1987 Blue Jays: A Cautionary Tale?
1987 was an unusually warm year in Eastern Canada, particularly in Ontario. After a warm spring and relatively hot summer, temperatures continued to stay above seasonal norms into September.
1987 was the year the $1 coin, nicknamed the Loonie, was introduced, replacing the paper version. Wheelchair athlete Rick Hansen completed his Man in Motion World Tour, the provincial premiers ratified the Meech Lake Accord, a series of amendments designed to try to persuade the Province of Quebec to sign onto the 1982 re-patriated Canadian Constitution, and several devastating tornadoes killed 27 people in Edmonton in July.
And on the morning of September 27th, which was to be another warm one in Toronto, Blue Jays fans awoke to find their team firmly in first place after edging the Detroit Tigers 10-9 with a thrilling comeback victory, extending their winning streak to 7 games, and their lead on the second place Tigers to 3 ½ games.
It was an exciting time for the Blue Jays, who had won their first American League East pennant in only their 9th year of existence in 1985, and were a game away from the World Series, only to have the Kansas City Royals rally from a 3-1 deficit to win the American League pennant. 1986 was a year of transition and inconsistency, but the team appeared to be firing on all cylinders as the 1987 season progressed.
Eight days later, Blue Jays fans woke up wondering how it had all fallen apart. That triumph the night before would prove to be their last of the season, as the Blue Jays lost the pennant to those same Tigers, who came up with their own last-minute, come from behind performance.
The Blue Jays everyday lineup for the 1987 season wasn’t that much different from the one the finished that 1985 campaign. The centrepiece of the lineup was a trio of young outfielders, George Bell, Jesse Barfield, and Lloyd Moseby, who had long been considered one of the top outfields in baseball. Barfield had led the AL in Home Runs with 40 the season before, while Bell topped 100 RBI for the first time, and Moseby was an AL All Star.
Manager Jimy Williams had taken over from Bobby Cox prior to the 86 season, and kept the platoon system Cox had put in place for that year, splitting playing time for Catchers Buck Martinez and Ernie Whitt, as well as 3rd Basemen Garth Iorg and Rance Mulliniks. After Martinez had his career ended by a devastating home plate collision, Whitt assumed the bulk to the catching duties, and after trading mercurial 2nd Baseman Damaso Garcia to Atlanta, Iorg shifted to the Keystone, and Mulliniks shared time at 3rd with youngster Kelly Gruber. First Baseman Willie Upshaw had seen his production tail off since a breakout, 27 Home Run, 104 RBI 1983 season, but he still was a solid contributor on both sides of the ball.
The pitching rotation was anchored by ace Dave Stieb, who had a sub-par 1986 season, likely caused by the wear and tear of averaging 270 Innings Pitched from 1982-85. Stieb was joined by original Blue Jay Jim Clancy, and crafty young southpaw Jimmy Key. Between the three of them, they started 104 of the team’s games that year. Swingman John Cerutti and mid-season call up Joe Johnson shared the fourth starter job. Veteran left hander Mike Flanagan, acquired from the Orioles, made 7 starts and solidified the rotation down the stretch.
Tom Henke had firmly established himself as an elite closer. The bullpen also featured sidewinding set-up man Mark Eichhorn, who had been a revelation a year earlier, and Harvard grad rookie lefty Jeff Musselman.
GM Pat Gillick, who would earn the nickname “Stand Pat” for refusing to make any major deals to shake up the club after that season until he engineered the Tony Fernandez/Fred McGriff for Roberto Alomar/Joe Carter deal prior to the 1991 season, had assembled a nice mix of veteran and young players for the 1987 season. Bell, Moseby, and Barfield were in their primes, Henke had plugged a gaping hole at the back end of the bullpen, and Key gave the Blue Jays three solid starters. Pull-hitter Whitt’s left-handed stroke was a perfect fit for Exhibition Stadium’s short right field foul pole, Fernandez was already becoming one of the best shortstops in the game, and Gruber showed some of the power/speed/defence combo that would make him an All Star in the following two seasons. With the Yankees in decline, the Red Sox in disarray, and the Tigers struggling to find their form after their magical 1984 World Series championship, the AL East was firmly up for grabs that season – and the Blue Jays appeared primed to win it. In assembling this roster, Gillick had scoured the Rule 5 draft to pick up hidden gems like Upshaw and Bell, stuck with expansion draftees Whitt and Clancy, and listened to veteran scouts Al LaMacchia and Bobby Mattick when they said that some kid named Stieb, who was an outfielder on a lesser known Illinois college team, was worth drafting and turning into a pitcher. All the pieces had come together, and while the loss to the Royals two seasons earlier was a heartbreak, the 1987 edition of the Blue Jays had to be considered AL East favourites as spring training broke.
The Blue Jays started slowly, and a loss to the White Sox on April 25th put them 6 ½ games behind Milwaukee, which was off to a blistering start, winning 16 of their first 17 games. A 5 game Jays winning streak closed out the month, and as the calendar rolled into June from May, the Brewers fell back in the pack, and Toronto found themselves trailing the Yankees by 2 games.
A pair of walk-off wins against the Orioles in June, in the middle of a franchise-record 11 game winning streak, put the Jays in 1st on the 8th. The Jays and Yanks battled for possession of the division lead for the rest of the month, until 8 straight losses by Toronto in early July left them 5 games out. A three game sweep by New York at The Ex was part of that losing skid, and left many fans wondering if the Blue Jays would become the late 80s version of their Canadian counterparts the Montreal Expos as teams with plenty of talent, but missing key ingredients to put them over the top.
At the All Star Break, the Jays had closed the Yankees lead to 3 games. Meanwhile, Detroit, who had started the season slowly, had surged to within 5 games of first. Bell, Henke, and Fernandez were named to the American League All Star team.
Toronto started August by winning 5 of 6 while the Yankees stumbled, and the Blue Jays took over 1st temporarily on the 7th, dropped to 2nd on the 8th, and took over top spot again for the next 10 days on the 9th. Trying to shore up a tiring rotation, Gillick acquired 300 game winner and Hall of Famer to be Phil Niekro, but the 48 year old knuckleballer, who had defeated the Blue Jays for his 300th win the season before, had little dance left on his knuckler, and was released after only 3 starts.
By Labour Day, the Yankees had started to fall off the pace, while Detroit and Toronto took turns atop the AL East standings.
During the first weeks of September, the Blue Jays were looking more and more like a team of destiny. Facing the A’s (who were in a pennant race with the Twins in the AL West), Angels, and Mariners in a 10 game homestand to start the month, Toronto had three dramatic, walk-off extra inning wins. On the 1st, Barfield’s double in the 10th brought home Canadian-born OF Rob Ducey, while a pinch-hit Home Run by part-time player Cecil Fielder provided the margin of victory 10 days later.
Bolstering the starting rotation was lefty Mike Flanagan, who the Blue Jays had acquired from the Orioles at the then-trade deadline of August 31st. The Tigers kept pace with Toronto over the first 11 days of September, though, winning 7 of 9. By the 18th, a 6 game winning streak had put the Tigers in front by a game and a half, while the Blue Jays lost their second of three games to the visiting Yankees.
The next week would prove pivotal. The Blue Jays beat the Yankees on Sunday, September 19th, to salvage a split, then traveled to Baltimore, where they swept three from the O’s, while the Tigers took 2 of 3 from the Red Sox, setting up the first of two September showdowns between Toronto and Detroit that weekend, the Blue Jays holding a slender half game lead.
The Blue Jays took the series opener in front of 42 000 at Exhibition Stadium. Flanagan outdueled Jack Morris in a 4-3 Toronto win, with Henke picking up his 34th Save. The victory proved costly, however, as Tigers 3rd Baseman Bill Madlock took out Fernandez on a barrel roll of a slide trying to break up a Double Play. Fernandez’ elbow was fractured, and his season was over. Madlock denied that he deliberately tried to take the Blue Jay short stop out on the play:
Undaunted, the Blue Jays took the second game of the series 3-2 in a walk off. Down 2-0 heading into the bottom of the 9th, Fernandez’ replacement Manuel Lee hit a two-run triple down the right field line. Detroit Manager Sparky Anderson ordered a pair of intentional walks to load the bases, and with one out, set up a force at home. Moseby hit a ground ball to Tigers’ 2nd Baseman Lou Whitaker, but his throw to home to force Lee was wild, and the Blue Jays wild comeback was complete.
The Blue Jays lead over the Tigers was now 2 ½ games – the largest gap between the two teams since July 16th.
The 3rd game of the series was yet another nail-biter. With the second-largest ever crowd in attendance at The Ex, Toronto again found themselves down 3 runs heading into the last of the 9th. Barfield, who had started the comeback the previous game with a one-out single, led off with a bloop double. Upshaw followed with a single, and reliever Mike Henneman hit Rick Leach to load the bases once again. Veteran outfielder Juan Beniquez, who came over from the Royals in July, pinch-hit for Lee and hit a double to clear the bases and provide another walk off win.
The Blue Jays were now clearly in the driver’s seat. With their seventh win in a row, they now held a 3 ½ game lead on the Tigers with only a week in the season. Little did Toronto fans know that the Blue Jays would not win another game that season, which would end in gut-wrenching fashion in Detroit. The Tigers took the final game of the series behind former Blue Jays Doyle Alexander, who left the team on less than pleasant terms the previous season in a trade with the Braves. Atlanta dealt him to Detroit mid way through the year, and the veteran right hander brought an 8-0 record, with a tiny 1.40 ERA into the game.
Toronto got to Alexander for a run in the 1st, and that was the margin of difference heading into the 9th. Clancy had shut down the Tigers for 7 innings, and the usually-reliable Henke was brought in for a two-inning save. Kirk Gibson hit a 9th inning homer to tie the game, and Alexander continued to silence the Toronto bats over 10 ⅔ innings. The Tigers scored in the top of the 11th, only to have the Blue Jays match that run in the bottom half. Detroit scored again in the top of the 13th, with Gibson driving in the winning run on a bloop single.
Detroit headed home to face Baltimore to start a season-ending homestand, while Milwaukee came to Toronto. The Tigers split with the O’s while the Jays were swept by the Brewers. And misfortune struck for the home team once again on a double play, when Whitt broke ribs while sliding into 2nd. The veteran catcher was in the midst of a career year, establishing personal highs in Doubles, Home Runs, RBI, and batting average. With the injuries to Whitt and Fernandez, the Blue Jays up the middle defence consisted of Lee, Catcher Greg Myers, and 2nd Baseman Nelson Liriano (who had replaced the struggling Iorg in the lineup in late August) – the same up the middle defenders for the AAA Syracuse Chiefs for much of the season.
Still, the Blue Jays headed into that final three game set with the Tigers with a one game lead. Taking two of three would clinch the division; losing two of three would result in a tie. Without the protection of Whitt behind him in the lineup, the already struggling Bell saw few strikes, and with patience not being his strong suit, he went 3-20 over the season’s final week. On a drizzly Friday night opener, Lee’s 2nd inning 3-run homer put the Jays ahead against Alexander, and despite giving up 9 hits and 3 walks, Dour Doyle shut the Jays out the rest of the way, aided by four double plays. The Tigers took the lead with a pair of runs in the second and third innings, and the Blue Jays were unable to score, as Detroit took the opener, 4-3. The two teams were now in a dead heat for first, with identical 96-64 records.
Toronto struck again early in the second game, but could score only once more, leaving 12 runners on base; Blue Jays hitters were only 2-10 with runners in scoring position. With the score tied at 2 headed to the bottom of the 9th, the Tigers loaded the bases with one out, and with the infield in looking to cut the winning run, Alan Trammell drove a ball that Lee likely would have cleanly fielded for an inning-ending double play if he was playing at normal depth. Playing several steps in, however, meant that he had little chance to react, and the ball skidded between his legs, bringing in the winning run, and putting the Tigers in first place.
So, everything came down to game 162, which given the six consecutive one-run games the two teams had just played, was only fitting. Taking the mound for Toronto was Key, whose sparkling 2.76 ERA would earn him the AL title. On the hill for Detroit was southpaw Frank Tanana, who was a fireballing starter with the Angels and had three successive two hundred-plus strikeout seasons in the mid-70s, but had turned into a soft-tossing junkballer after the Tigers had picked him up off the scrap heap following Tommy John surgery several seasons earlier.
Tanana had his struggles against the Jays that year, and had gone over a month between wins down the stretch, but he was magnificent, keeping the Toronto hitters off balance, shutting them out on six hits. Key was just as sharp, allowing 3 hits over 8 innings, his only mistake being a 3rd inning home run to Larry Herndon. Iorg bounded out weakly to Tanana to end the game, and complete the Tigers’ miracle comeback. The Jays, for the weekend, went a frustrating 3-25 with runners in scoring position.
In the aftermath, some members of the Toronto media had the post-mortem knives sharpened and ready to autopsy the team’s season. But few of them, in those pre-analytics days, had anything specific to say, other than to call this the greatest collapse in baseball history.
Which, of course, it wasn’t.
Other teams blew larger leads. The 1964 Phillies had a 6 ½ game lead over the Cardinals with 12 games to go, but lost the pennant. Sadly, Blue Jays pitching coach Al Widmar was part of that team. The 69 Cubs and 78 Red Sox had double-digit leads with a month left to go in the season, and missed the post-season. The Blue Jays had been neck-and-neck since mid-July, with no more than 3 ½ half games separating them. And Toronto’s 96 wins were the second-most in all of baseball that year.
So, what did happen?
It’s hard to think of a team winning 96 games as having any weaknesses. The Blue Jays had one of the top offences in the American League – they may not have been the most patient team, but despite their reliance on the Home Run (215, second only to the Tigers, and 10 of which game in a record-setting win against the Orioles), they made contact and put a lot of balls in play. Their pitching staff led the league in ERA, and (in a concession to modern-day analytics), were second in FIP. Their 18 Complete Games were toward the bottom of the pile, which may have meant (for the times) a bit of an overworked bullpen.
Certainly, one of the biggest factors in the late-season collapse had to be the loss of Fernandez and Whitt. Fernandez was not only the defensive glue of the team, he was the lead off hitter and catalyst for the offence. Whitt’s defensive skills may not have been at a premium level, but he offered protection for Bell in the lineup, and although Bell could be a streaky hitter, his struggles over the final six games were probably not a coincidence. Barfield, Moseby, and McGriff combined for over 450 strikeouts when 100-whiff seasons were not as common as they are today, and that may have showed that the heart of the order tended to expand their strike zones, and veteran pitchers could take advantage of that.
Detroit’s ability to stay in the pennant race also can at least be attributed to the acquisition of Alexander in August. With Morris, Tanana, and Walt Terrell, Alexander added to an already solid pitching staff. Gillick did obtain Flanagan later in the month, but you have to wonder how many wins he would have contributed to if he had come to the team sooner. Clancy and Key were consistent throughout the year, but Stieb, after struggling early in the year, came around in June, July, and August, but clearly faded down the stretch, and was no longer the rotation anchor he had been. Cerutti and Johnson gave the team a few effective starts over the course of the season, but the fourth starter’s slot had been a black hole for the team all season. Granted, this was 1987, and many teams had the same problem, and few had a top three to match Toronto’s, but this could have been a 100-win team if they had more production from that fourth spot.
Other factors contributed not so much to Toronto’s meltdown as much as they did to an inability to pull away from the Tigers. Garcia, traded to the Braves prior to the season, did not get along with Manager Williams (upset over his poor play and being dropped to 9th in the batting order early in the 86 season, he famously burned his jersey in the clubhouse showers after a game), and even though his production had started to decline, he provided steady offence for the team. Removed from his platoon and declining himself, Iorg did not provide the same level of offence. Upshaw, whose numbers had been steadily slipping since his high-water mark of 1983, continued to recede as 1987 wore on, and did not provide the kind of run production that one would expect from a corner infielder. One could have made the case that McGriff, who hit 20 Home Runs in only part time play, should have taken over for Upshaw at some point during the season, but that would have been a tough decision for any Manager.
The bottom line? Local media suggested that this was a huge choke job, but that’s too easy an analysis. Certainly, this team lacked a killer instinct, and on the season’s final weekend, the pressure of a pennant race may have helped to explain all those runners left on base. Players who tended to swing from the heels no matter the count might have made more of a contribution if they had shortened their swings, and tried to advance runners. If you look at the previous 23 weeks of the season, however, you see a team that had chances to go on a run and put the Tigers away, but either due to character issues, or maybe just plain old roster construction, they failed to do so.
Any team can have a losing streak, of course. Injuries, inconsistency, and hot opponents can make the losses pile up quickly. Doing so under the spotlight of a pennant race magnifies that. And for Blue Jays fans, who until the appearance of The Sports Network (TSN), a newcomer in the burgeoning specialty cable channel world, they had a front row seat to the whole implosion. Prior to TSN’s emergence on the televised landscape, Blue Jays fans could only watch their team once (or, if the Canadian network tv Gods permitted it, twice) per week. Starting with the 1984 season, TSN began to show an ever-expanding roster of televised games, and by 1987, it was rare for a game not to be televised. For many Blue Jays fans, this was their initial first-hand experience in a pennant race, and it was crushing for the majority of them.
Toronto was a city starved for a winner in 1987, and with the longest playoff drought in baseball, the hunger is still there. For the many, many fans who have jumped on the bandwagon in the last month, that 87 team should serve as a cautionary tale: the fortunes of a baseball team can be capricious and very fleeting. A team may seem like a lock one week, and look like they would have trouble beating a AAA club. And sometimes the only explanation can be – that’s baseball. Going into the season, the Blue Jays lineup was superior to any other team in the American League: they had baseball’s best outfield, one of the best shortstops, a top three pitching rotation that took a back seat to no one, and one of the best closers in the game. And in most other seasons, 96 wins would be good enough for a division title.
Except in 1987, it wasn’t.