Key to the Game

By JOE McFARLAND

The old saying goes “don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.”

It couldn’t be more true than when you are talking about Jimmy Key and his short stint with the Medicine Hat Blue Jays in 1982.

The future Major League Baseball (MLB) All-Star and World Series champion gave Alberta baseball fans a brief glimpse of his potential, posting a 2-1 record with a 2.30 earned-run average, striking out 25 in a little more than 31 innings of work.

Less than a month after being drafted by the Blue Jays and much to the chagrin of at least one baseball writer in our province, Key was promoted to Single-A Florence after his fifth start.

The team powered on without him – featuring a rotation that included 19-year-old David Wells and 22-year-old ace Keith Gilliam – winning their first Pioneer League championship.

EYE OF THE TIGERS

It’s hard to believe that Key, who would later go on to be a key piece for the big-league Blue Jays’ World Series run in 1992, could have started his professional career with another organization.

But in the 10th round of the 1979 MLB Amateur Draft, the Chicago White Sox took the S.R. Butler High School hurler.

However, Key opted not to sign with the White Sox, as he wanted to go to Clemson University on a baseball scholarship.

There, he racked up all kinds of accolades as a pitcher, outfielder and designated hitter.

Jimmy Key with the Clemson Tigers.

“Jimmy Key is a mighty fine young man to have around,” said Clemson head coach Bill Wilhelm in the March 28th edition of the Anderson Independent-Mail.

“He can pitch, he can hit and he can play defense.”

The Tigers posted a 37-22 overall record in 1982, with Key picking up nine wins and three losses with a 2.79 ERA. He also hit .359 with four home runs and 49 runs batted in.

“He’s an intelligent player and he’s poised,” Wilhelm continued. “He was good when he came here as a freshman and there wasn’t a whole lot we could teach him. He was just a prize from the minute he got here.”

For his efforts, Key was named to the All-Atlantic Coast Conference Team as both a pitcher and designated hitter, and finished second to Wake Forest’s Bill Merrifield as the ACC’s most valuable player.

A CLOSE CALL

A freak accident almost derailed Key’s great college season, as Clemson faced Ohio State on March 24th.

After retiring the first two batters, Key faced second baseman Robbie Cobb.

“I threw him an inside fastball and he swung through it,” Key told the Greenville News. “It sawed the bat in two at the handle.”

“I saw the bat and the ball coming at me, and I tried to jump the bat and get the ball, but I didn’t jump it.”

As the paper reported, the jagged part of the aluminum barrel hit Key in the right ankle, leaving a deep gash and forcing him to the training room, then the on-campus hospital, where he received six stitches.

“It was such a freak thing,” Key continued. “Now, it’s swollen and it’s killing me.”

He was told the stitches would have to stay in for a couple of weeks, but if the swelling and soreness went away, he would be able to play sooner.

While it looked bad and could have been much worse, Key was back on the field within a week.

CLASS OF ‘82

The 1981 season wasn’t a good one for the Toronto Blue Jays, finishing last in all of the majors with an abysmal 37-69 record.

To make matters worse, the rules stated that the worst team in the National League in an odd-numbered year would get the next year’s first overall pick, while the American League team would get it in even-numbered years.

So the Chicago Cubs, who sported a 38-68 mark, were awarded with the first pick, which they used on shortstop Shawon Dunston.

The Jays were also looking for a shortstop, but swung and missed with Augie Schmidt, who never played in the big leagues during a five-year pro career.

READ MORE: Assessing the 1982 Blue Jays Drafts

Fortunately, the team hit two out of the park with their next two picks: Wells and Key, who along with many of their other picks including Chris Johnston, Dave Stenhouse, Pat Borders and Steve Davis, signed and were sent to Medicine Hat to begin their professional baseball careers.

BIG FIRST IMPRESSION

The Baby Jays began the 1982 season on the road in Helena.

With Ron Johnson on the mound, the Jays dropped the season-opener by a score of 8-5.

Manager Duane Larson turned to Key for the second game, who rewarded his skipper with a solid debut performance, as his team broke a 2-2 deadlock in the ninth inning to secure a 5-2 win over the Phillies.

“We got some strong pitching out of Jimmy Key, who pitched six scoreless innings,” Larson told the Medicine Hat News.

The box score from Key’s first game, as found in the Medicine Hat News.

Key struck out four batters, walked three, and was in line for the win when he was pulled in the seventh.

However, reliever Rusty Rightmire allowed two hits, a walk and two runs before David Walsh came in to calm things down and finished the game.

“I think the club is just now getting settled down,” Larson said.

HOME TURF DEBUT

The Blue Jays continued their winning ways by winning the rubber match of their three-game set with Helena, then swept another three-game series with the Great Falls Giants.

Sitting first in the Pioneer League, they made their Athletic Park debut on June 28th against the Billings Mustangs and Key was set to make his second start.

The projected opening lineup for the Medicine Hat Blue Jays’ home-opener (from the Medicine Hat News).

Larson admitted firing up the season on the road wasn’t ideal, as they didn’t get more workouts in like they would at home, but he was obviously pleased with his team’s resolve.

“The kids have done a heck of a job,” he told the News.

Unfortunately, the weatherman didn’t seem to be a fan of baseball, as cold and rain settled over southeastern Alberta.

But the red-hot Jays couldn’t be cooled, as they continued their winning streak with a 3-2 victory.

With 1,223 fans in attendance, Key picked up his first victory of the season, allowing two runs on seven hits while striking out six in seven innings.

The box score from Key’s second game with the Medicine Hat Blue Jays.

“To tell you the truth, I had only one pitch: my fastball,” the 6-foot-1, 185-pound hurler said after the game. “Normally I can get my breaking ball over, but tonight I was working my fastball in and out, trying to keeping to keep them off stride.”

It was a great pitching battle as future Cincinnati Reds hurler Tom Browning was equally impressive, allowing just three runs on three hits in a complete-game loss.

“I like close games,” Key said. “Going in tonight, I had a feeling there wouldn’t be many runs because it was cool; guys don’t like to swing the bat when it’s cold.”

RAIN DELAYED

Mother Nature was once again a factor as the Blue Jays headed to Idaho Falls for the Independence Day weekend.

Key got the start in the July 4th game and went five innings, allowing two runs on seven hits while striking out three.

However, the umpire had to call the game after the fifth because of rain, with the two teams set to finish the game a couple of weeks later.

ONE BAD INNING

A familiar foe was once again in the opposition dugout as Key got ready for his fourth start of the season.

And he was cruising against Idaho Falls on July 9th, allowing just one hit and striking out five through the first six innings.

However, the A’s exploded for five runs in the seventh inning, costing them the victory – and the lone complete game of Key’s short stay in the Gas City.

The box score from Key’s fourth start with the Medicine Hat Blue Jays.

It was a tough pill to swallow for the Blue Jays, who had to get back out onto the field to finish up the twin-bill that same afternoon.

“We lost three games in a row and were ahead 3-0, three outs away from the win,” Larson said.

The team came back in the second game to win 7-5.

“The kids bounced right back,” Larson continued. “They were upset about losing that one tonight and they responded with enthusiasm.”

Despite the losing skid, the Blue Jays remained on top of the Pioneer League’s North Division with a 12-5 record.

A SOLID FINALE

A crowd of 2,835 was in attendance at Athletic Park for Key’s fifth and final appearance for the Jays on July 14th.

And they were once again treated to a steady performance from the left-hander, who struck out seven batters and allowed three runs on seven hits.

However, he didn’t pick up the decision as he was pulled with the game tied 3-3.

The Blue Jays managed to score two in the eighth to pull off a 5-4 victory, with Davis picking up the win.

The box score from Key’s fifth and final game with the Baby Jays.

After the game, all attention was on the starter.

“Sure, it’s going to hurt losing a pitcher like Key,” Larson told the News. “But I have pitchers in the bullpen who can do the job.”

NOT A ‘CROOK-SEE’

Despite the manager’s belief in his squad, Medicine Hat News baseball writer Wayne Moriarty wasn’t as forgiving about the situation.

“Key is the reason a sudden epidemic of Blue Jays malaise is sweeping Medicine Hat,” he wrote about Key’s promotion to Florence. “Now the people of Medicine Hat have waited many years for a Pioneer League winner, and now that things are starting to look promising, a talented pitcher gets plucked from the Athletic Park nest.”

Toronto’s director of player development, Billy Smith, was in town to look at the squad and to figure out who might head to the Jays’ instructional program in Dunedin during the winter.

It gave Moriarty the opportunity to ask about who else might be on the way out.

“I see no need to move position players,” Smith said. “Unless we have some injuries, everything should stay just as it is.”

He went on to say that Medicine Hat was already stacked with 13 pitchers and some of them weren’t getting enough work.

“Another reason Key left is because Medicine Hat is at the bottom of the Toronto totem pole,” Moriarty later opined. “When an ‘AAA’ team loses a pitcher, then they pick on an ‘AA’ team. When an ‘AA’ team loses a pitcher, then they pick on an ‘A’ team. Finally it works its way down to Medicine Hat and the result is bye-bye Jimmy Key.”

After getting the explanations, the scribe seemed a little more forgiving of the situation.

“So, with Smith just here for a look-see and not a crook-see, the ’82 Jays should stay pretty well in the same roster form they are in now.”

NOT DONE YET

Key would get back into the Baby Jays’ record books one more time, although it was a few days after he waved goodbye.

Remember his third start that was rained out?

The Jays headed to Idaho Falls on July 17th and 18th, where they finished up that game, plus another two regularly-scheduled contests.

The offense came to play with an eight-run outburst in the long-delayed sixth inning, while Gordon and rightmire helped shut the door to preserve a 13-3 victory, giving Key his second official win.

The full box score from Key’s third start, which wasn’t completed until mid-July 1982.

The final stat line read five innings pitched with seven hits, two runs, one walk and three strikeouts.

ONWARDS AND UPWARDS

As it turned out, Key’s promotion worked out well for everyone involved.

The southpaw continued to dominate on the mound, posting a 5-2 record with a 3.72 ERA in nine starts for Florence.

He made his MLB debut in 1984, and aside from a few conditioning stints, remained there for 15 years.

Widely regarded as one of the best Blue Jays pitchers of all-time, Key was a five-time all-star and posted an MLB-best 2.76 ERA in 1987. He also won the World Series with Toronto in 1992 and the New York Yankees in 1996, both over the Atlanta Braves.

READ MORE: Nine Things You Might Not Know About Jimmy Key

As for the Baby Jays, they finished the season with a 44-26 record, and their pitching depth helped them capture their first and only Pioneer League championship with a 3-1 series win over, you guessed it, the Idaho Falls A’s.

While he may not have had a hand in the final, Key still had a memorable impact on an unforgettable season in Medicine Hat.

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