The Kings of the North

Written by: Bill Francis

Ice hockey remains a national obsession in Canada, but baseball took center stage a little more than two decades ago when a World Series title first found its way north of the border.

While the Montreal Expos had been around since 1969, the Toronto Blue Jays, an expansion franchise in existence since 1977, became the first team from outside the United States to capture a Fall Classic crown when it won back-to-back championships, both in rather dramatic fashion, in 1992 and ’93.

“You have united a nation behind you,” said Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney after Toronto’s 1992 World Series-clinching victory, “capturing the imagination of Canadians from coast to coast.”

Toronto becoming the first Canadian team to win big league baseball’s most important prize is just one of many events to be featured in Whole New Ballgame, the Museum’s newest exhibit that is set to debut on the second floor timeline Nov. 7. Whole New Ballgame, which reimagines baseball history from 1970 through today, will feature new video displays and many rarely-seen artifacts.

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The Blue Jays, who had failed to claim the title in previous postseason tries in 1985, 1989 and 1991, were a powerhouse club by the time they won successive championships. Not only led by such future Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar, Rickey Henderson, Paul Molitor and Dave Winfield, the team also received important contributions from stalwarts Joe Carter, Pat Borders, John Olerud, Jack Morris, Juan Guzman, Todd Stottlemyre, Dave Stewart, Duane Ward and Tom Henke.

Representing the Blue Jays’ title reign of the early 1990s in Whole New Ballgame is Alomar’s road jersey from 1992. That season, the 24-year-old second baseman hit .310, drove in 76 runs, walked 87 times, stole 49 bases, scored 105 runs, was an All-Star Game starter, and won a Gold Glove Award. He was also named MVP of the ’92 ALCS, batting .423 versus the Oakland A’s, which included a two-run homer in the top of the ninth inning off relief ace Dennis Eckersley in Game 4 that tied a game the Blue Jays would eventually win in 11 innings.

“I’d say [Alomar’s] focus was what impressed me most this season,” said Blue Jays left fielder Candy Maldonado in 1992. “He had an oldness about him in the field, like some banged-up quarterback. He was a quarterback who understood where his receivers were, what defenses were doing. He played hard and hurt. It was an honor to play with him.”

The 1992 World Series ended with Toronto’s 4-3 thrilling win over the Braves in Game 6 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, a day baseball truly overshadowed hockey in Canada. Winfield, signed by the Blue Jays in the offseason, hit a two-run double off southpaw Charlie Leibrandt in the top of the 11th inning and Toronto held on for the win.

“I’m so happy for them,” said the 41-year-old Winfield, referring to the Toronto fans. “I’m happy for my teammates, the organization, and for my family and me. But those Canadians, they made me feel so welcome up there, they made it so much fun. I’m so happy for them. Now we’re going back to Canada. It’s America’s game, but it’s going to Canada for a while.

“I’m the oldest man in the room, and it took me the longest to get a World Series championship,” Winfield added. “But I’m the happiest right now. I didn’t do a whole lot, but I did it at the right time. This is the best team I ever played for. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball. I’m almost speechless. I can hardly think of the words to describe it.”

After signing with Toronto in December 1991, Hall of Famer Dave Winfield batted .290 with 26 home runs and 108 RBI during the 1992 season. BL-4042-95 (John Cordes / National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

The game’s final out came when Atlanta’s Otis Nixon, batting against Mike Timlin, was thrown out at first base by the pitcher on a drag-bunt-for-a-hit attempt. Timlin had only one save during the regular season.

“I’ve dreamed about this more times than I’ve gotten out of bed,” said Timlin. “I sat in class and dreamed about it. I thought about it all the time.”

The final out ignited a Canada-wide celebration, with 45,000 watching Game 6 on the video screen in Toronto’s SkyDome, and an estimated 500,000 people – nearly 1 in 7 people in the Toronto area – taking to the streets. Canada’s first astronaut, Steve MacLean, even carried a Blue Jays cap into space that week while aboard the space shuttle Columbia.

Toronto general manager and future Hall of Famer Pat Gillick, on bringing Canada its first World Series title, said, “Without being arrogant, I always thought that we would do it before the Expos.”

Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, who became the first African-American manager to win a World Series, said afterwards, “Since Opening Day these guys have been focused. It’s been a long, hard battle. This team is tough, really tough. These guys never, ever let down. You could see it in (the players’) eyes from the first day of Spring Training. They wanted to get to this moment. And they did exactly what they set out to do.”

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The Blue Jays followed the same pattern in 1993, though this time the action ended with one of the most dramatic swings of a bat in World Series history. Philadelphia Phillies closer Mitch Williams gave up a three-run home run to Carter with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning, giving Toronto an 8-6 win in Game 6 and their second consecutive World Series title. Tom Cheek, winner of the 2013 Ford C. Frick Award, had the call:

“They haven’t made up the word yet to describe what the feeling is,” said a champagne-soaked Carter in the clubhouse afterwards. “You look up because you want to see the fans and then you want to see your teammates. Most of all, you want to know what your reaction is. Once the ball went over the fence, it was something you couldn’t believe.

“You always hope it’s you in that situation. This is the biggest day in my career. When I hit the ball, it went through the lights so I lost it for a while. I wasn’t sure if it would be out. These are the kind of moments you dream about.”

Williams was brought in to work the ninth with the Phillies leading, 6-5. After walking Henderson on four pitches, Devon White flied out and Molitor singled to center field. With runners on first and second, Carter took the first two pitches for balls, the third for a strike, then swung and missed for strike two. With a 2-2 count, his swing sent the soaring baseball far over left fielder Pete Incaviglia’s head and the left field wall.

“We went into the bottom of the ninth down by a run. But with Mitch out there, we knew something good would happen and it did,” said Carter, who had 105 RBI or more in seven of the previous eight seasons. “I knew his velocity had not been real good lately. And the only pitch he was getting over the plate was the slider. On 2-1, I swung through a slider. With two strikes, I said, ‘All I need is a base hit.’ He threw me a slider down and in, and I’m definitely a low-ball hitter.”

As for Williams, who went 43-for-51 in save opportunities during the regular season, words were hard to come by.

“Everybody saw what happened. I made a mistake. He hit the mistake. I let my team down today. I’m not going to go home and commit suicide or anything,” said the pitcher nicknamed “Wild Thing” who also took the loss in Game 4. “It was a bad pitch. I threw it down and in. I was trying to get it away.

“They did what they had to do to win this series. And I let us down in big situations. I carry that burden. No excuses. I didn’t get the job done.”

Molitor, named the 1993 World Series MVP after batting .500 (12-for-24), had an envious vantage point during the dramatic hit.

“At first base, I was getting the signs,” Molitor said. “I saw he was going to throw a slider. I said, ‘Man, just leave that where he can hit it.’”

Henderson added, “In the ninth inning, we were hoping for Mitch to come in. We knew he has a tendency to be a little wild. We were hoping that he would walk a couple guys and then throw one over. And he did.”

With the Game 6 win, the Blue Jays became the first team to win two straight World Series crowns since the Yankees in 1977-78, while Gaston was the first manager to win two in a row since Sparky Anderson did it with the Cincinnati Reds in 1975-76.

Carter’s now-famous SkyDome shot was the second homer ever to end a Fall Classic, joining Bill Mazeroski’s off of pitcher Ralph Terry that won Game 7 for the Pittsburgh Pirates against the New York Yankees, 10-9, in 1960.

Bill Francis is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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