The only things missing were the bunting draped over the box seats and Bowie in his thermals. Well, maybe not the only things, but, hey, this was the May Classic the Toronto Blue Jays and Oakland A's were playing at Exhibition Stadium, or, as it is sometimes called, the Ex. The Ex marked the spot for the battle for supremacy in the American League between the Jays, as in juggernaut, and the A's, as in awesome. They were so evenly matched that it took 11 innings for Toronto to win the first game of the three-game series, and 14 innings for Oakland to take the second. The third went the conventional nine, with the Blue Jays winning an unconventional 12-1 laugher. Yes, you can throw out the record books when these two monsters get together. As befits a preview—would you believe?—of the A.L. championship series, there were great pitching performances, sparkling fielding plays and clutch hits. But then, these have always been the hallmarks of fine ball clubs.
Seriously, folks, the Blue Jays and A's are good, or at least a whole lot better than the Bozos who lost 217 games between them last year and finished a combined 84½ games out of first place. The two teams have been the delightful surprises of this young season, bobbing in and out of first in the A.L. East and West. And if the owners and players can't settle their differences soon, the season may remain forever young. So, with a strike in the offing, this series took on magnified importance.
The secret to both Oakland and Toronto's heady status this season is pitching. Last year they ranked 25th and 26th in the majors, disrespectively, but now the A's are second and the Jays third. Oakland throwers have been laying green and golden goose eggs all over the place, while Toronto Manager Bobby Mattick has three starters, Dave Stieb, Paul Mirabella and Jim Clancy, with ERAs under 3.00. There didn't figure to be much scoring in the semi-epochal series.
On Friday night the A's went with Mike Norris, who has the Cy Young Award locked up already. He came into the game with a 5-0 record, a 23-inning scoreless streak and the ludicrously low ERA of 0.36. His opposite number was Jesse Jefferson, a pitcher with stuff but also with a 6.05 ERA. The teams went into the 11th tied 0-0. Jefferson had the A's striking out and flying out all night. Norris, meanwhile, extended his scoreless string to 33 innings and lowered his ERA to a preposterous 0.30. His screwball, his curveball, his fastball and even his funkball—an incredibly slow scrap of junk—had the Jays baffled. With two out and runners on second and third, Roy Howell crept up on the plate and picked off Norris' screwball before it could screw, lining it through the hole on the left side. The Blue Jays went bananas, but then, that's pennant fever for you.
Having beaten the A's ace, the Blue Jays sent their own out on Saturday. Stieb came into the game with a 4-1 record and a 2.23 ERA. Pitching for the A's was Matt Keough, who is by Hard Luck out of Misfortune. Last year, as was well documented, he lost 14 games in a row. His 5-3 record this season would seem to be a vast improvement, but in fact he is pitching better than that. Keough took a 2-1 lead into the ninth, but with two outs fate again intervened. With nobody on, Willie Upshaw reached first on an error by First Baseman Dave Revering. Then Howell—him again—reached out and drove the ball just inside third. The ball took a detour through the Blue Jays' bullpen, while the Toronto relievers elaborately danced out of its way, and Rickey Henderson, the leftfielder, stopped pursuing it because he thought someone had interfered with it. Dwayne Murphy, coming over from center, finally retrieved it, but by this time Upshaw had scored and Howell was chugging home. Murphy's throw was right on target and in plenty of time, and Catcher Mike Heath knocked Howell silly with the tag. The A's, led by Manager Billy Martin, screamed that Howell's hit should have been ruled a double, but to no avail. About this time people in the stands were wondering if they might have to miss the running of the Preakness. A few innings later they were wondering if they might have to miss the Belmont, too.
Stieb relinquished the ball after the 12th, having thrown more than 160 pitches, but Keough was holding onto it for dear life. "You don't remove a guy who's pitching his heart out," Martin said later. Finally, in the 14th, the A's reached Reliever Joey McLaughlin for two runs on a single by Dave McKay, who alertly scooted to second when the ball got away from First Baseman John Mayberry, an intentional walk to Murphy, an RBI single by Jeff Newman and a double by Mickey Klutts. The temptation to call it a Klutts hit is overwhelming. Keough set the Blue Jays down in order in the bottom of the 14th, and after 181 pitches he had his sixth complete game in his last seven starts.
"We needed this win," said Keough. "We can't afford a long losing streak. I'm sorry to have to beat the Jays, though. I'm happy they're doing well because I know what it's like to be laughed at. I hope they win every game but the ones they play against us."
Keough didn't get his wish the next day. The Blue Jays emerged from a fog, literally and figuratively, to batter Oakland starter Rick Langford. A strange mist enveloped the field at game time, delaying action for more than an hour between the second and third batters. After it cleared, Al Woods knocked in five runs and Otto Velez three, while Mirabella held the A's in check. These Blue Jays can beat you so many ways.
It would be a slight exaggeration to say that the cities of Toronto and Oakland have been turned on by their urchins, but those communities assuredly have been awakened. "I can remember coming to bat and actually hearing conversation in the stands, it was that quiet here," says Bob Bailor, the Blue Jays' jack of all trades and their first pick in the expansion draft. "And they weren't talking about baseball, either." Progress moves a little slowly in Toronto. The Ex is the only dry ball park of the 26 in the big leagues, even though Labatt's breweries owns 45% of the club. The fans are getting impatient, though, both for a winner and a brew. The Argonauts of the Canadian Football League and the NHL Maple Leafs are now almost as laughable as the Blue Jays used to be, and the fans can't even drown their sorrows. As a banner plaintively asked during Saturday's Game of the Week telecast, HEY, TV VIEWERS, CAN YOU BELIEVE STILL NO BEER?
But the town has begun to take to the Blue Jays. George Holm, the director of ticket operations, reported two calls last week from season subscribers who were worried about getting seats for the playoffs. A headline in the Toronto Star read PESKY YANKS KEEP UP WITH JAYS, and newspapers have been keeping track of the magic numbers.
Interest is up in Oakland, too, where the A's are already 81,000 ahead of last year's attendance. It took the Oakland Coliseum 42 dates in 1979 to draw the gate it has had in 18 games this year. One Saturday home game that wasn't blacked out locally drew only 7,062 fans, but that was the day Martin pulled a triple steal and two steals of home. The next day 18,217 people came to see him try it again.
It could happen to a nicer guy than owner Charles O. Finley, who has mercifully remained out of the picture. Well, almost out of the picture. Last Friday night, on Martin's 52nd birthday, the scoreboard in the Ex flashed a message: BILLY MARTIN, YOUR GIFT IS ON THE WAY, CHARLEY O. To which Martin replied, "I hope he sent some runs."
Martin is clearly enjoying himself, although he would've been a lot happier last week if he hadn't lost three one-run games in a row. He doffs his cap to the fans when they boo, he jokes with spectators in the box seats, he's even taken to coming to the ball park early to hit fun-goes. How long he remains the charmer, or how long the A's and Jays stay up there, doesn't really matter. Right now the two teams feel like champs.
"All we wanted to do this year was not lose 100 games for the first time," says Toronto President Peter Bavasi. "Let's enjoy this high altitude for however many hours it lasts."
Stieb gave Toronto 11 superb innings in Game 2, but Oakland hung tough, triumphing in the 14th.
Toe down, bat up, Oakland's Henderson offers a tiny strike zone, which is why he walks so much.