THE 90th World Series that begins tomorrow in Toronto's SkyDome pits the business-like efficiency of ``Canada's team'' - the Blue Jays - against the wild and woolly Philadelphia Phillies.
The flamboyant Phillies, who finished in last place in the National League's Eastern Division last year, accomplished the improbable by rocking and rolling their way to victory in the National League Championship series Wednesday night in Philadelphia.
Overcoming their own error-prone play, the Phillies beat the powerhouse-on-paper Atlanta Braves four games to two, winning the final game, 6-3. The pennant victory deprived Atlanta, which had won 104 games during the regular season, of a third-in-a-row opportunity to try to win a World Series championship matchup.
It's been 10 years since the Phillies played in a World Series, and this is only the fifth time in team history that they've come so far. This year's Cinderella Phillies must prove themselves all over again by trying to whip last year's world champion Blue Jays.
On a superficial level, the contrasts between the two opponents are stark. The Blue Jays are a close-knit team of intense, clean-cut characters known for hiding their emotions and ``getting the job done.'' Their powerful lineup boasts the top three hitters in the American league - John Olerud, Paul Molitor, and Roberto Alomar - and a team batting average of .279 during the regular season.
Pitching was the Jays' weak link until September, when a staff led by former Oakland A's star Dave Stewart solidified into a force that stymied the Chicago White Sox in the American League Championship Series.
The Phillies, meanwhile, lend themselves more easily to caricature. A scruffy, stubble-faced, unkempt group that includes the likes of ace reliever Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams, and power hitter Lenny (Dude) Dykstra. The team had a .274 batting average, but were more porous in the field than the Blue Jays. From first to last
Only the third team in major league history to go from last place to a pennant victory in one year, the Phillies have been underdogs all year long, although manager Jim Fregosi denied that the team feels like one. Still, he admitted, ``It's been an amazing year.''
Toronto manager Cito Gaston, who had weathered intense criticism of his low-key style of managing until last year's World Series victory, withstood criticism this year that he lets his pitchers pitch too long before bringing in relievers. The Blue Jays used to be known as the ``Blow Jays'' for blowing games and leads.
But with one championship behind, and another possible, Gaston isn't worrying. He and front-office General Manager Pag Gillick are getting credit for their savvy in crafting a new championship team around a nucleus from the year before. Repeating as a champion was hardly a lock. Through free-agent departures and various personnel maneuvers, 10 players left the team after last year, including several key pitchers. Jays find replacements
The Blue Jays filled the gaps, however. One of the most significant additions is Molitor, who is hungry to play on a World Series champion after 15 years with the Milwaukee Brewers. Trailing Olerud in the batting order, he hit .332 and provided the kind of team leadership needed when the club hit some rough patches this season. Base-stealing leadoff man Rickey Henderson was brought over late in the season from the Oakland A's.
As was the case last year, this year's series promises to be another friendly rivalry between Canada and the United States, as well as between ball clubs. Many Canadians see the Blue Jays as their national baseball team, despite the presence of the Montreal Expos.
``Canadians take real satisfaction in beating the Americans at their own game,'' says Tim Braithwaite, a Toronto fan who plans to watch every minute of the series on television. ``For me anyway, the delight this year has been that the Jays might do it again.''