Blue Jays Walking a Tightrope

TORONTO (Sep. 12) — As they careen through their most untimely slump in 29 years, the Toronto Blue Jays are saying all the right things and doing all the wrong things. Not since 1987 have the Blue Jays engendered such September angst among their followers. The misgiving that Autumn turned to despair when the club gagged on a 4½–game lead over Detroit in the final week of the schedule, losing the American League East title in Game 162 at old Tiger Stadium. “TOTAL COLLAPSE!” screamed a headline in the Toronto Star.

Granted, we are not nearly at such a despondent juncture with the 2016 Blue Jays. Though foundering, the club is two games behind first–place Boston in the A.L. East — yet in a playoff spot courtesy the wild card scenario, which did not exist in ’87 (the American and National League East and West Division winners went directly to the Championship Series; the survivors meeting in the World Series). If the playoffs began tonight, the Blue Jays would go to Baltimore for the American League Wild Card Game — hardly a choice story–line, but better than the alternative. And, the club does have 20 games (in 21 days) in which to correct its flight–pattern. So, theoretically, the 2–7 nosedive of the past nine games could be nothing more than a speed–bump. And, it’s unlikely the Blue Jays will build a 4½–game lead on which to choke, as they did in 1987.

I’ll admit to being surprised at the recent turn of events. On July 9, I wrote a blog in this space (http://bit.ly/29oFaYE) suggesting the 2016 Blue Jays most reminded me of the clubs, under Cito Gaston, that won consecutive World Series championships in 1992 and 1993. I covered those teams as a reporter for The FAN–590 and saw many parallels — except for one: The current Blue Jays had a more reliable pitching rotation. Recognizing how Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki and Co. can hammer the ball, I figured this might be the best opportunity for the Blue Jays to end their 23–year famine.

The September pattern, however, belies such an outcome.

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TORONTO STAR SPORTS HEADLINE ON MONDAY, OCT. 5, 1987.

The starting rotation — with the best collective earned–run average (ERA) in the American League — has suddenly lost its way. That group (Aaron Sanchez, Marco Estrada, Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ and R.A. Dickey, with Francisco Liriano as a No. 6 man) isn’t nearly as effective as it was from May through August. Which is neither what manager John Gibbons was hoping for nor expecting. Sanchez and Estrada look arm–weary, though Sanchez is scuffling with a blister problem. Stroman has been all over the map after beginning the season as the staff “ace.” Dickey has pitched well in spots but is totally unreliable. Happ has been effective all year; in the Cy Young discussion among A.L. hurlers. And, Liriano is a crapshoot.

The Boston Red Sox thoroughly abused the Toronto pitching staff in two of three weekend games at Rogers Centre — winning 13–3 and 11–8 to craft their two–length lead atop the division. Estrada and Sanchez each got hammered. A year ago on this date, Blue Jay batters were pounding opponents into submission, having rung up a 31–8 record in 39 games since the end of July (which included an 11–game win streak). The Jays were torpedoing past New York — obliterating a seven–game Yankee edge to win the A.L. East by six. Donaldson could not be slowed. He routinely came up with big, timely hits and cemented his place as the American League’s Most Valuable Player. With Ben Revere, Kevin Pillar and Bautista all healthy, nothing was getting past the Toronto outfielders. Future Hall–of–Famer pitcher David Price went 9–1 down the stretch.

There is no–such momentum right now.

Donaldson is lurching through his worst batting slump as a Blue Jay (3–for–31). The starting staff and middle relievers are regressing. And, the outfield is handling the ball as if it’s a grenade. The only comparative flat–spot for the Jays last September was a 4–5 illusion from Sep. 13–22. Take that away and the club was 38–9 between July 29 and Sep. 30 (a 1–4 slide to end the schedule came after the Jays clinched the A.L. East and amid a calamitous attempt, in St. Petersburg, Fla., to extend Mark Buehrle’s string of 200 innings–pitched).

At the moment, the Jays are playing as they did in that fateful last week of 1987… and during the second half of 2014, when they coughed up a six–game lead atop the division by crashing to an 11–24 record between June 7 and July 18. Toronto finished 13 enormous lengths behind Baltimore in the A.L. East. Blue Jay fans are justifiably apprehensive right now, with last season’s record pace in September fresh on their minds.

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DAVID ORTIZ CAME UP WITH THE BIGGEST HIT IN SUNDAY’S SLUG–FEST AT ROGERS CENTRE — A THREE–RUN HOMER IN THE TOP OF THE SIXTH INNING THAT PROVIDED BOSTON A 10–8 LEAD. THE RED SOX PREVAILED, 11–8, IN BIG PAPI’S FINAL TORONTO APPEARANCE. HERE HE CELEBRATES HIS DECISIVE BLAST AT HOME PLATE WITH TEAMMATE DUSTIN PEDROIA. Peter Abraham/Boston Globe

My ol’ pal and radio colleague, Mike Wilner, is the undisputed connection to fans via his post–game call–in show on Sportsnet–590. Mike is doing Gestalt therapy right now, but utilizing the wrong tact. Wilner’s command of the microphone and encyclopedic knowledge of baseball is offset by his penchant to apologize for the Blue Jays, and by his perennial contention that “all will turn out just fine.” He maintained that posture two years ago, when the rest of the world could see the Jays had no chance in the second half of the schedule. And, currently, he is overlooking the September swoon. “Why should the past nine games carry more weight than the previous 133?” he asked his perturbed listeners on Sunday. Which is far–too easy.

That logic can be applied to virtually any Major League season. Mike wouldn’t have been caught dead suggesting the Blue Jays meteoric rise after the trade deadline last year carried “less weight” than their 50–51 record to July 28. And, the final seven games of 1987 obviously carried infinitely more weight than the previous 155. It’s a flawed argument. Better, in my view, to acknowledge the current trend (which Mike did) and to indulge callers in their reasonable trepidation. Instead, Mike has taken to suggesting that any downward trend with the ball club is fictional and deceptive. Maybe that’s what fans want to hear. Maybe he’s been instructed by his Rogers superiors to adopt the stance. But, I don’t think he believes it for a second.

Nor would I be shocked if Wilner is proven correct. The Blue Jays are solid at virtually every position and they played championship–caliber ball from May through August. To suggest the club cannot (or will not) regain its footing is foolhardy. But, not as foolhardy as disdaining a September trend.

TEAM CANADA ’72 GABFEST

Good Lord, was it a blast on Saturday night at the Sony (formerly O’Keefe) Centre here in town. On a stage that has featured the biggest entertainment acts in the world — among them Jack Benny, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr., Liza Minnelli, Tom Jones, David Bowie, Don Rickles, Bob Dylan, The Who, The Carpenters and Led Zeppelin — sat ten aging, paunchy men that enchanted our country 44 years ago.

Team Canada 1972 is immortalized for its narrow, eight–game victory over the best hockey players from the former Soviet Union. It was the first clash between National Hockey League pros of Canadian citizenry and the so–called “amateurs” from Russia. After a 1–3–1 record in the first five games (and getting booed off the ice at Vancouver in Game 4), the plucky NHLers came up with three improbable wins in Moscow, and captured the series — legendarily — on Paul Henderson’s rebound goal with 34 seconds left in the finale. It remains, particularly for those who remember watching, the greatest sporting event in Canadian history.

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THE FORMER O’KEEFE (NOW SONY) CENTRE AT YONGE AND FRONT ST. HOSTED A TEAM CANADA ’72 REUNION SATURDAY ON A NIGHT OF MIXED WEATHER (BELOW) HERE IN TOWN.

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Though a hockey fan must be in his or her mid–50’s to have first–hand recollection of the series (I was 13 in September 1972), it has stood the test of time through books and television features. And, via the memories of the Canadian players and coaching staff — the vast majority of whom are still alive. The team has lost Bill Goldsworthy (d. Mar. 29, 1996), Gary Bergman (d. Dec. 8, 2000), assistant coach John Ferguson (d. July 14, 2007), Richard Martin (d. Mar. 31, 2011) and Jean–Paul Parise (d. Jan. 7, 2015). They are missed, and acknowledged at every reunion. Many of the others are all–too pleased to gather and swap stories — either amid one another or, as was the case Saturday, in front of 400 people at a world–renowned theater.

It was the finale of a cross-country tour that coincided with dates of the four games that were played in Canada. The exception was Saturday night here in Toronto, as Game 2 of the ’72 series at Maple Leaf Gardens was held on Sep. 4 — part of the Labor Day weekend this year. As such, the tour began Sep. 2 in Montreal; then resumed Sep. 6 in Winnipeg and Sep. 8 in Vancouver. Ten players and head coach Harry Sinden were on the docket here Saturday night. They kept the audience at Sony Centre in stitches with their memories… and their penchant to poke fun at one another. Tickets for the event were not cheap — ranging from $85 to roughly $350. I was privileged to attend as a guest of Dan Diamond, whose annual NHL Guide & Record Book I reviewed in a blog here last week: http://bit.ly/2c58tNj. The tickets were courtesy of Ken and Lynda Dryden, and found me in Row DD of the Orchestra section, five rows from the stage.

As such, I was able to capture close–ups with my trusty NIKON:

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THE TEN TEAM CANADA PLAYERS FROM 1972 STAND AT ATTENTION WHILE THE FORMER SOVIET NATIONAL ANTHEM IS PLAYED IN THE SONY CENTRE.

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BOBBY CLARKE AND BRAD PARK (TOP–LEFT) APPLAUD THE ANTHEM SINGER AND THE GROUP IS THEN JOINED BY MODERATOR (AND OTTAWA RADIO HOST) LIAM MAGUIRE, WHO DID A SPLENDID JOB.

THE FACES OF TEAM CANADA 1972

The 10 men that participated Saturday, with corresponding photos from their playing days:

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RON ELLIS (Toronto) / KEN DRYDEN (Montreal)

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PETER MAHOVLICH (Montreal) / BOBBY CLARKE (Philadelphia)

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SERGE SAVARD (Montreal) / PAT STAPLETON (Chicago)

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BRAD PARK (New York Rangers) / YVAN COURNOYER (Montreal)

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HARRY SINDEN (Boston) / DENNIS HULL (Chicago)

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DURING THE SERIES

The games in Canada were played Sep. 2–8. After a two–week hiatus, the series resumed in Moscow, Sep. 22–28. During the break, Ford and Hockey Canada published a TV program for the games in Russia — an item that I have kept and coveted through the years:

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HARRY SINDEN, WHO TURNS 84 ON WEDNESDAY, WAS IN GOOD VOICE AND LOOKED FABULOUS.

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THE ORCHESTRA SECTION OF THE SONY THEATER WAS MOSTLY FILLED — THE AUDIENCE LISTENING TO TALES OF HOCKEY AND POLITICS FROM ONE–TIME LIBERAL M.P. KEN DRYDEN (NOW 69). KEN WAS IN NET FOR TEAM CANADA WHEN HENDERSON SCORED THE SERIES–WINNING GOAL, SEP. 28, 1972.

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APART FROM HENDERSON’S HISTORIC TALLY, THE GOAL MOST REMEMBERED BY CANADIANS OCCURRED IN GAME 2 AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS, WHEN PETER MAHOVLICH SCORED SHORTHANDED AT 6:47 OF THE THIRD PERIOD — JUST 54 SECONDS AFTER ALEXANDER YAKUSHEV HAD NARROWED CANADA’S LEAD TO 2–1. MAHOVLICH (NOW 69) FAMOUSLY STICKHANDLED THE PUCK INTO THE NET BEFORE FALLING ON RUSSIAN GOALIE VLADISLAV TRETIAK. THE CAST LOOKS ON (ABOVE) AS MAHOVLICH’S TIMELY MARKER IS PLAYED ON A SCREEN ABOVE THE STAGE. THE “LITTLE M” (FRANK MAHOVLICH’S YOUNGER BROTHER) THEN RECOUNTS THE MEMORABLE MOMENT (BELOW).

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ONE OF SEVERAL POST–SERIES BOOKS — THIS PUBLISHED BY HOCKEY CANADA IN EARLY–1973.

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YVAN COURNOYER (LEFT, NOW 72) AND SERGE SAVARD (NOW 70) WERE TEAMMATES DURING THE MONTREAL CANADIENS STANLEY CUP DYNASTY OF THE LATE–70’s. COURNOYER’S GOAL AT 12:56 OF THE THIRD PERIOD IN GAME 8 OF THE 1972 SERIES BROUGHT CANADA BACK FROM A 5–3 DEFICIT AND SET THE STAGE FOR HENDERSON’S WINNER.

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SAVARD SPOKE TO THE AUDIENCE AS FORMER HABS TEAMMATE DRYDEN LOOKED ON.

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DOUGLAS BRADFORD PARK (NOW 68). FROM 1968 TO 1975, HE WAS CONSIDERED THE SECOND–MOST TALENTED DEFENSEMAN IN THE NHL TO BOBBY ORR. PARK WAS TRADED TO BOSTON BY NEW YORK IN THE NOVEMBER 1975 BLOCKBUSTER FOR PHIL ESPOSITO AND HE PLAYED BRIEFLY ALONGSIDE ORR. HARRY SINDEN WAS BOSTON’S GENERAL MANAGER AT THE TIME. PARK HAD A GOAL AND AN ASSIST IN GAME 8 OF THE 1972 SERIES AND WAS VOTED FIRST STAR.

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POST–SERIES BOOK PUBLISHED BY COPP CLARK CANADA IN LATE–1972. ON THE COVER, FRANK MAHOVLICH OF TEAM CANADA IS SHOWN SHAKING HANDS WITH RUSSIAN FORWARD VYACHESLAV ANASIN. INSIDE, IS THE ICONIC PHOTO — BY FRANK LENNON OF THE TORONTO STAR — WHICH SHOWS HENDERSON LEAPING INTO COURNOYER’S ARMS AFTER SCORING THE DECISIVE GOAL.

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THE AGE–OLD MYSTERY OF WHERE HENDERSON’S SERIES–WINNING PUCK LANDED CAME TO ROOST AGAIN ON SATURDAY. FOR MORE THAN FOUR DECADES, TEAM CANADA DEFENSEMAN PAT STAPLETON (NOW 76) HAS BEEN ACCUSED TO POCKETING THE LEGENDARY ITEM — A CLAIM HE HAS NEVER CONFIRMED OR DENIED. STAPLETON DISCUSSED THE ISSUE (ABOVE). MEANWHILE, KEN DRYDEN BROUGHT HIS OWN PUCK (BELOW) TO THE AMUSEMENT OF PETER MAHOVLICH.

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POST–SERIES BOOK PUBLISHED IN LATE–1972 BY COLLIER–MACMILLAN CANADA.

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THE PANEL WATCHES AS A REPLAY OF PHIL ESPOSITO’S MEMORABLE TV RANT AFTER GAME 4 IN VANCOUVER IS PLAYED ON THE BIG SCREEN. DURING AN INTERVIEW AT THE PACIFIC COLISEUM ON CTV WITH THE LATE JOHNNY ESAW, ESPOSITO SPOKE ABOUT HOW DESPONDENT THE CANADIAN PLAYERS HAD GROWN OVER THE JEERING OF FANS IN THEIR OWN COUNTRY. IT HAS LONG–BEEN CONSIDERED A RALLYING POINT FOR TEAM CANADA.

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BOBBY CLARKE (LEFT, NOW 67). AND DENNIS HULL (NOW 71). FOR MANY YEARS, HULL HAS BEEN A SPEAKER AT HOCKEY BANQUETS. HE WAS IN GOOD FORM ON SATURDAY — AT ONE POINT QUIPPING: “I COME FROM A FAMILY OF 12 CHILDREN, WHICH MEANS I NEVER SLEPT ALONE TIL I WAS MARRIED.”

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BRAD PARK (LEFT) AND RON ELLIS (NOW 71). ELLIS PLAYED HIS ENTIRE CAREER (1964–81) WITH THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS AND WAS A MEMBER OF THE 1967 STANLEY CUP TEAM. WITH CANADA IN 1972, HE SKATED ON A WONDERFULLY–RESOURCEFUL LINE WITH CLARKE AND HENDERSON.

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PUBLISHED THREE DECADES AFTER THE SERIES BY WINDING STAIR PRESS OF ETOBICOKE, ONT.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

2 comments on “Blue Jays Walking a Tightrope

  1. Nice job on this, Howard, and nice to see you again after all these years. It was a really fun evening. A few of the guys, like Clarke and Cournoyer, looked like they could still play.

  2. A most enjoyable evening had by all! The ’72 series was and will always be the greatest and most meaningful hockey event of my life. It was great to see them (and you) Saturday night.

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