Blue Jays replace burden with beauty of 1st championship


October 26, 1992|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

ATLANTA -- Toronto Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston was just this side of speechless. The wait had finally ended and the weight of his team's checkered past had been lifted from his broad shoulders. He would be the first to present baseball's world championship trophy to the people of Canada, an honor that seemed very long in coming.

His club survived another dramatic ninth-inning comeback by the Atlanta Braves to score a 4-3 victory in extra innings Saturday night and claim the 89th World Series. It was both a personal and professional triumph. It was an in-your-face slam dunk over a growing body of critics who had long questioned his managerial acumen. Gaston has to be savoring their silence now, but he was too choked up to sum up the significance of the event during Saturday night's celebration.

"I'm not thinking about myself right now," he said, his voice choked with emotion. "Right now, I'm thinking about people other than myself -- the organization, the fans and the players. The players did a great job. I'm proud of them."

As well he should be. Game 6 was a blueprint for another postseason disaster. The Blue Jays were one strike away from the title in the ninth inning when Otis Nixon slapped an 0-2 pitch into left field to tie the game. Remember Francisco Cabrera in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series? So did the Blue Jays, but they held on until 41-year-old Dave Winfield could deliver his first extra-base hit in World Series play, a two-out, two-run double off veteran left-hander Charlie Leibrandt in the top of the 11th.

Poor Charlie Leibrandt. He was on the mound when Kirby Puckett hit a dramatic 11th-inning home run in Game 6 of last year's World Series. What strange symmetry. He returned to the mound in the same inning of another Game 6 and served up another game-winning hit. What wonderful theater. Winfield had waited 11 years to return to the World Series and he waited until the 11th inning of the sixth game to make his mark on it. He pulled a full-count pitch down the left-field line to score Devon White and Roberto Alomar and turn the streets of Toronto into an all-night party zone.

The Braves staged another last-gasp comeback attempt. They scored a run in the bottom of the 11th and had the tying run at third when Nixon tried to get the run home with a bunt. Reliever Mike Timlin pounced on it and flipped the ball to Joe Carter at first just a half-step ahead of Nixon. The rest is hysteria.

"I just squeezed it," Carter said. "Then I jumped about 11 feet in the air. It wasn't until I had jumped about three times that I thought to look back at the umpire and see if he had called him out."

Nixon definitely was out. The Blue Jays definitely were in. The mob scene on the field and in the clubhouse gave testimony to just how hungry the organization was for a world title. That's why Jack Morris was signed last winter. That's why general manager Pat Gillick was so intent on bringing Winfield -- the infamous sea gull basher -- to Toronto.

"This is the most fun I've had playing professional baseball," Winfield said. "It was a good year. It was a tough year. We set some goals and we reached them. This is the consummate team -- the best team I've ever played for."

Gaston has been criticized in the past for his laissez-faire, let-em-play managerial style, but this time the best move was the one he didn't make. He considered taking Winfield out of the game for defensive purposes after the seventh inning, but the aging outfielder talked him out of it. Then Winfield made a diving catch to rob Ron Gant of a hit in the eighth inning.

It was a World Series of photo-finishes. The Braves lost all four games by one run. They lost the same way they lost a year ago to the Minnesota Twins. One hit here, one big out there and they might be two-time world champions. Instead, they must try and make the long trek back in 1993.

The Blue Jays have felt that pain, perhaps at a different level, but they have felt it on several occasions over the past eight years. They blew a 3-1 lead in the playoffs in 1985. They blew a nTC 3 1/2 -game division lead with seven games to play in 1987. They lost in the playoffs in 1989 and 1991. They knew the feeling and they finally were on the flip side. But all of the near misses left Gillick less than completely confident when the Braves would not die in the bottom of the 11th.

Shortstop Jeff Blauser, who had started the ninth-inning comeback with a single off stopper Tom Henke, greeted left-hander Jimmy Key with another. Damon Berryhill followed with a sharp grounder to shortstop that would have turned into a double play if it had not taken a bad hop and skipped by Alfredo Griffin. If Gillick did not believe in the ghosts of postseasons past up to that point, he was certainly beginning to wonder.

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