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Hot On The Tails Of The Tigers
Steve Wulf
June 04, 1984
The up-and-coming Toronto Blue Jays won seven straight games to begin putting pressure on mighty, but stumbling, Detroit
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June 04, 1984

Hot On The Tails Of The Tigers

The up-and-coming Toronto Blue Jays won seven straight games to begin putting pressure on mighty, but stumbling, Detroit

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Two players the Blue Jays acquired that way are in the top 11 in batting: Upshaw and Bell. Two others, Jim Acker and Jim Gott, are on the pitching staff. The rest of the major league teams combined have but nine men on their rosters from that draft.

Gillick had helped sign Upshaw when he was with the Yankees. "He came from a very small high school in Blanco, Texas," says Gillick. "I knew he'd be a long-range project because, although he had the talent, his skills hadn't caught up. But I must say this: Willie turned out to be a much better ballplayer than I thought he would, and the reason is himself. He worked very hard."

Upshaw, a cousin of football's Gene and Marvin Upshaw, had to be carried on the Blue Jays' roster in '78, and he struggled right through 1981, when he hit only .171 as a backup to John Mayberry. "I had a lot to learn," says Upshaw, "but Bobby Doerr, our hitting instructor at the time, took the loopholes out of my swing and helped me with the physical part of hitting. When Cito Gaston became the new batting coach, he helped me with the mental part." Upshaw also worked hard on his fielding, and although his hands occasionally betray him, his range matches any first baseman's in the league.

In a way, Upshaw's development parallels the Blue Jays' own. As of Sunday he was hitting .316 with eight homers and 25 RBIs. Last year he batted .306 with 27 home runs and 104 RBIs. But, like his team, Upshaw is often overshadowed by others.

For the second time in American history, Philadelphia tried to hide a Bell; in 1980 it was to keep Toronto from drafting George. Blue Jay scouts had always liked him, but a shoulder injury limited him to only 22 games in 1980. The Phillies sent him to play for Escogido in the Dominican winter league with instructions to keep him out of the big games so no scouts would see him. But Toronto's Latin American scout, Epy Guerrero, arranged a series of junior varsity games between his younger players at Licey and those with Escogido, and sure enough, Bell played. The Blue Jay scouts liked what they saw and recommended that the team draft him. Bell, too, had to be carried for a year. "Truthfully," says Gillick, "the 25th man on a roster is hardly ever used, so why not use it as an investment for the future?"

Bell is now hitting .331 with 27 RBIs, and last week he drove in the winning run in three games. After emerging as the hero of Saturday's win over Cleveland, Bell joked to reporters that the secret to his success was "fried bananas. They make the blood angry."

Gillick has an excellent trading record, too. Second baseman Damaso Garcia, who's batting .340 with 21 stolen bases, came in a 1979 trade with the Yankees. Shortstop Alfredo Griffin was a gift from Cleveland for pitcher Victor Cruz. Third baseman Rance Mulliniks, who hit .275 last year and led the team with 34 doubles, was gotten from Kansas City for a pitcher named Phil Huffman. Martinez was pried from Milwaukee for outfielder Gil Kubski. DH Cliff Johnson was acquired from Oakland for outfielder Al Woods. "Many times a player becomes available simply because of a personality conflict," says Gillick. "We're willing to take those players after we take a close look as to what went wrong. We've also gotten the short end a few times." Gillick is quick to mention he once traded catcher Alan Ashby to Houston for pitcher Mark Lemongello and two other players.

Gillick made a dandy deal with the Yankees a year and a half ago when he took Collins, pitcher Mike Morgan, first baseman Fred McGriff—and money—for pitcher Dale Murray and outfielder Tom Dodd. Collins, who's excitable, got off to a slow start last year, in part because he wanted so hard to prove to the Yankees that they were wrong. In the off-season Collins coached a reform school basketball team in Cincinnati. "I got so involved in helping these kids whose lives were messed up that I stopped thinking about baseball, and I believe that helped," he says. However, he has inadvertently created a problem for the Jays. They now have four regular outfielders in Collins, Bell, Moseby and Jesse Barfield.

Their record in one-run games is a tribute to the once-maligned relief staff, which hadn't allowed a run in 13? innings before Sunday's second game. Dennis Lamp, the first expensive free agent the Blue Jays signed (he has a $3.5 million, five-year contract), has eight saves, and Roy Lee Jackson has allowed only three of the 22 runners he has inherited to score. With Stieb (off to his best start—6-1, 2.20 ERA), Leal, Jim Clancy and Doyle Alexander (who cost the Blue Jays all of $40,000), Toronto's rotation is in good arms.

The Blue Jays' pursuit of the Tigers transcends the race for first place—it's also a matter of Lithuanian pride. The five young men who sat in the leftfield bleachers of Exhibition Stadium and led cheers Friday night are members of the Ratas, a Lithuanian sports club. They have a $1,000 bet with five members of a similar club in Detroit. The club in the city that finishes ahead of the other is the winner.

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