DREAM COMES TRUE FOR JAYSLATE-NIGHT SERIES PUTS KIDS TO SLEEP

ATLANTA — Listen my children and you shall hear, of the midnight series, that you missed this year.

It was fun. It was wild. It was worth seeing, live, when it happened, when Dave Winfield smacked that ball in the heart- draining 11th inning and you could hear Canada cheering from 2,000 miles away. What a moment! Finally, after years of flirting with glory, this Toronto franchise had become real, Pinnochio touched by the magic wand, the best team on paper to best team in the flesh. . . .

Too bad none of our children got to see it. Baseball, greedy to a fault, is snuffing out its future with these late-night games, killing memories before they leave the womb. You cannot remember what you did not see, and the climax of this 1992 championship came just shy of 1 a.m. Sunday morning. Years from now, what will the young adults of our country — or Canada — recall of that great Toronto-Atlanta series? Their pajamas?

Ridiculous. Instead of grabbing another fistful of ad dollars, baseball should be courting love affairs with its fans, bringing them — at a decent hour — into that Toronto locker room, with the champagne drizzling in the air. Let them see Mike Timlin, the pitcher who threw the last out, grabbing teammate Duane Ward and yelling over the noise,”You promised! You promised!” Let them watch Timlin push Ward onto the trainer’s table in the middle of the room.

“Wait!” Ward protests. “I gotta have music!”

“GIVE HIM SOME MUSIC!” Timlin yells.

Music rises. And there, in front of reporters, families, well-wishers, and anyone else crammed into this sweaty celebration, Ward and Timlin begin to dance like two teens on American Bandstand, shaking their hips and waving their arms.

“WHOO!” Timlin yells. “You know how long I’ve waited for this? . . . “

Well. Wasn’t that what this series was about? Waiting? The Toronto Blue Jays, for years the best team to never make the World Series, waiting, and waiting for glory to kiss their lips? They had built so many rosters, paper kingdoms, then ripped them up and built new ones. How many springtimes were they chosen “mostly likely to win it all” — only to collapse just inches from the Fall Classic? In 1985. In 1989. In 1991.

Not anymore. The Blue Jays captured this World Series by winning four games, each by one run. And long-suffering Toronto fans, like the 40,000 who stuffed the SkyDome to watch the big screen broadcast, finally got the last laugh. Know what? They deserved it.

I met a fellow in that stadium last Thursday night, an elevator operator, his name was George, and he gave me a lift before Game 5. He was older, his belly stretched his blue blazer, his glasses hung halfway down his nose. As he sat on his stool with a portable radio, I didn’t think much about him, until he suddenly said, “I was at the very first Toronto Blue Jays game. Yes, sir. Sat in Exhibition Stadium, during that snow storm. They had to use a Zamboni driver to clear the field. . . .

“Come a long way with this team. And I’m retiring after this game. I sure would like to see them win it before I go.”

Well. George. Better late than never.

Which were precisely the words swimming around the champagne-soaked head of one Dave Winfield. Better late than never. At 41, the oldest regular position player to win a World Series ring — and the oldest player to deliver the winning hit in a World Series — now stood sweating with excitement, dripping alcohol, hugging anyone that resembled Blue Jays personnel.

“I feel like I’ve played 10,000 baseball games!” he croaked, his voice already dying from the screaming and the booze. ‘I can’t tell you how I feel right now. I’ll be looking for the right words for the next week!”

Winfield — like most of the Jays’ hitters — had spent most of his offensive time trotting back to the dugout. His Series average was below .200 when he stepped to the plate with two runners on in the 11th. Up to that point, his most memorable hit had been a bunt in Game 3. A bunt? Dave Winfield? George Steinbrenner had once called him “Mr. May” after a bad World Series with the Yankees; could it be true?

“THIS ONE’S FOR GEORGE!” a friend yelled now, dousing Winfield again with champagne. Not true. With his clutch double — which drove in the last two Toronto runs of the season — Winfield erased the ghosts, and joined a roster of unlikely saviors in this series, including Ed Sprague, Kelly Gruber, Jimmy Key and — get this — Pat Borders, the Series MVP. Pat Borders?

“This is the best team I’ve ever been with,” said Winfield, a 20-year veteran. “And I have to say something about Cito (Gaston). I love the guy. He’s been a great manager.

“And, it may be a minor point, but it’s nice to finally have a black manager win a World Series, just to show people that it can be done. So LET’S HEAR IT FOR CITO! ALL RIGHT, CITO! . . . “

Ah, but where was Cito? The quiet man who had reluctantly taken the job after the firing of Jimy Williams, but only, he told his bosses, “for a short time, OK?” He, too, had waited so many years for this. From his days as a truck driver, his days in the Mexican League, his days as a hitting coach. Now, he sat in his office, away from the singing and the booze and the party. The first black manager to be in — let alone win — a world championship was on the phone, to friends, to family. He emerged only briefly, and I asked if he felt more relief than anything else.

“Yeah,” he said softly, “you could say it was relief. This feels like a long night, you know?”

Hey. It was long. The Jays had been one strike away from the championship in the ninth, before Otis Nixon smacked a ball through the infield to tie the score at 2 and Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium came unglued. This was their destiny, these Braves, to come from behind and win it, right? Maybe. Maybe it still is. But not this year.

“We had three goals at the beginning of the season,” Gaston said. “Win the division, win the pennant, and win the World Series.” He pulled open his uniform top to reveal a T-shirt. It had the Blue Jays’ insignia on it. And the words read “3 For 3.”

Mission accomplished.

And good for them. You may balk at the idea of a Canadian team taking the crown off America’s pastime, but you can’t knock this Toronto organization. They did it the right way, built a team with home-grown talent (Borders, John Olerud) excellent trades (Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter, Devon White) and the perfect sprinkle of free agents (Jack Morris, Winfield.) They waited. They endured. Finally, early Sunday morning, they jumped into a pile near the mound, old guys, young guys, laughing, screaming, happy at last.

It was a fine moment, the kind that makes you fall in love with baseball. Tell your kids about it.

That might be the only way they remember it.

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