Baseball came to Toronto in 1977. The rules for expansion franchises in those days were considerably more rigorous than is the case today and it took some time for the Blue Jays to build. But with general manager Pat Gillick as the architect, the organization gradually put young pieces in place. By 1982, they were at least playing modestly respectable baseball. The 1983 Toronto Blue Jays edition made a bigger breakthrough—the franchise’s first winning season and one that ushered in eleven years of excellence.
Willie Upshaw played first base and was a productive all-around hitter, finishing with a stat line of .373 on-base percentage/.515 slugging percentage. Upshaw also slugged 27 home runs and drove in 104 runs. A pair of 23-year-old up-and-comers were in the outfield. Lloyd Moseby, already in his fourth season playing centerfield posted a stat line of .376/.499. And Jesse Barfield, the rightfielder with a rifle arm, hit 27 dingers and slugged .510.
Moseby and Barfield would eventually join with George Bell to form one of baseball’s great outfields in the 1980s. Bell was still breaking in and played only 39 games this year. The left field job for 1983 was in the hands of Dave Collins, who stole 31 bases.
A deep lineup also had Rance Mulliniks, a steady hitter over several years at third base and his stat line was .373/.467. Damaso Garcia, a talented young second baseman batted over .300. Cliff Johnson, the veteran DH hit 22 home runs. Barry Bonnell got over 400 at-bats coming off the bench and his stat line clocked in at .369/.469. In an American League filled with quality lineups, Toronto ended up third in runs scored.
The starting rotation was anchored by Dave Stieb. A reliable workhorse, Stieb made 36 starts, logged nearly 280 innings, won 17 games and finished with a 3.04 ERA. How Stieb didn’t get any points in the Cy Young voting is a mystery that can only be explained by the lack of exposure Toronto suffered from.
Jim Clancy was another steady workhorse, going 15-11 with a 3.91 ERA. Luis Leal and Jim Gott had ERAs in the low 4s and each made 30-plus starts. The steadiness of this core four in the rotation, combining for 135 starts, made up for a spotty bullpen that lacked depth and had no reliable stopper. The Blue Jays were able to finish a respectable seventh in the 14-team American League for staff ERA.
The structure of baseball in this era had each league split into just two divisions, an East and a West, with the winner going directly to the League Championship Series. That meant Toronto shared the AL East not just with current members in New York, Boston and Baltimore, but with Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee (an American League team prior to 1998).
After going 9-10 through April, the Jays started to cash fire in May, winning four straight series. Then they went 4-3 in a stretch of games against the Brewers and Orioles, who had battled to the final day of the regular season for the AL East title in 1982. The Jays took two of three from a Tiger team that was on the rise. By Memorial Day, the entire division was still within six games of each other, but Toronto was tied for first with Boston.
A summer road trip that included stops in Detroit and Baltimore slowed the momentum, and the Blue Jays went 5-7. But they got momentum back against the weaker AL West, going 11-5. By the All-Star break, Toronto was 43-33 and in sole possession of first place, a game up on Baltimore. Detroit was two games back, New York trailed by 2 ½, Boston was four out and Milwaukee was five games off the pace.
It was anybody’s race, but these up-and-coming Blue Jays were one of baseball’s great stories in the summer of 1983. Over on the east coast of Canada the same could be said of the Montreal Expos, who were also in first place. A Sports Illustrated cover story saluted “Those Canadian Clubs”.
If anyone thought Toronto was going to fade with the arrival of the second half, they were mistaken. The Blue Jays came out of the break and swept the AL West-leading Texas Rangers. The Jays took two of three in Kansas City, the West’s perennial power. Toronto won three of four from the Chicago White Sox, the team that ultimately captured the West with a 99-win season.
All of these wins were on the road, which made the ensuing homestand disappointing. Facing these same teams, the Blue Jays lost seven of eleven and slipped into second place. But they quickly bounced back, grabbing three of four from the contending Yankees.
On the first weekend of August, the Orioles held the division lead, but the Blue Jays were still only two games back. Everyone except the Red Sox and Indians were still within five games of the lead. Four months after the season started, this AL East race was still anyone’s to take.
The potent Toronto bats went quiet in Milwaukee, being shut out twice in a three-game sweep. The pitching failed in New York, giving up 19 runs in the two games that were lost in a three-game set. It set up a big four-game set with the Brewers who were coming north and looking to repeat as American League champions.
Doyle Alexander, a 32-year-old veteran, had been picked up in mid-summer to fill out the fifth spot in the rotation. His final numbers for the season ended up respectable, but at this critical juncture, he was in a slump. Alexander opened the series on Thursday night with his seventh straight loss, a 6-4 decision.
But Moseby turned the momentum around on Friday night with a two-run homer that keyed a 5-4 win. Clancy battled gamely against a good Brewer lineup on Saturday afternoon, scattering eleven hits and winning 3-1. And Moseby came through again on Sunday, with a big home run helping Toronto win 4-3.
This young team had passed a key test, turning around negative momentum against a more battle-tested opponent and the Jays stayed within 2 ½ games of the lead. On August 23, they went to Baltimore for an even bigger three-game set.
Moseby kept on coming through in Tuesday’s opener, driving in three runs. Garcia sparked the lineup with three hits and Toronto won 9-3. Wednesday night’s game went into extra innings tied 3-3. When Johnson homered in the eleventh, the Blue Jays were on the verge of another big win.
But it turned out that would be finally be the point when Toronto ran out of gas. The bullpen woes caught up to them. The pen gave up two runs and lost 5-4. On Thursday, a scoreless tie went to the 10th. Bonnell homered. Toronto could still take this series. But the pen gave up two runs and lost 2-1.
The relief pitching nightmare continued in Detroit. The Blue Jays lost two of three—one of the losses in extra innings, the other one when they gave up a 2-1 lead in the ninth. Over the course of a long baseball season, every team’s weaknesses find them. And Toronto’s weakness got them in this spot.
Baltimore would end up blowing this race away and going on to win the World Series. Toronto’s September was uneventful from a pennant race standpoint, with most games being against the AL West. But the Blue Jays still finished the season 89-73.
In the brutal AL East, that was only good for fourth place. But it was fifth-best in the American League overall and eighth-best in the majors. By the standards of today, the 1983 Toronto Blue Jays played playoff caliber baseball.
More important, they had arrived and weren’t going away anytime soon. Over the next decade, the Blue Jays would win five AL East titles, two American League pennants and both of this pennants were turned into World Series trophies. It all began in 1983.