By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (July 8) — In my last blog, I recalled a difficult juncture in the spring and summer of 1970 that included the Kent State shootings and the crash of a DC–8 jetliner northeast of Toronto Pearson Airport. It was around the same time, at 11 years of age, that I became a local sports junkie following our only two professional clubs — the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Argonauts. Not for seven more years would Major League Baseball and the Toronto Blue Jays arrive here in town.
Having observed Blue Jays third–baseman Josh Donaldson in the first half of the current season, I got to thinking about the best Toronto professional athletes in my years watching sport. I could easily list 20 or so names, but this is a blog not a book. Donaldson, in my view, may be the second–best position player in Blue Jays history to Hall–of–Famer Roberto Alomar. I don’t believe there’s a better all-round performer in baseball this year and — barring injury — Donaldson will again be a finalist for American League MVP. Acquired from Oakland last Nov. 28 for fellow third–baseman Brett Lawrie; pitchers Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin, and infield prospect Franklin Barreto, Donaldson is correspondingly the second or third–best trade acquisition in Blue Jays history — behind Alomar and, perhaps, Joe Carter, who accompanied Alomar in the December 1990 deal with San Diego and will always be remembered for his walk–off home run that won the 1993 World Series.
For the purpose of this exercise — and after months of intense, cranial–cramping deliberation — I have narrowed the count to six. As in the top half–dozen Toronto pro athletes in my years watching sport. You may agree; disagree or laugh out loud. I’ll look forward to your comments.
VIEW FROM THE BASEBALL PRESS BOX AT EXHIBITION STADIUM — HOME OF THE BLUE JAYS AND ARGONAUTS FROM 1977 TO 1989. FOOTBALL MARKINGS CAN BE SEEN IN THE OUTFIELD.
In order, here are my Toronto Six:
1. Roberto Alomar — second–baseman — Toronto Blue Jays.
2. Doug Flutie — quarterback — Toronto Argonauts.
3. Doug Gilmour — center — Toronto Maple Leafs.
4. Dave Stieb — starting pitcher — Toronto Blue Jays.
5. Borje Salming — defenceman — Toronto Maple Leafs.
6. Carlos Delgado — first–baseman — Toronto Blue Jays.
ROBERTO ALOMAR / TORONTO BLUE JAYS / 1991–1995
Robbie Alomar was here for only five years, but no athlete in my time ever accomplished as much for a Toronto pro sports team.
His two–run homer in the ninth inning off Dennis Eckersley — Oct. 11, 1992 — remains the most significant moment in Blue Jays history. I was standing at field level in the Oakland Coliseum that late–Sunday afternoon, next to the visitors’ dugout, and roughly 30 feet to the right of home–plate. It was Game 4 of the American League Championship Series between the Jays and Oakland A’s; Toronto leading the best–of–seven playoff, 2–1, but trailing in the game, 6-4.
Covering the ALCS as a reporter for The Fan–590, I had viewed 7½ innings from the auxiliary press box in the upper–deck of the Coliseum, slightly down the third–base line. In the bottom of the eighth, I made my way to the media lounge between the clubhouses. For whatever reason, I chose to leave the lounge and descend a long stairwell that led to a fenced–in walkway between the dugouts. I turned right and parked myself next to Blue Jays’ veteran radio voice Jerry Howarth. From that remarkable vantage–point, I watched Alomar approach the plate.
During the late–80’s and early–90’s, Eckersley was about the surest thing in baseball. When he appeared in a save situation, Oakland almost never lost. His fastball and pin–point control were deadly. A’s captured the American League pennant in 1988–89–90 and 1992; they won the ’89 World Series over San Francisco — its opener, at Candlestick Park, famously postponed by the 6.9–magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake.
Eckersley had angered the Blue Jays when he pumped his fist at the visitors’ dugout after striking out third–baseman Ed Sprague to end the top of the eighth. Jays center–fielder Devon White led off the ninth with a single to left and moved to third on an error by Rickey Henderson.
Alomar stepped up and hammered an Eckersley pitch into the right–field bleachers to promptly tie the game (Oakland had earlier built a 6-1 lead). As soon as he dropped his bat, Alomar thrust both arms into the air (as per the photo at the top of this section) and let out a whoop. He began to jog toward first base as the ball cleared the fence. The sound I’ll never forget came from my immediate right — in the visitors’ dugout. Remembering how Eckersley had shown them up with the fist–pump minutes earlier, the Blue Jays unleashed a verbal attack on the Oakland pitcher that would have embarrassed a sailor. Never before had I been party to such raw invective and Eckersley heard every syllable.
Without Alomar’s dramatic home run, the Blue Jays would not have beaten Oakland, 7–6, that day and may not have advanced to the 1992 World Series against Atlanta. Who knows what changes a fourth ALCS defeat in as many tries (since 1985) would have led to. As it were, the Jays knocked off Oakland in six and did the same to Atlanta. With Paul Molitor and Dave Stewart added, wins over the Chicago White Sox and Philadelphia produced another world championship for our city in 1993.
IN 2011, ROBERTO ALOMAR (CENTER) BECAME THE FIRST TORONTO BLUE JAYS PLAYER TO BE ELECTED TO THE BASEBALL HALL OF FAME IN COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. ALOMAR WENT IN WITH THE MAN THAT BROUGHT HIM TO TORONTO FROM SAN DIEGO — FORMER BLUE JAYS GENERAL MANAGER PAT GILLICK (LEFT) — AND EX–PITCHER BERT BLYLEVEN.
Had Alomar done nothing else for the Blue Jays, he would have qualified for my Top 6 list. But, his overall performance for the club — particularly in the World Series seasons — made him the first Toronto player elected to Cooperstown. In ’92, he batted .310 with nine homers and 76 RBI. His .423 batting average and his jack against Eckersley earned him the MVP award in the ’92 ALCS. Alomar followed in ’93 by hitting .326 with 17 homers and 93 RBI — remarkable production from second base. He later had terrific seasons with Baltimore and Cleveland and was an All Star for 12 consecutive years: 1990 to 2001.
As part of my next blog, I’ll look at No. 2 on my list — Toronto Argonauts quarterback Doug Flutie, a Grey Cup champ here in 1996 and 1997.
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