Just hours before they clinched their division championship last week, ensuring a berth in this week’s American League Championships Series (ALCS), the Toronto Blue Jays worked out with all seriousness of kids at a summer camp. Pitcher David Wells tracked down fly balls in the outfield with lumbering abandon, left-fielder Candy Maldonado did a poor imitation of a third baseman and right-fielder Joe Carter heckled slugger Dave Parker in a comic attempt to disrupt the veteran’s batting practice.
What might appear to be un discipline mayhem, however, is not likely to change, even in the playoffs. Officials of both the Jays and the Minnesota Twins, their opponents in this week’s best-of-seven-game ALCS, insist that players who stay relaxed are better able to handle the pressure of a pennant race.. “Having fun at the ball park is a key element in the success of both clubs,” said Andy MacPhail, general manager of the Twins. “When the game becomes a job for your, you lose some of your ability to compete. You have to retain some of that little-boy enjoyment of playing.”
Call it the Squeaky-Clean Series. Not only do the Jays and Twins play baseball with childlike zest, but they represent cities known as nice, clean places to live. Although some Canadians might beg to differ, Ontario’s capital retains its “Toronto the good” image in the United States. Meanwhile, the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the urban epicentre of a state known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, bear little resemblance to such gritty baseball capitals as Chicago and New York. In fact, if the ALCS were a movie, it would have no trouble with censors. The teams’ organizations are also PG-rated, providing stable, family-like environments for their players. The Twins even devote five color pages in their 1991 media guide to snapshots of the players with their wives and children.
Although such homespun virtues may not excite the U.S. television executives who pay $1.6 billion for the right to broadcast major-league baseball, they are cherished by the polite citizens of Toronto and Minneapolis who will pack their domed stadiums for the postseason party. With apologies to author Garrison Keillor, creator of the fictitious Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon, Toronto and Minneapolis are places where the men are strong, the women are handsome and the baseball teams are well above average.
The Blue Jays and Twins began the season on vastly different footings.
The Jays, who have twice before reached the playoffs but have never appeared in a World Series, were rebuilt last winter through trades and free-agent acquisitions, and oddsmakers favored them to win the American League’s eastern division. The Twins, meanwhile, had fallen from 1987 World Series champions to last place in the AL West in 1990, and were expected to finish well behind the powerful Oakland Athletics and Chicago White Sox. Like the Blue Jays, however, the Twins made successful personnel changes during the past two years and transformed the franchise into the bookmakers’ current choice to reach the World Series against the champions of the National League–the Pittsburg Pirates or the Atlanta Braves. Although the Jays and Twins played a season-ending, three-game series against each other, players from both teams said that the outcome of the championship battle was impossible to predict. Said Parker, a playoff and World Series veteran: “The regular season goes out the window because, in a short series, it’s all about who’s hot and who’s not.”
Among many disgruntled fans, the Jays have a reputation for being the team that is not hot when it counts. The franchise has been a competitive and financial success overall since its inception into the American League in 1977. It has strung together nine straight winning seasons and set baseball’s all-time attendance record–a remarkable 4,0001,526 fans–this season at SkyDome. But the Jays squandered a three-game-to-one lead in the 1985 ALCS and eventually lost four games to three to Kansas City; dropped their last seven games of the 1987 regular season to hand the title to Detroit; and were eliminated in five playoff games by Oakland in 1989.
According to the Blue Jays, the 1991 squad is different. They say that the team is stronger defensively, led by the all-new outfield of Carter, Maldonado and especially Devon White, the graceful centre fielder, and by Roberto Alomar, the acrobatic second baseman. The trade for knuckballer Tom Candiotti and the emergence of Juan Guzman, the hard-throwing rookie whose 10th straight win on Oct. 1 broke the Jays record for consecutive victories, have strengthened the team’s pitching. “I think that this club has stronger pitching and is better defensively than those other clubs,” said designated hitter Rance Mulliniks, a veteran of the 1985 and 1989 Jays teams. “And I believe that you really do win with pitching and defence.”
That combination is widely credited with staking the Blue Jays to their third division championship. Early in the season, with slugging third-baseman Kelly Gruber out of action with a thumb injury and first-baseman John Olerud floundering with a paltry batting average, Blue Jay pitchers were responsible for making up for the team’s offensive shortcomings. Starting pitchers Todd Stottlemyre, Jimmy Key and Wells all began the season strongly, and the short-relief tandem of Duane Ward and tom Henke approached perfection when called upon to protect a lead.