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1989 and The Audacity of Hope

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The Jays are mired in a terrible May and look dead in the water. But does the past offer some semblance of hope?

Toronto Blue Jays v Oakland Athletics Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

After an expectation defying April, the Jays have collapsed in the month of May. Injuries have made the Jays defense arguably one of the worst in baseball. The offense is sputtering, as several starters find themselves with anemic offensive numbers. Most importantly, other than JA Happ, the starting pitching has collapsed and an overworked bullpen missing their best reliever is breaking down trying to absorb too many innings. With Los Angeles and Seattle off to strong starts and Tampa Bay and Oakland muddling along, the Jays sit 8.5 games out of a wild card spot. and a hilarious 13 games back of the division lead. Unless fortunes change dramatically over the month of June, this is a team that is likely headed for a sell off of any asset not signed for next year at the minimum.

But is all hope lost?

There’s a similar season in the Jays past that was also equally frustrating, demoralizing, and watching all contention slip away, until, like the plot of the hugely successful comedy ‘Major League’ released in April of that year, the Jays stormed back to win their second division title in franchise history. Ricky Vaughn and Willie Mays Hayes might not be on the horizon, but there is a lesson to take away from that season about luck, hope and the unpredictability of the Baseball Gods for any baseball team.

In 1988, the Jays had been in a dogfight all year in the East, finished tied for third in the division, just two games back of the Red Sox. Oakland would sweep Boston away in the Pennant, only to be crushed by the LA Dodgers and one of the most iconic home runs ever by Kirk Gibson. There was a lot of optimism around the team, for good reason. They still had the best outfield in baseball, even if it was getting a bit long in the tooth, between Bell, Barfield and Moseby. Kelly Gruber and Fred McGriff were emerging as All-Star calibre players. Their bullpen included their dominating closer Tom Henke, an emerging fireballer in Duane Ward and an intriguing lefty longman named David Wells. Their rotation in particular was considered to be one of the strongest in the division, with ace Dave Stieb, lefties Jimmy Key, Mike Flanagan and John Cerutti, and considered the next possible ace, Todd Stottlemyre. The Jays were considered by the media to be a possible favourite to win the division.

The season started with a solid 4-3 win behind Opening Day starter Jimmy Key against the Kansas City Royals. The Royals were a strong team with a tough rotation, as Tom Gordon and Bret Saberhagan out dueled Todd Stottlemyre and Mike Flanagan, taking the series two games to one. The Jays lost the next series 2-1 to the Texas Rangers in Arlington, before rebounding to win their first series 2-1 against the New York Yankees in the Bronx.The Jays came home for their Opening Day at Exhibition Stadium to face the Royals again, hoping to get rolling.

April 14th, 1989 was a day game. Over 46,000 packed Exhibition Stadium, aware that it would be the final one for the ballpark, as the exciting and futuristic SkyDome was due to open in a few weeks. The converted football field with seats facing away from the plate and a position so unique by the lake to have its own micro-climate effects was finally going to be retired as the new all purpose stadium promised a bright future for the converted railroad properties off Front Street. Jimmy Key was taking the mound against Charlie Leibrandt. The game was a pitchers duel, scoreless into the bottom of the 7th. Fred McGriff whacked a full count breaking ball into shallow centre for a single. Pat Borders bunted him over to second. Leibrandt then walked Bob Brenly on 7 pitches to put a men at first and second. Manuel Lee hit a swinging bunt up the third base line. While he was thrown out at first, both runners were able to advance. Leibrandt tried to sneak a change-up on the corner past Nelson Liriano on a 1-1 count, but he ripped it between second and third into left field, scoring McGriff and Brenly. Lloyd Moseby hit a sharp single to right field, but Liriano made a big turn around second, allowing Danny Tartabull to come up firing and let Brad Wellman tag him before he could get back. George Bell would add another run in the 8th, bring home Kelly Gruber from third with one out. Key pitched a clean ninth for the compete game shutout and his second win of the season.

The bullpen collapsed in the second game of the series, but they came back to win the third and final game 15-8, despite starter Dave Stieb giving up six runs in the first and only recording a single out. David Wells took the win, giving up two more runs over four innings. Tony Castillo earned what is unthinkable today; a 4.2 inning save, shutting out the Royals for the last half of the game. The Jays were at .500 with a 6-6 record. They would go on to win just 4 of their next 18 games as the wheels completely came off the team’s season.

There were a number of reasons for the losses. Several players were mired in slumps, not getting onbase consistantly and outside of McGriff, not hitting for power. The rotation was maddingly inconsistent and Stottlemyre was looking more and more like he wasn’t ready for the Majors. Worse, the bullpen was hugely uneffective. Henke was sporting a bloated ERA of 11.37 and Ward had already lost more games than any starter. In an attempt to bolster the rotation, Pat Gillick traded Jesse Barfield to the New York Yankees for Al Leiter. Leiter was an exciting prospect with an electic arm. Barfield’s defense was still one of the best in baseball, but the right fielder was slumping at the plate and refused to be platooned with Rob Ducey. Leiter made one start, lasting 6.2 innings before injury and arthroscopic surgery ended his year. Between 1989-1992, Leiter would pitch fewer than 20 innings with the Jays.

Over the stretch the Jays won only a single series against Texas, while being swept by the A’s and by the California Angels twice. They were 10-20 on May 7th. However, after a rain postponed off-day, the Jays welcomed the Seattle Mariners to Toronto. They took the series but most importantly, the starting rotation showed up. Stieb dominated the Mariners for his third win. The Mariners beat Flanagan 4-3, as his solid outing was ruined by a wild pitch that scored one run and set up a runner at third for a second. Jimmy Key went nine innings, allowing only two runs before RBIs by Bob Brenly, Junior Felix and George Bell walked off the game against Mark Langston. The Jays were still underwater at 12-20, but there were at least signs of life.

Until they went to Minnesota and the Twins smothered them to death with a pillow. Once again, the bullpen couldn’t hold a lead and the Twins rallied in the 7th to score three runs and beat the Jays 6-5. In the second game, the Jays were locked in a 1-1 tie until Stieb broke down in the 5th, allowing five more runs. The bullpen coughed up four more over the next three innings, and despite a five run rally in the 7th and two more in the 9th, the Jays lost again, 10-8. If the first two games had broken the back of the Jays spirit, the last game ground whatever was left into dust.

On Sunday, May 14th, the Jays faced the Twins at the Metrodome with a 12-23 record on the year. Mike Flanagan was facing Frank Viola, the reigning Cy Young winner, coming off a 24 win season. Viola carved up the Jays lineup, allowing just one run in the 4th. Meanwhile, Mike Flanagan fell apart in the 3rd, allowing 5 earned runs. Todd Stottlemyre was sent in on long relief, and gave up 4 more runs, only to be relieved by Tony Castillo. Castillo gave up two inherited runners on a double and a sacrifice fly to close out the 7th. In the 8th, the Jays season seemed to manifest itself with an avatar in Castillo. star faced 5 batters in the 8th. Every batter reached. Al Newman reached on a throwing error to first by Kelly Gruber. He then gave up three straight singles (with a wild pitch mixed in for fun) and a double before being replaced by David Wells, who quickly closed out the inning. The Jays lost 13-1, dropping their record to 12-24 on the season.

That was the final straw for the Front Office. After arriving back in Toronto on the 15th, Manager Jimy Williams was fired and Cito Gaston was appointed interim manager. Gaston wasn’t Gillick’s first choice and had little interest in moving from his role as batting coach. He was trying to hire Lou Piniella, but the former manager was doing television work for the Yankees, and George Steinbrenner demanded David Wells, Duane Ward and Todd Stottlemyre in return for him. Interestingly, while talks quietly continued over June and July, it was Piniella that convinced Gillick that he already had the right person managing the team. Gaston was popular with his players in a way Williams wasn’t, and the team went on to win three out of four of their next series, going 8-4 while sweeping the hapless White Sox. However, with a series in Cleveland to finish out May, it looked like the Jays brief spurt of success was going to be just that; a brief exception to their season.

Cleveland was struggling in 1989, three games under .500 themselves. The started the series with their ace on the mound, and Tom Candiotti delivered with 7 innings of 3 run pitching. The struggling Mike Flanagan lasted just 2 innings, allowing three runs. Frank Wills, a depth piece at the back of the bullpen gave up two more as the Indians won 5-3. In the second game, first round pick Alex Sanchez and AAAA reliever DeWayne Buice allowed three runs each and the Jays could only hit a pair of runs off future Dream Job for a Manager John Farrell.

On May 31st, in front of a hilarious small crowd in Cleveland Stadium (Major League was funny in part because many of the problems in the film were real issues for the club; aging facility, poor attendance, etc). Jimmy Key was on the mound, one of the most reliable starters up to that point, facing fringe starter Rich Yett. The Indians jumped on Key early. Jerry Browne tripled into the gap on a 1-1 pitch, and Oddibe McDowell drove him home with a ground out to the first base side. With 2 out, Cory Snyder walked on 4 pitches, stole second, and was singled home by Pete O’Brien. The Jays answered quickly, with George Bell belting a deep home run to centre in the 2nd. In the 3rd, they chased starter Rich Yett scoring three more runs to make the game 4-2. Junior Felix bunted for a single and Tony Fernandez followed that with a double to put men on second and third with no outs. Kelly Gruber drove in a run with a dribbler down the third base line. George Bell hit a sacrifice fly to left just deep enough to score on. Fred McGriff just barely missed a home run, doubling to centre field, and came home two batters later when Lloyd Moseby punched a single into right. Future manager Bud Black came in relief of Yett and the party stopped, as he went on to throw 4.1 scoreless innings of relief while Key gave up 5 runs over 7 innings. Tom Henke allowed 2 more insurance runs in the bottom of the 8th, including a deep home run on his second pitch to future Jay Joe Carter. The Jays now sat at 20-31, last in the division, 7.5 games out of first.

We know what happened next. The Jays went 17-10 in June and 15-12 in July, despite a 2-9 stretch that many were calling the ‘real Jays’ level of play. From August on, the Jays went crazy, with a 37-20 record down the stretch to close out the season in first. They lost the division series 4-1 to the Athletics, dominated by one of Oakland’s truly great teams that year.

Now, there are a hundred differences between the 1989 Blue Jays and the 2018 Blue Jays. But at the same time that year, the Jays were buried in the division race and written off for dead by sports media and fans. Does that mean a resurgence is likely or that the Jays have a quick fix to pull themselves back in contention?

No.

But, it is a good reminder that the Baseball Gods are fickle. That teams are rarely as bad as they look when they’re struggling. Most importantly, as fans, until the cold equations of baseball and the season confirm it, there’s still hope. It might not be realistic and it might not be practical, but really, what part of being a fan is realistic and practical? I won’t bet my house on the Jays making the playoffs, but until I have no other choice, 1989 taught me that I’ll still bet my heart.