Years ago, when the New York Yankees were the Yankees, it often was said that when a player was traded here and put on the pin stripes, he was transformed.
Journeymen became producers, producers became stars. Years have passed and they aren't the Yankees anymore. But tonight, Ron Hassey, who escaped six years of exile in Cleveland last June, awoke some old memories of those days of yore.
For at least on this night, the career journeyman was a star, hitting a three-run home run well into the upper deck during a six-run seventh inning. With that, the Yankees dealt the Toronto Blue Jays a demoralizing 7-5 defeat before 52,141 in Yankee Stadium.
The Yankees are only 1 1/2 games behind Toronto in the American League East with three more games left in this showdown series that both teams have awaited for a month. No one was happier to be part of such a series than Hassey, a chunky, dark-haired, 32-year-old catcher who hit his 12th home run tonight, more than he has ever hit in a major league season.
"I played in a lot of empty stadiums in September when I was in Cleveland," he said. "Being here is like a new life for me. I'm excited about baseball again. This is fun."
He had his fun only because the young Blue Jays came unraveled in the seventh. This was the test Toronto has known all summer it would have to face in order to win its first division title, nine years after it came into the league. The Yankees were charging, they had won 11 out of 12 and they were at home.
"We knew what to expect here," said reliever Dennis Lamp, who threw the pitch to Hassey. "Nothing surprised us. We were ready."
For six innings, Toronto certainly looked ready. A two-run home run by catcher Ernie Whitt in the third inning off of Ron Guidry (19-5), an unearned run in the fourth and another run in the sixth had given Dave Stieb to a 4-1 lead.
Even though he was a little wild, Stieb was sharp. His breaking pitches had batters ducking and he sailed through six innings with a two-hitter. He might have sailed further if his defense hadn't failed him.
It began mildly in the seventh when Willie Randolph walked with one out. Stieb induced Bobby Meacham to hit what looked like a certain double-play grounder to shortstop Tony Fernandez. Fernandez got a big hop, took two steps towards second as if he would make the play there himself, then changed his mind and tried to flip the ball to a shocked Damaso Garcia.
"At first I thought I would take it myself but then I got a big hop and had to back up," Fernandez said. "After that, I wasn't sure I could get it so I tried to flip it. I thought Damaso had a better chance."
As Garcia would have had to pivot and throw, there was no reason for Fernandez to think that. But he is young, just like this team is. His toss rolled past Garcia, who was moving out of the way, and Randolph and Meacham were safe.
Shaken, Stieb walked Rickey Henderson on a close 3-2 pitch. The Blue Jays' manager, Bobby Cox, decided it was time to go to his bullpen, the team's most improved element this season. Stieb was a little tired and a lot frustrated at plate umpire Dan Morrison.
"Our bullpen was rested and ready," Cox said. "There was no reason not to go there."
Gary Lavelle entered first. He got Ken Griffey to hit a ground ball to third. Another double-play chance. But this time, Henderson body-blocked Garcia going into second, buckling Garcia's left leg. That enabled Griffey to beat Garcia's relay by the blink of an eye.
Now it was 4-2, Yankees on first and third, two out. Don Mattingly, the league's best clutch hitter, singled to right to make it 4-3. Cox returned, took Lavelle with him and brought in the right-handed Lamp to face the right-handed Winfield.
Winfield hit a ground ball deep in the hole. Fernandez, who has superb range, backhanded it and tried to flip off-balance to second for an inning-ending force. But his throw fluttered like a knuckleball over Garcia.
Griffey scored to make it 4-4. Mattingly took third, Griffey second. "When I hit the ball, I knew he couldn't get me," Winfield said. "But it looked like he had the play on Don at second."
Toronto had been given three chances to get out of the inning. Up came Hassey, given a chance to play in the last month because of an injury to Butch Wynegar. Lamp quickly fell behind 2-0.
"I was looking for one pitch," Hassey said. "Ahead in the count, I had to look fast ball. He got it up a little. I didn't care where it landed, one foot over the fence, the upper deck, anywhere."
It landed well into the upper-deck in right field, a truly mammoth shot. "I was trying to throw it over the plate," Lamp said. "I did. Unfortunately, it was a little too high."
It made a loser of Lavelle (4-7), a hero of Hassey and a very happy man of Yankees Manager Billy Martin.
"If you take a guy away from a losing atmosphere and put him into a winning one, if he's any kind of competitor, he's going to be a better player," Martin said. "Hassey's a competitor. He's a different player with this ball club."
Years ago, Martin played for this ball club when Hasseys became September heroes. Tonight, Hassey turned the clock back and made baseball-rabid New York just a little more rabid. At least for one night.
"It's still just one game," Cox insisted, even as his players dressed silently. "I'll bet we'll have guys laughing on the bus tonight. We're not going to die from it."