OAKLAND, Calif. — That sound you heard Sunday afternoon was two legends falling off the rainbow. The difference is, one landed in clover, the other flat on his back.
I am talking Jack Morris. I am talking Dennis Eckersley. Once upon a time, they would have made a complete pitching staff by themselves. Let Morris go eight innings, drag him off the mound with the smoke coming from his nostrils,
then bring in Eckersley for the ninth. What more could you want? The best clutch starter? The best clutch finisher? How many playoffs and World Series had they starred in over the years?
Yet here they were Sunday, looking terribly mortal. Oh, this Game 4 turned out to be a classic affair, full of extra- inning drama and suspense, miscues, comebacks, clutch hits. But in all that pink smoke, few probably realize that if either Morris or Eckersley had done what they usually do, the game never would have reached such a climax.
Instead, the legends were left sweatless in the clubhouse when that final run scored.
“I had nothing today,” Morris would say.
“I didn’t have it today,” Eckersley would say.
The master starter, the master finisher, both in positions to win this pivotal game — and both were trashed, smashed, chewed up and spit out. Morris? Eckersley?
Are we getting old, or what? Jack was signed to break Jays’ hex Let’s begin with Morris, who was lured away from last year’s world champion Twins to try and bring the same luck to the Blue Jays. He was paid a king’s ransom ($5 million per season) for one reason only: to get the Jays to the World Series. Whatever it took. That’s what they needed. Victories during the season were great — and Jack won 21 — but let’s face it: the Jays already knew how to make the playoffs. It was winning them that had been impossible. “Hit the mound, Jack,” the Jays begged. “Make it happen for us.”
Instead, what has Morris done? Pitched two playoff games, lost one, and did all but lose the second. On Sunday, he spotted Oakland a four-run lead, and he did it by breaking almost every cardinal rule for a pitcher.
In the third, Morris: 1) Gave up a single to the No. 8 hitter. 2) Gave up a single to the No. 9 hitter. 3) Gave up a single to the No. 1 hitter, Rickey Henderson, who runs like a deer. 4) Walked the next hitter on four pitches. 5) Gave up a sacrifice fly to score a run. 6) Gave up a double, which scored a run. 7) Intentionally walked Mark McGwire to load the bases. 8) Unintentionally walked Terry Steinbach to force in a run. 9) Gave up another single and another run.
By the time he left, Morris had allowed five hits, five runs and five walks. In one inning? He left with enough time to go see “1492” and still return in time for Pat Borders’ winning sacrifice fly. Bad? It was bad.
So, why is this man smiling?
“Because we won,” he said after the dramatic, 7-6 victory that pushed Toronto to the brink of the Promised Land. “I didn’t have anything today. But when I came out, I said to everyone, “Let’s get it. We can still win.’
“Hell, I was done. What else could I do but root them on?”
Hmmm. Something got the Jays going, inspired them to overcome a 6-1 deficit, to tie it in the ninth and win it in the 11th. But that something wasn’t Jack’s rooting.
That something, believe it or not, was Eckersley. Reliable Eck looked like Heck What happened to this guy? He used to be death. He came to the mound with a hood and a scythe. He pitched. You swung. You sat down. Jack the Ripper of the ninth.
Not this weekend. Eck looked like Heck. On Saturday, he was batted around in his brief appearance, and was knocked off the mound by a Dave Winfield line shot that left Eck sprawled on all fours, like a newborn calf.
On Sunday, he wasn’t even that good. If Morris handed over the game to Oakland, then Eckersley handed it right back. He gave up two hits on his first two pitches, two runs charged to someone else, and two runs charged to him. The game was 6-2 Oakland when Eck arrived, and 6-6 when he said adios.
“I just didn’t feel comfortable out there,” he said, in the quiet Oakland clubhouse. “I thought I had it in when I got out of the eighth inning (with the score 6-4.) I thought I had stopped the bleeding.”
Instead, the Jays’ two-run ninth left the Athletics grasping for bandages. And after the loss, most of the questions centered around Eckersley, the star closer, as if his pulse were inexorably tied to the team. Who knows? Maybe it is. Eck’s failure against Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers in 1988 left the Athletics stunned and beatable in the World Series. And now they seem near death in the playoffs.
As for Toronto? The ironic thing is this: the day that Morris failed most miserably was the day the Jays finally grew up in playoff baseball. They did it by chipping away at the Oakland lead. They did it by believing in themselves. They did it by overcoming their reputation, just as Morris was not living up to his.
“A few years ago, this team might have quit if a guy like me gave up five runs,” Morris said. “Not anymore. Things are different now.”
Morris on the verge of another World Series without winning a playoff game? Eckersley getting smacked in back-to-back ninth innings?
Things are different, all right.
And we are definitely getting older.