How Blue Jays rode ex-nemeses Molitor, Stewart to second straight title

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The Blue Jays celebrating their victory. (Rich Pilling/Sporting News/Getty Images)

TORONTO – During the free-agent negotiations that brought Jack Morris to the Toronto Blue Jays in December 1991, the ace right-hander and general manager Pat Gillick hardly spoke. For years, the two had been fierce rivals, one fronting the Detroit Tigers’ pitching staff, one constructing a club trying to knock down the American League East powerhouse. Then in the ’91 American League Championship Series, Morris won two games as the Minnesota Twins knocked off the much stronger Blue Jays in five games.

In the aftermath, Gillick wanted to inject his club with some of the tenacity and determination that were Morris trademarks. Morris wanted a chance to win again and to get paid, which he did, spurning a richer offer from the Boston Red Sox to sign a two-year deal that guaranteed $10.85 million. Once the agreement was done, Morris remembers a celebratory dinner with a boisterous Paul Beeston, but not Gillick.

“I really didn’t talk to Pat much,” Morris said during a 2015 interview for The Big 50: Toronto Blue Jays. “The only words out of his mouth were, ‘I got tired of having you beat us.’ So that was his indirect compliment I guess.”

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Morris certainly delivered in 1992, winning 21 games to become the franchise’s first pitcher to break the 20-win plateau and providing the poise and competitive fire Gillick sought. His post-season performance was uneven, with the Blue Jays losing three of his four starts, but they still ended up winning the club’s first World Series.

With the re-airing of the 1993 run beginning Monday night on Blue Jays Classics (7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT), it’s intriguing to see the way the Morris signing informed Gillick’s roster recalibration a year later.

Morris and Dave Winfield, another Blue Jays tormentor with an .840 OPS in 130 career games vs. Toronto, were the prime additions ahead of the ’92 season, but the DH/outfielder was a free agent and left for the Twins.

Joining Winfield in the mass exodus off the defending World Series champions were Jimmy Key, David Cone, Tom Henke, David Wells, Candy Maldonado, Kelly Gruber and Manny Lee. Even with Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter, John Olerud, Devon White, Juan Guzman, Pat Hentgen and Duane Ward providing a remarkable foundation to work from, there was still roughly 15 WAR to cover off, not including the loss of Jeff Kent, who was traded to the New York Mets to help get Cone.

Internal improvements from Hentgen and Olerud, who chased a .400 average into August, and Ed Sprague substantially helped cover the gap, but Gillick also mimicked some of his success from the previous winter by targeting two other former nemeses – Paul Molitor and Dave Stewart.

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Molitor had long pestered the Blue Jays with the Milwaukee Brewers, who finished second to the Blue Jays, four games back, in the AL East the previous season. Stewart owned some of the demons in their ghoulish playoff past, beating them twice in the 1989 ALCS, won in five games by the Oakland Athletics, and the A’s won both his starts in the ’92 ALCS, won in six games by the Blue Jays.

Both were perfect to ensure no sort of complacency set in on the roster.

Molitor was still chasing the first championship of his career and hadn’t been in the post-season since Milwaukee’s seven-game, World-Series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1982, and getting a ring was his sole motivation. Stewart’s intensity, made famous by a death stare so fierce that even peak Mike Tyson would have thought twice about messing with him, revolved solely around winning.

Outfielder Darrin Jackson, shortstop Dick Schofield, utilityman Darnell Coles and reliever Danny Cox were among the other additions, as was Willie Canate, an outfielder selected by Cincinnati from Cleveland in the Rule 5 draft the Blue Jays purchased in April and carried on the roster all season.

Cox and Coles both helped the club, but Schofield got hurt and Jackson didn’t work out, leading to his mid-season trade to the Mets for old friend Tony Fernandez, whose return was precisely what the Blue Jays needed up the middle.

Then at the deadline, Gillick acquired yet another giver of Blue Jays nightmares, getting Rickey Henderson from the Oakland Athletics for a top pitching prospect named Steve Karsay.

The Blue Jays won the AL East by seven games over the New York Yankees – who were just about to begin a run of 18 playoff appearances in 19 years – setting themselves up to repeat as World Series champions.

The roster turnover was significant, “but none of us knew if it was going to work,” said Morris.

“We had no real idea that Paul could be as good, if not better, than Dave Winfield. And certainly, Stew had a track record of his own but he had never been a part of our team, so we didn’t really know how much of what he had left in the tank was going to be out there. Both those guys were pro’s pros. Pauly, it’s just amazing how he really helped ignite the offence in a different way than Winfield. Winfield would hit the doubles and home runs and get the key hits, but Paul, it just seemed like he would be on base just tormenting like he always did. Toronto was just fortunate to get such marquee guys to be the backbone of a group that needed that leadership.”

Like with Morris and Winfield the year before, it took time getting used to Molitor – named World Series MVP – and Stewart in Blue Jays uniforms. But if you can’t beat them, sign them, and better yet, win with them, too.

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