By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Sep. 3) — Baseball fans, get ready for some magic.
Or, in the case of the Toronto Blue Jays, some more magic.
Within two weeks — barring the unforeseen and for the first time in 22 years — a daily numeral will start to appear on the sports pages of newspapers across Canada. This figure will honor the timeless baseball tradition of mathematically counting toward a playoff appearance. It will be known as the “Magic Number” — a combination (at the moment) of Toronto victories and New York losses that would clinch the American League East Division for the Blue Jays. Or, should the Yankees move in front, a combination (at the moment) of Toronto victories and Texas defeats that would clinch an American League Wild Card berth.
As of now, with the Jays and Yankees idle tonight, Toronto leads the A.L. East by 1½ games over New York. There are no other contenders for the division title — third–place Tampa Bay is perched 10 full games behind Toronto. The Blue Jays have a 5½–game lead on Texas, which holds the No. 2 Wild Card and final playoff spot in the American League.
Given the Rangers and Blue Jays do not meet again, it would require a monumental collapse for Toronto to extend its playoff drought, which dates to 1995. From a sports perspective, the words “Toronto” and “collapse” have been intrinsic through the years. But, at 26–6 in their past 32 games, and leading the Majors in runs scored by a considerable margin (730–646 over the Yankees), it is nearly — and, I repeat, nearly — impossible to envision the Blue Jays reprising the local pattern.
TORONTO STAR “MAGIC NUMBER” FROM SEP. 21, 1985.
So, get ready for those numbers, which should begin to appear around the third week of September. It’s been 30 years since the first–such experience for Blue Jays fans — the 1985 pennant drive in which Toronto ousted New York on the penultimate day of the season. As in ’85, the final month of the schedule will be an emotional roller–coaster for followers of the Blue Jays and Yankees; the A.L. East crown largely to be determined by seven remaining head–to–head match–ups. As you will undoubtedly note in this reflection from my ’85 baseball scrapbook, triumph and apparent disaster should alternate in the ensuing weeks.
LATE, GREAT LEGENDS: Covering the Blue Jays 1985 pennant chase were Toronto’s newspaper giants — all no longer with us — and all whom I had the privilege of knowing and learning from.
THE COUNTDOWN BEGINS: In the following sequence of newspaper images, you will see how the Blue Jays “Magic Number” dwindled in the final 3½ weeks of the 1985 season. The Toronto Star began posting the number at 22 ? in its Sep. 12 edition — a night after the Jays edged Detroit at Exhibition Stadium and the Yankees lost at Milwaukee. Toronto led New York by a mere 2½ games. If you’re a Nervous Nellie as a Blue Jays fan, look closely at the diminishing “Magic Number.” It certainly did not decline on a daily basis and there was a virtual suicide watch in Toronto the night before the club finally clinched the division.
This remedial blog may help fans avoid paralytic lunacy during the 2015 pennant race. Or, maybe it will not. In any event, I warn you of the acute peaks and valleys ahead. Steel yourself for euphoria and despair.
Again, the “Magic Number” is calculated by combining the total wins required by the division leader and/or losses by the second–place team. If, for example, Toronto’s “Magic Number” is 4 with nine games to play, the Blue Jays win the division by simply prevailing in any four of their remaining matches. Or, winning two while the Yankees lose two; winning one while the Yankees lose three… etc.
Any combination equaling 4 is the “Magic Number.”
Playing the biggest weekend series in their history to that point, the Blue Jays lost the Thursday opener of a four–game set at Yankee Stadium (Sep. 12–15), and then shocked New York fans ?? by winning Friday night; Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. Almost exactly 30 years later, the teams will again hook up for a monster Thursday–to–Sunday affair in the Bronx (Sep. 10–13) this season. The Blue Jays left New York in ’85 with a 4½–game lead and a “Magic Number” of 16.
The Blue Jays were clobbered ? at Fenway Park on Sep. 18. But, the Yankees also lost, to Detroit, so the “Magic Number” dropped to 13.
On Sep. 20, the Blue Jays defeated Milwaukee ? in front of 31,441 on–lookers at Exhibition Stadium. The Yankees lost in Baltimore and two more games were shaved from Toronto’s “Magic Number.”
I would again caution Blue Jay fans to expect some days like Sep. 22, 1985, when the “Magic Number” did not move. On that Sunday afternoon, the Jays were beaten by Milwaukee ? while the Yankees prevailed in Baltimore. The day began and ended with the number “9.”
A lop–sided victory to close out the Milwaukee series ? (Sep. 23) claimed another rung from Toronto’s “Magic Number” as the Yankees were idle.
Sep. 25, 1985 was an anxious night for Blue Jay fans, as Boston won at Exhibition Stadium ? while the Yankees hammered Detroit in New York. Another loss the following night to the Red Sox kept the “Magic Number” at 6 as New York was rained out against the Tigers.
Another rain–out in the Bronx on Sep. 27 prevented the Yankees from hosting Baltimore, but the Blue Jays won easily ? in the opener of a weekend series at old County Stadium in Milwaukee. So, the “Magic Number” moved for the first time in three nights.
On the second–to–last weekend of the 1985 season, the Blue Jays understood they controlled destiny in the American League East. By winning their games, it mattered not what the Yankees did. A mauling of the Brewers, Sep. 28, took another game ? off the “Magic Number.” The rain finally stopped in New York and the Yankees beat Baltimore.
Toronto’s “Magic Number” — on Sunday, Sep. 29 — could have dropped all the way to 1. But another destruction of the Brewers ? in Milwaukee was offset by the Yankees taking both ends of a make–up doubleheader against the Orioles. As such, the numeral fell to 3.
The final week of the ’85 season provided much agony for Toronto baseball fans, as the Blue Jays were swept in a Tuesday–Wednesday–Thursday visit to Tiger Stadium in Detroit. All these years later, I can remember the feeling of doom that overcame our city. The “Magic Number” stood still on Oct. 1 as the Blue Jays lost in MoTown ? and the Yankees won their sixth in a row, at home to Milwaukee.
Milwaukee pitcher Teddy Higuera became an instant hero to Blue Jay fans by shutting out the Yankees on Oct. 2 in New York while the bumbling Torontonians were losing again ? at Detroit. The Jays “Magic Number” dipped for the first time in three nights.
The “Magic Number” froze again Oct. 3, as the Tigers completed their sweep of the Jays ? while the Yankees blanked Milwaukee at home.
The night of Friday, Oct. 4, 1985 ? was the most demoralizing to that point in Blue Jays history. With a 3–2 lead over the Yankees going into the bottom of the ninth at rainy Exhibition Stadium, the Jays needed three outs from closer Tom Henke to make the playoffs for the first time.
But, disaster struck with two out. Twice. A solo home run by light–hitting catcher Butch Wynegar tied the game. Henke lost his concentration, allowing an infield single to Bobby Meacham and a walk to Rickey Henderson. Left–hander Steve Davis came in to face left–handed–hitting Don Mattingly — 0–for–4 in the game. Mattingly hit a routine fly to center field but Lloyd Moseby of the Blue Jays dropped the ball and Meacham scored to give New York a ridiculous 4–3 triumph. The “Magic Number” was still two heading into the second–last day of the schedule.
To their everlasting credit, the Blue Jays shook off the previous night’s horror and won a “no–doubter” on Saturday afternoon, Oct. 5, to finally eliminate the Yankees ?? and clinch their first American League East Division crown. Veteran Doyle Alexander turned in a pitching gem; Ernie Whitt, Willie Upshaw and Lloyd Moseby hit home runs, and 44,608 went wild at Exhibition Stadium. Toronto baseball fans exhaled — loudly.
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