Though I’m putting this out on April 11, I actually wrote it two days ago, on April 9. With the Blue Jays opening at home today, I’m waxing nostalgic about the home opener from 40 years ago, which was played on April 9, 1983. And, really, for that entire 1983 season.
What a great year!
So many memories…
My family has had Blue Jays seasons tickets since the moment they went on sale when the team began in 1977. I worked on the Blue Jays ground crew from 1981 until 1985. Those were the “Worst to First” years … and it’s hard for me to believe how long ago it was.
I am nothing like the sports fan I used to be. Though Lynn might tell you differently, I watch nowhere near the amount of hockey and baseball I used to. My two brothers still live and die a little with the Blue Jays. Even my mother does.
Well, I still enjoy baseball, but some times I feel like I only follow it as closely as I do out of loyalty to my younger self. Because, man, my younger self loved this team!
Our family was Blue Jays crazy … even with a team that lost more than 100 games in each of its first three seasons, and finished last (seventh place then) in the American League East five years in a row. That fifth season of 1981 was the strike year, when a big chunk of summer baseball was wiped out. The Blue Jays actually showed a lot of improvement in “the second half” of that season and, come 1982, I was optimistically predicting they would win 75 games. I remember us on the Ground Crew writing down our predictions and burying them under home plate before the season started … though I don’t ever remember digging them up to see if anyone had correctly predicted the Jays’ 78-82 record that year.
The 1982 Blue Jays finished strong. They went 44-37 in the final 81 games of the season, winning nine of their last 12. The 78th win was a 5-2 victory over the Seattle Mariners on the final day of the season, and moved the Jays out of seventh place … albeit into a tie for sixth and last with the Cleveland Indians. Jim Clancy pitched a complete game, and though there were only 19,064 at the game, the crowd roared as he came off the mound. Clancy, and several other Blue Jays, fired their hats up into the stands, where fans were shouting “We’re Number Six!” and “Bring on the Indians!”
The Maple Leafs were particularly terrible in the mid 1980s … so I couldn’t wait for spring and for baseball to start again.
The Blue Jays began the 1983 season in Boston on April 5, and I can clearly remember watching on TV in the Common Room at C House in Otonabee College at Trent University. Not a lot of other people were watching. Rance Mulliniks hit a two-run homer to cap a four-run second inning and the Blue Jays romped to a 7-1 win over Boston. But, after dropping the second game to the Red Sox, the Jays were 1-1 when they opened at home against the Yankees.
I don’t remember much about that game (I had to look up most of this), but I do remember the key play. The Jays had led 2-0 since the bottom of the second, but the bullpen (a crippling weakness all that season, and the next) coughed up two in the seventh and two in the eighth and the Yankees led 4-2. In the bottom of the eighth, Damaso Garcia led off with a single off Doyle Alexander, and the Yankees went to Goose Gossage, who was a little past his prime but still one of the most intimidating closers (we called them “stoppers” then) of his day. But Gossage walked Dave Collins and then gave up a run-scoring single to Willie Upshaw and it was 4-3. Surprisingly, Cliff Johnson laid down a bunt, moving Collins to third and Upshaw to second.
That’s when the key play happened.
Ernie Whitt was the batter, and he popped up into shallow right field. Collins was fast, but no way this ball was deep enough to score him. But then second baseman Willie Randolph, center fielder Jerry Mumphrey, and right fielder Steve Kemp all collided.
The ball fell in!
I leaped so high I hit my head on the bottom of the concrete roof atop the third base photographers dugout where I was watching the game! But it was worth the pain. Collins scored to tie the game, and then Jesse Barfield hit a three-run homer. Roy Lee Jackson — who had pitched poorly over 1 1/3 ineffective innings, helping to blow that 2-0 lead — pitched the top of the ninth and hung on to get the victory as the Jays won 7-4. (Jackson did this sort of thing so often, we used to call a reliever blowing the lead but getting the win “a Roy Lee victory.”)
The Jays actually struggled during that first month of the season, but won a huge game on April 19. I was back at university in Peterborough, where I had trouble getting radio reception in my dorm room. (Not a lot of TV coverage in those days.) But for some reason, I could tune in the game on my car radio in the parking lot behind C House. So, I was sitting out there on a cool evening, listening to the bottom of the ninth. The Jays were trailing Cleveland 7-5 when — with two outs — first Cliff Johnson and then Lloyd Moseby (after a Buck Martinez single) hit two-run homers to pull out a 9-7 victory.
That big win turned the season around, and the Jays won 22 of their next 35 games. When they moved into first place all alone in the AL East with a 7-6 win over Detroit on May 24, I took Bobby Cox’s team lineup card from the wall in the dugout to keep as a souvenir.
Toronto, Baltimore, New York and Milwaukee were all in a tight race for first throughout June, and when they reached the All-Star break on July 3, the Blue Jays were 44-33 and on top by a single game. Not only was it the first time Toronto had been in first place at the All-Star break, it was the first time the team had been anywhere other than last place! Three days later, Blue Jays ace Dave Stieb started, and won, the 50th anniversary All-Star Game.
The Jays remained in first place until July 25. But not everyone was a believer. I remember Duke Snider, the Hall of Fame player and Montreal Expos broadcaster, saying, “Water always finds its level, and so will the Blue Jays.” And Hal McRae of the Kansas City Royals said something along the lines of he didn’t think the Blue Jays would win the AL East because they never had. That seemed stupid to me! Nobody wins anything until the first time they win something.
The Blue Jays did begin to slip from contention in August, but there were still highlights. A doubleheader sweep of the Yankees on August 2 … and Dave Winfield sort of accidentally-on-purpose killing a seagull with a throw two nights later. Still, it all fell apart late in August at the end of a two-week road trip with a series of crushing, last-inning losses in Baltimore and Detroit.
Our family was in Detroit, visiting our American cousins, when the Jays played the Tigers. At least 10 of us were at the first game of the series on Friday night, which was a tense, tight, 3-3 tie through nine innings. With no faith anymore in our terrible bullpen, Bobby Cox stuck with starter Jim Gott to pitch the bottom of tenth … and, with two out, he gave up a game-losing homer to Alan Trammell.
Jim Gott was the friendliest Blue Jays player during my five years on the ground crew, and before the Jays set out on that long road trip, I had asked him if he would be able to put aside tickets for my brothers and me for the Saturday game in Detroit. Of course, at that time, I had no idea he’d been pitching on Friday night … nor how devastating that game would be. Still, on Saturday morning, he called at my aunt and uncle’s house to tell me he’d got the tickets.
(My family’s end of the bargain was that we were going to invite him and his wife to dinner after the season … but he never followed up on that. I was in touch with Gott via email through the Los Angeles Dodgers about 10 years ago and reminded him that we still owed him dinner! He didn’t follow up then either.)
The Jays won that Saturday afternoon, and on Sunday, we drove back to Toronto from Detroit listening to the game on the car radio. The Jays were leading 2-1 heading into the bottom of the ninth when the bullpen struck again. Dave Geisel, who’d come on with two out in the seventh and done well since then, got the first out in the ninth, but then walked Lance Parrish. Bobby Cox went to Randy Moffitt (brother of tennis star Billie Jean King), who retired Glenn Wilson on a screaming line drive for the second out of the inning.
Maybe Cox always planned to use Moffitt for just one batter.
Or maybe the loud out changed his mind.
Whatever the reason, Cox made the switch to our supposed relief ace, Joey McLaughlin.
Tigers first baseman Rick Leach singled on McLaughlin’s second pitch.
Then, on Joey’s third pitch to Chet Lemon, the Tigers’ centerfielder smashed a three-run homer.
At that point, we had turned off the 401 at London for either a late lunch or an early dinner. That part, I can’t quite remember. But, what I can clearly recall is that as we drove up to the restaurant (a Swiss Chalet) in stunned silence, my father asked, “Anybody still feel like eating?”
None of us did.
So he turned the car around and got back on the highway.
The Blue Jays finished in fourth place in 1983 with a record of 89-73, but were only nine games out of first. It took another two years, and the addition of Tom Henke to the bullpen, before they finally won the American League East in 1985.
It was another seven seasons until the first of back-to-back World Series titles.
It’s now been 30 years since that second Blue Jays championship.
We’re still waiting for the third.
Maybe this is the year.
But, I guess I’ll remain loyal to my younger self a little while longer.