Story time

After graduating from McMaster University a couple of years ago, I departed for Ottawa and did an internship with the Ottawa Lynx, the Triple-A affiliate (at the time) of the Baltimore Orioles. It was a great experience, and I got the chance to share a press box with some fine people, including — but not limited to — Brian Morris, Darren Desaulniers and Barre Campbell. There were several highlights that season, including yours truly catching a foul pop up through the window of the press box on the second-to-last game of the season (and then proceeding to do some sort of touchdown dance).

ThomasAnother highlight came during a four-game series in May (2005), in which the Charlotte Knights were in town. That series marked the first time that Frank Thomas had seen action since July 6, 2004. Thomas, who suffered an ankle injury on that date and underwent season-ending surgery, completed an 11-game rehab assignment before rejoining the White Sox.

I was on the field during pre-game activities, and turned to see Thomas emerge from the visitor’s dugout, stopping at the top step. In a moment that seemed eerily similar to a certain movie, Thomas looked out at beautiful Lynx Stadium and wondered aloud, "Is this heaven?" to which I replied, "No, it’s Ottawa."

Okay, that didn’t happen. But Thomas did have a successful return to the field that evening, going 2-for-3 with a walk and a pair of runs scored. The walk, which came in the fifth inning, proved quite interesting. Those in the press box had already counted four balls, yet Thomas remained at the plate. It took a fifth ball before home plate umpire Josh Miller awarded him first base. Thomas, himself, thought he had only received four balls, but that was not the case. A forgotten ball in the dirt accounted for the mysterious fifth ball. Anyways …

During the four-game set, Thomas went 4-for-15 at the plate as the designatedCarter_joe  hitter. "It’s always good to have a Hall of Famer around, even if he’s at three-quarters or half speed," said Knights manager Nick Leyva. "It’s good for the young to see Frank in here at 1:30 every day working on stuff and getting ready and doing what he needs to do to be successful. Hopefully some of it will rub off on them."

Wait a minute, Nick Leyva? Yep, that’s the same Nick Leyva who was seen jumping up and down like a little boy and hugging Joe Carter as the latter rounded third base after launching a World Series-winning homer for the Toronto Blue Jays back in 1993. See … it always comes back to the Blue Jays.

‘The Streak’

The Toronto Blue Jays know a thing or two about Cal Ripken Jr., the ‘Iron Man’ who played in a major-league record 2,632 consecutive games. Ripken was, of course, inducted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday afternoon alongside Tony Gwynn, another player who spent his entire career with one team. On May 29, 1982, the Baltimore Orioles played a doubleheader against the Toronto Blue Jays at Memorial Stadium. Ripken played in the first game, but sat out the second. That would mark the last time he would sit out a game for the next 16-plus years. The following day’s game against Toronto marked the beginning of ‘The Streak’, which would see him play 2,632 straight games until September 20, 1998.

Also impressive was the fact that Ripken played every single inning from May 30, 1982 until September 14, 1987, when he was given an inning off during a blowout loss to … the Toronto Blue Jays, of course.

P1_ripkenCourtesy of SI.com …

"Dad (Cal Sr.) took the responsibility as the manager of the team, he thought it was right to take me out. In actuality when I came off the field after the Blue Jays had hit 10 home runs — a record 10 home runs in a game — we were getting beat very bad in Toronto and I think Dad in the weeks coming up to that thought it was a little bit of a burden that I constantly had to respond… because people started thinking about [my] playing every inning, every game, and there was a certain burden of managing that kind of thing when you came to a new city.

When I came to the bench he asked me, "What do you think of taking an inning off," and I immediately posed the question, "What do you think?" He said, "I think it would be a good thing." And I said, "Fine." And I sat on the bench. Having played in the field so long, naturally, I felt out of place. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if I should go in and take a shower or should I sit on the bench. It was a weird sort of feeling."

Thomas now on the other side

Having played 15 seasons at U.S. Cellular Field (Old Comiskey Park) during his time with the White Sox, Frank Thomas must still feel a little weird not going to the home clubhouse. Thomas enjoyed some spectacular seasons as a member of the White Sox, including the 1993 campaign, in which he won the first of back-to-back American League MVP awards. The ‘Big Hurt’ — in his third full season with Chicago — posted a .317 batting average, 41 home runs and 128 RBIs that year to help lead the White Sox to their second-ever AL West Division title. 1993 also marked the only time during his 16-year career with the Sox that Thomas advanced to the ALCS.

And who were their opponents that year? The Toronto Blue Jays, of course. Coming off their first-ever World Series title a year before, the Blue Jays posted a 95-67 record in ’93 to capture the AL East once again and return to the postseason for the fifth time in franchise history. Going into the series, Toronto knew that in order to beat the Sox, they would have to keep Frank Thomas from beating them. In Game 1 it became evident that the Blue Jays did not want to give Thomas anything to hit, as the mammoth slugger recorded four walks to go along with a single during Toronto’s 7-3 victory.

Frank_thomas_white_soxThomas went 2-for-3 with a walk in Game 2, but the Blue Jays came away with another win, this time by a 3-1 margin. Despite having reached base eight times in nine plate appearances over the first two games, Thomas had not hurt the Blue Jays, who headed home with a 2-0 series lead. The White Sox would come away with a 6-1 victory in Game 3 at SkyDome, with the ‘Big Hurt’ going 1-for-3 with a pair of walks, a run scored and an RBI. He posted those same numbers in Game 4, including a game-tying homer off Todd Stottlemyre to help lead Chicago to a series-evening 7-4 win. 

Perhaps the key to Game 5 for Toronto was the fact that they managed to hold Thomas completely in check. Juan Guzman struck out the big man twice, and Duane Ward fanned him in the ninth, as the Jays went on to win 5-3 and take a 3-2 series lead. Back in Chicago, Dave Stewart tossed 7.1 innings of two-run ball — one run coming on a HBP to Thomas — to improve his ALCS record to a remarkable 8-0 and, more importantly, send the Blue Jays to their second straight World Series. Overall, Toronto did, in fact, keep the AL MVP in check, allowing Thomas just one homer and three RBIs for the series. For his part, the ‘Big Hurt’ certainly took what the Jays gave him. Thanks to 12 walks, he managed to post an obscene .593 on-base percentage. However, the Blue Jays were able to shut down the rest of his teammates when it counted. Overall, Thomas — who reached base 18 times — ended up scoring just twice.

“How about that?”

In honour of Mel Allen, the late great baseball announcer, I’d like to start a new feature on ‘The 500 Level’. Allen coined the phrase, "How about that?", well before I was introduced to the world of baseball, but he was still hosting my favourite program, ‘This Week in Baseball’, during the Blue Jays’ glory years when my young eyes were constantly glued to the TV. So, without further adieu …

Jim Abbott, who threw a no-hitter for the New York Yankees in 1993, and enjoyed a 10-year major-league career, was originally drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays. "How about that?".

Jim_abbott_200x150_wktvYep, Abbott, famous for making the Major Leagues despite being born without a right hand, was taken by the Blue Jays in the 36th round of the 1985 draft. A seventeen-year-old at the time, he opted to go to college at the University of Michigan, where — in 1987 — he became the first pitcher ever to be named the top amateur athlete in the United States. He was then drafted eighth overall by the California Angels in 1988, and went straight to the Major Leagues without playing a single minor-league contest.

Perhaps his best season came in 1991, when he posted an 18-11 record along with a 2.89 ERA for the Angels, finishing third in AL Cy Young voting. But perhaps his greatest performance came on September 4, 1993, at Yankee Stadium. That day, Abbott became the seventh Yankee pitcher to toss a no-hitter, and the fifth to do so in the Bronx. And it came against the Cleveland Indians, certainly no pushover. Though they finished below .500 in ’93, the Tribe’s lineup already featured several key members of the 1995 squad that won 100 games. Included in the lineup that day were: Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle, Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez.

Remarkably, Abbott was known as a good fielder too, despite having to catch with the same left hand that he used to pitch. Wearing a glove on the stump of his right arm, Abbott would quickly transfer the glove to his left hand to field the ball or take throws back from the catcher. Often, he would simply knock the ball down on a comebacker, before picking it up and making the throw to first.

Abbott was certainly an inspiration to me growing up, and as we now find ourselves in the performance-enhancing (aka cheating) era, it’s important to remember stories like Jim Abbott. To me, he exemplifies what baseball is all about. Or at least, what it can and should be all about.   

Courtesy of Baseball Almanac …

"There are millions of people out there ignoring disabilities and accomplishing incredible feats. I learned you can learn to do things differently, but do them just as well. I’ve learned that it’s not the disability that defines you, it’s how you deal with the challenges the disability presents you with. And I’ve learned that we have an obligation to the abilities we DO have, not the disability."

– Jim Abbott

 

Unbreakable?

Whether we want to witness it or not, Barry Bonds will, of course, surpass Hank Aaron and become the all-time home run king in the major leagues in the very near future. This comes just six years after the San Francisco slugger smacked 73 home runs in 2001 to become the single-season record-holder. There’s no denying that both of these accomplishments are quite impressive. However, neither were considered unattainable. Especially after Mark McGwire showed the world that we had entered the ster … err, home run era back in 1998.

And, if we’re lucky, Bonds’ new mark will be broken by Alex Rodriguez down the road. Again, certainly not out of the question. But what about those records that truly seem unbreakable? I’m talking about Joe Dimaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, set in 1941. I’m talking about a player hitting .400, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since the great Ted Williams managed the mark (.406) during that same season.

John_olerud_autograph_1Though it didn’t last the entire season, John Olerud‘s run at .400 during the 1993 campaign had every Toronto Blue Jay fan watching intently. That season, Olerud had a .400 average as late as August 2, and finished with a franchise-record .363 mark to win the American League batting crown. Perhaps even more impressive was his .473 on-base percentage, which — to put into perspective — is 97 points higher than the current Blue Jay leader in that category (Troy Glaus, .376). Prior to the ’93 campaign, Roberto Alomar held the franchise record with a .405 on-base percentage, which he posted in 1992.

Again, just how impressive was Olerud’s .473? Aside from tainted sluggers Bonds and Jason Giambi, only Edgar Martinez (.479, 1995) and Wade Boggs (.476, 1988) have managed a higher mark over the last 46 years.

No Blue Jay came close to that mark until 2000, when Carlos Delgado enjoyed an MVP-calibre season for Toronto, and finished with an on-base percentage of .470. Among active players, that is the highest single-season mark ever (again, aside from the juicers). Of course, Delgado was a unique slugger who boasted much more power than Olerud. Still, he was walked intentionally just 18 times in 2000 compared to the 33 times that Olerud received in 1993.

After Delgado, the next-highest OBP ever posted by a Blue Jay is .427, accomplished by Tony Fernandez in 1999. So I ask: Will Olerud’s record ever be broken? 

Jays put on ‘rally caps’

There has been a lot of talk about the Toronto Blue Jays’ stagnant offense in recent weeks. However, that certainly hasn’t been the case over the last few games. And it especially wasn’t the case during the sixth inning on Wednesday afternoon. Toronto put up a remarkable 11 runs in that frame against the Minnesota Twins, matching the highest run total in one inning in franchise history.

The first occasion in which the Blue Jays plated 11 runs in a single frame occurred on July 20, 1984 during a contest against the Seattle Mariners at the Kingdome. Toronto entered the top of the ninth trailing 3-1. They were also without their manager, Bobby Cox, who had been ejected by Durwood Merrill in the bottom of the seventh. Coaches Jimy Williams and Al Widmar were also gone from the game, as Merrill ejected the pair of Blue Jay coaches in the top of the eighth.

Not to worry, as Toronto hitting coach Cito Gaston assumed the managing duties for the ninth, and the Blue Jays responded with an impressive display of offense. Lloyd Moseby led off the inning with a triple, and scored on a one-out single by Willie Aikens. Gaston didn’t waste any time before making lineup changes, as he summoned Alfredo Griffin to run for Aikens, and Cliff Johnson to bat for Rance Mulliniks. Johnson singled and was replaced on the basepaths by Garth Iorg. George Bell then batted for Ernie Whitt, singling Griffin to third. However, third baseman Jim Presley was called for obstruction, allowing Griffin to come home with the tying run.

After Jesse Barfield singled to load the bases, Tony Fernandez followed suit with a two-run single to put the Jays ahead 5-3. Damaso Garcia singled to score Barfield and, after a walk to Dave Collins, Moseby knocked home two more runs with a single, his second hit of the inning. Upshaw and Griffin then managed back-to-back run-scoring singles to give Toronto a 10-3 lead. Before Iorg grounded into a fielder’s choice, 10 straight Blue Jay batters had reached safely.

After Bell walked to load the bases, Barfield plated two more runs with a single, making it a 12-3 ballgame. The Mariners finally stopped the bleeding by striking out Tony Fernandez for the final out of the inning. 

Jays = playoffs?

It pains me to say this, but the Toronto Blue Jays’ chances at making the playoffs this year are essentially zero. I know, I know … save for B.J. Ryan, the team is as healthy as its been all season (finally), which means we will get the chance to see what could have been if Toronto had not been hit with so many injuries in 2007. Still, the deficit is simply too big to overcome. At 44-45 entering action Saturday night, the Blue Jays would need to win roughly 51 of their remaining 73 games to put themselves in contention for the AL wild card.

History has shown that an American League team likely needs to reach 95 wins to compete for the final playoff berth. Thus, the Jays would need to finish 51-22 (.699). Last year, Toronto closed out the year going 38-35 over its last 73 contests. In 2005, it was 36-37. The sad reality is that the Blue Jays have never even come close to recording 51 wins in their last 73 games.

The best mark? 46-27. That’s how Toronto closed out the 1985, 1989 and 1993 campaigns. Therefore, the Blue Jays would need to record their best finish in franchise history if they hope to make the playoffs in ’07. Put another way, the Jays would need to do the exact opposite of what they did in 1977, the club’s first year of existence. That team posted a 22-51 record over their final 73 games, the worst such mark in team history. Will the Jays turn the tables and post their best mark ever 30 years later? No, but we’re still going to watch just in case.

Best records over final 73 games:

46-27 – 1985, 1989, 1993
44-29 – 1987, 1988
42-31 – 1992, 1998, 2002