Letters of Intent
Flashback: Toronto Blue Jays 1987
By Ramy Eljawhary
Rance Mulliniks remembers it like it was yesterday.
The 1987 Toronto Blue Jays were as deep and talented as any team in franchise history.
With a 3 1/2 game lead over the Detroit Tigers and seven games remaining in the season, the Jays would conclude their campaign by going 0-for-7, which included four one run losses to the Tigers who went on to capture the American League East division on the final day of the season.
“We had a great year and probably the most vivid memory was losing the last week of the season, not being able to win just a couple of ball games, which would have been the difference to send us to the postseason”, said Mulliniks over the telephone from his home in California.
“The feeling after that Sunday ball game when Frank Tanana shut us out and beat us 1-0 was probably the lowest point I ever experienced in baseball.”
With 10 games remaining in the season the Blue Jays led the Tigers by a 1/2 a game and squared off with Detroit for a critical four game series at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto.
The Jays won the opener 4-3, but it came at a heavy price after Blue Jays’ shortstop Tony Fernandez was controversially taken out on a hard slide by Tigers’ designated hitter Bill Madlock, who was looking to break up a potential double play.
Fernandez landed heavily on his elbow and would undergo season-ending surgery.
After dropping the next two games, the Tigers rallied off of Tom Henke in the top ninth to send the game into extra innings and would go on to win 3-2 in 13 innings to avoid a series sweep.
Detroit Tigers’ outfielder Johnny Grubb recalls a talented group that featured four All-Stars (Jack Morris, Matt Nokes, Alan Trammell, and Lou Whitaker) in addition to a strong supporting cast that included Darrell Evans who led the team with 34 homers
“I always felt as a member of that team that all our teammates believed that we were never out of a ball game. We just always felt like there was a way we could pull something out, we just had a knack for doing it,” said Grubb from his home in Virginia.
Following the series Toronto hosted the Milwaukee Brewers for three games, a team that would finish with 91 victories, enough to win the American and National League West divisions respectively.
“Milwaukee was very tough against us that year. Every team has a team that you have a difficult time playing and Milwaukee was that team for us“, reflected Ernie Whitt from the Philadelphia Phillies minor league complex where he works as a hitting instructor.
Five days after Fernandez’s injury, Whitt suffered cracked ribs against the Brewers after breaking up a double play.
“I think we had a championship team that year, I really do”, he said. “Tom Henke was tremendous and we had the Most Valuable Player George Bell.
“Tony Fernandez was a key person in our lineup and I felt I played a pretty good role. I think it really hurt us, especially the last three games going into Detroit where I always hit well in that stadium and not being able to play was very disappointing.”
Battling Toronto and Milwaukee for the AL East division, Detroit looked to bolster their rotation for the final stretch of the season and acquired former Blue Jay Doyle Alexander from the Atlanta Braves.
Although they paid a heavy price (John Smoltz went the other way), Alexander was dominant for the Tigers. He made 11 starts and posted a 9-0 record with a tidy 1.53 ERA.
He also defeated Toronto 4-3 in the first game of the series in Detroit.
“Doyle was a very accomplished pitcher. In 1984 and 1985 he pitched each of those seasons for us and of course pitched the division clincher on a Saturday against the New York Yankees next to the last day of the season in 1985, said Mulliniks.
With Toronto he combined to go 34-16 in 1984 and 1985.
“He was flawless for them down the stretch. We had a lot of respect for Doyle, he was a great teammate and great competitor, but we didn’t look at Doyle Alexander as someone we couldn’t beat, my goodness we could be anybody, said Mulliniks.
Both teams entered game No. 161 with identical 96-64 records and despite an incredible performance by Mike Flanagan who allowed two runs, one earned though 11 innings of work, Toronto found themselves on the wrong end of a 3-2 decision in 12 innings to fall one game behind in the AL East.
Jimmy Key was brilliant for Toronto on the final day of the season, tossing a three-hit complete game, but Larry Herndon’s second inning homer was all the run support Frank Tanana would need as Detroit edged Toronto 1-0.
“They were such a good team. It’s one of those series that you have where you catch a team when you’re hot and we happened to be hot at the moment”, said Grubb.
The Tigers would go on to lose to the AL Championship series to the Minnesota Twins in five games.
“I do remember thinking after we ended up losing to Minnesota in postseason play that the Toronto series really was a lot of strain, for our starters in particular”, said Grubb.
“Guys like Alan Trammell, [Lou] Whitaker, and [Kirk] Gibson played so well and I don’t know if it just took a lot out of them because we didn’t play all that well against Minnesota.”
Mulliniks believes the Jays should have won the division that season, but gives full credit to what the Tigers were able to accomplish.
“It’s just one of those things that everything that could happen did happen and when we needed a big hit we couldn’t get it when we needed a big out we couldn’t get it”, he said.
“You go back and look at the players they had and the pitching staff they had. They had a great ball club. So we didn’t lose to some second rater, they did have a great team. “
Perhaps Whitt summed it up best.
“There’s really not much you can do after winning 96 games and falling short. We had it in our hands, all we had to do was win one game out of the final three [to force a one game playoff with Detroit], but it didn’t happen.”