Sunday, May 06, 2007


Say this for the Jays, they're making team history -- lose today and it will be the first 0-6 road trip the team has had in 28 years.

Perhaps A.J. Burnett will be a stopper against the Texas Rangers, but what's the use? It's come to this: A team with an $85-million-plus payroll, a recent Cy Young Award winner (Roy Halladay), a three-time Gold Glove centre-fielder (Vernon Wells) and a designated hitter soon to hit his 500th career home run (Frank Thomas) is one loss from matching the dubious deed of the worst team in franchise history. That would be the 1979 Blue Jays, who probably weren't the inspiration for the Smashing Pumpkins song 1979, although their 109-loss campaign was far gloomier than anything Billy Corgan ever contemplated.

How bad was it in seventy-nine? Not only was My Sharona at the top of the charts when dawn broke on Sept. 3, Labour Day, but by then the third-year Jays were 24 1/2 games back. Not out of first place -- out of sixth place in the American League East.

The Jays were going nowhere -- which is to say they had to make a road trip to Baltimore and Cleveland. That had to be a ballplayer's least favourite road swing in those days. The Orioles were always good and Cleveland was an international punchline, even though it had been almost a decade since the Cuyahoga River was regularly catching fire.

Sept. 3 at Baltimore: The pitching matchups for this Labour Day doubleheader was for the orange-hued Birds, definitely. The Jays started Tom Underwood and Dave Lemanczyk (a combined 14-25 to that point) vs. Baltimore's Steve Stone and Mike Flanagan, who between them won the American League Cy Young Awards in '79 and '80.

Underwood was game, though, and pitched a beauty against the team who would go on to fall one victory short of winning the World Series. Each team scored a run in the third, then Underwood and Stone traded zeroes the rest of the afternoon.

Both retired after the 10th inning. Tippy Martinez (don't worry, he would never haunt Jays fans again) pitched a three-up, three-down 11th. The Jays hadn't had a runner advance past first base since the sixth, when pinch-runner Dave Stieb (!) was stranded at third base.

On came Tom Buskey -- the late, great Tom Buskey who'd called for manager Roy Hartsfield to be fired in the middle of a West Coast swing a few weeks earlier -- to pitch for Toronto in the bottom of the 11th. As Tom Cheek later recalled in a book, Buskey seemed to be swigging from something contained in a brown paper bag when he made this demand at poolside.

(In Hartsfield, the Jays had a Southern manager who was in his third full season and had become a lame duck. Sound familiar?)

The first Baltimore batter, Pat Kelly, singled, then Buskey threw the ball away on a sacrifice bunt to send the winning run all the way to third base. Eddie Murray got the winning hit moments later. Orioles 2, Jays 1

In the nightcap, the Orioles settled the issue early, knocking out Lemanczyk with four runs in the second inning to back Flanagan to his 20th win of season. Pat Kelly got the Orioles rolling with a homer. This rates a mention since it permits a segue to the time Kelly asked Orioles manager Earl Weaver, "Skip, when was the last time you prayed?" and Weaver shot back, "The last time I sent you up to pinch-hit." Orioles 5, Jays 1

Sept. 6 at Baltimore: For reasons lost to the sands of time, the teams didn't play again until Thursday. The announced crowd -- and remember, the Orioles were on the way to a pennant -- was 7,053. Good thing this was Baltimore, not Montreal -- Bud Selig would have tried to have the franchise relocated. Dennis Martínez hurled a five-hit shutout to beat Butch Edge, who didn't get out of the second inning. Orioles 5, Jays 0

Sept. 7 at Cleveland: A crowd, so to speak, of 4,222 showed up at Cleveland Municipal Stadium (which could hold more than 85,000) for the marquee pitching matchup between Toronto's Phil Huffman and the Tribe's Rick Waits. OK, Waits wasn't that bad -- he won 16 games that year -- but Huffman absorbed 18 losses in 1979, a record for a player who had only one full season in the majors. He seemed headed for Win No. 7 after the Jays busted out for a six-run fifth, capped by a grand slam home run from The Beeg Mon, Rico Carty (our Retro Cool Brave). After tacking on two more in the sixth, the Jays led 8-0 and were in danger of winning.

Up 8-3 in the ninth, Hartsfield sent Huffman out to try for a complete game. Toby Harrah led off with a homer and soon enough the tying run was at the plate with none out. Have no fear -- Tom Buskey to the rescue. He whiffed Gary Alexander -- don't look so impressed; the year before, Alexander fanned a major league-high 166 times -- for the first out, but gave up two RBI singles to cut the margin to 8-7. Then John Mayberry committed the Jays' second error of the inning, tying the game and putting the winning run at second base.

Buskey gave up another hit, but Jays left-fielder J.J. Cannon threw Mike Hargrove out at the plate. That bought the Jays about another 30 seconds. Harrah came to bat for the second time in the inning and singled in the winning run. Cleveland 9, Jays 8

Sept. 8 at Cleveland: The Jays forged ahead 4-3 in the seventh when Tim Johnson -- yes, that Tim Johnson -- hit a game-tying triple and scored on a sac fly.

(Pictured, right: Two movie characters who were definitely not based on Tim Johnson.)

Dave Stieb was pitching, and today, he'd be pulled for a reliever with a one-run lead in the middle in the seventh. This was a different time. Bell bottoms were in and so was pitchers throwing nine innings, even when he was a 21-year-old rookie who had played centre-field in college.

Stieb went back out and the Indians promptly tied the game. He was still pitching in a tie game in the ninth when Mike Hargrove, the current Mariners manager, coaxed a leadoff walk. Before you could say, "Let's get Buskey up," Rick Manning singled and Alfredo Griffin threw the ball away after taking the throw from the outfield, allowing Hargrove to score after starting the play at first base. Cleveland 5, Jays 4

Sept. 9 at Cleveland: The Jays knocked Len Barker out in the third inning, taking a 6-1 lead. However, starting pitcher Balor Moore fell apart like an Alberto Gonzales alibi in the fourth, walking four straight batters as Cleveland scored five runs to tie it 6-6. On the day, the Jays ended up walking 14 batters -- which is almost as many free passes as the Indians probably gave out to get a crowd of 9,166 for the Sunday afternoon game.

By the eighth, it was 9-6, but the '79 Blue Jays weren't quitters. Helped by two errors by Cleveland right-fielder Ted Pruitt, they struck for four runs and went back on top, 10-9.

Buskey Time.

Ted survived the eighth, leaving the tying run at third. In the ninth, Ron Hassey led off with a pinch-hit single, and eventually Hargrove got a single to tie the game at 10. With one out and first base open, Rick Manning (you all remember Rick; he was the guy who stole his teammate Dennis Eckersley's wife) was intentionally walked to load the bases, meaning Bobby Bonds (pictured, right) got a chance to pad his RBI total when he hammered a walk-off grand-slam moments later. Cleveland 14, Jays 10

So you see? It can always get worse for the Jays. By the way, look at how times have changed. Barry Bonds is despised today for being a drug cheat, but three decades ago they put his daddy on a magazine cover with the word "dope" actually in the headline. Yes, we were really born 25-30 years too late.

Big ups to Retrosheet.

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