TORONTO -- Toronto Blue Jays Manager Cito Gaston says he has been asked 100 times in the last week or so whether his club's rise from the ashes in the American League East surprises him. One hundred times, Gaston says, he has responded, "Does it surprise you?"
And 100 times, the answer to Gaston's turn-the-tables query has been an emphatic yes. "I'm not sure I understand," the low-key manager said in his SkyDome office last weekend, hours before the Blue Jays continued their recent rush with the second of three straight ninth-inning victories over the Baltimore Orioles. "We have a good ballclub here. Why is everyone so surprised?"
As has been the case with the Blue Jays in the last few years, the questions arise from attitude, not aptitude. They didn't feud while winning a lot (but never winning it all); they just didn't speak to one another. And the reputation as baseball's leading underachievers took hold.
Always, Toronto had talent that was among the best in the game. Sometimes did that translate into being one of the best teams. There have been only two playoff appearances and no World Series. "I guess you get branded a certain way in this world, and that's hard to shake," Gaston concluded. "I don't know that the perception fits the reality in this case."
Others in the Toronto organization concede otherwise. The 25-players, 25-different-cabs maxim never applied precisely to the Blue Jays, but their method of fragmentation apparently produced about the same result.
Their clubhouse in recent seasons included several clearly divided factions of players who unified into a loosely knit, yet comparatively harmonious team when times were good -- but often erupted into in-house warfare during trying circumstances.
That's not an unusual phenomenon for the traveling sideshow that is a ballclub, but Toronto took the malady to extremes. "We had this group and that group, all these groups," Blue Jays third baseman Kelly Gruber said. "And when anything went wrong, the whole team concept just broke down. This group blamed that group and vice versa, and no one crossed over the boundaries to try to make peace."
The situation was magnified by what most observers -- including many of Toronto's players and front-office decision-makers -- considered a legacy of disappointment.
The Blue Jays were successful: They are the only major league team to finish above the .500 mark the last seven seasons, and they won the AL East in 1985 and 1989. They've finished below third just once since 1983. But the burden of expectations is a heavy one.
"We have the talent here to win a World Series title, no question," first baseman Fred McGriff said. "We've had the talent to do that for several years now. But so many things go into achieving that, and we've never been able to conquer that mountain of intangibles. It creates an atmosphere where anything short of winning it all is a failure. And that's tough."
Toronto blew a 3-1 advantage to lose the '85 AL championship series to the Kansas City Royals, and was overwhelmed in five games by the world champion-to-be Oakland Athletics last year. If this collection of Blue Jays is to climb that World Series mountain, it must do so soon.
The patience of management apparently is running short. This might not be a do-or-die year for keeping the current team relatively intact, but it could be soon. "We've assembled a championship-caliber team," an official said. "If we don't take the next step in the near future, it has to be time to think about altering the chemistry."
The possibility exists that virtually no Blue Jay will be untouchable on the offseason trade market. Even McGriff, who has 104 home runs over the last three seasons, might be shopped -- especially with promising John Olerud ready to step in at first. Gaston's job is secure, but he took the job reluctantly last season.
Toronto officials once hoped the rallying cry "Break up the Blue Jays!" would be coming from outside their offices by now, but it remains a theme that recurs in memos within the plush surroundings of SkyDome's corporate third floor.
The familiar refrain seemed likely to be repeated for the 1990 Blue Jays. They heard the whispers three weeks ago when they were shut out three straight days by the Boston Red Sox to seemingly be laid to rest in the AL East race. Toronto entered September 6 1/2 games behind Boston; to come all the way back would require them to equal the greatest post-Sept. 1 rally since divisional play began in 1969.
If ever there were an unlikely candidate for such a task, it would be the Blue Jays. "I think one of the biggest reasons we're doing this is that no one thought we could -- maybe not even ourselves," Gruber said. "We decided it was time to prove what we have inside."
Their unusual resolve has been accompanied by airtight pitching, timely hitting and a flair for the dramatic. The Blue Jays had worked to a 2.93 ERA in their last 34 games. Gruber has taken care of the offense, hitting better than .400 in September and getting 19 RBI in the last nine games to craft a late run at the AL Most Valuable Player award.
The Blue Jays have won nine of their last 12 games and 13 of 17 contests to narrow the Red Sox' lead to one game. Twice in a 17-hour span Friday and Saturday, the Blue Jays overcame two-run deficits in the ninth to beat the Orioles; they entered that series 1-59 when trailing after eight innings.
Sunday's victory was more mundane, as Toronto snapped a 5-5 tie in the final frame on Bell's looper into right field that became a game-winning fielder's choice. "It's hard to pick against a team when you watch them do that to you three straight days," Baltimore first baseman Ron Kittle said.
If Toronto is to win, the schedule dictates that its furious flurry must not relent now. The Blue Jays finish a 10-game homestand against the Yankees and Indians, then go on the road for the final nine games of the season -- including three at Boston.
"It's not time to start jumping up and down yet," said outfielder Mookie Wilson. "It's not time to make guarantees like we're going to win this thing going away."
Then a wide grin surfaces. "Of course, it's a lot more fun around here than it was a month ago," he said. "These are the smiling Blue Jays."