DAVE STIEB, THE BLUE JAYS & THE WILD ‘80s – Part 2
FiredUp Network Sports Writer
Saturday, May 21, 2022
Part 2 – 1985: How The East Was Won
1985 was the year that everything started to come together for the young Blue Jays. It all started in March when the team announced that it had reached agreement with Stieb and his agent on an 11-year, $25 million deal. That put to rest any talk that the pitcher had been thinking of leaving Toronto for more profitable climes as soon as he possibly could.
Success didn’t happen right away for the club though, but by late April, the Jays and their fans began to see what this team could do. They started the season splitting their first 14 games. But they closed the month of April by winning their last six to finish the month with a record of 13-7.
In May, the Jays went 17-8, including a streak of eight straight wins that featured sweeps of Chicago and Cleveland. Stieb won four of his starts in the month against a single loss. That allowed him to be selected Pitcher of the Month in the American League. By the end of that month, the team had put up a total of 30 victories against just 15 defeats since the start of the season.
June was a tougher slog, especially given that 17 of their 29 games in the month were against the Yankees, Red Sox and Brewers. The Jays won just eight of those games. In the month, they went 16-13 overall. They still had 46 wins though to go against their 28 losses.
In July, the team had 14 games before the All-Star break. They won seven and lost seven. Going into the break, the Jays were 18 games above .500 at 53-35. At the 1985 mid-summer classic, Stieb was joined by a couple of his teammates. His catcher, Ernie Whitt made the trip to Minneapolis as did second baseman Damaso Garcia. The National League won it again though, this time by a score of 6-1.
There was a game of note on July 9. The Jays were in Seattle to play the Mariners. In the third inning, Phil Bradley was on second and Gorman Thomas was batting for Seattle. Thomas slashed a single to right field. Bradley was running hard and Jesse Barfield gunned the ball home where Buck Martinez took the throw at the same time Bradley was arriving. Martinez got the out on Bradley, but in the collision that ensued. Martinez’ ankle was broken.
Meanwhile, the ball is still alive and Thomas was still running around the bases. As he was headed for third, Martinez, in agony, tried to throw the ball from a sitting position toward third. It sailed into left field, but George Bell alertly moved in, behind the play to pick up the ball and rifle it home. He threw a strike to a seated Martinez who put the tag on Thomas for the very strange double play. Martinez then left the game and was replaced by Ernie Whitt.
Oh, and the Jays managed to win the game 9-4 in 13 innings.
The All-Star break seemed to serve the Blue Jays well because the team finished the month off winning 11 out of 14, including a stretch of nine straight victories in the second half of July. August started of satisfactorily for Toronto when they won five of their first six games, but then it was a case of win-one-lose-one or win-two-lose-two for the rest of the month.
On August 24, though, all eyes were on the Blue Jays’ game on the south side of Chicago at Comiskey Park. It was Dave Stieb on the hill for Toronto and Tom Seaver for the White Sox. The Jays had scored three runs in the top of the eighth to make the score 6-0 and chase Seaver with two out. But Stieb had allowed no Chicago hits through the first eight innings.
The problem for Stieb was that he had used up all the gas in his tank by that point. He had nothing left. “My arm was hurting,” Stieb told the Toronto Star’s Rosie DiManno in a 2015 article. “The only reason I was out there was because I had the no-hitter going. But when I threw those last ten pitches, it was like throwing BP (batting practice). I had nothing.”
In the bottom of the ninth, the first batter Stieb faced was centre fielder Rudy Law. Law hammered the first pitch he saw over the right field fence. Next up was second baseman Bryan Little and he homered off Stieb as well. That was it for the team’s ace on this day. The game finished 6-3 for the visitors but it gave Stieb a taste of what he would chase on numerous occasions in the future.
The Jays won 17 games in the month of August and by that point, they were sitting at 81-48. They had the best record in baseball and they held a five-game lead in the division over New York. They were heading into September for their first pennant race with those dreaded Yankees and it would go down to the last week of the season before anyone could celebrate. Cue the roller-coaster.
By the end of games on September 7, the Jays’ lead over the Yankees was down to just a game-and-a-half. Both teams won their next three. On September 11, the Jays edged Detroit 3-2 while the Yankees lost their first game in a while by a score of 4-3 to the Milwaukee Brewers. The Jays lead was now two-and-a-half games and the teams would meet for a four-game set at Yankee Stadium.
On September 12, it was Dave Stieb for Toronto against Ron Guidry in the first of four on this Thursday night in the Bronx. The Jays got on the board first in the third inning. After a one-out Tony Fernandez double was followed immediately by an Ernie Whitt home run to deep right, it was 2-0 for the Bluebirds. They got another run in the fourth to take a 3-0 lead.
Through the first four innings, Stieb had only allowed a Dave Winfield single. That changed in the fifth though when Bobby Meacham worked him for a walk. Rickey Henderson was the next man up. Meacham stole second before Henderson drove him home with a single. It was 3-1 for Toronto after five.
In the top of the sixth, the Jays made Guidry work. Lloyd Moseby led things off with a single. Then Cliff Johnson followed with another single. Moseby moved over to third on the hit. Then George Bell hit a ball right back to Guidry. He looked Moseby back to third before retiring Bell at first. Guidry intentionally walked Jesse Barfield to create a force at every bag.
Then Cecil Fielder hit a fly ball to centre that was caught by Henderson but was deep enough to allow Moseby to come home. Garth Iorg then grounded out and the inning was over but it was now 4-1 for Toronto.
The Yankees brought their 3-4-5 hitters up in the bottom of the inning. Stieb got Don Mattingly out on strikes but he then walked Dave Winfield. Ron Hassey and Dan Pasqua both hit balls to the outfield but both were caught and after six, the Jays were still holding a three-run lead.
Guidry faced the Blue Jays’ 8-9-1 hitters and he got Fernandez and Whitt on ground balls right away. But then Damo Garcia and Moseby both singled to put runners on the corners with two out. That brought Cliff Johnson to the plate. Guidry may have been tiring but he managed to strike Johnson out and get his team out of the inning still only trailing by three.
Stieb came out to face the bottom third of the order in the Yankees’ seventh. Mike Pagliarulo lofted a fly ball to left that Bell caught. Then Stieb walked Willie Randolph. He induced Bobby Meacham to hit a ground ball to Fernandez at short but he bobbled the ball and what should have been an inning-ending double play was now an error and there were runners on first and second. Stieb then walked Henderson and his night was over.
Gary Lavelle came in to pitch with one out and the bases loaded. Lavelle got Ken Griffey to hit a ground ball to Iorg at third. He threw over to second to get the force on Henderson, but Randolph scored. It’s 4-2. Don Mattingly then singled, scoring Meacham and moving Griffey over to third. It’s 4-3. Runners are on the corners and there are two out. Dennis Lamp comes in to face Winfield.
Lamp gets Winfield to hit a ground ball but it finds a hole and Griffey comes in to score. Now the game is tied 4-4. Mattingly is on third, Winfield is on first and the fifth place hitter, Ron Hassey is coming to the plate. He takes Lamp over the wall in right and just like that, the Yankees are leading the game 7-4 and their fans are going wild figuring they are on their way to another pennant.
The Jays got a run in the top of the eighth, but it ended 7-5 and the Jays lead in the division was back to a game-and-a-half. But Toronto victories on the Friday, the Saturday and the Sunday restored their four-and-a-half game lead as they headed to Boston for a quick two-game series. For Toronto, the only American League team they had a losing record against in 1985 was that Red Sox squad. The Jays had played eight games against the Bosox and had won only three to that point.
Sure enough, their woes would continue at Fenway as the Bluebirds would drop both of their games there on the Tuesday and Wednesday. But the Yankees had lost three after their series with the Jays so Toronto’s lead after the night of Wednesday, September 18 was now five games with each team having 17 left.
September 19 was an off day for the Jays but the Yankees were playing. They were busy getting their butts kicked at the hands of the Detroit Tigers by a count of 10-3. So, the Blue Jays’ lead was now five-and-a-half games. Friday night, September 20, the Jays were at home and they were defeating Milwaukee 7-5 while the Yankees were in Baltimore getting doubled 4-2 by the Orioles.
The next day, the Yankees were dumping the Orioles 5-2. Meanwhile, the Brewers and the Blue Jays were tied after nine innings. The game progressed through the tenth, the eleventh, and further on. It continued on until the fourteenth inning when, facing Danny Darwin, Kelly Gruber hit a bases loaded single to score George Bell with the winning run in a 2-1 win to allow the Jays to keep pace with New York and maintain their six-and-a-half game lead.
Over the next three days, the Jays lead went up and down, or, more correctly, it went down and up. On Sunday, September 22, while the Yankees were getting past the Orioles 5-4, the Blue Jays were losing 2-1 to Milwaukee. For Stieb, it was his third loss in a row and the fourth straight time the Jays lost a start by the club’s ace. The Toronto lead was down to five-and-a-half games.
The Monday saw a reduced schedule and the Yankees were idle. But the Jays were beating up on the Brew Crew by a score of 5-1. Then on Tuesday, the Yankees were getting trounced by the Tigers 9-1. At the same time, the Blue Jays were handing it to the Red Sox by a 6-2 score. The Jays’ lead was now seven games!
Each team had eleven games left but the teams would finish the season off with a three-game series at Exhibition Stadium. Could it all come down to those three games by the lake in October? If they were going to be meaningful, then the Yankees would pretty much have to win out and hope for some help from whichever team was facing the Blue Jays.
On the Wednesday night, the Tigers were back in Yankee Stadium dropping a 10-2 decision to the home team in pinstripes. Meanwhile, the Jays got doubled by Boston 4-2. Their lead was now six games. On the Thursday night, the Yankees were off, but the Jays were losing once again to the Red Sox, this time by a score of 4-1. Make that lead five-and-a-half games now.
The Bluebirds traveled to Wisconsin to face the Brewers on the Friday evening. They dropped Milwaukee 5-1. The Yankees scheduled game against the visiting Orioles was put off by rain from Hurricane Gloria and would be replayed as part of a double header on Sunday. The Jays’ lead was back up to six games heading into the weekend.
September 28 was a Saturday. Nobody much cared that it was the thirteenth anniversary of Paul Henderson’s Summit Series winning goal. The business at hand was baseball and the Blue Jays’ first ever pennant race. While the Orioles and Yankees were playing in the Bronx at 1 pm Eastern, the Jays were in the visitors’ clubhouse watching from Milwaukee. Their game would start an hour later at County Stadium.
Ron Guidry didn’t have his best stuff but he battled and the Yankees went into the bottom of the ninth trailing by a run, 5-4. In that final inning, singles by Dan Pasqua and Rickey Henderson put runners on the corners with one out for Ken Griffey. Then Rickey stole second to put two runners into scoring position. Griffey then hit the ball on the ground to the right side and was retired 4-3, but Pasqua came home with the tying run.
That brought Mattingly up and the Orioles elected to have Sammy Stewart intentionally walk “Donny Baseball”. Then Dave Winfield singled to left to give the Yankees victory. For Guidry, it was his 21st win of the season. Now it was up to the Blue Jays to try to match. They had little trouble dispatching the Brewers by a score of 6-1 to maintain their six game lead.
On the Sunday, the Yankees were playing two games against the visiting Orioles. The first game was to make up the one postponed on Friday night. The second game was to be played as part of a double header. So the Blue Jays went into must win mode. They scored six runs in the first inning and pumped out 22 hits en route to a 13-5 win over the Brewers in Milwaukee.
Meanwhile, the Yankees were employing the same mindset and they blanked the O’s 4-0 in the first game and then throttled them 9-2 in the second affair. So, by virtue of the Jays’ victory, New York was only able to pick up a half-game on Toronto. The Bluebirds’ lead was now five-and-a-half games.
Monday was an off-day for the Jays, while the Yanks had one more game to play with Baltimore. The home side took it by a 5-4 margin allowing them to pick up another half-game on Toronto.
Bring on October with its crisp evenings and the changing of the colours of the leaves. Tuesday, October 1st saw the Yankees now hosting the Brewers. The Blue Jays were in Detroit to face the Tigers. And while the Yankees were dismantling their opponents by a score of 6-1, the ever-inhospitable Tigers were doing the same to Toronto and by the same score as well. The Jays’ lead was now just four games.
The next night, Dave Stieb surrendered home runs to Darrell Evans and Kirk Gibson in a 4-2 loss to those damned Tigers. However, the Brewers’ Teddy Higuera was helping the Jays out by blanking the Yankees 1-0 in front of less than 12,000 in the Bronx. The Toronto lead over New York is stuck at four games.
On Wednesday night, a Tom Brookens triple in the fifth inning off Jim Clancy scored two Tiger runs and gave Walt Terrell all the run support he needed as the Jays were shut out 2-0. Over in New York, Ron Guidry was scattering six Brewer hits to snag his 22nd win of the season and Rickey Henderson’s homer to lead off the game stood up as the winning run. The Yankees blanked Milwaukee 3-0.
The Blue Jay bats had become colder than the champagne they had hoped to sip at some point during this series. Their magic number to clinch the American League East had stalled at two. Their lead in the division had shrunk to three games. The good news was that they were going home to Exhibition Stadium for their final series of the season. The bad news was they were facing the Yankees for those three contests.
The division would be won or lost at the park on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition.
To win the division, all the Blue Jays had to do was win a single game out of the three. In the first game on Friday night, Ed Whitson would pitch for the Yankees against Jimmy Key. On Saturday afternoon, it would be Joe Cowley facing off against Doyle Alexander. Then, if it came down to the final game on the Sunday, Phil Niekro was set to go for the Bronx Bombers. For the Jays that pitcher was supposed to be Dave Stieb unless circumstances would dictate otherwise.
Friday night’s game was delayed by a rain storm that pushed the start time back almost an hour. After the rain stopped, the wind continued to howl. That would prove meaningful to the result of this game from the perspective of both teams.
The game began and Key pitched seven innings. When he left the game, the score was tied 2-2. Tom Henke came in to pitch the top of the eighth. He retired the heart of the Yankees’ order. He got Dave Winfield to ground out to Tony Fernandez at short. Then he induced Don Baylor to hit a roller to Rance Mulliniks who tossed over to Willie Upshaw for the out. Ken Griffey came up to hit for Henry Cotto. He popped up to Mulliniks in foul territory to end the inning.
Ed Whitson pitched into the fifth and was relieved by Rod Scurry for New York. Scurry was still in the game in the bottom of the eighth. The first batter he faced was Moseby. He walked him. Mulliniks was the next scheduled Jays’ hitter. Garth Iorg came in to bat for Mulliniks. Iorg laid down a successful sacrifice bunt to move the speedy Moseby up ninety feet.
Next to the plate was Upshaw. He hit a pop fly that thirdbaseman Mike Pagliarulo was able to corral. That brought the designated hitter Cliff Johnson up. Johnson cracked a single and that scored Moseby from second. Ron Shepherd then came in to pinch-run for Johnson. With George Bell at the plate, Shepherd stole second. That prompted Scurry to intentionally walk Bell to face Ernie Whitt. The move paid off. Whitt grounded out to Willie Randolph at second.
The Blue Jays were three outs away from clinching their first American League East crown. The reliable Henke was on the mound. The first batter he faced in the top of the ninth was Pagliarulo. He popped up to Damaso Garcia at second. Next, Henke got Randolph on strikes. The next Yankee hitter was the eighth-place hitting catcher Butch Wynegar.
Wynegar came into the game with a batting average in the low .220s. To that point in the season, he had hit four home runs in just over 100 games. The first two pitches from Henke were a ball and a strike. The next pitch was one Henke would like back. It left his hand. Wynegar swung his bat. He connected. It flew over the wall in right field and on to the football field on the other side of that fence. The game was tied again.
The next batter up was shortstop Bobby Meacham. He singled off Henke. That brought the top of the order to the plate and Rickey Henderson worked the young Henke for a walk. That was it for the Jays’ closer. He was replaced by Steve Davis who came in to face Don Mattingly. Mattingly lofted a fly ball to centre field that appeared to be routine. All Moseby had to do was catch it and the Jays could return to the plate and possibly win the game.
The ball hit the thumb of Moseby’s glove and then hit the hard Astroturf. Error to Moseby. Meacham came home to score the go-ahead run for the Yankees. Davis was out. Dennis Lamp came in. He got Winfield to hit a grounder to third. Iorg tossed over to Garcia at second for the fielder’s choice to end the inning. But the damage was done.
The Jays could only manage a one-out Tony Fernandez single in the bottom of the ninth inning. They snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and now their lead over the Yankees was just two games with two remaining. Their magic number was also still two. On to Cowley versus Alexander on that October Saturday afternoon.
Almost 48,000 fans had jammed Exhibition Stadium on the Friday night only to see the Jays be defeated. Almost 45,000 would attend the next afternoon. And countless seagulls as well.
Alexander got the game going by retiring the Yankees in order in the first inning. Cowley allowed a one-out walk to Moseby, who then stole second and advanced to third on a bad throw by Hassey. He was left stranded there, however.
The Yankees got a two-out single from Don Baylor in the second but nothing other than that. Cowley got Mulliniks and George Bell to start the Jays’ second inning. But Ernie Whitt then cracked his 19th home run of the season over the right field wall to, as Jerry Howarth would have said, put the Jays “in flight”. It was 1-0 for Toronto after two.
Alexander was well in control as he got the Yankees in order once again in their half of the third. Cowley, meanwhile, was struggling. In the bottom of the inning, he got Damaso Garcia to ground out to second. But then Moseby and Willie Upshaw hit back-to-back homers, both to right field to chase the Yankees’ righthander.
The lefty, Bob Shirley came in and immediately gave up a double to Al Oliver. Mulliniks was scheduled to bat but he was lifted in favour of righthanded hitting Garth Iorg. Iorg singled and moved Oliver over to third. Stanley was out. Rich Bordi came in to face George Bell. Bell lofted a fly ball to centre that Henderson tracked down, but it was deep enough to score Oliver. The Jays scored three in the third and now led 4-0.
In the Yankees’ fourth, Ken Griffey led things off with a double off Alexander. Don Mattingly smartly snapped a groundball to the right side. It was picked up by Upshaw and he was retired but it moved Griffey over to third. Dave Winfield then singled and plated his teammate to put the Yankees on the board. That was all they would get in the fourth. It was 4-1 for Toronto.
When Jesse Barfield came to the plate to lead off the Jays’ fourth, Bordi was still in the game. Barfield greeted him with a hard liner to left field. Unfortunately for the Jays’ batter, it was right at Griffey. Tony Fernandez didn’t make the mistake of hitting the ball right at somebody though. He managed a double off the Yankees’ pitcher. Damo Garcia’s single scored Fernandez and ended Bordi’s afternoon.
After that inning, it became the Doyle Alexander Show. He went the rest of the way retiring 15 of the last 17 Yankees’ hitters. He allowed two singles the rest of the afternoon. The last out occurred when he got Ron Hassey to hit a soft fly ball to medium left field. George Bell caught the ball, fell to his knees and raised his fists to the sky in joy.
The Exhibition Stadium crowd shrieked in celebration and the Blue Jays had won the game 5-1, got out from under the pressure they had been facing and were American League East champions for the first time in their nine-year existence.
In the clubhouse after the game, while his teammates were celebrating with champagne, Alexander was sitting back quietly in his stall sipping a beer. “I don’t like the bubbly,” he told a couple of media members. Alexander’s win came against his former team in the Yankees. In fact, the Yanks were still paying a good chunk of his contract. But he wasn’t more motivated to beat them in any way.
“I feel nothing special at all about beating the Yankees,” Alexander told the media folks who hung around his stall after the game. “I was hoping we would win it in Detroit the other night. This is a great moment for us. We’ve been working for this all year.” The work his teammates did kept him motivated. “Having the four-run lead might have pumped me up a bit in the late innings.”
For Dave Stieb, this victory gave him cause to reflect on his seven years in the organization. “I just feel fortunate that Toronto took me in the ’78 draft. I’ve seen a lot of players come and go since I arrived here and I’ve been with the club through some tough times. But I’ve always thought that we could do it.”
“I saw a team which came together in a hurry. I remember last year. The Tigers made only a few key player changes and they won it. And, I said to myself then, we can do that this year...and we did.”
The Windsor Star’s Lloyd McLachlan told a story in the paper’s October 7 edition about the wisdom of Jays’ GM Pat Gillick. Gillick, back in November of 1976 before the expansion franchise had played a single game, was the vice-president of player personnel. He walked up to Peter Bavasi who, at the time, was his boss. “I’ve talked to the Yankees about a deal,” Gillick told Bavasi. “I want to trade Bill Singer.”
Bavasi had no idea who the Yankees’ prospect was that Gillick was raving about. He totally said ‘no’ to any potential deal. Also, Singer had been featured on all the Jays’ season ticket information that had been sent out. “Singer was a very important guy from a marketing standpoint. I said, “Oh gee, Pat. I’ve got him on the cover of the brochure for season tickets.”
“Well, that player I rejected was Ron Guidry. I never asked Gillick again the name of a player he wanted to get.”
The Blue Jays would be going up against George Brett and the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series. Vegas oddsmakers had the Jays as 8-5 favourites going into the series. Jays’ manager Bobby Cox told reporters, “K.C. played us real tough all year. They’re a real good ball club. But we’re a good ball club too. They’ve got a strong pitcher and George Brett in that lineup.” It would all open up in Toronto on Tuesday, October 8.
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This has been Part 2 of a four-part series. Keep your eyes on the FiredUp Network to catch the rest of the series.
You can listen to Howie and his co-host Shawn Lavigne on The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast, right here on the FiredUp Network, or on 208 different platforms wherever you find your podcasts, including Alexa.