MILWAUKEE -- AS BASEBALL'S races percolate, it is not only the Boston Red Sox whom the Toronto Blue Jays see in their rear-view mirrors. The Blue Jays see themselves, and the shadows are haunting indeed.
While an entire nation of Canada waits to be disappointed again, the Blue Jays aim to please for a change. Thing is, the Blue Jays have been here before, and they miss appointments with destiny the same way they miss the cutoff man.
"We shouldn't be in the position we're in, but we are," third hTC baseman Kelly Gruber said last night at County Stadium, where the Blue Jays lost 6-0 to the Milwaukee Brewers. "With the talent we have on paper, we should have clinched already, just like Oakland. We should be getting prepared for the playoffs, resting and setting our pitching up."
Instead, the Blue Jays play vital games in empty ballparks, clutching to a mere half-game lead over the Red Sox as they point toward tomorrow night's series at Fenway Park. Gruber's face is pale, his eyes are red, his sinuses clogged by the common cold, he's scratched from a lineup that needs him. A few of the Oakland A's are ailing, too, but their next meaningful assignment will be Oct. 6 at the home of the American League East champion, Boston or Toronto.
"Is it frustrating?" Gruber went on. "Of course, it is. We consistently don't do the little things you have to do to win ballgames. We are not fundamentally sound, the way Oakland is. We have a great team on paper, and you'd think we'd learn through experience. But we don't execute the way the A's do, and that's why we're not six or seven games up on Boston, like we could be."
Since the Blue Jays, born in 1977, shed the shackles of expansion and became legitimately major league in 1983, no franchise has won more games except the New York Mets. Yet, no team has self-destructed or underachieved -- take your pick -- so thoroughly. To cite two grotesque examples, the Blue Jays led Kansas City 3-1 in games during the 1985 league playoffs, but lost, scoring eight runs in the last 40 innings. In 1987, the Blue Jays pre-empted postseason misery, avoiding first place after leading Detroit by 3 1/2 games with seven to go.
"There are two ways to look at that," said Cito Gaston, the manager of a very loose Toronto ship. "Some people will credit us with being there every year. And some people will say that we don't get it done, that we choke, which I think is unfair."
Ah, but baseball is so unfair that the fraternity believes the Blue Jays responded to a 6 1/2 -game deficit to Boston as late as Sept. 4 only because they presumed they were finished. No pressure, no pain. When Roger Clemens, clearly the best pitcher on either contender, went down, the Boston staff was exposed for what it is, perilously thin. Imagine the indignities that will be heaped on the Blue Jays if the Red Sox survive without him.
Clemens was supposed to work the opener of the Toronto set tomorrow. Now, he's been moved back to Saturday. Suspicious stuff. The Blue Jays, thinking wishfully, figure Clemens' career should not be chanced for a chance at a division title. The Blue Jays don't know what to make of the Red Sox. Toronto won 15 straight games in Fenway Park before losing four in a row there in June. Others, like Milwaukee manager Tom Trebelhorn, sound as though the conclusion is foregone.
"Toronto should win, and as a member of the American League East, I hope for them against Oakland," he said. "But the A's are just so solid. Dave Stewart is the anchor of their staff. Toronto, it's Dave Stieb, a pretty volatile anchor. Who are you going to take in that matchup? That's not a knock on Stieb. The A's, they just don't beat themselves very often. They give you three outs an inning, and if you hit it, you have to hit it where they ain't."
The Blue Jays, meanwhile, are rather notorious for attempting acts of unnecessary heroism. When a runner begs to be advanced 90 feet, the batter swings as if to hit the ball 400 feet. The A's give themselves up; the Blue Jays give it away. The Blue Jays play to adoring throngs at their SkyDome -- 60 straight sellouts, a record season attendance in excess of 3.8 million -- and they are good theater. They also tend to botch their lines when it counts.
"It's not that we aren't trying," Gruber said. "I don't think it's that we don't know what's right. We just have to concentrate harder. We want to be Oakland. We could be Oakland. But we aren't yet."