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Separated by 250 miles of canadian farmland and two games in the American League East standings, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Detroit Tigers joined battle at Tiger Stadium last weekend for three late-summer games that had the feel of a fall classic. It was the last meeting of the season between the division's "swing" team (the first-place Blue Jays, who will face only American League West teams after Sept. 8) and baseball's swing team (the surprising Tigers, who make the old Lumber Company look like a matchstick outfit), and while the series almost came to bare knuckles, it was settled by knuckleballs. No ground was given by Toronto; in fact, after winning Sunday's hot-tempered finale 4-2, the Blue Jays flew back across the border with a three-game lead, a small chunk of momentum, and their confidence intact for the homestretch.
As Toronto manager Cito Gaston put it before Friday's opener, "It's an important series, if for nothing else than up here." Pointing a finger at his temple, Gaston conjured up images of the Jays' breakdown in 1987, when the Tigers came from 3½ games behind with seven to play. The Tigers won the division by sweeping the Blue Jays in Detroit in the season's final three games.
Not only were the Jays back in the Motor City on an all-too-reminiscent skid, having dropped seven of their last eight, but they also had to deal with the last-stand pressure created by the schedule.
To bend the Blue Jays' minds even further, Toronto was taking on a team that not even Magnum, P.I., in his Tiger thinking cap could have figured for a pennant race. A second-division pick by most prognosticators, Detroit this season had used 18 pitchers, including 11 different starters, going into the series. Opponents were batting .287 and scoring 4.77 earned runs a game, both league worsts, against Detroit pitching. On offense, the Tigers will flail (last in team batting, first in strikeouts), scrap (first in walks, last in hitting into double plays) and bomb away (first in homers, first in runs), but all the while they will hang in there—especially in cozy Tiger Stadium, where they had the best home record in the majors (39-22). Like its huge cleanup hitter, Cecil Fielder, Detroit is a club that would look normal only in a fun-house mirror. "This is a very strange way to make up a baseball team," said Tiger manager Sparky Anderson, "but it's also a lot of fun, because we always feel we have a shot."
There also was the matter of the Blue Jay fans, a restless bunch despite Toronto's two first-and two second-place finishes in-the last six years. On July 30, The Toronto Sun ran a call-in poll that posed the question "What's wrong with the Jays?" At the time, the team had a six-game lead. Among the responses: "The players' thick gold chains are wearing them down," and "It's the Sparky Anderson syndrome. They grew up knowing Sparky's success and feel threatened."
The Tigers won Friday's game 5-2, but the Jays bounced back with a 7-5 win on Saturday. That split just about mirrored each team's support in the stands. The series drew 138,544 fans—the most at Tiger Stadium since that fateful weekend in '87—and the visitors from Ontario matched the locals in mass, volume and, in some cases, density. The hybrid turnout on Saturday night saw several people arrested and more than 50 thrown out, not to mention smoke rising from the bleachers because of overheated concession equipment.
On Sunday afternoon, the combustion took place on the field. After giving up solo homers to Devon White and Roberto Alomar on two of his first three pitches, Detroit starter Bill Gullickson, who entered the game with 15 wins, blazed a 1-0 fastball that glanced off Joe Carter's helmet. "I tried to get him off the plate, and the ball got away from me," said Gullickson. Said Carter, "If he says he wasn't throwing at me, he's a liar."
Carter got up, took three steps toward the mound and then stopped cold, aware that he could face ejection if he charged any farther. "This time of year there are certain guys you can't lose," said Carter.
That was a shrewd move by a player who in years past could enter a pennant race only with a ticket. Acquired from the San Diego Padres in the off-season, Carter leads the Jays in batting (.292 through Sunday), homers (28) and RBIs (88). Mostly, though, he simply leads. Says pitcher Tom Candiotti, "When the game's on the line and things get tough, even in the clubhouse, he carries us."
With Detroit catcher Mickey Tettleton holding him from behind in a bear hug, Carter screamed at Gullickson and gestured toward him with his bat. Then Carter tried to free himself of Tettleton. The two began to twirl around, and both benches poured onto the field. No punches were thrown, but there was at least one memorable exchange. The 57-year-old Anderson had latched both hands onto one of Carter's biceps, at which point White raced over and said, "Sparky, get out of here before you get hurt."