The end of my life as a ballplayer.
* * * * *
I love America with all my heart. It is the greatest place to live, and I couldn’t think of a better land to raise my family, but on July 18th, 1985, in front of over 32,000 fans at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto, I heard one of the most beautiful songs on earth.
Throughout my career, I always looked forward to playing the Expos and Blue Jays. The games felt more important, if only because we were traveling to another country. I don’t know if it’s because the Olympics were held in Montreal in 1976, but as an American, it always felt extra special playing in Canada. I felt this unique kinship with the Canadian fans, like we were all citizens of the world rather than neighboring countrymen. And that song, that anthem, always sends goose-bumps across my forearms when it begins.
In the fourth inning of my first home game in Toronto, Rance Mulliniks walked and after a George Bell groundout, I stepped to the plate. The song was still waltzing in my ear – I hadn’t felt this good during a game since I last played for Montreal two years earlier. The A’s young right-hander Chris Codiroli had a fine array of pitches, but it didn’t matter what he threw. I was about to do something special for the fans. Codiroli thought he could blow it by me, a 38-year old designated hitter, but taking a verse from the song, Car ton bras sait porter l'épée, or “as is thy arm is ready to wield the sword,” I got around on his fastball and drove it into the right field stands. My first home run in almost a season and a half, my first home run since Montreal.
* * * * *
By June 1985, I was tired of the politics and being moved around so much. I can only assume Dodgers’ management thought I was washed up, just because of my age. My bat speed was still there after 18 seasons in the bigs. We had a young first baseman named Greg Brock whom the organization was depending on to replace Steve Garvey. Tommy Lasorda was the manager for the Dodgers. He and I were friends and I always got a kick out of him. Many baseball players know Tommy could talk trash and at the same time could make you feel good, well known within the baseball community as the ultimate motivator. He would introduce me as “Future Hall of Famer, Al Oliver.” I felt that if I had a good year, it could potentially lead me to the Hall of Fame. I knew if I could play on a regular basis, I would have a good season. Of course it wasn’t that easy. During one game, a few balls were hit to me in the outfield and I could not see the ball due the sun being in my eyes, so I didn’t make the catch. When you're 38 and not known for your fielding in the outfield, sometimes this is all it takes. I was benched, close to a month with barely any playing time.
We were in St. Louis against the Cardinals and while pinch-hitting against lefty reliever Ken Dayley, I struck out. Once this happened, I told myself it was time to talk with Tommy. I asked him if we could speak privately, so we went into his office. “Tommy,” I said, “I’m not playing enough. You know I can still hit.” This is a tough conversation for any manager to have, especially to a player with my track record.
“Scoop, of course you could still hit,” Tommy agreed, “But I gotta keep running these young guys out there.”
“I understand,” I said, and I did, but it didn’t make me feel any better. “I dunno, maybe if you could trade me to a team where I could get some at bats and play regularly. Maybe back to the American League somewhere." Tommy nodded, slapped me on the back to indicate the conversation was over and said, “I’ll see what I can do.”
Two days later, while on a road trip in Pittsburgh of all places, Lasorda called me into his office prior to the game.
“Scoop, I think we made a deal with the Toronto Blue Jays. You’re gonna get more at-bats up there. Just please keep it quiet until the team makes an announcement.” I was very excited about the news and it was hard not to tell anyone, even for three hours, but I kept my word. Finally, after the game, the press was notified that I had been traded for another lefty-swinging first baseman, Len Matuszek.
I felt a jolt of youth from the moment I arrived in the Blue Jays clubhouse. Toronto had been in first place every day for the past two months as the World Champion Detroit Tigers see-sawed with the New York Yankees between second & third-place in the standings. The Blue Jays had the best talent in baseball, definitely in the American League. I hadn’t been this confident of making the post-season since my days with the Pirates.
Bobby Cox was the manager of the Blue Jays at the time, and he was up front – he told me I would be splitting time in the DH spot with Jeff Burroughs, who was already there. I really respected Jeff for handling it so well – it was his job after all. As a starting player my entire career, I dealt with the platoon situation as best as I could, but then management threw another piece into a puzzle I thought was already complete. Cliff Johnson was brought aboard for the stretch drive on August 28th. One person’s deep bench is another’s person version of too many cooks. I liked Cliff, but the situation said many things to me, namely, that the team didn’t think I was able to handle the DH position on my own, or even worse, that I wasn’t enough of an answer in a platoon role.
* * * * * The Blue Jays clinched the American League East divisional crown with three days left in the regular season, after Billy Martin and the Yankees made a spirited run at us. The champagne tasted sweet that night. It had been nearly 10 years since I jumped on the celebratory pile that greets the post-season, but there was still this feeling among us in the clubhouse that we were good enough for more than one champagne shower.
The Kansas City Royals won the division in the AL West, clinching on the next-to-last day of the season over the California Angels. I had no doubt we could've beaten KC or any team, considering the kind of talent we had. With the exception of the veteran leadership of guys like Hall-of-Famer George Brett, they remind me very much of the 2014 Royals – pitching, defense and speed. Bret Saberhagen was only in his second year and had won 20 games, fronting an outstanding rotation of Charlie Leibrandt, Danny Jackson, Bud Black & Mark Gubicza. Of course, any bullpen led by Dan Quisenberry would be tough to deal with. Quis is a near hall of fame pitcher himself, but our bullpen was much deeper. The Blue Jays were just loaded with talent – not simply emerging stars like Tony Fernandez & George Bell, but exceptional role players like Rance Mulliniks & Garth Iorg.
Standing on the baseline before Game One, I felt overjoyed and filled with pride to hear The Star-Spangled Banner, but when “O Canada” began, I was now a baseball ambassador in a foreign land. Once the crowd roared with approval upon the final verse, I was more than ready to display, as the song says, “Des plus brilliants exploits.”
I didn’t appear in Game One – not that I was needed, as our ace Dave Stieb held KC to three hits in eight innings, on our way to a 6-1 victory. The next night we got to see the real Kansas City Royals.
The lead changed hands four times until the bottom of the tenth. I had come in as a pinch-hitter for Lou Thornton in the 8th and flew out, but now I was stepping to the plate with Lloyd Moseby, the winning run, on second base. I felt confident I could handle Quisenberry’s legendary, submarine delivery, mainly because I was able to make adjustments quickly. That’s what I was known for; bat speed and superior reaction time at the plate.
I had no particular plan when facing a pitcher. My approach was the same whether I was digging in against Phil Niekro or Nolan Ryan, an approach that I hadn’t changed since little league. See the ball. Hit the ball. There’s a lot of guessing going on with hitters today. Strikeouts are more acceptable than when I played – the only downside of so much homework is taking a fastball right down the middle when you’re guessing slider. But I never had to guess – didn’t matter to me.
Joe Torre kept a book on opposing pitchers. Tony Gwynn examined videotape furiously. I just had quick hands, and could adjust to any breaking pitch or get around on any fastball, so when Quisenberry delivered, the pitch sailed away from me, but I was able to work with what Quis gave me, and take the pitch the other way for a game-winning single. My hope that we were going on to the World Series was quickly becoming an expectation.
We faced Saberhagen in Game 3. I went 1-for-2 with a single, felt like I hit him well. We were behind 2-0 when we exploded for five runs off the young pitcher. Royals’ manager Dick Howser replaced Saberhagen with lefty Bud Black and after our first baseman Willie Upshaw grounded out to second, I saw Cliff Johnson grab a bat. I was being taken out of a close game. This rarely happened to me in my career, but I was now a platoon player, subject to the strategies of managers rather than the pure confidence that I would get the job done, especially after my game-winning hit just two nights before. I gently placed my helmet in the cubby and sat down. I wasn’t happy about it at all, but I knew I would get another chance sometime in the series to prove my value. The Royals ended up tying the game in the sixth, going ahead in the eighth inning and winning 6-5. We just couldn’t contain George Brett, who went 4-for-4 with two dingers.
Game 4 was close all evening, another 1-0 nail-biter until the top of the ninth, when Leibrandt, who had been cruising all night, gave up a walk to Damaso Garcia and double to Lloyd Moseby to tie it up. Howser brought in Quisenberry to keep it close. George Bell managed a single to center, not enough to score Moseby. I had my chance again. Quisenberry tried to set me up with a breaking pitch, but it just didn’t have enough on it and I was able to smash it to right field for a two-run double.
Game: 3-1 Blue Jays.
Series: 3-1 Blue Jays.
I went back to the hotel overjoyed with the thought that I would appear in the first real international World Series. Danny Jackson and the Royals had other plans, as he shut us down in Game 5. He gave up eight hits, but got the outs when he needed them. With Jackson being a southpaw, I never had a chance to contribute to my teams’ effort.
Returning to Toronto for Game 6 was another back-and-forth affair, where we kept battling from behind. I went 0-for-2, but we were starting to get to Mark Gubicza by the bottom of the sixth, when Moseby and Upshaw got back on base. Here was my chance to get us back into the game with one swing, but then Howser called for the left-hander – again, Bud Black.
Again, Bobby Cox pinch-hit me with Cliff Johnson. My ego was taking a bruising – I could hit this guy, but I know managers have to play the percentages, and Cliff came through for us, driving in Moseby with a single to left. Didn’t make it any easier for me to swallow. Wasn’t enough, either. We lost to KC 5-3. Remember, this was the first League Championship Series that was a best of seven match. Now we went to a final game. Saberhagen was starting. I felt good at the plate against him. I would get one last chance to get us to the true World Series.
The game was pretty close, 2-0 Royals after a Jim Sundberg RBI single and Pat Sheridan homer in the fourth inning. I remembered we got to Saberhagen in the fifth last time out. I hit a flyball to center off of him in the third – felt like I got a good swing, but also that I had him timed and ready for my next at-bat.
Howser out-manuvered us, bringing lefty Charlie Leibrandt in for the bottom of the fourth. I knew what was coming; I just didn’t want to face the reality. For mostly everyone else on the field it was win or go home.
For me, it was win or go home….forever.
Damaso Garcia led off with a single, followed by a Lloyd Moseby groundout and deep flyout to left by Garth Iorg. Willie Upshaw stepped to the plate. Lefty versus lefty; maybe if Willie kept the inning alive, my manager would see that Leibrandt was vulnerable to lefty hitters as well as right-handed batters. Sure enough, Upshaw smacked a double to right field – pulled the ball – scoring Garcia, bringing the Blue Jays to within one. As Willie rounded first, I made sure not to make eye contact with Bobby, just cheer on my teammate and walk to the plate.
Then I heard Bobby's voice. “Cliff, grab a bat.” Johnson got off the bench.
My God, I thought to myself….my baseball career is over.
I wasn’t mad at Bobby Cox. I was mad at the circumstances. Bobby was doing his job. Had he left me in, maybe I get a hit, maybe I don’t.
This was the third time I was pinch-hit for in the series, a series where I had two game-winning hits. If I was 10 years younger, they would never have taken me out, even if Sandy Koufax was pitching. Just a matter of respect. But that’s the way they chose to go. I couldn’t take it any longer – I took my bat and smashed it against the bat rack, scattering players who were staying close by. Cliff didn’t say anything – he was in the league almost as long as I was – he was just doing his job. To his credit, Bobby didn’t scold me. He knew what was going on in my heart.
I was mourning the death of my baseball career.
The next inning, the Royals would score four runs off of Dave Stieb and Jim Acker, staking Leibrandt to a 6-1 lead. There was no overcoming this. The 1985 Toronto Blue Jays were done for the season.
Al Oliver, baseball player, was done for good.
* * * * *
My filing for free agency in November of 1985 was a mere formality. I was finished with playing baseball. Had zero interest in platooning. Made enough money in my career to not have my agent convince general managers around the league to give me a non-roster invite to spring training somewhere, and I was at peace with it. To this day, 29 years later, I still do not regret acting as aggressively as I did that night in the dugout.
We all face career mortality in our own ways. It’s when fans on the street stop asking about next year’s plans and more and more begin sentences with “Remember when….”
I played on a World Series championship ballclub. I won a batting title. Invited and selected to numerous All-Star teams. Enjoyed glorious moments to end important playoff games. I have absolutely zero regrets about my baseball career.
I just wanted my name called out before a post-season game one more time, to be standing on the baseline one more time, to tip my cap to the wonderful Canadian fans one more time.
To hear that beautiful, majestic song one more time, before one more at-bat, with the game on the line, full of “Et ta valeur, de foi trempee,” as the magnificent song goes, the verse rarely sung, meaning, “Thy valour, steeped in faith.”
* * * * * Portions of this article appear courtesy of VIPINK Publishing. You can find Al Oliver's book, "Life's A Hit;Don't Strike Out: The Al Oliver Story" at www.Al-Oliver.com. as well as www.amazon.com..
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