Me, My Dad & the ’92 Blue Jays
Anyone who has even remotely come in contact with the game of baseball has heard the old adage of how fans of the game use it to mark the times in their lives almost like mile markers on the road. It is an understandable claim, as this sport itself has been around for almost as long as the country itself and has evolved along with it, at times being a mirror of society. I am no different than anyone else who has stuck their bat into the ground and claimed a special year, memorable game, or highlight reel play by saying, “that…that moment there is mine” once you have felt the impact it has had on your life.
Now that pitchers and catchers have reported and the ice has been broken on getting the season started for 2012, I have been reflecting on how this year will mark the 20th anniversary of the piece of baseball history that I call my own. I carved out 1992 a long time ago, when Mike Timlin tossed Otis Nixon’s bunt attempt to Joe Carter to record the final out of the World Series for the Toronto Blue Jays and their first in franchise history.
The first time I ever heard of cancer was back in 1980 when I was six years old and my parents told me that my Dad had something called lymphoma. It did not register at the time because even though they said my dad was sick he looked fine and did not act any differently than what I was used to seeing. The next time that I recall hearing about it was two years later on my birthday, one that I can remember to this day for three reasons; I got my first skateboard, the Phillies broke an eight game losing streak at Wrigley Field by beating the Cubs 7-5 (I was a baseball nerd at a young age) and my Dad got a call from his doctor saying that he was not sick anymore. Though I still had not processed the whole “sick” concept, seeing how happy he and my Mother were made it feel like one of those moments where something in your life shifted over into the win column and things were different now.
Being a Blue Jays fan between 1984 and 1991 was like placing your skull in a vice and giving it a full turn with each passing season.
1984? They had the second best record in the American League and still finished 15 games behind the rampaging Detroit Tigers in the AL East.
1985? The Jays would win their first AL East title, be up three games to one in the ALCS against the Kansas City Royals and then would go on to lose the next three games, two of them at home, and not hold a lead once in any of them.
1987? The Jays were up on Detroit by 3.5 games with 7 to play but would not win another game for the rest of the year. To make it even more painful they ended up getting swept in Detroit on the final weekend of the season losing all three games by a single run, including a 1-0 heartbreaker in the finale, where a win would have at least forced a one game playoff. Instead they ended up going on vacation.
1989? Bittersweet because they turned back the Baltimore Orioles in their attempt to go from worst to first in claiming their second division title. They then turned around and lost to the Oakland A’s in five games with Rickey Henderson figuratively, and literally, running wild over them in a series it felt like they were never really in. It was also known as the series where the future steroid poster child Jose Canseco hit a ridiculous home run into the fifth deck at the Skydome.
1991? Yet another division title and this time a date with the Minnesota Twins in the ALCS. Unfortunately the Jays still had not gotten the memo telling them a Canadian team was allowed to play in the World Series, therefore, they were allowed to at least try to make it an interesting series. The Twins would roll them in five games yet again.
So to recap, since being up three games to one versus the Royals in 1985, the Jays had now lost nine of their last eleven ALCS games and had not held a series advantage at any point in the last two they played in.
I grew up just outside of Philadelphia and officially switched my allegiance to the Blue Jays back in 1985. What can I say? To rebel some kids drink, others smoke or run with a bad crowd, and I chose to root for a team in the AL East to forge my identity (as you can guess dates were few and far between for me as I was not SABR’s answer to the iconic rebel James Dean). From this my love affair with the Jays was born and cultivated. My parents were Saints about it, save for the occasional grumble from my Dad about how we have a baseball team 20 minutes away but I have to root for a team in another league and country. For my birthday they would even take me to old Memorial Stadium down in Baltimore to take in a Jays and O’s game. In 1988 though I hit the mother-load because my eighth grade graduation gift was a trip to actually see the Jays play in Toronto and stopping at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown on the way back. It was like getting to go on back to back dates with Tiffany and Debbie Gibson at the time. I did not know it then but this would be one of the last family vacations we would take together.
1990 marked the eighth year that my Father had been in remission with his lymphoma and as I grew up through the years he was there to coach or help out at almost every level of my little league play. Having your Dad there at anything you do when you’re a boy is a pretty big deal, because let’s be honest, we are all looking for that nod or pat on the back of approval from our fathers at the end of the day.
Late in 1990 my Dad would begin complaining about severe kidney pains. Originally he was diagnosed with a kidney stone but when the pain got worse, and continued, the doctors did more testing and discovered he had a tumor the size of a human head in his stomach and that was pressing against his kidneys causing the pain. Within a few weeks after being given a clean bill of health, his cancer came out of its remission.
The last time I saw my Dad on a ball field would be in 1991. What I saw was not the guy who stood in the third base coach’s box giving signs for years and pointing me back into the batter’s box, but instead a man who slowly moved across to sit with the other fans who was robbed of all the visual attributes that made him my Dad. He was now a puffed up man with a frail frame and no traces of the black hair he once had, that was all taken away by the chemo and other treatments he was undergoing in an effort to save him.
Is there a time in anyone’s life when you are ready to face the day when you have to say good bye to someone forever? I was 18 when the treatments stopped and my Dad came home through the hospice program because they could not do anymore for him. Only once did I go in to sit with him to talk about the inevitable and what we both knew would be the end result very soon. Much of what we shared during that talk I still keep to myself but at the end I threw a comment out there that was 50% joking/50% serious or was it 90%/10% but not knowing where which was which. “When you see God make sure you tell him it wouldn’t hurt if he gave the Jays some breaks”, I said and my Dad said he would. Looking back I wonder if I would have said anything remotely close to that today if in the same situation. Being a high school kid, scared and knowing I was going to lose a Dad that I loved I guess I just clung to one of the biggest things we shared to connect as father and son, player and coach, one more time. My Dad would pass away a few days later.
A Jay’s fan would more than likely point to Joe Carter’s dramatic 1993 World Series walk off home run that tucked the Phillies in for the winter as the biggest hit in franchise history. I would disagree. In 1992 Toronto would take yet another division crown and meet their old A’s friends in the ALCS again for the second time in four years. The Jays had actually taken a two-games-to-one lead in the series but were down 6 to 1 and six outs away from being deadlocked at two games apiece. They cut the A’s lead to 6-4 but were now down to their final three outs and facing Dennis Eckersley in the ninth. Then with one on and no one out Roberto Alomar stepped to the plate and with one swing of the bat changed the direction of an entire franchise trying to carve a niche for itself in the history of the game. Even though his homer only tied the game, as a fan I remember feeling different, going from the Wheel of Fortune style of painful season ending outcomes, “sorry but you landed on best record in the game but being swept in the ALCS” to knowing the A’s were not going to come back from this. And I was right, Toronto took the ALCS in six games and headed to the World Series.
Toronto would go onto defeat the Atlanta Braves four games to two with each Blue Jays win being by a single run and three of the wins coming in dramatic fashion in the ninth inning or later. The best one being the game six clincher when Dave Winfield hit a two out two run double in the eleventh after the Jays had choked away a ninth inning lead.
When it was over I felt like my Dad and I shared one final moment together, that we won this together as a team. Do I think my Dad gave the Big Commissioner my message? Yes. Do I think I was the reason the Blue Jays won it all in 1992? No, but when I die if I find out otherwise He is definitely getting a fist bump. It was a step forward in the healing process and putting myself back together. Keep your ’27 Yankees, your ’34 Gashouse Gang and your Big Red Machine of the 70′s, I’ll take the greatest team of all-time……my 1992 Toronto Blue Jays.
Dedicated to Jim Aber 1939-1991
Matt Aber is a baseball enthusiast who values all the time he spends on and off the field with the family he grew up with and with the one he has now. Matt is an advocate of both the American Cancer Society & the national organization called The Miracle League which allows special needs children to play baseball. He encourages you to support this worthy cause and learn more at www.miracleleague.com. Follow Matt on Twitter @MLBOutsider.