Did the Toronto Blue Jays buy it? Can the Baltimore Orioles seize it? Might the Milwaukee Brewers swipe it? Or will all three contenders continue to dance around the American League East crown as if it were a Mexican hat?
The Blue Jays, possessors of first place since June 20, made their best pass at snatching the title last Thursday, when they sent two prospects to the New York Mets for righthanded ace David Cone in one of the season's most shocking trades. But the deal failed to send an immediate seismic shiver through the division. On Friday night at Toronto's SkyDome, Milwaukee historically and hysterically shellacked the Jays 22-2, and the following day the Brewers ran rampant with eight stolen bases en route to spoiling Cone's debut with a 7-2 win. Toronto responded with a 5-3 win on Sunday to keep the Brewers 4� games back, but the O's lurched to within 1� games of first, and the Jays found themselves in a familiar struggle to find their late-season stride.
Both of Toronto's rivals politely concede that the Blue Jays are the team to beat. Baltimore general manager Roland Hemond, whose club won four of six last week, put a strangely positive—or positively strange—spin on the Cone coup. "It indicates they felt compelled to make a trade to try to stay ahead of us, which is a credit to our club," Hemond said.
Milwaukee outfielder Darryl Hamilton had a similar take. "The pressure is on the Blue Jays because they have the resources, because they made the trade," Hamilton said. "When you think about Milwaukee, you think about beer. But we've got guys who have big hearts."
The hearts of Toronto fans customarily climb up their tracheae this time of summer. The Blue Jays have won the American League East two of the last three years but have made an adventure of a number of pennant races, earning the ignominious nickname of the Blow Jays. Anxiety is doubly high in Toronto this season, given the team's high expectations (anything less than a first-ever World Series appearance will be a disappointment) and its uncharacteristically high ERA (4.22, third worst in the league at week's end). Jack Morris, who was 17-5 through Sunday, and Juan Guzman, 12-3, have been outstanding, but the the rest of the starters have gone 26-38.
Hence the deal for the 29-year-old Cone, the National League strikeout leader and by general consensus one of the top five pitchers in baseball. Like a limo driver, Toronto general manager Pat Gillick is particularly adept at making stretch pickups. During previous pennant drives he has acquired pitchers Mike Flanagan (1987), Bud Black ('90), John Candelaria ('90) and Tom Candiotti ('91), as well as outfielders Mookie Wilson ('89), Candy Maldonado ('91) and Dave Parker ('91).
None of those acquisitions, however, compares with the Cone deal. "We needed something like this," said Toronto outfielder Joe Carter the day of the trade. "We've been coming to the ballpark on an even keel for a while. Now there's a feeling like, Wow, let's go. It's like Christmastime again."
And just how did Toronto's division rivals allow Cone to clear waivers and fall into Gillick's hands? While it's not true that the major leagues' waiver rules are scrawled on scraps of parchment and can be comprehended only by a battery of Franciscan monks, they are hideously complicated. Even some front-office pros have been baffled by them. (See former Chicago White Sox general manager Larry Himes, who came under fire from fans in 1990 when he failed to block the division-leading Oakland A's from picking up Willie McGee and Harold Baines for the pennant drive.)
The brief explanation of how a pitcher of Cone's caliber could be dealt after the July 31 trading deadline, when players must clear waivers before they can be traded, is that he and hundreds of other players went through waivers en masse in early August. At the time, Cone's inclusion on the waiver wire seemed of little import—after all, the Mets were still in contention—so no team, Toronto included, claimed him. But over the next three weeks the Jays' arms went kaput, the Mets hit the skids, and Gillick shrewdly wheeled for a deal with New York.
He had young talent to offer (neither infielder Jeff Kent nor outfielder Ryan Thompson—presumed to be the player to be named later in the Cone trade—was sure to be protected in the upcoming expansion draft) and the money to spend (Cone's salary, on a prorated basis, will come to nearly $1 million for the remainder of the season). Even if Cone, a free agent at year's end, doesn't sign with the Jays, they will be compensated by the team that does sign him, with a No. 1 pick, and possibly another high selection, in the 1993 draft. "If you're fighting for a pennant and you can get a guy of Cone's ability, you take your chances with eating his salary," says Gillick. "There's a chance you'll increase attendance in the course of the season, and he might help you get to the World Series."