DETROIT -- The Toronto Blue Jays huddled together as though for warmth, 15 or 16 of them jammed, shoulder to shoulder, in one end of their dugout. Throughout the ninth inning, they might have been a still life, without a lip, much less a limb, moving. No chatter, though they were just behind by one run with a season at stake. Every place you looked, faces worthy of an emergency room.

When it ended, this seventh loss in a row, by an agonizing 1-0 score on a wind-helped homer that cleared a fence by inches, the Blue Jays barely stirred. When their place in history had finally been secured (next to the Phillies of 1964), the Blue Jays did not smash their traitorous bats in the rack. Instead, they watched Frank Tanana, who'd pitched a shutout, who'd preyed on their anxieties with curves, as he leaped into his teammates' arms and rejoiced as only a hometown Detroit boy could on such an undreamable day.

Gradually, the Blue Jays left the dugout and began the rest of their lives. All except one. George Bell stayed on the top step. A half-dozen teammates touched him, tried to squeeze an arm or shoulder of the man whose 47 home runs carried them for seven months and whose two-for-26 slump sank them in the last seven days. Finally, alone, Bell slowly put his face in his hands as the cameras clicked like a tiny firing squad. Before the game, he had stormed, "Get those cameras out of my face." Now, at least, he would steal what they sought -- an image of his sorrow.

What has happened to Bell and the Blue Jays has been almost too cruel to credit. Even Larry Herndon's division-winning homer Sunday was the kind that is often caught here atop the nine-foot-high fence -- that is, if Bell had not misjudged the ball and never summoned a proper leap.

"That was like robbin' a bank," the Tigers' Sparky Anderson said, "and no one even remembers to call the cops."

A clean getaway, indeed. But not without casualties. The same Blue Jays who led the 1985 American League playoffs 3 to 1, then lost the last three, have swallowed another pill of bitter history: a 3 1/2-game lead blown in the last eight days. Only the Phillies, who lost 10 in a row to fritter away a 6 1/2-game margin, did worse.

"I'm not going to sit around and care about what people say about the Toronto Blue Jays," said veteran Lloyd Moseby. "You don't compare losing {years} unless you're a loser; 1985 isn't even in my mind. I just want to go home."

But how much solace will await them there? How many fans can resist rising to the bait of a word like "choke"?

"People can think what they want," said the Blue Jays' Rance Mulliniks. "A winner is not someone who wins all the time. It's someone who always battles to get back up off the floor."

Perhaps no team has ever flopped with such dignity as these Blue Jays. "I don't know if baseball can get any better," said Toronto Manager Jimy Williams of the seven Blue Jays-Tigers meetings in the last 11 days -- all one-runners. "We actually played well. We just didn't hit." Not after catcher Ernie Whitt broke two ribs and joined Tony Fernandez (dislocated fracture of the elbow) on the bench. "I'm very proud of them," said Williams.

If there's one mystique in baseball that never fades, it's the assumption that courage not only exists, but, in moments of enormous crisis, is almost palpable. Old salts even look for ways to measure it. Anderson learned such a trick years ago. When he goes to the mound in a crisis, he casually "takes hold of the pitcher's shirt real lightly right above the heart." In the cloth, he can feel the pitcher's heartbeat.

"You can never put courage into a human being, but you can find out if it's there," he says. "Some guys, that heart is flying so fast it's like an anxiety attack. You know they'll never cope with those situations . . . I've misjudged players' talents, but I've never been wrong about what I call The Look. I've never been wrong about who I could take with me into the trenches."

Anderson studies his men's faces. Darting eyes worry him. But the ones who get calmer, who "seem to be drawing from within" -- they may have The Look. And he seldom loses faith in them. In the 1975 Series, Anderson's slugger Tony Perez endured what Bell has recently suffered -- an oh-fer that rivaled Gil Hodges' for the worst Series slump ever. Anderson got the demons in the open, because he was sure Perez could deal with them. "I told him, 'Doggie, keep it up. Hodges is in sight. Just think, only four more outs and you've set a whole new record.' " Perez hit a vital game-tying homer in the seventh game.

Certainly, no one found the right relaxing note to play for Bell and Co. In games like this weekend's, it is far easier to have adrenaline than good sense or poise.

"Look, I think Bell should be MVP, but the pressure of having that whole team on his shoulders finally got to him," said Detroit's Bill Madlock. "He was pressing."

Someday, baseball fans may only remember Tigers courage. They will see Kirk Gibson's ninth-inning game-tying homer last Sunday that began this long comeback just as the Tigers were about to trail by 4 1/2 games. And they may only remember Toronto's fainthearted moments, like the game-ending grounder between Manny Lee's knees Saturday.

The Blue Jays' hearts may have fluttered too fast in the last week, but their shirts are far from empty. When the last days of this pennant race are remembered, hopefully it will not be some corny catch phrase like Pholdin' Phils that will remain but, rather, the memory of seven head-to-head games that may've been as exciting as any World Series. Some even suspect that the real 1987 Classic has just been completed.