1992 Oh, Canada!
When Dave Winfield of the Blue Jays hit a World Series winning double in Atlanta, he ignited a national celebration 700 miles away in Toronto's SkyDome and all across the True North
by Steve Rushin
Issue date: November 2, 1992
Baseball had little left to aspire to after the Toronto Blue Jays beat the Atlanta Braves in Saturday night's sixth and final game. Four of those six games were decided by a single run. Three of them were won in the victor's final at bat. The Braves were reduced to their final strike in the bottom of the ninth inning Saturday night before implausibly -- impossibly -- scoring a run to extend one of history's most extraordinary World Series games to extra innings.
Just a year after Atlanta lost to the Minnesota Twins in a once-in-a-millennium World Series, the Braves and the Jays begat another farfetched Fall Classic. "This matches up with last year's Series," Toronto relief pitcher Tom Henke said in the winners' clubhouse. "And last year's was great. Atlanta would not give up. If we'd beaten them in four straight and stomped them every time, everybody would say, 'Aw, what a boring Series.' But this . . . this was great for baseball."
Once again, the World Series provided a reaffirmation of faith in a troubled game and did so at the last possible instant of this often sour season. If baseball players are indeed loyal to nothing more than the high bid, would Toronto bullpen catcher Mike Maksudian have tattooed a Blue Jay logo on his left rear cheek? Would the World Series games have been, once again, as close as best friends?
And would winning mean so much to so many different people? When Toronto's 41-year-old Dave Winfield raised his bat with two out and two on in the top of the 11th of a deadlocked Game 6, his mother-in-law raised her hands in supplication to the sky above Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. "Please, Lord," prayed Louise Turner. "For David. For his momma in heaven. For my daughter, Tonya. For me. For Cito. For Canada. Please!"
Winfield then drove a 3-2 changeup from Charlie Leibrandt down the leftfield line to score two runs. That is one more than the Atlanta Braves -- the Mylanta Braves -- would score in the bottom of the 11th. So Winfield's double forged what would be a 4-3 win, which in turn torched a celebration both on the field in Atlanta and some 700 miles away in Toronto, where more than 45,000 fans watched the game on the big screen at the SkyDome.
"Several years from now," said losing pitcher Leibrandt in the near silence of the Brave clubhouse, well past midnight Saturday, "it will be nice just to have played in this game." Sadly for Leibrandt, he could have said the same last October, when he surrendered an 11th-inning, game-winning home run in Game 6 to Kirby Puckett of the Twins.
Once again, a World Series that was good for baseball was a hazard to human health. "I'm exhausted," Toronto first baseman Joe Carter said 30 minutes after both Game 6 and the Series finally stopped beating. "I'm drained. I have nothing left."
Nothing. Not even the ball that Carter caught at 10 minutes to one on Sunday morning to end the four-hour-and-seven-minute game. He didn't even have that. With two outs and a runner at third in the bottom of the 11th, Atlanta's Otis Nixon laid down a bunt that Blue Jay reliever Mike Timlin fielded flawlessly near the mound and then threw to Carter for the out, the win and posterity. But a half hour after the game, Carter had already returned to Timlin the season's last baseball, which was largely indistinguishable from all those that had gone before it: white trimmed in red, not unlike the Canadian flag.
Immediately after Canada laid claim to America's game, America's most famous Canadian (Wayne Gretzky) worked a clubhouse filled with Canada's most famous Americans (and Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and a Jamaican). Already the most immaculate city in North America, Toronto was finally cleansed last weekend of the Jays' reputation as choke-niks. The Blow Jays of old -- the clubs that could have used a Heimlich in three previous postseasons -- would have folded like road maps in a series this snug. But. . . .
"No one can say we choke anymore," said the Jays' Roberto Alomar. "This is a great club. We won like champions."
And the Braves once again lost like champions, as they did last season, when the World Series went seven games, five of which were decided by a solitary run. "There's no worse way to lose," said Atlanta's John Smoltz, "to get beat four games to two, when we know it could have just as easily been the other way around."
Not quite: For while the two teams combined for a sickly .225 average in the Series, Toronto simply had superior pitching. Astonishingly, the Blue Jays did not lose back-to-back games after Aug. 29, following the acquisition of righthander David Cone from the New York Mets, a streak that remained intact through the postseason. And Toronto won four one-run games in the World Series because its relievers didn't give up a run until Saturday night. "Our bullpen won this Series," said Blue Jay scout Gordon Lakey.
Perhaps that is why Toronto reliever Duane Ward, who had two wins in the Series, danced alone on a tabletop on Sunday morning, a pair of Labatt's beer bottles holstered in the back pockets of his uniform pants, celebrating in the same clubhouse where the Pittsburgh Pirates had mourned their Game 7 playoff loss to Atlanta only 11 days before.
Given that epochal playoff win by the Braves, followed by their ear-splitting split of Games 1 and 2 of the World Series on their home field, it was a release for Atlanta when last week the Braves finally vacated their nuthouse on Capitol Avenue to play Games 3, 4 and 5 in Toronto. Even there, though, one could not escape allusions to last autumn. "It was a lot louder in the Metrodome," Atlanta's David Justice said after his first taste of the SkyDome. "It was a lot tougher to play there." No fish, in other words, will ever be as big as the one baseball caught last October.
Or will it?
The roof was closed at the SkyDome for Game 3. The P.A. played bass-heavy rock and funk numbers when Toronto took batting practice but switched to ennui-inducing Muzak when the Braves took the cage. And still the Jays needed Devon intervention to win this game. In the fourth inning of the first World Series game ever played outside the U.S., Toronto centerfielder Devon White turned, sprinted and made a back-to-the-ball, chest-to-the-wall, backhanded, face-planted catch of a Justice drive to deepest center, the wall padding billowing like an air bag as White and the ball converged on it simultaneously.
Speaking of air bags, a car saleswoman had taken White and his wife, Colleen, for a test ride in a Mercedes on an off-day during the American League playoffs and wrapped the $130,000 Benz around a utility pole while the prospective buyers, in the passenger seats, bit their lips in terror. (Off-day, indeed.) "After the car wreck," an undamaged White would later say with some disdain, "I don't worry about no padded wall."
His catch touched off what should have been a triple play for Toronto: Brave baserunner Terry Pendleton passed teammate Deion Sanders on the base paths for the second out of the play, and Jay third baseman Kelly Gruber tagged Sanders on the right heel for out number 3. Alas, second base ump Bob Davidson blew the call, ruling that Gruber had missed Sanders, erasing what would have been the first World Series triple play since so long ago (1920) that it was the Cleveland Indians who made it.
The Jays trailed 2-1 in the eighth inning when Gruber homered to tie the game and end his postseason-record 0-for-23 slump. Gruber pointed to Canadian singer Anne Murray in the SkyDome stands as he crossed home plate. (Murray sang O Canada before the game and, unlike Gruber, occasionally produces a single.) When Candy Maldonado hit a bases-loaded line drive over a drawn-in outfield in the ninth, Toronto was a 3-2 winner, and Atlanta had a sense of deja vu.
"It reminded me of last year, seeing the outfielders in and the ball going over his head," Atlanta's Steve Avery said afterward, referring to Game 7 in 1991, when Gene Larkin of the Twins drove in the Series-ending run with a ball sent over the head of Brave leftfielder Brian Hunter. "I'm just glad we've got a couple more games left this time."
Alas, the Braves had one fewer after their 2-1 loss in Game 4. Toronto got its first run on a solo homer by catcher Pat Borders, who would finish the World Series with a 14-game postseason hitting streak and the Series MVP trophy. The Jays' second run was scored spectacularly by Gruber, who slid home headfirst in the seventh inning, banging his Dudley Doright chin so hard in the batter's box that the on-deck Alomar said the impact sounded like a punch being landed. Knocked loopy, Gruber remained prone in the dirt beyond the plate for several seconds, like a ship run aground on a sandbar. He said later he didn't even remember scoring the run.
The one run that Atlanta punched across in this game would have been meaningless except that there were few acts in this Series that were not somehow significant. So when Atlanta's Ron Gant did cross the plate in the eighth, manager Cox couldn't help but think immediately, "If we'd got that [in Game 7] in Minnesota, we'd have won the World Series."
"All four of these games could have gone either way," said Toronto starter Jimmy Key, a nine-year veteran of both the Blow and the Blue Jays, who was masterly in Game 4, his only start of the postseason. "And we won three of them. Maybe we're lucky."
Maybe, baby. In fact, after the game Winfield put to verse what was now on every mind in Toronto, with the Jays leading the Series three games to one: "Anticipatin' celebratin'," he said. The Jays were confident enough of a world championship win at home in Game 5 last Thursday night that details of a victory parade scheduled for Friday were announced on the radio Thursday afternoon.
Meanwhile, Justice had awakened that morning for his regular gig on an Atlanta radio station. "It looked like guys just showed up for a game," he said -- on the air -- of his teammates' performance the previous night. "A spring training game."
Cox promptly described Justice's comment as "a crock." Indeed, Justice was hitting only .167 for the World Series when he ran his mouth, but this turned out to be a case of Justice delayed, not Justice denied: In the fourth inning of Game 5 he drove a Jack Morris fastball off the bunting on the second deck in rightfield to give the Braves a 2-1 lead.
The fact that it was Morris on the mound was yet another reminder of last October, when the 88th World Series created tragic and heroic figures of operatic dimensions: Morris, then of the Twins, threw 10 shutout innings to beat Atlanta 1-0 in Game 7, the Braves having been deprived of a run in the top of the eighth when Lonnie Smith was decoyed into dallying on the base paths. It is a measure of baseball's infinite richness, then, that the principal players in last year's drama would switch roles in this year's Game 5. With two outs and two strikes and the Braves leading 3-2, Smith stroked a truly grand slam off Morris into a jubilant Atlanta bullpen.
Following the Braves' 7-2 win, even the morose Morris was moved by the unlikelihood of the moment he had just shared with Smith. "It's a great game," Black Jack said in the home clubhouse at the SkyDome. "A fabulous game. I've been on the other side of it. One pitch, just misses, pop-up, hero. This time: One pitch, just misses, home run. . . ."
Meanwhile, Smith, the man who has appeared in more postseason games than all but four players in major league history, was still feeling the pain of last October's Game 7. "I don't think I will ever get retribution for that game," he said following Thursday's slam. "Some individuals feel it is one of the greatest blunders in World Series history."
"It should be dropped," said Atlanta's Cox on Thursday night. "Poor Charlie Leibrandt, too. . . . You have to live with it, I guess. But it's unfair." Did vengeance await in Atlanta? When the Toronto charter landed there last Friday, Delta baggage-handlers greeted the Blue Jays with a 20-foot tomahawk.
(And you wonder how those nicks got in your Samsonite?) In truth, Toronto would consider itself lucky if it lost only its luggage on this trip, for the home team has a history of winning Game 6 of the World Series in utterly absurd fashion: Carlton Fisk waving a home run fair at Fenway Park in 1975, Mookie Wilson splitting the wickets of Bill Buckner at Shea Stadium in '86, Puckett taking Leibrandt long in the 11th last season.
"Any pitcher worth his salt would relish this opportunity," Toronto's Cone said of his starting assignment for Game 6. Salt? Relish? Sounded like "a recipe for disaster," another coinage that talking-head Cone bandied about frequently last week.
Before Game 6, author W.P. Kinsella appeared on the field looking understandably discombobulated, as he is at once a Canadian citizen and an honorary Brave scout. Kinsella's novel Shoeless Joe was the basis for the movie Field of Dreams, but last Saturday night's game was more interesting than the film, not to mention more preposterously plotted.
Maldonado's solo home run off Avery in the fourth inning gave Toronto a 2-1 lead that lasted until the ludicrous ninth, when Henke took the mound for the Blue Jays. As midnight approached in Atlanta, the Terminator became the Germinator, the ordinarily fail-safe closer cultivating a Brave rally that put two men on with two outs as Nixon came to the plate.
Nixon had watched from a drug-rehabilitation clinic as his teammates played in the 1991 Series and had found many of that Series' more dramatic moments difficult to watch on TV. On Saturday night he stepped into just such a scenario: His team was trailing 2-1, and he was trailing 0-2 in the count. Which is when Nixon sent Atlantans into momentary ecstasy, taking a fastball to leftfield and bringing home Jeff Blauser to tie the score.
Even after Winfield answered the prayers of his mother-in-law in the 11th -- condemning Leibrandt to another off-season of suffering -- the show simply would not end. "I've seen this team do it so many times, you had to have faith we'd do it again," Atlanta's Sid Bream would say later.
So the Braves again put two runners on base in the bottom of the 11th. And again Nixon came up with two outs. On the second pitch, he laid down the bunt that Timlin fielded and threw so carefully to Carter at first for the final out, whereupon a people pile consisting entirely of Blue Jays arose in the infield. Everyone remained in the stands, uncertain, perhaps, that the game had actually ended. "It felt weird when Carter caught the ball at the end," Bream would say in the somber Brave clubhouse. "We were supposed to come back and win again."
"The Atlanta Braves," Winfield said while shaking his head when it was all finally over. "Man. They're like . . . like trying to hold water back with your hands. It just keeps coming through."
Indeed, Atlanta was fascinating in defeat for the second consecutive fall. The Braves are acutely aware of their place in history, however, and that place is second place. "It's something we can tell our grandkids," Bream said. "We played in two of the greatest World Series of all time. But at the same time, it's hard to tell your grandkids, 'We're the ones who never won.' "
Ten seconds of silence followed the final out of Game 6. Then came a crescendo of applause for both teams from the 51,763 spectators. However, when the Brave fans finally did let go of another enervating season and filed out to face the winter, it was Ray Charles's voice that they heard falling softly from stadium speakers: "Georgia. Georrr-gia. No peace I find. . . ."
But the Blue Jays had at last found just that. Their smiles cut through the Dixie gloom, you might say, like moonlight through the pines.
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