Blue Jays' watch: couch potatoes of the macabre

Mike Littwin

October 03, 1990|By Mike Littwin

The cheers resounded through the old, empty stadium, as if echoes of some past glory. The fans had left long ago, having seen the pennant race as it was being played out on the field.

The better story -- the strange, odd story brought to you in part by the miracle of satellite television and in part by the strange, odd life of the Boston Red Sox -- took place inside the Toronto clubhouse. There, the Blue Jays watched their lives pass before their eyes.

It was, at minimum, eerie. A pennant race as Stephen King might write it.

They didn't use to have them this way. In the old days, there was scoreboard watching, a civilized, if boring, convention. In the modern age, players sit on couches, on chairs, even on the floor, maybe a beer in hand, one player watching with a fully lathered face, as the Boston Red Sox play the Chicago White Sox on a little TV built into a wall of the clubhouse with only everything on the line.

"C'mon," prayed Kenny Williams, a young Blue Jays outfielder to the TV set. Prayer was accepted. So were jokes and a roomful of reporters, photographers and minicams to record the scene.

It was the 11th inning before any prayers were answered. It was the 11th inning -- more than an hour after the Blue Jays had beaten the Orioles -- that Ozzie Guillen knocked in the winning run of a 3-2 White Sox victory.

You heard cheers then, and jokes, talk of tomorrow. Hey, suddenly there was a tomorrow.

The Blue Jays had begun the day two games behind Boston with two to play. Fred McGriff sat in a corner of the Toronto clubhouse before the game, trapped by a crowd of reporters questioning the Blue Jays' honor, when George Bell came to his rescue. Sort of.

"Say like I say," Bell suggested. "Say we blew it."

You wouldn't say hope was exactly springing, eternally or otherwise. The Blue Jays were a beaten, self-blaming group of, as some of their own would even put it, underachievers. And, then surprisingly, if not quite miraculously, they were back in the race.

You see, the Blue Jays hadn't counted on karma. They knew about their own recent history of failure, but how could it compare to a lifetime of crushed hope in Boston?

McGriff crushed a Dave Johnson pitch in Baltimore that was heard 400 miles to the north. During McGriff's ninth-inning at-bat, the scoreboard flashed the news that Chicago had taken a lead, one that would be wasted. McGriff said he never saw it. This is not a guy who points before he hits homers. And, after the game, as his teammates sat down to watch Boston and Chicago, McGriff slipped out to meet some family. History would not miss him, he figured.

Most of the others stayed. Kelly Gruber grabbed the center of the couch in the middle of the clubhouse and refused to get up and shower. He didn't want to miss anything. He finally showered in the 10th, but he got back in plenty of time.

That was about the moment that the irrepressible George Bell announced, "Five minutes to the bus." He was hooted down.

It was also about the time that the TV went out, just briefly, but long enough for a gasp to come from the Blue Jay faithful.

They watched as Carlton Fisk, the former Boston star, hit a ball out of the park, foul. They watched as Dennis Lamp came in for Boston in the 11th to pitch. You could say he was greetly warmly by the Blue Jays.

"That's the man we've been waiting for," said one.

Meanwhile, Bud Black, the winning pitcher in the game almost forgotten, but a game the Blue Jays had to win, was giving interviews. He seemed oblivious to the scene. And manager Cito Gaston watched from a corner of the room, peeking over people's heads, puffing on cigarettes.

The minicams recorded every twitch -- TV pictures of ballplayers watching TV pictures.

"Isn't this something?" said John Cerutti. He was the one in mid-shave.

Finally, the 11th. A White Sox base hit to left field that falls in front of Mike Greenwell. Bell shouted: "He played that like me." John Candelaria said: "That's why we're here watching this ballgame."

With two out and two on and too many rapid heartbeats, Guillen stepped to the plate.

"Put it somewhere, Ozzie," Williams begged.

He put it in right field. Up went the cheer. Around came the go-ahead run. "Hurry," somebody shouted. And then more cheers. And then a long half-inning in which the Red Sox failed to score.

And now a tie and a one-game playoff are just one Boston loss and one Toronto win away.

"I told you guys, don't be surprised -- anything can happen," Gruber would finally say.

It already did.

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