The following is an excerpt from Shi Davidi’s The Big 50: The Men and Moments that made the Toronto Blue Jays.
At the pinnacle, after Otis Nixon bunted, and Mike Timlin pounced on it, and the Toronto Blue Jays and their fans held their collective breath as the relay went to Joe Carter at first base, and Jerry Crawford signalled out, and the World Series he’d spent 16 years trying to win was at long last agonizingly won, the thing Pat Gillick felt most was relief. Certainly there was joy, elation…all the stuff you’d expect.
But after all the work put in to building an expansion franchise from the ground up, after all the losses during those years of development and all the heartbreak during the winning seasons, the Blue Jays had reached the summit.
“I’ve never climbed Mount Everest or anything,” said Gillick, “but it’s sort of like climbing a mountain, and when you get to the top, you take a deep breath and say you finally made it.”
That’s precisely how it felt on the night of Saturday, October 24, 1992, as Carter took Timlin’s toss to end Game 6 of the World Series and CBS broadcaster Sean McDonough declared that, “For the first time in history, the world championship banner will fly north of the border. The Toronto Blue Jays are baseball’s best in 1992.”
Winning the season’s last game—4–3 in 11 innings over the Atlanta Braves—triggered the kind of never-been-done-before high that players, coaches, the front office, and fans can experience only once. Improving from expansion doormat in 1977 to American League East champion in 1985 was fun; waiting another seven years to make the jump from division winner to World Series champion was excruciating. Along the way cruel labels like “Blow Jays” were attached, and the battle scars accumulated. For many, the euphoric dog pile on the Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium infield was cathartic.
“Even though I wasn’t here in ’85, ’87, and ’89, we all knew that baggage was there,” said Carter.
“The year before, when we got beat by Minnesota in the ALCS, we took it upon ourselves, [me] and Pat Tabler. We said, ‘You know what? We’re coming to spring training and next season we have one goal, and that’s to win the World Series. Not get there. Heck, I don’t want to get to the World Series, I want to win the World Series.’ So all the history, we put it behind us, and we said we’re going to focus on now. And when you win that first one, it’s a big relief.”
The five-game loss to the Twins in the previous October stung deeply, and in many ways it shaped some of the key moves that pushed the Blue Jays over the top in 1992. Gillick felt the ’91 team had been superior to Minnesota, which needed seven games to beat the Braves in the World Series, yet his group wilted at the moment of truth. The free-agent signings of workhorse starter Jack Morris away from the Twins, as well as designated hitter Dave Winfield, were designed in part to address that lack of killer instinct. Veteran infielder Alfredo Griffin, another free-agent addition, added a cool and savvy presence in the clubhouse to complement Morris’ toughness and Winfield’s determination. Morris’ pre-signing conversation with Gillick was succinct: “The only words out of [Gillick’s] mouth were, ‘I got tired of having you beat us,’” Morris said.
Morris joined a rotation that also included Juan Guzman, Jimmy Key, Todd Stottlemyre, and, at different points, Dave Stieb, David Wells, and Pat Hentgen. Eventually the staff would be bolstered by the acquisition of David Cone. Wells and Hentgen pitched mostly out of a bullpen that also featured the dynamic duo of Tom Henke and Duane Ward. Together the pitchers posted a 3.91 ERA, just below league average but ninth in the American League.
The loop’s second best offence with 780 runs (11 fewer than the Detroit Tigers) helped cover the gap. The lineup featured seven players with at least 11 home runs, led by Carter with 34. Carter drove in 119 and Winfield 108, while the dynamic Roberto Alomar did a little bit of everything with a team-best .405 on-base percentage, 177 hits, 105 runs scored, 76 RBIs, and 49 stolen bases to go with his Gold Glove defence. “You better be able to win with all that,” said Tabler.
Win they did, from Opening Day onward, spending only six days all season out of first place in the American League East, and none after May 24. At no point did the Blue Jays trail by more than a half game. Even though they finished only four games ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers, they were in control from start to finish, a sense of purpose carrying them through the grind.
“I had been on two world championship teams and I looked around and said, ‘This is another one,’” said Morris, who became the franchise’s first 20-game winner. “I just sensed it, and everybody in the locker room was committed early to winning. They had tasted the postseason, the guys that were here. Of course Winfield and I were new, and Dave wanted it as bad as I wanted it. In general, there was an atmosphere of, ‘We’re going to win this thing,’ and that was predetermined from way early in the season, not just late in the year.”
Still, the regular season was not without its challenges. Stieb, coming off a neck injury that cost him nearly the entire 1991 season, struggled with elbow and shoulder issues and finished the year on the disabled list. Kelly Gruber’s offence disappeared and was never to be found again. And the Brewers and Baltimore Orioles simply wouldn’t go away.
Despite being in command, the Blue Jays never led the division by more than five games. They were just 2.5 games up on the Orioles when they acquired David Cone from the New York Mets in a stunning waiver deal on August 27. The price was steep: infielder Jeff Kent, who ended up having a Hall of Fame–calibre career, and outfield prospect Ryan Thompson, who flamed out despite being the piece Gillick was most reluctant to part with.
“We thought about it and we said, ‘You know, David Cone is a guy that we think can put us over the hump,’” said Gillick. “And at the same time, it kind of deflates your competition if you can do something like that. Psychologically, I think it has that effect on the people that are pursuing you.”
Cone went 4–3 with a 2.55 ERA in eight games, including one relief appearance, down the stretch while stabilizing the rotation. The Blue Jays clinched the American League East on the penultimate day of the season with a 3–1 victory over the Detroit Tigers, and the focus shifted to exorcising postseason demons. Their opponent was the Oakland Athletics, a team that bested them in five games in the 1989 American League Championship Series.
“Among ourselves, when we put us up man-to-man, we were better than most teams,” said centre fielder Devon White. “As a team and the chemistry we had with each other, it was without a doubt the best during that period.”
The World Series, which opened in Atlanta, was uncharted territory for the franchise and its jubilant fan base, and more heroics were needed early on to keep things from going sideways. Damon Berryhill’s three-run homer off Morris in the sixth inning of Game 1 put the Blue Jays down 1–0 in the Series, and they trailed 4–3 with one out in the ninth of Game 2 when Bell came to the plate for Lee against closer Jeff Reardon. Bell, an energetic, 23-year-old fourth outfielder, worked an eight-pitch walk and Ed Sprague, a catching/corner infield prospect called up midsummer, batted for Ward.
Gaston had told Sprague in the previous inning to be ready to pinch-hit, so he’d had plenty of time to prepare. During the gap he asked Rance Mulliniks what he looked for against Reardon, and the utility infielder told him to be ready for a high fastball. On the first pitch, that’s what he got—and he belted it over the wall in left-centre field to put the Blue Jays up 5–4. After Henke survived a nervous ninth, the trajectory of the entire Series changed. “It was like, oh my God, we could be down 0–2 to Atlanta, and this might be our last chance,” said Tabler. “And then for him to homer, we were so excited.”
There was more excitement to come. Game 3 on October 20 was the first World Series contest ever played outside the United States. It started with a Marines unit from New York carrying out the Canadian flag before the game. (Before Game 2, the Maple Leaf was brought in upside down in Atlanta. U.S. president George Bush issued an apology for the flap.) By the eighth inning of Game 3 in Toronto, the Blue Jays faced a 2–1 deficit with Steve Avery dealing on the mound. Gruber, who had just two hits in the postseason to that point, led off, battled the lefty for seven pitches, and then turned on the eighth offering for his only homer of the playoffs. As he rounded third he pointed to some friends in the stands, plus his mom and popular Canadian musician Anne Murray, who sang the national anthem before the game. “She’s a friend,” he said afterward.
That set the stage for more drama in the ninth. Alomar led off with a single against Avery and then, with Mark Wohlers pitching, stole second, leading to an intentional walk for Carter. Winfield sacrificed the runners over for John Olerud, bringing in lefty Mike Stanton. Gaston countered with Sprague, leading to another intentional walk, Reardon came in and Maldonado belted an 0–2 pitch over Nixon’s head in centre to win the game, triggering pandemonium. The next night, a 2–1 win in Game 4 behind 71/3 dominant innings from Key gave the Blue Jays a stranglehold on the series, but John Smoltz beat Morris 7–2 in Game 5 to send things back to Atlanta.
Cone got the ball for Game 6 and held the Braves to one run over six strong frames, leaving with a 2–1 advantage thanks to Maldonado’s solo shot off Avery to open the fourth. That lead held until the ninth, when Nixon’s two-out ground ball single got through the left side off Henke to knot things up.
In the 11th Charlie Leibrandt, who’d beaten the Blue Jays with the Kansas City Royals in Game 7 of the 1985 ALCS, took over for the Braves. He hit White with one out. Alomar followed with a single. After Carter flied out, up came Winfield, who in his 19th bigleague season was still chasing his first championship—and who had just seven RBIs and a .200 average in 25 career playoff games to that point.
“You get the full range of emotions, but the positive outweighed anything in the past,” Winfield said of stepping into the batter’s box. “It took me 19 years [in] the professional ranks to be able to put my imprint on a World Series. So I thought about when I was 12 years old, when you just finish practice, men on base, last game of the season, and you want to do well. I thought about that, I thought a little about the last time I was in the World Series with the Yankees, [when] we came up short, which was 11 years before that. But I just thought it was a great opportunity, and you just think positively and want to come through. You don’t know how, but it’s, ‘Just get a hit, make a difference.’”
With the count 3–2 after a good take on a breaking ball low and away, Winfield made a difference, hooking a ball down the third base line for a two-run double, his first extra-base hit in 44 World Series at-bats. White and Alomar scored easily. Pivotally, Braves third baseman Terry Pendleton was playing well off the line, which gave him no shot at knocking down the ball. A crowd of 51,763 went silent while the Blue Jays celebrated in the dugout.
“We were fortunate they weren’t guarding the line,” said Winfield. “I remember that once it got past the infield and it kicked around in the corner, I said, ‘That’s two guys in.’ And I’ll just tell you, some people think that hitting a home run to win the game is the ultimate. But when you’re on the road and you get a hit, and you put a dagger in the opposition like that, and you’re standing in the middle of the field, that is a great feeling, because you silence 50,000 people, and the only people out cheering are your teammates, and a small section of people who happened to get tickets for your team.”
Still, three outs remained, and the Blue Jays had already used both Ward and Henke. Key, who came out of the bullpen on short rest to get two outs in the 10th, was back out for the 11th and allowed a leadoff single to Jeff Blauser before Berryhill reached on a Griffin error. After a Rafael Belliard sacrifice and a run-scoring Brian Hunter groundout, Gaston came out to visit Key. Nixon, 8-for-23 in his career against the lefty, was up next. When Gaston asked him what he was thinking, Key admitted that he hadn’t much luck against the speedster. So Gaston brought in Timlin, the right-hander with all of four big-league saves under his belt. Nixon fouled off the first pitch, then dropped a bunt up the first-base line on his second. Timlin pounced on it, and the World Series came to an end in the glove of Carter, who was playing first base during the games under National League rules so that Winfield could play right field.
“That last out, biggest game of my career, biggest game in Toronto Blue Jays history and I’m like, ‘What am I doing at first base?’” said Carter. “The thing I’m most impressed with was after catching the final out and jumping on the pile, the celebration went on for about two minutes on the field, and I’m in the pile, the bottom, the top, jumping and everything, and not once did I drop that ball. The ball was in my glove the whole time.”
Said Winfield, “It was the fulfillment of a dream…and it took me a long time to get there. I prepared my best, every day, every day of every year, but you need a team, and we had a team. And then once we were celebrating and all the energy was gone, I remember after hugging all the guys, I looked for Cito Gaston, because he helped me when I was a kid. We were roommates briefly in San Diego, and from a roommate, all of a sudden you’re playing for your friend as the manager. I was as happy for him as I was for myself.”
At the end of the celebrations, Timlin approached Carter and asked about that ball. “I’m like, ‘It’s right here,’” relayed Carter. “He said, ‘You’ve got to give it to me, that’s my save.’ I’m like, ‘Okay.’ So I gave it to him. He had it all encased and wrapped up and everything. That was a big moment for us.”