Oh Canada! (1992 World Series)

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Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in October 2017 and is reprinted here by permission.

 

Twenty-five Octobers ago, baseball’s World Series finally made it north of the border, when the Toronto Blue Jays took on the Atlanta Braves in the Fall Classic. Canadian teams had been knocking at the door for many years – the Montreal Expos got to the final game of the NLCS in 1981 and competed for a string of division titles, while the Blue Jays had lost three ALCS’s (1985, 1989, 1991). But until 1992 the World Series had always been an all-USA affair.

Not only were the Blue Jays been a perennial contender (11 straight seasons of 85 or more wins starting in 1983), they had also become an economic behemoth in the game, causing national pundits to wonder how the Red Sox and Yankees would be able to compete with the Blue Jays in the AL East.

The reason for the optimism – or pessimism, if you were any of the other teams – was the 1989 opening of Skydome in June 1989. The first of what became a stadium boom in the game, Skydome was hailed as an engineering marvel with its retractable roof, and featured an adjoining hotel and prepaid luxury suites. Despite not moving in until June, the Blue Jays set an all-time attendance of 3.375 million that season, which they shattered the next year before going over 4 million for three years. The Yankees and Red Sox, meanwhile, were playing in aging stadiums without the luxury boxes that began sweeping the nation.

While the Blue Jays had broken through in the 1980s with a great crop of home grown players (Dave Stieb, Tony Fernandez, George Bell, and others), by 1992 general manager Pat Gillick was using his revenue advantage to field a lot of veteran stars: Roberto Alomar, Dave Winfield, Joe Carter, Jack Morris, and mid-summer pickup David Cone were all acquired as ready-made stars.

The Blue Jays opponents in the World Series were the Atlanta Braves, who had lost a classic Series to the Twins the previous year, but had just won a thrilling five game series over the Pirates. While a Toronto victory would be a first for Canada, an Atlanta victory would be a first for a team from the American South. The Braves were younger, and more homegrown – David Justice, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Ron Gant had all debuted in the majors as Braves in the last few years. Winners of 98 games, 7 more than the Blue Jays, the Braves had to be considered a slight favorite.

The first game, played on Saturday, October 17 in Atlanta, started with Jimmy Carter throwing out the first ball. After the ex-president took his seat, the game turned into a pitching duel between Tom Glavine and Jack Morris (the hero of the 1991 series against the Braves as a Twin). With the Brave fans deafening America with their Tomahawk chop, the Blue Jays struck first on a solo homer by Joe Carter in the fourth. The fans were quiet for a few innings, or until Braves catcher Damon Berryhill hit a three-run homer off Morris in the sixth for a 3-1 lead that held up. For Glavine, it was a four-hit masterpiece, in a game that took just 2:37 to play.

On Sunday night the Braves looked like they were going to go up 2-0, as John Smoltz took a 4-2 lead into the eighth. The Blue Jays put together a run on a Dave Winfield single but still trailed 4-3 heading to the ninth. The Braves handed the ball to Jeff Reardon.

The Braves’ closer for most of 1992 had been Alejandro Pena, but they acquired the veteran Reardon from the Red Sox on August 31 specifically for this situation. He had 353 career saves (second all-time) when they got him, then he won three games and saved three more in September.

But in Game 2, Reardon did not get the job done. After walking pinch-hitter Derek Bell, he faced another pinch-hitter, Ed Sprague, who took Reardon over the left field wall. Suddenly it was 5-4, a lead the Blue Jays held in the bottom of the ninth. The series was tied.

After a day off, the first World Series game on Canadian soil took place on Tuesday night, a matchup of two youngsters: Toronto’s Juan Guzman and Atlanta’s Steve Avery. It was another great pitcher’s duel with hits difficult to come by. Avery was especially impressive, and he took a 3-hitter, and 2-1 lead, into the eighth. That lasted one batter, when Kelly Gruber homered down the line in left to tie things up.

With the game tied, Avery came back out in the ninth and gave up a leadoff single to Alomar. After three pitching changes, a steal, and bunt and two intentional walks, Reardon allowed a long single by Candy Maldonado on an 0-2 pitch for the ballgame. If one were to look for a single reason for the Braves relative lack of success in the post-season in the 1990s, you might settle on their problems with late game relief during most of that run. Reardon, their closer for the past six weeks, had failed in two straight games.

Game 4 was another pitchers duel, this one a battle of lefthanders: Jimmy Key and Tom Glavine. The two were very similar pitchers, Glavine a bit better and a bit more durable, enough to get him 305 wins and a plaque in the Hall of Fame before he was through. But Key won 186 games himself, and enjoyed many excellent seasons with the Blue Jays and Yankees.

The Blue Jays struck first, on a 3rd inning home run by Pat Borders, their light hitting catcher, and they made it 2-0 on an RBI single from Devon White in the 7th. Key had a shutout into the eighth, when he allowed a leadoff double, a bunt single and a ground ball to make the score 2-1. Blue Jay Cito Gaston turned to his bullpen to get the last five outs, and Duane Ward (the winning pitchers in Games 2 and 3) and Tom Henke finished it up quickly.

Time of game: 2 hours, 21 minutes.

Toronto now just had to win one game, and for Game 5 put the ball in the hands of Jack Morris, who had earned a reputation as a World Series hero. In the 1984 World Series, for the Tigers, he threw two outstanding complete game victories. In 1991, for the Twins, he had pitched two very good games (a win and a no-decision) before throwing a legendary 10-inning shutout to clinch the title. Morris had pitched well four days earlier in the Game 1 loss. The Blue Jays were understandably confident that they would wrap things up at home.

Neither Morris nor John Smoltz looked particularly sharp early, and the two teams reached the fifth knotted at 2-2. In the top of the 5th the Braves broke it open, with two singles, a double, an intentional walk, and a Lonnie Smith grand slam. The score was suddenly 7-2, and Morris was out of the game. Neither team scored again, so the series moved back to Atlanta, with Toronto still holding a 3-2 edge.

Game 6 was another great pitcher’s duel, David Cone against Steve Avery. After the teams traded runs early, Toronto outfielder Candy Maldonado homered in the fourth to make the score 2-1, and it stayed that way until there were two outs in the ninth.

Toronto’s end of game mastery had been playing out as scheduled. Duane Ward had cruised through the eighth, and the seemingly invincible Tom Henke looked ready to do the same. But after a leadoff single, a bunt, and fly ball, he allowed a two-out two-strike ground single to Otis Nixon and we had our first extra inning game of the series. Braves owner Ted Turner, and his girl friend Jane Fonda, were among the thrilled spectators.

The hero of the game, and the story of the series, ended up being the 41-year-old Dave Winfield. In his long outstanding career, Winfield had played in one previous World Series, with the 1981 Yankees, and his 1-for-22 line had caused Yankee owner George Steinbrenner to mock him as “Mr. May.” Eleven years later, Winfield hit .290 with 26 home runs for Toronto, and was back in October. In the first five games and ten innings, Winfield had managed just four singles in 21 at bats, a .190 clip.

In the top of the 11th, the Blue Jays got two runners on with two outs in front of Winfield, facing left-hander Charlie Liebrandt. After working the count to 3-2, Winfield smoked a two-run double down the left field line for a 4-2 lead. The Braves did not go quietly, scoring a run and putting the tying run on 3rd before finally succumbing.

The Blue Jays, and Canada, had their first championship. They would go on to repeat in 1993, putting themselves at the very center of the baseball world.

 

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Author: Mark Armour

Long-time SABR member, co-chair of the Baseball Cards Committee, founder and past chairman (2002-2016) of the Biography Project, author of several books and dozens of articles on baseball. See mark-armour.net.

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