BALTIMORE -- At 10:39 p.m. Wednesday evening at Memorial Stadium, the Toronto Blue Jays gathered on the lip of their dugout to watch their public execution.
Tom Brunansky pulled the switch, 400 miles away in the right field corner of Fenway Park.
Usually, reception on enormous stadium TV screens is not terribly sharp. But you could practically see the stitches on the ball as it left Ozzie Guillen's bat like a shot as two White Sox runners sped 'round the bases, hoping to tie the game.
As the camera sought Brunansky, the Blue Jays walked up the dugout steps as a group. They knew their game with the Orioles was tied, 2-2, heading to the bottom of the ninth. They knew they'd just blown a one-run lead in the eighth. They knew that Boston led, 3-1. And they knew they trailed Boston by one game on the last day of the regular season.
But they did not know that the Red Sox game, and their season, had ended three minutes before. Their fate was past-posted.
Like fish to bait, the Blue Jays stood on tip-toe as Brunansky went into his head-first dive across the gravel track. They stood, uncomprehending, as Brunansky, the ball and their season disappeared from view into the corner. Were all those White Sox scoring? Were both games now tied? Were the Jays still breathing, still dreaming of a one-game playoff on Thursday in Toronto?
As Brunansky fought his way back into view, elbowing fans and leaping, the Blue Jays asked themselves what everyone else asked? What took Bruno so long back in that corner? Was he signing score cards? Dusting off his cap? Or picking up a ball that he'd dropped but was now pretending that he'd caught?
Even as Brunansky leaped and screamed, even as the Red Sox celebrated their escape from calumny, the Jays kept their perch, refusing to believe. But, when the first-base umpire fought his way through the erupting crowd and reached into Brunansky's glove to pull out the ball, the Blue Jays finally knew the truth the videotape had recorded.
They'd squandered another season.
Once again, the better team -- them -- had found a way not to win the crown.
In an instant, the Toronto dugout lip was empty. Five minutes later, Jays relief pitcher Tom Henke laid a fastball down the center of the plate and Mickey Tettleton cut the gallows rope and let the corpse fall free. Tettleton's home run brought the Orioles from their dugout in a celebration that lasted for a quarter-hour.
Everybody loves to beat the Blue Jays. The way the Torontoans are such insults to the niceties of the sport that it's almost a civic duty among big league ballplayers to punish them.
While the Jays walked off the field like silent strangers, ashamed of their 86 victories and runner-up money, the Orioles gave one another a million shakes and high-fives for their 76-85 season and their humble fifth-place finish.
It's all in how you look at it. The Blue Jays, now in their eighth straight season of largely unrewarded excellence, see the sand in the hour glass slipping to the bottom with each season. Won't they ever bring a World Series to Canada, much less a world title? How much must they suffer.
For the Orioles, watching the 140 pitches of Ben (2.41 ERA) McDonald Wednesday evening was a tonic to the spirit. While Jays ace Dave Stieb grouched, stomped, gave the choke sign at a teammate, threw his glove, threw his hat, fired the resin bag in the air and blamed his teammates for misplaying the line drives that he allowed, the Orioles young giant -- constantly in trouble caused by bloops, chops and even a missed third strike -- was cheerfully pitching himself out of five jams.
Will the Blue Jays continue to be victims of their own past with angry grumps such as Stieb and George Bell playing the roles of Keepers of the Blame? Will the AL East future, or part of it, belong to the Orioles, thanks to the kid pitchers, such as Gregg Olson, Curt Schilling, Jose Mesa and McDonald, who stumped the Jays here as the Orioles won two out of three games?
That's for the future. What is sure is that the Orioles know their two wins this week are half the reason the Jays finished the year two games behind the Red Sox. That will never salve the hurt of last year's two defeats in Toronto when the Blue Jays prevented the Orioles from becoming the first team in history to go from Worst to First. Still, that didn't keep the crowd from serenading the Jays with "Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, gooooodbye."
God is in the details, the old saying goes. But, in the case of the Blue Jays, so is the devil. How can a team so undeniably good have accomplished so little over a period so long?
Yes, it's in the details. Both of their play and their key personalities.
Once again, the Jays have come up short in a season in which they probably should have won the AL East title without much problem. Eighty-nine wins would have been enough. Actually, if the Blue Jays hadn't lost 10 of 13 games against the champion Red Sox, less than 85 wins might have sufficed. However, when the Jays needed to lose, they could. Two out of three in Milwaukee. Then two of three in Beantown. Then two of three in Bal'mer.
How do they do it?
The first batter of the game, Mookie Wilson, swung at a 3-0 pitch and flied out. Bell was thrown out trying to stretch a single (at least he was trying). Luis Sojo, trying to sacrifice, bunted into a force that cost Toronto a run. Tony Fernandez struck out on a fastball down the pipe with the bases loaded and one out. On consecutive plays, the aging Wilson misplayed high liners into a double and a triple. The first should have been caught. The second might have been.
Finally, Cito Gaston, managing as sentimentally as Baltimore's Frank Robinson often does, let Stieb talk him into staying in the game with two on and none out in the eighth. Stieb almost hit Bill Ripken with one pitch, then came inside again so Ripken could take one for the Red Sox and load the bases. That led to the tying run.
In all, a typical Blue Jays defeat.
"It's amazing that Stieb has never won 20 games. Nobody has better stuff," said Orioles coach Elrod Hendricks before the game. "His problem is that he never points the finger at himself. It's always somebody else's fault."
Stieb, who is a great pitcher and a royal pain in the ear lobe to teammates, was in rare form this game: both pitching and showing up Wilson after his two misplays. Stieb glared at Wilson at least 10 times in the course of his sin-filled inning; once Stieb reached the dugout, he threw everything that wasn't nailed down as fans watched his tantrum. The Mookster is supposed to be the Jays' try-hard, over-achieving sparkplug. Could Stieb resent Wilson's image?
"We'll go home and hold our heads up," said Gaston. "We battled pretty hard."
"We had the talent here," said Henke, not bound to the company line. "If we had played the way we're capable, we could have run away with it."
The moon was full and eerie here on this blissfully beautiful closing night as the Jays relived their enigmatic past while the Orioles got a glimpse of their tempting future. From the first batter (a Blue Jay making an out on a 3-0 pitch) to the last (a sudden-death Orioles home run), this felt like a perfect night for old hauntings and a taste of revenge. And so it proved.