Late Friday night, after the Baltimore Orioles had beaten the Toronto Blue Jays in a wet but wonderful game, Tippy Martinez, the winning pitcher, was alone in the clubhouse with his thoughts and the victory. "It was almost like playing the Yankees," he said.
Take a moment and let that sink in. Then try this: when a trade rumor involving the Yankees circulated through the Blue Jays' spring training camp, a young catcher, Geno Petralli, went to a reporter and asked hopefully, "I'm not part of that, am I?"
For six years, the Blue Jays, birds of another feather, were the sitting ducks of the American League East. Playing for George Steinbrenner was better than that. Last year, the Blue Jays finished in a tie for sixth place and celebrated as if they had won the pennant. Now, they are in third place and feeling that first blush of success. It may not last, but right now it's wonderful.
When the Blue Jays arrived at the stadium Friday, the smell of gasoline permeated the air. Manager Bobby Cox watched from the dugout as inspectors searched for the leak. "I think they're trying to handicap us," he said, smiling. "If Earl Weaver (the Orioles' former manager) was still here, I'd think he did it on purpose."
Rick Dempsey, the Orioles' catcher, said, "They're probably the most improved team in the league. They're better than a lot of people think. They're going to be in the top three."
Two weeks ago, when the Orioles, in first place, arrived in Toronto a headline in a local paper told the Blue Jays it was time to "put up or shut up." When the reporter arrived at the stadium that night, she was greeted by a chorus, emanating from the showers, "Put up or shut up."
The Blue Jays won three of four, twice shutting out the Orioles, then beat the Tigers twice to move into first place. Surprised? "Definitely," Dempsey said.
"I think the teams we've played know," said Dave Stieb, whom many consider the best pitcher in the league right now. "I think the ones we haven't played are wondering what we're doing, how we're putting it together so well. They'll find out."
The answer is a lot of pitching and enough of everything else. They lead the league with the lowest ERA, 3.39, and are second in complete games. Stieb, the AL's pitcher of the month, went into today's game leading the league with eight victories and 72 strikeouts. Although he lost tonight, he has a lot to do with the Blue Jays' success. "When I'm in there, yeah," he said.
The starting rotation also includes Luis Leal, who was one of three Toronto players (along with Stieb and Lloyd Moseby) named player of the week in May. He is 5-3 with a 3.52 ERA. Jim Clancy is 4-4 with a 3.84 ERA. The fourth starter is Jim Gott, who pitched well Friday but did not get a decision. The only problem with Toronto's starters is that they all are right-handed.
Over the winter, the Blue Jays acquired Dave Collins (speed) from the Yankees, Jorge Orta (average) from the New York Mets and Cliff Johnson (right-handed power) from the Oakland A's.
Still, you won't find many Blue Jays hitters among the league leaders--they are 10th in hitting with a .257 average, sixth with a .405 slugging percentage. Cox platoons a lot, getting the most out of everyone and everyone accepts it.
"We have no superstars," said catcher Ernie Whitt, who alternates with Buck Martinez. "We have a lot of good players. Willie Upshaw (nine home runs, 31 RBI) is underrated. Alfredo Griffin is such a steady shortstop. He's very underrated."
"And he has so much fun playing," Martinez said. "It's inspiring." Pause. "We don't have any fun," he said, meaning the opposite. "We have one rule: no laughing during games."
For the longest time, the Blue Jays were a laughing matter. Exhibition Stadium was "like a morgue," Whitt said. "You could hear a pin drop."
That changed, the catcher said, on Aug. 4, when "they started selling beer." It was about that time that the Blue Jays began playing well. "I knew we'd get better," Stieb said. "I don't think the fans had too much patience left. It was timely."
The Blue Jays won 78 games in 1982, going 41-37 in the second half, 37-47 in the first. "You could see it was a team coming into its own by the way they played last year near the end," Collins said. "You could tell the young players were gaining maturity, learning how to win. There's a chemistry that clicks. We're not caught up in controversy.
"It's a completely different philosophy (from the Yankees). I'm not saying one is better than the other. New York is run by George. He's very impatient. He'll go through managers two or three times a year, change the lineup daily, make trades not even considering the money, anything to make a change. Here they have a plan and they stick with it. They believe in their minor league system. When they came into the league, they set a course and they stuck with it."
Pedestrian as it may be, that's what the Blue Jays are about: maturing, contributing, being a team. The last three games last year, which should have been meaningless, were probably the most meaningful. "We were fighting to get out of the cellar," Martinez said. "We won three to finish in a tie (for sixth place with the Cleveland Indians).
"It gave us a winning feeling. The players threw all the balls up in the stands. It was kind of like a pennant feeling: let's get out of the cellar. It carried over to spring training."
Now, it's carrying them away.