The 1985 Toronto Blue Jays came into the season primed for a big year. The Blue Jays had come into existence in 1977 and after Bobby Cox was hired in 1982, they began to climb towards contender status. The Jays won 89 games in 1983 and then did it again in 1984. When 1985 began, the expectation was that Toronto’s time had come.
Cox, and general manager Pat Gillick had a lineup stocked with young talent. Everyone except catcher Ernie Whitt and various veteran DH’s were between the ages of 25 and 29. The best of the group was rightfielder Jesse Barfield, with 27 home runs, 84 RBI and 22 stolen bases. Left fielder George Bell was a future MVP and hit 28 homes, drove in 95 runs and swiped 21 steals.
Lloyd Moseby in center stole 37 bases, and a third-base platoon of Rance Mulliniks and Garth Iorg consistently produced. Mulliniks finished with a stat line of .383 on-base percentage/.454 slugging percentage, while Iorg was at .358/.469.
The pitching was even better, with a staff anchored by rotation ace Dave Stieb, with his 14 wins, 2.48 ERA and 265 innings pitched. Doyle Alexander went 17-10 with a 3.45 ERA. Jimmy Key, a good young lefty won 14 of his own with a 3.00 ERA and logged over 200 innings. Jim Clancy was steady, with a 3.78 ERA.
Gillick strengthened the bullpen in the offseason, dealing shortstop Alfredo Griffin to the Oakland A’s for reliever Bill Caudill. In addition to opening up the shortstop job to a talented kid in Tony Fernandez, Caudill gave the Jays 14 saves and a 2.99 ERA. He joined Dennis Lamp, who finished 11-0 with a 3.32 ERA in over one hundred innings. Jim Acker saved 10 games with a 3.23 ERA. And another Gillick find—Tom Henke, chosen in the compensation draft–had 13 saves as a 27-year-old rookie.
Toronto opened the season in Kansas City, facing a Royals team they would see more of and played three straight one-run games. Toronto won two, both in extra innings and Caudill pitched a combined four shutout innings over the two games.
The Jays were off and running and by Memorial Day they were 28-14. The AL East was tough, so the lead was only three games over the defending World Series champion Detroit Tigers, with the Baltimore Orioles—two years removed from a Series title 4 ½ back, and the New York Yankees six games back.
Toronto’s lead grew to as many as six games in June, but they had a pitching malfunction in Fenway Park. The Blue Jays gave up 26 runs in four games to an otherwise pedestrian Boston Red Sox team, then dropped two of three to the mediocre Milwaukee Brewers and it was the Yankees who took advantage, moving to within 2 ½ games by the All-Star break. Detroit was still 3 ½ out, while Baltimore was fading.
The early part of the second half saw the Blue Jays ride an extreme roller-coaster. They went on a 15-2 run that saw their lead over the Yankees soar to as many as nine games, with the Tigers falling by the wayside. The Jays then went 5-7 while the Yanks got red-hot and the lead was quickly back to three. It was a two-team race for the AL East flag and Toronto still led by 2 ½ games when they traveled to the Bronx for a big four-game series starting September 12.
Stieb matched up with New York ace Ron Guidry in the Thursday opener and Toronto had a 4-1 lead in the seventh. Then the Yankees started to rally off Stieb, the bullpen couldn’t stop the bleeding and six runs later New York had a come-from-behind win. One of baseball’s two youngest franchises (Toronto came into the league the same year as the Seattle Mariners) was now in its most heralded venue and facing a Yankee team with momentum.
Al Oliver was a veteran acquisition Gillick made during the summer, to provide a lefthanded bat at DH and off the bench. On Friday, Oliver came through with a three-RBI game and reliever Gary Lavelle—one of those who’s failed on Thursday—pitched three clutch innings of scoreless relief. Toronto stopped the momentum with a 3-2 win.
On Saturday, the game was tied 2-2 in the fifth, when Yankee manager Billy Martin pulled an early trigger and brought in closer Dave Righetti. Toronto lit up Righetti and won the game 7-4. On Sunday, Toronto pounded out fourteen more hits, scored six runs in the third inning and won 8-5. They had righted the ship and left New York with a 4 ½ game lead.
Toronto kept surging, New York began to slump and the Blue Jays bolted to a 7 ½ game lead. The margin was trimmed to 5 ½ with a week to go, but hardly seemed a cause for alarm. Then the Blue Jays—perhaps in an ominous foreshadowing of 1987—lost three straight to Detroit to begin the final week. The lead was cut to three games with three to play—and the Yankees were coming to Canada for one last three-game set.
Key pitched on Friday night and with seven strong innings, a 3-2 lead was turned over Henke in the ninth. He got the first two outs and the celebration was ready to start. Then Yankee catcher Butch Wynegar homered. A single, a walk and a Moseby error later and the Jays had a stunning 4-3 loss. Once more, they had the chance to fold in the face of the aura of the Pinstripes.
And once more, they answered. Whitt, first baseman Willie Upshaw and Moseby all hit solo home runs early in Saturday’s game. Alexander threw a complete-game five-hitter and with the 5-1 win, the time had finally came for the party to start in Toronto.
The Blue Jays met the Royals in the American League Championship Series and it looked like the party would keep on going. Toronto won the first two games at home, and took Game 4 on the road. They needed one win in the final two games at home, but lost both Games 6 & 7 and the bid to bring the World Series north of the border for the first time ended.
What was just beginning was a great era of success for baseball in Toronto. The Blue Jays lost a close AL East race in 1987, but returned to the ALCS in 1989 and 1991. And one year later, in 1992, they brought the World Series to Canada and won it. In 1993, they repeated on a famous walkoff shot. That era of October glory all began in 1985.