ATLANTA -- You want to learn the art of the deal, you study what transpires at the World Series, attended by Toronto's Blue Jays and Atlanta's Braves largely because of strong-arm tactics.
Starved for a pennant, the Blue Jays go to market in August and consummate a remarkable trade with the bedraggled New York Mets for David Cone, who is nothing less than one of the best pitchers in the United States, Canada or any other nation that sanctions free agents.
A hired gun intended to be leased instead of loved, Cone makes you glad you don't bet the rent on him in Game 2 Sunday night, when he leaves the Fall Classic by the fifth inning. But Cone does beat Oakland once in the playoffs to help Toronto clinch a berth in the tournament at long last on Wednesday, hours before the Braves ruin Christmas in Pittsburgh. During the stretch he wins four games, the margin by which the Blue Jays survive Milwaukee.
Cone's opponent last night is John Smoltz, who warrants no Cone headlines when he joins Atlanta in 1987. The Braves then are small print, too, en route to landing with their usual thud in fifth place. He arrives from the farm system of the Detroit Tigers, who are chasing the Torontos for a division title. The Tigers obtain veteran Doyle Alexander from Atlanta, he posts an unconscious 9-0 record and the Blue Jays blow the gig after leading by 3 1/2 games in the final week.
The Blue Jays figure the statute of limitations is over, that they can't be cursed again by the transaction five years since it occurs. Then they encounter Smoltz, who pitches well enough to beat them, but doesn't. The Blue Jays rally for a 5-4 victory to tie the series 1-1 as we head for customs. Toronto figures to see Smoltz again and the Braves Cone again. Pitching is where it's at, and these two franchises are in the World Series because they've borrowed, bought or begged to secure some of the finest arms available.
Since Cone's change of address, we are spared rhetoric about )) how this talented right-hander will become part of the great Toronto family. On the contrary. The rented Cone himself rents a suite in the SkyDome hotel, so he practically can fall out of bed onto the mound.
When his temporary help is no longer required, he'll cross the border, with a Canadian sunset in his rearview mirror, perhaps for the New York Yankees.
The Blue Jays don't sign pitchers for beyond three years and Cone wants security. The Mets offer $17.5 million for four, and he's insulted. Then he's exported. Still, considering all the money wasted in baseball, Cone is worth the $980,000 portion paid by the Blue Jays on his current annual $4.2 million insecurity blanket.
Question: Do the filthy-rich Blue Jays underscore all that is wrong in baseball with this spending spree? Yes and no. By purchasing Cone, the Blue Jays pass the Mets and go to the top of the payroll poll at about $45 million. But at least they derive bang for their bucks.
The $44 million Mets win 72 games in the wobbly National League East. The Mets take prospects and hope, like the Braves do in 1987 after scouting Smoltz. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays, who lead the league in doing their homework, succeed with huge inventories of cash and players. Whatever it takes.
Still, the Blue Jays detect early distress signals Sunday evening. During the preambles, the Canadian flag featuring that bright red maple leaf is displayed upside down by the U.S. Marine color guard of Atlanta, an inhospitable Southern gesture that prompts an apology from the office of the commissioner. Baseball doesn't have a live commissioner, so the office speaks for him. Toronto could live with inverted hockey standings, because that means its beloved Maple Leafs finish first every season.
Then there's a brutal verdict at the plate in the fourth inning. Roberto Alomar, perched at third base, breaks when Smoltz's delivery hits the dirt. Catcher Damon Berryhill reaches right, fetches it, then feeds Smoltz, covering. Alomar clearly scores, but his hand coordination is not matched by umpire Mike Reilly's eyes. Alomar is called out.
The Marines, however, cannot flip the final score, so an international incident is avoided.