When Duane Larson took over as head coach of the Medicine Hat Blue Jays in April of 1982, he let it be known that he wanted to play an aggressive style of baseball.
Coming off the team’s first winning record (37-33) since joining the Pioneer League in 1978, the Baby Jays were hoping Larson would be able to continue that upward trajectory.
Having been with the Jays in Utica, New York; Kinston, North Carolina; and Knoxville, Tennessee over the previous five years, he was hoping the big-league Blue Jays would provide him with the character he had grown accustomed to having around.
“This level of baseball, I would say, is the most important,” the 33-year-old skipper told the Medicine Hat News in June of 1982.
“It’s a lot like bringing up a kid, getting him on the right track early.”
Larson wanted his team to play what is now called “small ball.” A steady diet of hit-and-runs, bunts and double-steals would supply the assertiveness that could help answer some questions on what kind of baseball players the Blue Jays were developing.
“There is no doubt that by the end of an aggressive season, I’ll be able to tell what a player can and can’t do,” Larson said.
Little did he know, he was about to head up the only Baby Jays squad to win a Pioneer League championship with a roster that featured three players who would go on to help Toronto win the World Series a decade later.
BUILDING THE BABY JAYS
Expectations were high for Medicine Hat heading into the summer of 1982.
For the third time in five years, Toronto finished with the worst record in Major League Baseball, meaning they would receive top draft picks in both the January and June drafts.
In January, the Blue Jays chose Bacone College outfielder Kash Beauchamp with the first overall selection. He and right-handed pitcher Ron Johnson were the only two to sign with the Jays, while the rest opted to remain in college and increase their draft stock.
Then in June, the Blue Jays had the second overall pick. After the Chicago Cubs chose shortstop Shawon Dunston, the Jays hoped to hit a home run with a shortstop of their own in Augie Schmidt. They used their next two picks on left-handed pitchers David Wells and Jimmy Key, before rounding out their selections with first baseman Chris Johnston, catcher Dave Stenhouse, infielders Pat Borders and Chris Shaddy, and pitchers Dave Walsh and Keith Gilliam.
A few days later, the team arrived in Medicine Hat, save for Schmidt who was sent straight to Single-A Kinston.
“The high number of prime picks Toronto has slated for a season of Pioneer League ball is a result of their being deep in talent at every minor level,” wrote News scribe Wayne Moriarty.
“Historically, Medicine Hat has not been a hotbed for testing Toronto’s premier prospects.”
READ MORE: The Pioneers – Medicine Hat A’s
Toronto’s administrator of minor league player personnel, Elliott Wahle, gave assurance earlier in the spring that the Baby Jays would be a competitive and capable group, so seeing the quality of players coming to town was a welcome sight for fans.
GOOD TO GO
After three days of two-a-day workouts at Athletic Park, Larson was pleased with what he was seeing from his charges.
“I’d say that what impresses me most about these kids is how hard they’ve been working,” he told the News on June 18th.
Those sentiments were echoed by coach Mike McAlpin.
“These kids just want to play,” he said. “That’s something you can’t teach. They just have to have that in them.”
Larson wasn’t thrilled about the quick turnaround into league play, with the season-opener just a few days away, so he staged a mock game on a Saturday night to give the 200 fans in attendance a sneak peek at what was to come.
Designed to let the pitchers pitch and allow the hitters see some competitive pitching, Larson was pleased with what he saw, going back to a word he had used numerous times ahead of the campaign.
“We’re going to be aggressive this year,” he said.
“We’ve got some guys who can handle the bat and we’ve got some good team speed to go with it. We’ll be putting plays on this year and if we’ve got guys on, we’ll run them.”
On June 22nd, the Medicine Hat Blue Jays were set to open the 1982 season on the road in Helena against the Phillies.
The only thing getting in the way of that debut: Mother Nature. Thanks to recent rains and poor field conditions, the opener was delayed two hours.
When they finally got playing, the Phillies managed to score six unearned runs en route to an 8-5 victory. The Blue Jays not only committed three errors, but didn’t do themselves any favours by leaving 17 runners on base.
Beauchamp, first baseman Chris Johnston and outfielder Bruce Yari had two hits each in the contest, while starter Ron Johnson took the loss.
The Blue Jays didn’t let the opening day loss linger, as they then rattled off a 10-game winning streak to put themselves atop the North Division standings early in the season.
However, the Great Falls Giants started pecking away at that lead, working themselves to within one game of the Jays by mid-July.
Medicine Hat then received word that Key, who had compiled a record of two wins and a loss with a 2.30 earned-run average in five starts, had been promoted to Single-A Florence.
READ MORE: Key to the Game
“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 everyone was sold on the idea, including News baseball writer Wayne Moriarty.
“Key is the reason a sudden epidemic of Blue Jays malaise is sweeping Medicine Hat,” he wrote.
“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 said Medicine Hat was already stacked with pitchers, and there were needs at higher levels that had a trickle down effect, with the Pioneer League squad being at the bottom of the pecking order.
A DOGFIGHT TO THE END
The Jays and Giants traded places over the next few weeks, with the Giants climbing into first place by July 23rd.
The fall from grace, even if it meant the third-best record in the Pioneer League, had local writers scratching their heads, wondering if the wheels had fallen off.
“What has happened to the Medicine Hat Blue Jays?” wrote Jeremy Cato about how they started 10-1 then started the slip.
“The playoffs, nirvana, seemed assured.”
While local media might have been worried, the team seemed unfazed by the turn of fortune.
“Every team is going to have slumps over the course of a season,” said McAlpin.
“What we’re trying to tell these kids, is that with all the talent on this team, these slumps shouldn’t last long.”
After a complete-game gem from Wells against Calgary on July 27th, Borders got himself out of a home run slump by hitting three, three-run dingers in a 15-5 romp over Lethbridge the following night.
That win put the Jays back on top of the division standings, a place they would have to battle for right to the bitter end.
Heading into the last week of the season, the Giants trailed the Jays by just a single game. The team and its fans were left to scoreboard watch every night.
It seemed that every night the Jays won, the Giants won; and every night the Jays lost, the Giants followed suit.
They battled through the entire month of August, never falling outside a game behind of one another, setting the stage for a nailbiting final week of the regular season.
As if the baseball scheduling gods knew how the season would play out, the Jays’ final homestand of the season came against the Giants.
The first game of the short two-game set, on August 26th, turned out to be as close as the pennant battle itself, with Medicine Hat outlasting their rivals 8-7 in 13 innings.
“They didn’t die out there,” Larson said of his players.
“That was some kind of emotional effort. On the bench, everybody was pulling for everybody.”
The Blue Birds took the division lead the next night with an 8-4 victory.
Feeling good as they headed out on the road, they were met by a Calgary Expos team ready to play the roll of spoiler.
With losses of 10-9 and 4-3 during the weekend series, the Jays once again found themselves in a tie with the Giants, sporting identical 42-26 records.
It all came down to the final series of the season against the Lethbridge Dodgers.
Having learned their lesson losing to the cellar-dwelling Expos twice, the Blue Jays couldn’t take anything for granted against the Dodgers, who were just a half-game better than Calgary.
In the first of the two-game series, Johnston hit a two-run home run in the first inning and broke it open in the fifth to secure an 8-2 victory, while pitcher Derrick Ruetter went the distance, allowing nine hits and no walks while striking out six.
However, it wasn’t all good news as Borders was hit in the face by a ground ball in the third inning and was taken to hospital for observation, with the extent of his injury unknown.
Not only that, but Great Falls beat Idaho Falls 6-1 in their series opener to keep the two teams tied heading into the final night.
With a berth in the championship series on the line, Johnston was once again the hero by hitting two three-run home runs to help the Jays hammer the Dodgers 15-4.
“What can I say about Chris Johnston,” Larson told the News.
“When we’ve needed him, he’s been there. Without Chris Johnston, we wouldn’t be where we are right now.”
Where they were was in the final, as the A’s knocked out Great Falls with a 12-4 victory.
“This is the closest team I have ever played on,” said Beauchamp, who was named a Pioneer League All-Star alongside closer Dan Gorden.
“Everybody pulls for one another. After a performance like we got tonight from the team, we all know we can go into Idaho Falls and win.”
The Jays didn’t have a lot of time to celebrate their divisional pennant, as they were set to visit the A’s for game one of the championship the following night.
A FRENZIED LAST INNING
On September 1st, the Pioneer League championship got underway with lefthander David Wells on the hill.
The future MLB star allowed five runs on ten hits while walking three and striking out four, leaving the game with an 8-3 lead.
Things got interesting in the bottom of the ninth though, as an error allowed one run to score and two more were plated on a two-out single up the middle. However, pinch-hitter Bob Loscalzo tried to turn the hit into a double and was thrown out, ending the frenetic final inning.
Larson was able to laugh it off when talking with the Medicine Hat News about the 8-6 final.
“I think it may have been a good experience for our guys,” he said.
“They could have matured a lot in that one inning and realized they have to bear down and play their best to beat this team. Some of them were really sweating but I told them to relax, it was a piece of cake.”
Offensively, Johnston and catcher Dave Stenhouse had two runs scored and three hits each to pace the Jays, who were now two wins away from their first Pioneer League title.
The A’s weren’t going away without a fight, especially with home field advantage in game two.
Feeling they let one slip away in the opener, the offense came through with five runs in the first three innings and they cruised to a 7-4 win to tie up the championship affair.
Blue Jays starter Perry Mador lasted a little more than two innings before being pulled. Despite finishing the game with 12 hits, the Jays, who also welcomed Borders back into the lineup, were able to muster just one run in the third inning and three more in the sixth.
The series was set to shift back to Medicine Hat for the final two, if needed three, games.
ATHLETIC PARK ADVANTAGE
Fans who found themselves in seats for game three of the series didn’t have much of a chance to keep them warm, as they had to sit on the edge most of the game.
With 1,250 in attendance, Ruetter found himself in trouble more than he would have liked after allowing four hits and six walks over five innings, but he somehow managed to get himself out of it.
On the other side, A’s hurler Peter Hendrick seemed to be in complete control through most of the game, until the eighth inning when Beauchamp scored the eventual winning run on a Johnston single.
The Jays were able to sneak away with a 3-2 victory and a 2-1 series lead.
“Who can say if he let him pitch one too many,” Larson said of A’s manager Keith Lieppman.
“I’ve been there before and as long as he’s still got good stuff, you have to show confidence in him and he must have felt he still had good stuff.”
Now in the driver’s seat of the series, the Jays were set to host game four, with Larson saying his approach wasn’t going to change despite the close call.
“Why should I change anything?” Larson told the News.
“We got here playing this way and hopefully we’ll win it playing the same way.”
Stenhouse, who finished the year hitting .305 with eight home runs and 34 runs batted in, was ready to buckle down.
“You’ve got to be intense but you’ve got to keep your head in the game, too,” he said.
“You’ve got to stay in control or you make mistakes. But we’re on a roll now and everyone can feel it.
“The momentum is on our side right now and we’d like to end it tomorrow. I’ll tell you one thing, if we get the lead early, we’ll win it … that’s how the club feels.”
A PLACE IN HISTORY
Prior to the start of game four, Medicine Hat starting pitcher Keith Gilliam made a bold prediction.
He told designated hitter Mark Gerard that the team would be heading home Sunday morning.
“As the team went through warm-ups and infield practice, the joking and laughing reflected the team’s certainty of the game’s outcome,” wrote reporter Jeremy Cato in the Sept. 7th edition of the Medicine Hat News, which didn’t publish on the Sunday or Monday of that Labour Day long weekend.
That swagger followed through, as Greg Griffin hit a home run in the first inning and the team snagged another 11 hits en route to a 6-1 victory and a Pioneer League championship.
“We were talking before the game that if we could get ahead early and get them down, we would win it,” Gilliam told the News.
“Everybody wanted it so badly, that I knew if we had good defence, we could do it.”
To his credit, the Baby Jays ace came exactly as advertised in the final game, throwing a complete game six-hitter, walking two and striking out seven. The only run he allowed was scored by future MLB slugger Jose Canseco.
“That was the most perfect game we’ve played all season,” Griffin said.
“We knew we’d win it. We’re tough at home. There was no way anyone was going to beat us at home.”
Larson believed his team benefitted from a tough divisional pennant race.
“They learned how to handle the pressure,” he said.
“They wanted to win; they could taste it. My only fear was that something would happen in the ball game to turn the enthusiasm into frustration.”
For McAlpin, it was his first professional title as a player or coach. And in the final quote of the post-game article in the Medicine Hat News, he gazed into his own crystal ball.
“There’s an expression in baseball and it goes like this: if you run in and out of the locker room, you run in and out of baseball,” the rookie coach said.
“The hours this team put in; they were never in a hurry to do anything but play baseball. There’s a lot of talent on this team, but they were willing to work. Some of these guys are going to make it to the big leagues because they’re willing to work.”
As is always the case after a season in the minors, some players like Gerard, Yari and Mader would get no higher than the Pioneer League, while others like Wells, Key and Borders, would go on to accomplish much bigger things on much bigger stages.
Unfortunately, the Medicine Hat Blue Jays were unable to replicate the success they saw in the summer of 1982.