s courtesy car. When a new teammate asked Flanagan how he knew that he was driving Niekro’s old car, Flanagan said: “Because Phil left his teeth in it.”. 

The media had saddled Pat Gillick with the nickname “Stand Pat” but the acquisition of Flanagan with the clock ticking at the trade deadline nullified the knocks. The Jays had lost confidence in Dave Stieb, and you got the impression that even Dave Stieb had lost confidence in Dave Stieb — what most had presumed was an impossibility. Getting a former Cy Young winner with a World Series ring and swagger? Well, as a fan, you couldn’t ask anything more of the GM. 

That Saturday, the Jays and Tigers were tied for first. A Toronto win would have at least guaranteed them a tie atop the AL East and a playoff game at Tiger Stadium on Monday. It was Mike Flanagan versus Jack Morris, two guys who didn’t make the Hall of Fame, two guys more clutch than a lot of those in Cooperstown.

Morris pitched in and out of trouble all day long — he walked five batters and the Jays left eight men on base between the fifth and eighth. George Bell got all of a Morris fastball, but he was just out ahead of it and it hooked foul into the upper deck. “I often wondered how that might have changed the way that game went and Sunday too,” says Larry Millson, who was in the press box that day. “Saturday you sensed there was a tightness around the team that might not have been there before. If [that ball off Bell’s bat] had stayed fair, it probably would have loosened up the whole team.”

By the end of nine, Morris had given up only two runs but he’d thrown 163 pitches and was thoroughly spent.

Mike Flanagan didn’t have his greatest stuff, not by a long shot, and he never overpowered anybody. Through nine, he had also surrendered two runs, and it might have only been one and a W for the Jays if it weren’t for an errant throw by Manny Lee in the fifth that led to a run for the home team. Flanagan was out of the game after the bottom of the 11th. He had thrown 139 pitches.

Jimy Williams didn’t go to Henke when he lifted Flanagan, even though the big reliever hadn’t pitched in six days. The scorebook shows that he called for the rookie, Musselman, to start the 12th and that Musselman wound up loading the bases. Mark Eichhorn came on and induced Alan Trammell to hit an infield grounder to the left side of the infield. Manny Lee bent over and the ball went under his glove and right between his feet.

It was too tempting to think “What if?”

What if Tony Fernandez were at shortstop? The game wouldn’t have gone to extras and certainly wouldn’t have ended on Trammel’s routine grounder. What if Whitt were batting fifth instead of rookie Fred McGriff? George Bell might not have been mired in a 1-for-23 slump with Tigers pitchers nibbling at the edges of the strike zone. What if Williams had called for Henke in the 12th on Saturday?

“I’d go in the clubhouse and the doctor would inject me with some numbing stuff just in case they needed to use me. I went out to try to do some things but even with the injections it was just too painful.”

Flanagan was burning up in the clubhouse after the game. He barely stopped short of throwing Williams under the bus and then backing up over the manager. “The only reason Williams was able to talk Flanagan into coming out of the game is that [Flanagan] thought Henke was going in,” Millson says. “Flanagan never forgave Jimy for that. He put it kind of cryptically after the game — he said, ‘There’s no one in this clubhouse that thinks it’s their fault.’ I knew what he was getting at without pointing a finger. He wanted to keep going [and] Henke could have gone more than one inning.” 

On the last day of the season the Jays were down to their last shot. Their last hope. Just watching the six consecutive losses unfold was pure torture and you had to think that anyone who was optimistic about the Jays getting to the World Series was untethered from reality. A win would put them into a playoff game for the AL East. A loss was just too awful to consider.

Ernie Whitt had wanted to get into the game on Friday night or Saturday, but couldn’t go. He still held out hope on Sunday.

“[Before the first two games] I went out to try to do some things but even with the injections it was just too painful,” Whitt says. “I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to start anyways but I could possibly be used in a pitch-hitting role. On the Sunday, I could have possibly gone in and pinch hit and done something. In the fifth or sixth inning, I’d go in the clubhouse and the doctor would inject me with some numbing stuff just in case they needed to use me.”

Garth Iorg almost couldn’t believe that Whitt was game. “You see Ernie out there before the game, trying to swing a bat, and you know just how much it hurts,” Iorg remembers. “It was really gutty on his part.”

The Jays were not at a total disadvantage. The Tigers had home field but the visitors had their best pitcher going.

In discussions about Jays’ history, Jimmy Key probably gets short shrift. When you think of the franchise’s best-ever pitchers, Roy Halladay’s name is the first dropped. People will throw in Dave Stieb, whose sick stuff was just about unhittable. And yeah, Roger Clemens won two Cy Youngs in his brief stint. Yet Jimmy Key’s 1987 season was up there with anyone.

Key finished second to Clemens in the Cy Young voting and, yeah, Clemens had 20 wins to Key’s 17. Still, Key’s run support was spotty. An example: Key pitched back-to-back complete games against the Tigers and Brewers in June, gave up three runs across 18 innings and came out of it with two losses. Key led the league with a 2.76 ERA and a WHIP of just over 1.00. The Jays had their man.

On the other side, the Tigers had Frank Tanana on the mound. One of baseball’s great reinvention stories, Tanana was a lefty who owned a 100-mph fastball until he blew out his arm. By 1987 he was a 33-year-old vet who couldn’t top 90 and had to live on junk and his wits.

Key pitched a gem. Through eight innings he had struck out eight and given up just three hits. One of those hits, though, was a solo homer to Larry Herndon that just scraped over the left-field fence. Watching it on TV, I thought Bell had a play and just mistimed it — he didn’t even jump at the fence.

Herndon’s homer wasn’t a walk-off; it gave the Tigers the narrowest of leads and the Jays still had 15 outs to tie or take the lead. They gave away one of those outs on the strangest play down the stretch: a missed sign and an unintentional attempted steal by the most unlikely thief.

“[Jimy Williams] put on a hit-and-run with Cecil Fielder [at first base],” Barfield says. “We were all into the game and I saw the hit-and-run. Everybody looked at each other, like ‘Did he just put on the hit-and-run? Oh, he didn’t wipe it off.’ We were on pins and needles. And [Manny Lee] didn’t make contact. Cecil was thrown out by 15 miles. Whoever it was who took the throw could have gone for a hotdog, come back and then gone back for the ketchup and still be back in time to make the tag. We were in shock.”

“We should have had three rings with the team we had. Why it didn’t happen, I don’t know.”

The players on the bench were still scratching their heads moments later when Lee smacked a triple that could have tied the game if not for the missed sign.

Anderson elected to let Tanana go the distance. With the lefthander on the mound there was no getting Ernie Whitt off the bench. So, with two out in the ninth and the whole season hanging in the balance, Garth Iorg was the one who stepped up to the plate.

Like Ernie Whitt, Iorg was a bridge from those days when the Jays were still the whipping boys in the AL East. Iorg had been in the organization since Year 1. He was platooning at third base with Rance Mulliniks and having a career year, batting .313, when the team made the playoffs in ’85. In ’87, the Jays had Kelly Gruber at third and a hole at second that Iorg filled along with a cast of others and Iorg was mired in the worst season of his career. He was hitting only .202 with just four home runs in almost 350 at-bats. Back in spring training, he hadn’t been expected to play — the Jays were projecting Mike Sharperson to be their everyday second baseman. When Sharperson didn’t pan out, they were down to Iorg and Liriano.

It would have been storybook stuff if Iorg had somehow managed to hit a bomb off Tanana — or even just get on base to key a comeback and extend the season. The odds were long but only Iorg understood exactly how long they were. It wasn’t just that Tanana was lights out that day. “I hurt my neck and didn’t tell anybody,” Iorg says. “I was fighting all year to get right. And I could just not get right. I didn’t sleep for two months. I was going to a chiropractor in Toronto.”

I’m tempted to say that Iorg’s attitude was a throwback, but really that was still the game in the ’80s. Pro ballplayers’ first instinct was to play through injury, to contribute in any way, no matter what, to a team on course to the playoffs.

At the plate, Iorg had made his living taking outside pitches the other way, but his neck injury robbed him of the ability to reach out across the plate. In the ninth, he got his bat on a pitch but it took four slow hops to reach the mound. With that comebacker to Tanana and the throw to first the fall was complete. That’s how the last at-bat of the Jays’ season turned out.

And coincidentally the last at-bat of Garth Iorg’s career, too.

Down to this
Fighting through a neck injury and the worst season of his career, Iorg stepped into the box for the Jays' final at-bat and failed to deliver a fairytale.

Whether you sit in the stands or on press row, you imagine that those in management have a big vision for the team, some sort of master plan. You think they have a pretty good idea how things will unfold. After the loss in Game 162, though, it was clear that those in the Jays’ front office were shaken.

Paul Beeston, Pat Gillick, Gord Ash and agent Gord Kirke climbed into a car outside Tiger Stadium and drove back to Toronto. “We didn’t hang around after the game,” Ash says. “It sank in [on the drive]. It was a pretty good team, and to lose that game and with the type of lead we had [with a week to go], it was pretty dramatic. Nobody said a word for the four-hour drive.”

It’s tempting to say that the Jays needed the heartbreak in ’87 to become champions down the line. Those are the narratives that fans float in retrospect. No one I talked to saw it that way, though. The view looked entirely different for the players who had been in the organization for years. Each team lives in its own place in time. The 1987 season was just one that got away. “Honestly, at the end, we just felt like we wasted the season,” Whitt says.

The foundation had been poured back in the early ’80s, when Moseby made his Jays debut at 20 and Jesse Barfield made his at 21. When George Bell was added in ’84, the team had the best outfield in baseball and surged to 89 wins. The mid-’80s were a time of so much promise, and yet Barfield talks about those days wistfully as disappointments. “The other day I said to George and Lloyd, ‘We should have had three rings with the team we had,’” Barfield says. “In this game, everything has to be clicking on all cylinders — defence, hitting, pitching. You have to have all three going, and we did. Why it didn’t happen, I don’t know.”

Some turnover was immediate. The decision not to bring back Iorg was probably the easiest —Lee could make the move over to second base. The Jays had to find a way to get the bats of McGriff and Fielder into the lineup and old loyalties can only go so far, so another original Blue Jay, Willie Upshaw, would be gone. Everywhere you looked decisions loomed. Behind the plate Ernie Whitt would be 36 the next season. The Jays had Todd Stottlemyre making his debut the next spring and from the get-go it was clear he’d press Jim Clancy for a spot in the rotation.

And so it went.

By the time the Jays won their first World Series, there were only a handful of holdovers left from the ’87 team — Gruber and Lee among position players; Key, Stieb, Henke and Ward on the mound. And, really, that excruciating near-miss in ’87 had nothing to do with their performance in ’92. Not a thing. Like the stadium on the Lake Shore, that 1987 team wasn’t even in the rearview mirror, it existed only in a memory and the memory of that last week of the season had already begun to fade.

The changes in the city of Toronto over the years have happened daily, so gradually you barely notice. If you look at photos of the skyline from then and now, you wonder if it’s even the same place. All that’s left is a faint imprint of the city we knew, and so it goes for the city’s ballclub. Thirty years later, none of the players from the ’87 Jays work in the organization.

Some have stayed in the game — Tony Fernandez works in the Rangers’ front office, Ernie Whitt scouts for Philly, Garth Iorg for Major League Baseball. Others are out. And with the passage of years, a few from the clubhouse have died, most tragically, John Cerutti, who passed at age 44 while working as a broadcaster covering his old team, and Mike Flanagan, who committed suicide a couple of years after being fired as the Orioles’ GM. “I was real good friends with both John and Mike,” Henke says. “John was so young, too young. Mike was such a good guy, so funny. It’s hard to imagine how any of that happened. There’s just no explanation.”

Time consumes all eventually. Al Widmar and others on the coaching staff are gone. Likewise John Robertson, whose youthful exuberance I envy now that I’m in the age bracket he belonged to back when his cheerleading couldn’t stanch defeat.

Exhibition Stadium felt the last swings of the wrecking ball in 1999, Tiger Stadium 10 years later. You can’t find that few square feet on the CNE grounds where second base had been situated, where the seasons of Tony Fernandez and Ernie Whitt and, really, the Jays’ 1987 campaign ended. Where Tiger Stadium used to stand, they’ve traced out an infield where the original was, so you can see exactly where Garth Iorg’s comebacker died in Frank Tanana’s glove and with it the Toronto season that promised so much just eight days before.

It’s not just that it seems like another team. It seems like an entirely different game, another time. And it was. All the soaring moments of 96 wins thrown into eclipse by seven awful games in the fall of ’87.

Photo Credits

Illustrations by Aaron Dana. Design by Drew Lesiuczok. Gray Mortimore/Getty Images; Focus on Sport/Getty Images (4); B Bennett/Getty Images.