No matter what thrills remain in this 1987 baseball season, none will erase the memory of a confrontation that will go down with the great pennant races of 1951. 1964 and 1967. In a pulsating 11-day drama that began with the Toronto Blue Jays leading the Detroit Tigers in the American League East by a half game, baseball's two winningest teams met seven times. For them, there was no wild-card escape hatch or any other postseason route except first-class transportation home in time for Columbus Day. Every game was decided by one run, four in the winners' final at bat. The Blue Jays appeared to have had the division title won by taking the first three games in Toronto, Sept. 24, 25 and 26, and were three outs away from sweeping to a 4½-game lead with one week to play.
The Tigers then rallied for a 3-2, 13-inning victory on Sept. 27, which, rather than postponing the inevitable, served as a prelude to the final weekend. Playing before three near-capacity crowds in Tiger Stadium, Detroit won the first game 4-3 to move into a tie for first, won the second 3-2 in a 12-inning remake of High Noon and won the third 1-0, behind Frank Tanana, to clinch its second division crown in four years.
"I thought the games in Toronto were classics, and I said the last four games between us were classics," said Tiger ace righthander Jack Morris. "I think the Tigers and Blue Jays drained the word 'classic' from the English language."
The two teams certainly wore out their respective bodies and souls stalking each other. From July 16 to Sept. 25 they were never separated by more than 1½ games; six times after Sept. 5 they changed positions at the top of the standings. "In 1984 we won 111 games and basked in glory," said Morris. "But this feeling of exhaustion and exhilaration means much, much more."
For every unforgettable winner there is an unforgettable loser, and the Blue Jays must now learn how it feels to be like Ralph Branca and Gene Mauch, symbolic losers since before Manny Lee was born. "We may know it's unfair, know how hard we played to the end without [injured players] Tony Fernandez, and Ernie Whitt, but we have to deal with the reality that we may have to live with this the rest of our lives," said Toronto pitcher John Cerutti. The Blue Jays know about blown chances. They lost a 3-1 lead to Kansas City in the '85 playoffs. Their pitching coach, Al Widmar, was Mauch's pitching coach in '64 when the Phillies blew a 6½-game lead with 12 to play. "I dread going home," said Cerutti. "The first person I see is going to ask, 'What happened?' "
Until the Blue Jays win, people from Toronto to San Pedro de Macoris will be asking the same thing. Whitt, the Toronto catcher whose injuries kept him out of the final series, was asked if the Blue Jays' collapse could be called a choke. After all, they had ridden a seven-game winning streak to a 3½-game lead, then blown it with a seven-game losing streak and finished second—and by two games. "People are going to call it what they want and there's nothing I can do about it until we win," said Whitt, his heart aching more than his broken ribs.
The surprise ending to this homer-rich, pitching-poor season was very little longball and pitching aplenty. The two teams' combined ERA in their final four meetings was 1.51. The Tigers won them all because their pitchers allowed just six earned runs—and three extra-base hits—in 43 innings. Five times in the final weekend Toronto's Lloyd Moseby stole second; only once did he get as far as third, and there he died. Blue Jay lefthanders David Wells, Mike Flanagan and Jimmy Key allowed two earned runs in 25 innings over the weekend and got nothing to show for it.
If Toronto had a Ralph Branca-like goat it was George Bell, who probably lost the MVP award trying to win the division with every at bat. Bell had only three hits in his last 27 at bats and ended his season with a weak swing at a 1-0 Tanana pitch inches off the ground, nearly falling backward toward the Detroit dugout as the ball floated out to be caught in shallow center. If Detroit had a Bobby Thomson-like hero, it was Larry Herndon, whose second-inning homer Sunday provided the lone run of the game. Few fans will remember that it was the only fly ball Key allowed or that it cleared the leftfield fence by a few inches. And cold history will never be able to transmit the range of emotions felt by one team thinking it had won it all only to lose it, and another thinking it had lost it all only to win it.
The story's final chapter began in Toronto on Sunday, Sept. 27 when Doyle Alexander took the Tigers toward that sweep-averting victory. Alexander, who has pitched for eight clubs—including Toronto, 1984 to '86—has been nothing short of miraculous since his Detroit debut on Aug. 15. The Tigers' record in his starts went to 10-0, but Detroit still trailed the Jays by 2½ games going into the final week.