TORONTO — TORONTO -- It has always been a civilized rivalry. The Toronto Blue Jays have dominated the American League East for the past five years, but they have never been very mouthy about it. The Orioles have made a couple of attempts to unseat them, but always tipped their caps politely in defeat.
That all changed at the All-Star Game, when Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston held Mike Mussina out of action and set off a chain of events that has taken the rivalry to a less cordial level -- if not for the two teams, then for the two cities that embrace them.
Baltimore fans heaped abuse on Gaston as Toronto closer Duane Ward recorded the final out of the All-Star Game, no doubt assuming the AL manager had set up Mussina for the ultimate All-Star embarrassment by getting him up in the bullpen and leaving him there.
Never mind that it may have been the other way around. Mussina admitted later that he got up to throw on his own, which set up Gaston for a fall. He was booed heavily by the Camden Yards crowd and criticized roundly in front of a national television audience.
No doubt, there will be a reciprocal reaction from the normally polite crowd at SkyDome tonight, when the Orioles and Blue Jays open an important two-game series. Mussina has been scratched from tonight's scheduled start -- which should water down the negative reception -- but Torontoans don't take this kind of thing lying down.
Remember the upside-down flag flap during the World Series last year? The fans responded good-naturedly, but they recognized there was no intentional slight intended. This time, will they be so forgiving?
"We have good fans," Gaston said. "I think they'll handle it the way they did when the flag was flown upside-down. They handled that with a lot of class. I hope that's what they'll do, but you never know. . . . I think they'll handle it with a lot more class than the fans did in Baltimore."
Mussina tried to bring the unpleasantness to an end on Sunday when he said he intended to look up Gaston and apologize for his part in the controversy. Gaston inflamed the situation further with some more incendiary remarks on Sunday, but cooled off after he heard Mussina's apologetic game plan.
He now says that he will not hold a grudge. So, is it over with or not?
Mussina read the papers yesterday and spent the day trying to decide what to do. He said he isn't sure that he'll go through with the apology, because he isn't sure how it will be received.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," he said. "He still seems to be upset, so I don't know how I should go about it. I just don't want to make it worse. I want to clear it up."
The smoke from this latest skirmish appears to be clearing, but the Orioles had plenty of reason to be unhappy with Gaston to begin with. Gaston stacked the AL team with Blue Jays, leaving several deserving players off the roster. Chris Hoiles was leading major-league catchers in home runs and didn't make the team. )) Gregg Olson had some of the best relief numbers in the league and wasn't picked. Former Oriole Mickey Tettleton was leading the majors in home runs and was passed over.
Mussina was a borderline choice after midseason shoulder problems deflated a strong start, but most of his teammates felt that Gaston should have given him a chance to pitch in his own ballpark. The fans did, too, and Mussina did nothing to discourage their adverse reaction at the end of the game. That didn't sit well with the Blue Jays.
"He showed up our manager," said center fielder Devon White. "That's the way we feel about it. He could have thrown on the side the next day."
In an indirect sense, Mussina may have done Gaston a favor. The Baltimore boo-birds may have galvanized local support for him in Toronto, where he has never gotten a lot of credit for the tremendous success of his team. Now, Toronto fans have another us-against-the-baseball-world issue to rally behind.
Both teams, however, have stopped short of characterizing the upcoming series as a grudge match. It's just another important divisional showdown at a time when the AL East race is closer than it has been in a decade.
"A grudge match would be all the Baltimore fans fighting all of the Toronto fans," said tonight's Blue Jays starter, Jack Morris. "All we do is play ball. All this is is one foolish Baltimore pitcher who didn't have the guts to admit that he made a mistake."
Orioles manager Johnny Oates would just like to see the whole issue put to bed. He's an on-the-field, no-nonsense baseball guy who doesn't like to see the pennant race muddied up with off-the-field distractions.
"The All-Star thing -- that's exhibition stuff, it's over with," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of the players could care less what happened at the All-Star Game. Most of them weren't even in town."
Oates knows better than to think that the Toronto fans will look at it that way, but he isn't concerned.
"I've been booed before. . . it's just part of the game," he said. "I don't care about that. If they want to boo, that's fine. We're here to play baseball. I'll tell you this much. I'd rather be booed in Toronto than booed in Baltimore."
Mussina's teammates have been largely supportive of him since the incident, but some were not happy with the fan reaction at the All-Star Game. Gaston didn't make a lot of friends with his All-Star selections, but he is not unpopular around the league.
"I don't think it gave a good impression to the nation of what our fans are really like," first baseman David Segui said.
Veteran Paul Molitor tried to play peacemaker in the Blue Jays clubhouse. He knows how this kind of thing can get blown out of proportion, so he tried to get it back in perspective.
"I understand their disappointment," Molitor said of the Orioles fans. "Baltimore, to me, has been one of the classiest places for baseball. They always show their appreciation for the Bretts and the Younts. To have it turn that ugly [at the All-Star Game] was strange. Mike would have been the object of some anger [in Toronto], but now he's not pitching."