Outfielder Joe Carter and first baseman Pat Tabler sat together in a quiet Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse at SkyDome the evening of Oct. 13, 1991, trying to digest a Game 5 loss to the visiting Minnesota Twins in the American League Championship Series.
The Blue Jays had coughed up a 5-2 lead before a crowd of 51,425, allowing three runs in the sixth inning and three more in the eighth in an 8-5 defeat, their third consecutive loss at home in the series.
Carter: I drove in the winning run against the [California] Angels and it was my first time [clinching a playoff berth]. I was on an emotional high, and then to get beat in the playoffs, it sucked. It was the first time a lot of our players were in a Championship Series in the big leagues. The first time you’re there you’re overwhelmed, excited and it’s a lot of fun. We were more or less happy to get there. Pat and I were like, ‘We’re [not advancing] to [the World Series]. I want to win the whole thing and that’s going to be our goal for .’ [Tabler and I] decided that before we left the clubhouse.
Duane Ward, former Blue Jays setup reliever: Being on those [Blue Jays] teams from ’86 to 91, we had good talent. It just seemed things didn’t go our way.
Jerry Howarth, retired Blue Jays radio voice: I often said on the radio the real competition is not on the field, it’s among the general managers. I knew after the ’91 season that [Jays GM] Pat [Gillick] would do something special and he did, [acquiring pitcher] Jack Morris and [designated hitter/outfielder] Dave Winfield.
On Dec. 18, 1991, Gillick signed free agent Morris to a two-year, $10.85-million US guaranteed contract with a team option on a third year. Morris was fresh off an 18-win season with Minnesota and outdueled Atlanta’s John Smoltz in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, tossing 10 innings and 122 pitches in a 1-0 victory to earn Series MVP honours.
Pat Borders, former Blue Jays catcher: [Morris] was two different people. Very fun and jovial in the locker room prior to his starts, but very serious and driven on the mound. You had your back-and-forth during the game with him but respected him and loved his tenacity.
Carter: To watch the ’91 World Series and Jack Morris, and how they won in dramatic fashion with 10 innings of no-run ball from him, to see him come to Toronto with Big Winfield, that motivated us even more. His [Morris’] presence in the clubhouse was huge for us because [veteran pitcher] Dave Stieb had been hurt a lot. For the hitters, Dave Winfield was kind of the missing piece. He’s the one who came in and took over the clubhouse.
Howarth: On Day 1 of spring training [in 1992] at 6 in the morning, the first person in the clubhouse was Jack Morris. From that point on, it was Jack who lined [the players] up individually and as a group and said, ‘I’m here for one reason, to win the World Series. We’re going to do this together.’ The players said they had never heard anything like this before.
Gillick signed Winfield, also a free agent, 24 hours after Morris. At age 39, the six- foot-six slugger had 24 home runs and 86 RBI in 1991 for California. He hit .290 in 1992 for the Blue Jays with 26 homers and became the first 40-year-old to collect 100 RBI with 106.
Bob Elliott, retired Toronto Sun baseball columnist, who operates the Canadian Baseball Network: They needed somebody who could drive in some big runs [and] they went from having Rance Mulliniks to having Winfield.
Carter: Whenever we were in the field, the pitchers were sitting in the clubhouse watching the game on TV. I remember in the first series [after Winfield’s arrival] he kicks everybody out [of the clubhouse] and said, ‘When you’re playing and you’re pitching, these guys [in the field] are rootin’ you on. You get your butts back to the dugout and you root these guys on.’
Carter and Tabler had T-shirts made for spring training with the motto “3-for-3 in ‘92” referring to winning the AL East division, ALCS and World Series.
Carter: From Day 1, it was get on board or get off the train because we’re movin’.
The newcomers made an immediate impact, with Morris pitching a complete-game shutout in the season opener in Detroit and Winfield collecting three hits. He batted .375 in April, helping Toronto to six straight wins to begin the season and a 16-7 record for the month.
Howarth: That April [performance] reflected the commitment from everybody after a 91-win season [in ‘91]. Dave [Winfield] not only was he a leader off the field, he was one of the best veteran [players] the Blue Jays had acquired.
Carter: When you add Jack Morris, Dave Winfield and [the rest of us] having the playoff experience [from 1991] we knew what to expect. We had more legitimate stars – seven, eight or nine guys that could carry the lineup, not just two or three.
The Blue Jays finished May with five consecutive wins in their final at-bat, won seven in a row to begin July and entered the all-star break at 53-34 – tied for the best mark in the majors – and held a four-game lead over Baltimore.
Howarth: The Blue Jays had Manuel Lee, who was kind of a marginal player Pat Gillick got in the Rule 5 draft and he became the full-time shortstop in 1992. I don’t think a lot of people were quite sure what was going to happen, but Pat did. By the all-star break, they relied on [Lee] for defence and double plays. I was thinking they’re going to win [the World Series] because of defence.
In 13 outings from May 22 to June 24, Ward threw 18 1/3 shutout innings, striking out 19.
Ward: In the bullpen, we fed off each other and stayed in a groove. I guarantee a lot of the situations I came into weren’t with two guys on base and one out or two guys on and no outs. I usually started the inning, which is indicative of how good our starting pitching was. A lot of people overlooked the depth of our starting pitching and bullpen because everybody digged the long ball.
Howarth: In my humble opinion, the most valuable player in ’92 was Duane Ward. And the most valuable player in ’93 was Duane Ward. You don’t see Duane Ward- type pitchers other than in the closer’s role. When [closer] Tom Henke left after the ’92 season to become a free agent, Duane took over and blossomed with 45 saves, which is a club record.
The starting pitchers combined for a 7.85 earned-run average in 22 games before Todd Stottlemyre one-hit the Chicago White Sox on Aug. 26. The next day, Gillick made a waiver trade for David Cone, dealing infielder Jeff Kent, who went on to post Hall of Fame–calibre numbers with the New York Mets, and outfield prospect Ryan Thompson.
Elliott: We [reporters] thought [Gillick was] done trading. I asked [Baltimore GM] Roland Hemond why he didn’t put in a waiver claim for Cone and he said, ‘We thought [another team] would.’ [Blue Jays manager] Cito [Gaston] gave [Cone] the greatest compliment ever. He said, ‘Of all the pitchers I’ve had over the years, I’ve never been as relaxed as I am with David Cone on the mound.’
Ward: It was like, how much better can we make this team? He fit in perfectly like everybody else. The guys [Gillick] got were good, quality players and good teammates, and I think that made a big difference.
Howarth: Pat Gillick knew that not only was he getting a great starter [in Cone] he was getting somebody who was team oriented. The real stars, sometimes they wear that ego on their sleeves, but not the players Pat Gillick acquired.
Two days after the deal, Cone, who was leading the majors in strikeouts, gave up seven runs (all earned) and walked seven over 6 2/3 innings in a 7-2 loss to the visiting Milwaukee Brewers. It was also the last time that season Toronto would lose two in a row.
Howarth: When the players went to the clubhouse after that loss, they had already let it go.
Carter: We knew every game was important, whether it’s in April or in September. You look at what happened to the Jays last year. You play all those games and it comes down to one and [they] missed the playoffs. After that first start, he [Cone] was lights-out. Having that [type of] competitor, along with Jack Morris, was a lot of fun.
The Jays rebounded with a September to remember, winning 21 of their final 30 games to finish 96-66 in the regular season and atop the AL East by four games over Milwaukee. Among the season’s highlights was Carter reaching 30 home runs for the fourth time, Morris becoming the Blue Jays’ first-ever 20-game winner and Ward and Henke combining for 10 victories and 46 saves. Toronto didn’t blow a save chance after July 24.
Carter: If we were ahead after the seventh inning, teams weren’t coming back. I think the only combination [that compared to Ward and Henke] was the 2015 [Kansas City] Royals when they had HDH – [Kelvin] Herrera, [Wade] Davis and [Greg] Holland.
Borders: They [Ward and Henke] were two top-of-the-line closers back-to-back. I remember [hitters] coming up after Ward had finished the eighth [inning] and them saying, ‘Thank God he’s outta here. I’d rather face Henke, his [pitches are] a lot straighter.’ [laughing]. Wardo made it very uncomfortable [for hitters] and Henke made you uncomfortable by getting you out.
Ward: We were good friends, and still are. Was it a competition? Well, yeah, because if I did good, he wanted to do good [and vice-versa]. He pushed me and I pushed him. Everybody knew their role [in that bullpen]. I knew I was not going to be the closer. My job was to get the ball to [Henke]. When the rules are defined, the people aren’t bickering. I think it makes it so much easier for a bullpen to function and do the job.
Ward admitted it would have been nice to have been the closer in 1992 but he was appreciative of how the organization “took care of him” after the July 6, 1986 deal with Atlanta that brought the ninth overall draft pick in 1982 to Toronto for starting pitcher Doyle Alexander.
Ward: They let me go do what I did best, and I was rewarded for it. Could I have done the [closer job [before ‘93]? I think I could have and think I proved that I could. But the sixth and seventh innings were mine and the ninth was Tom’s. Cito strongly believed I could get [right-handed hitters] and left-handers out. He believed that in all of his pitchers.
The Blue Jays played Oakland in the 1992 ALCS, highlighted by a momentum-shifting, game-tying home run by Roberto Alomar. After Athletics closer Dennis Eckersley struck out Ed Sprague to end the eighth inning in Game 4 with Oakland leading 6-4, he did a fist pump on the mound and made a pistol gesture at the Jays dugout, firing up the Toronto players.
With two out in the top of the ninth and Devon White on third base, Alomar drilled a pitch from Eckersley over the fence in right-centre at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. Toronto won 7-6 in 11 innings, took the series in six games and was headed to a World Series matchup with Atlanta.
In Game 1 of the World Series, left-hander Tom Glavine tossed a four-hitter for Atlanta, which was ahead 1-0 in Game 2 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium when Blue Jays second baseman Alomar attempted to steal home on a wild pitch from John Smoltz in the fourth inning.
Carter: I remember the umpire, Mike Reilly, calling Alomar out [even though his hand clearly crossed the plate before Smoltz tagged him]. If we had [video review like today] he would have been called safe and that would have tied the game.
Howarth: The key to the 1992 World Series, for me, was Game 2. In the ninth inning, Cito Gaston says to Ed Sprague, ‘Ed, you’re going to pinch hit. I want you to get ready for it mentally because I’m going to have you go up against [veteran closer] Jeff Reardon.’ [Veteran third baseman] Rance Mulliniks knew Ed was going to pinch hit and told him, ‘Ed, I want you to make sure you lay off the high pitch, look for something down in the (strike) zone.
Ed hit a pitch down in the zone, a two-run home run to left-centre field. Blue Jays win the game [5-4] to tie the series coming back to Toronto. A veteran like Rance Mulliniks, that’s what it takes. One player helping his teammate.
Ward: Ed Sprague and [reserve outfielders] Derek Bell and Turner Ward were the role players backing up the frontline guys and came through constantly. It was 25 guys with one objective to win.
But a potential controversy was swirling heading into Game 3 in Toronto. Before Game 2, the U.S. Marine Corps flew the Canadian flag upside-down during the national anthems, reportedly a mistake by a Marine sergeant from the Atlanta colour guard unit.
Elliott: I just remember [the Toronto Sun reporters’] phones started to ring at the park. I don’t know if it was the next year or a couple of years later, I went [to Atlanta and was told] it wasn’t the [Marine sergeant’s] fault. He got caught up in traffic and some kid working on the grounds crew put the flags together. [The Marine Corps walked on the field] and he said to the [sergeant], ‘Here, hold it.’
Two days later, thousands of Canadians loudly responded in the seats at SkyDome before Game 3, standing and singing the U.S. national anthem. Initially, there was outrage about the flipped flag, with hundreds of phone calls made to Toronto radio stations and giant headlines in the city’s newspapers.
A Marine colour guard unit from the Buffalo, N.Y., area carried the Canadian flag during the pre-game ceremony in Toronto, while the American flag was carried by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Elliott: I knew the Blue Jays were in a tremendous, tremendous panic about what they were going to do for Game 3. They didn’t want to look bad with the American flag [potentially] being booed. I think it was [then-Blue Jays director of public relations] Howard Starkman’s idea to have the Mounties carry the American flag. Nobody’s going to boo the Mounties, so it went off without a hitch inside the stadium. Outside the stadium, [vendors] were selling [T-shirts] with American flags upside down. There was all kinds of crap going on.
The Blue Jays won the next two games at home, 3-2 and 2-1, which featured a botched non-call on a would-be Toronto triple play in Game 3. Lonnie Smith’s grand slam in the fifth inning of Game 5 off Jack Morris paved the way for a 7-2 Atlanta win at SkyDome.
Two nights later, White scored on David Justice’s first-inning error to give Toronto a 1-0 lead. Atlanta scored in the third, but Candy Maldonado put the Jays on top the next inning with a solo home run off starter Steve Avery. The Jays took a 2-1 lead to the ninth inning. Henke blew the save when Atlanta leadoff hitter Otis Nixon delivered a two-out, two-strike ground ball single to left field.
Atlanta lefty Charlie Leibrandt came out for his second inning of work in the top of the 11th. Blue Jays starter Jimmy Key, who relieved Henke with one out in the 10th inning, popped out to first baseman Sid Bream in foul territory for the first out in his first major league at-bat. Leibrandt allowed the next two runners to reach base on a White hit by pitch and Alomar single. Carter flied out to bring Winfield to the plate, a .302 career hitter against the 35-year-old Leibrandt.
After a good take on a breaking ball low and away, Winfield ripped a 3-2 pitch down the third base line for a two-run double to score White and Alomar for a 4-2 lead, his first extra-base hit in 44 World Series at-bats.
Howarth: 3-2 changeup down and away. It was a pretty good pitch, one many would have struck out on, but not Dave. Such a dramatic swing and classic Dave Winfield at-bat.
In the bottom of the 11th, Brian Hunter’s run-scoring groundout cut the lead to 4-3 and the next batter, Nixon, was 8-for-23 in his career against Key. Gaston summoned Mike Timlin from the bullpen with two out and the tying run on third.
Elliott: Mike Timlin told me a story a couple of years ago. He said he and [fellow relief pitcher Mark] Eichhorn were warming up [in the 11th ]. I said to Timlin, ‘What signal did [Gaston] use [to choose you over Eichhorn]? Timlin said, ‘He just put up his right hand and I ran in [from the ‘pen].’ I said to Timlin, ‘Maybe you weren’t supposed to [enter the game].’ I think everybody would say it was the right decision.
Nixon fouled off the first pitch before dropping a bunt up the first-base line. Timlin pounced on it and tossed the ball to Carter at first base for only his second save of the season and fifth in two major league seasons to bring the first World Series championship to Canada.
Carter: When the ball was in my glove, you’re talking about disbelief, excitement, exhilaration, everything. You go in the clubhouse and you have [NHL legend] Wayne Gretzky coming in, all these [sports] stars and actors. Coming back to Toronto, there were lines of people at the airport. That was the essence of why we play the game.
Borders was the first catcher since Baltimore’s Rick Dempsey in 1983 to be named World Series MVP after he went 9-for-20 (.450) with a homer and three RBI.
Borders: I wasn’t a particularly good hitter but played well at the right time. I’m definitely proud of [being MVP], but I only reflect on it occasionally.
Howarth: If you’re going to win, let alone a World Series, you need a catcher who sees the entire field and works diligently and unselfishly with his entire pitching staff. Pat was so unselfish. With all the marquee and Hall of Fame players [on that ’92 squad], they continued to do what they were doing. It was never about any individual. It was the team, and Pat was greatly responsible for that behind the plate.
Carter: The first [World Series title of a player’s career] is usually the sweetest. People talk more about the ’93 [championship] team, maybe because of [my Series- winning home run] but I’ll never forget ’92. We won [four games] by one run. It was about 25 guys that had a role. It was, do whatever it takes for this team to win.
Ward: When you live with a bunch of guys for six, eight months out of the year, you’re either going to become good teammates and friends or you’re always going to be butting heads. I think everybody on our team decided it would be better to be good teammates and good friends and have that one objective to win ball games. If a guy had a bad game or was playing great, everybody patted him on the back or butt and said, ‘Keep it going.’ Not a lot of individuals, but a lot of teammates, and that’s what made us so good.