In AL, Jays 'C' Progress Maturity alters the focus from choke to championship

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There is no tombstone to mark their passing, no epitaph to recount their short and unfulfilled life. But the indication given over the course of the 1992 baseball season leads one to believe that the alter ego of the Toronto Blue Jays is gone forever.

The Blow Jays are dead.

In their place is a more experienced, more talented and more balanced team that seems poised to bury its beleaguered and belligerent past by finally making an appearance in the World Series. But first the Blue Jays will have to bury, or at least beat, the Oakland Athletics in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series that begins in Toronto tomorrow.

"A lot of guys here are quietly confident," said veteran left-hander Jimmy Key, whose own resurrection down the stretch helped the Blue Jays hold off the fading Orioles and, ultimately, the charging Milwaukee Brewers. "That confidence spills out in the clubhouse and on the field. It's much different than it was here in the [past]."

Instead of George Bell, who often caused friction among teammates, as well as with fans and the caustic Toronto media, there is Dave Winfield, fast becoming the most popular player in the franchise's 17-year history. Instead of Dave Stieb, who often blew up on the mound in big games and in the clubhouse afterward, there is Jack Morris, one of the most successful big-game pitchers in recent baseball history.

The addition last winter of free agents Winfield and Morris, as well as the late-season acquisition of All-Star pitcher David Cone, has gone a long way in helping restore confidence to a once-fragile psyche. But, in raising baseball's largest payroll, the Blue Jays also have increased the team's expectations.

"I can't speak for everyone else, but the only thing the players are going to be satisfied with is a world championship," said veteran relief pitcher Tom Henke. "Even though we have never made it [to the World Series], I don't think we'll be happy just to make it there. But you have to give yourself the opportunity."

Four times in the past seven years, the Blue Jays squandered that opportunity. In 1985, Toronto took a 3-1 lead on the Kansas City Royals, only to lose the last three games. In 1987, the Blue Jays blew a 3 1/2 -game lead to the Detroit Tigers in the final week of the regular season and never made it to the playoffs. In 1989, they lost in five games to the A's.

But it was last year when the Blue Jays truly lived down to their reputation. They couldn't put the blame on inexperience. They couldn't put the blame on injuries or a lack of pitching. After splitting with the Minnesota Twins at the Metrodome, Toronto lost three straight at SkyDome.

"We didn't choke; we just played three bad games," said Blue Jays vice president Pat Gillick, who won't differentiate between the two.

Ah, yes, the C word. It has been floating around SkyDome like those sea gulls that used to inhabit old Exhibition Stadium. It is a word the players are tired of hearing, a word they dismiss as an invention of the media. But the Blue Jays didn't go out and sign Winfield, 41, and Morris, 37, because they needed fresh legs and a live arm.

In Winfield, they got a player whose days chasing down fly balls are mostly in the past, but who is still an amazingly productive hitter, evidenced by his .290 average, 26 home runs and 108 RBI -- he was the first player 40 or older to drive in 100 runs or more. Winfield has solidified a lineup that already included All-Stars Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter.

"There's something about Dave that players will follow him," sai infielder Rance Mulliniks, who has played more games for the Blue Jays than anybody else.

In Morris, they got a pitcher who twice had won 20 games but who didn't look pretty doing it. More important were his two world championships as part of the 1987 Tigers and then as the MVP in last year's World Series with the Twins. All Morris did was become the team's first 20-game winner. He was 21-6, and anchored a rotation that includes fast-rising Juan Guzman, Key and now Cone.

"I think the reason they got a guy like Jack was to get us over th hump," said Key. "We've gotten this far before. But Jack has won it before."

Their postseason records provide a contrast.

Winfield has appeared in only one World Series, with the Yankees in 1981. It was his 1-for-22 performance in a 4-2 loss to hTC the Los Angeles Dodgers -- people forget that he was seven of 20 with three doubles in the AL playoffs against the Royals -- that prompted Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to dub his high-priced star "Mr. May."

Morris, meanwhile, has been a pitching version of "Mr. October." In nine postseason games with the Tigers in 1984 and 1987 and with the Twins last year, Morris has a combined record of 7-1. He is 4-0 in the Series with an uncharacteristically low 1.54 ERA -- his lowest regular-season ERA was 3.05 in 1981. He was the Series MVP against the Atlanta Braves last season.

"I think those two guys have taken us to a higher level," said Toronto manager Cito Gaston.

Gaston can only hope that is true. Though he has been more relaxed this season than in any of his previous three years, there have been whispers in Toronto that Gaston could be gone if what many locals believe is the best team money can buy doesn't win it all this year. If Gaston's back is up against the wall, he doesn't show any discomfort.

"They try to put some pressure on me," said Gaston, referring to the media and fans. "As long as they can't shoot me, that's OK. The only thing they can do is fire me."

Some of the pressure on the Blue Jays has been self-inflicted. Third baseman Kelly Gruber said during spring training that the Blue Jays had the talent to win their division by 15 games. What Gruber said started as an off-handed remark and became a headline, not to mention a headache. Gruber had one of his worst years and has been booed regularly at home.

With the team's third division title in the past four years nailed down, with the Oakland A's looming and with their first World Series appearance in sight, these Blue Jays are not backing down on their preseason goal. There is a different feel to their cramped SkyDome clubhouse.

"I've played on a lot of good teams here," said Gruber, one of several Blue Jays to wear a "3 for 3 in 92" T-shirt for most of the season. "I like our chances. The majority of the guys have been through it, if not here, other places. We all set this [winning the World Series] as the ultimate goal. If we don't win it, I think there are going to be a lot of disappointed people in this clubhouse."

AL playoffs

Toronto Blue Jays vs. Oakland Athletics TV: Channels 11, 9

Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)

(all times p.m.)

Tomorrow: at Toronto, 8:26

Thursday: at Toronto, 8:37

Saturday: at Oakland, 3

Oct. 11: at Oakland, 4:10

Oct. 12: at Oakland, 3:07*

Oct. 14: at Toronto, 3:07 or 8:26*

Oct. 15: at Toronto, 8:37*

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