Forget the Tigers.
Suppose for a moment that Detroit didn't exist, that the Tigers were no more real than, say, the New York Knights. Why, baseball would be celebrating that amazing team from up north, that awesome nine atop the American League East, that budding dynasty on the shores of Lake Ontario, the Toronto Blue Jays.
How 'bout those Jays? As of Sunday they were 31-14, 6� games ahead of their closest pursuer, the Baltimore Orioles, and 4� games ahead of the next best team in baseball, the Chicago Cubs. The Jays won seven games in seven days through last week, not to mention an exhibition against their Canadian rivals, the Montreal Expos, and they extended their string of victories in one-run games to 17. "We're a thing of beauty," says their .344-hitting poet laureate, Dave Collins, who wants to be a Jay forever.
But alas, Detroit isn't a fidrych of the imagination, and try as they might, the Blue Jays can't forget the Tigers. Toronto isn't the best team in baseball, not the best team in the AL East, not even the best Great Lakes team. At week's end those distinctions belonged to the Tigers, who were 35-8 and winning at an .814 clip. Toronto manager Bobby Cox put the situation in perspective last Thursday when the Tigers were 35-5. "Even if we had won every single game we played this year," he said, "we'd still be leading Detroit by only 5� games."
The Blue Jays may not be able to maintain their winning percentage of .689, but if they did, and the Tigers still stayed ahead of them, Toronto would become the greatest second-place team in baseball history. In fact, a .689 percentage would have won all but 12 of the 202 pennant or division races since 1900. The Jays would join the ranks of such great second-place finishers as William Jennings Bryan, Alydar, Hannibal—he had the elephants, but Rome had the horses—and Anita Bryant, first runner-up in the 1959 Miss America Pageant. But, as catcher Buck Martinez says, "No one ever said, 'We're Number Two!' "
For most of the season Toronto has been like a gerbil in a wheel, running as fast as it can but not going anywhere. Last week the Jays swept the Twins 3-2, 3-2 and 4-1, but the Tigers swept California 3-1, 4-2 and 5-1 to tie the major league record for consecutive road victories at 17. On Friday, Toronto finally gained on Detroit, beating Cleveland 5-1 behind the pitching of Dave Stieb, while Detroit was losing 7-3 to Seattle. On Saturday, the Jays squeezed out a 2-1 victory over the Indians on George Bell's seventh game-winning RBI of the year, and the Mariners beat the Tigers 9-5.
On Sunday, Toronto took a pair from Cleveland, 6-1 and 6-5, and, incredibly, the Tigers fell again and were on their longest losing streak of the season. In the Jays' first game Luis Leal pitched a four-hitter for his fifth victory without a loss, Willie Aikens hit a three-run double and Bell a two-run homer.
Between games the Blue Jays held a Banner Day contest, and the biggest hand went to a poster that said WE GOT THE TIGERS BY THE TAIL and showed a ferocious Blue Jay pulling on a frightened Tiger.
Toronto won the second game with a two-run rally in the bottom of the ninth, but that wasn't all they had to cheer about. In the second inning, up in the scoreboard room, Paul McGregor pulled off the ticker tape and shouted, "Hey, the Mariners are ahead." When he flashed the Seattle 2, Detroit 1 score on the board a few minutes later, a buzz went through the crowd. The Mariners went on to win 6-1 and sweep the series, so the Jays had cut 3� games off the Tiger lead in one week, reducing it to five, the slimmest margin since May 6.
The stage is set for the most dramatic two weeks in Blue Jay history. Beginning June 4, Toronto is in Detroit for four games, and the next week the Tigers go to Toronto for three. Because Detroit is only 200 miles southwest of Toronto along Highway 401, the customs inspectors at Detroit and Windsor, Ont. can expect to see a lot of rowdy fans the next couple of weeks.