Baseball: Smith stirs up Canada's fears : Mike Ross reports from Toronto on how the Braves' grand slam in game five has brought back bad memories for local baseball fans

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The Independent Online
THE early Spanish explorers wrote at the top of the world map the words 'Ca nada', explaining to their Queen: 'Here is nothing'. Something must have got lost in the translation, but the name has stuck ever since.

The name is part of Canada's legacy of playing poor second cousin to their US neighbours. This was highlighted by the upside-down display of their maple leaf flag by a United States Marine guard in Atlanta last Sunday before the second game in baseball's World Series. It confirmed the view of many Canadians that Americans know nothing about Canada, and care less.

Canadians will admit to an inferiority complex which finds an echo in the country's attitude to baseball. They realise the game is American and is part of a foreign culture. Maps and flags may trigger off reminders of past injustices, however, and the mere thought of the Toronto Blue Jays' record of last-ditch failure over recent years is enough to bathe Toronto's citizens in a sweat.

All of this was made more tangible at the Toronto SkyDome on Thursday night, when Lonnie Smith's grand slam home run for the Atlanta Braves - which brought the score in the best-of- seven World Series to 3-2 in Toronto's favour - stirred up all the bad memories.

'Lonnie is a great weapon coming off the bench,' the Braves manager, Bobby Cox, said with subtle understatement. Smith is in fact dynamite and after his four- run blast in game five, the Blue Jays' ignominious past began seeping back into the collective consciousness of Canadian baseball fans.

In the seven years since they lost a 3-1 game lead over the Kansas City Royals in the 1985 play- offs and failed to reach the World Series, Toronto's fortunes have been a lurid tale of disaster. The Royals subsequently rallied from another 3-1 deficit against St Louis in the 1985 World Series to win three in a row.

Two of Atlanta's current team, Smith and Terry Pendleton, played opposite each other in that Series. After the Braves had clubbed the Blue Jays 7-2 on Thursday, Smith revealed that Pendleton had called a team meeting before the game, 'to remind us that it can be done, we can come back from 3-1 down'. The Blue Jays needed no reminding. The team's woes continued in 1987 when the first-place club lost the last seven games of the season, handing the American League East title to the Detroit Tigers.

Sandwiched around a last-day loss of the title in 1990 to Boston, the Canadian club won their divisional titles in 1989 and 1991 but were sacked 4-1 in both play-offs by Oakland. When they finally managed to beat the Athletics this year, it appeared to signal a change of fortune at last.

While Toronto are still capable of emerging victorious in Atlanta, either tonight or tomorrow, the fact is that the Braves' win on Thursday represents a virtual equaliser in the best-of-seven Series, despite the Blue Jays' 3-2 lead. Accounts have been rendered, and Toronto - rich in all areas the day before - are suddenly revealing deficiencies.

With the failure of their once omnipotent pitcher Jack Morris to repeat his heroics of 1991, which saw him lead Minnesota to a World Series over Atlanta, matters are now left in the hands of David Cone and Juan Guzman.

The team's No 8 hitter, the catcher Pat Borders, continues to pace their batting attack, while illustrating baseball's reflection of the American dream: even the small man, one low down in the order, can rise up and become the star attraction.

While Borders picks up the slack, the 41-year-old Dave Winfield has yet to contribute with his powerful bat. In much the same way that Kirby Puckett carried the Twins in the final games last year, fans should look to Winfield for Toronto's late thrust.

The Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston got his wish that the upside- down flag display should not escalate into an international dispute, but that did not stop some Canadian entrepreneurs from exploiting the controversy. One local firm produced 20,000 upside-down American flags, while another printed T-shirts with the US Marine guard on their heads, thus making the Canadian flag right side up. The SkyDome fans were buzzing over the affair prior to game four but any hurt feelings were quickly assuaged by a brilliant public relations coup. The wretched Marine guard were given another chance, allowed to parade on the field alongside the Canadian Mounted Police to show they could get it right.

Of course Canadians are not really inferior, some just believe that they are. Yet the feeling will not go away that local fans are in a state of shock over the reality of a World Series in their backyard. While celebrating their victory on Wednesday, fans cruised boisterously along Yonge Street in the centre of Toronto. That was no surprise, but it was somewhat shocking that they repeated the celebrations with equal aplomb following Thursday's loss.

What the Blue Jays want and what Canadians need most is a win on Atlanta's turf in one of the two remaining games in front of the ersatz tomahawk choppers and chanters.

The way that Steve Avery pitched in his previous start, the Braves may have an edge over the less effective Cone in game six tonight. Cone's fastball has slowed down but he is still capable of dominating opposing batters with a sharp breaking curveball. Toronto will want to keep the game close, and whatever transpires continue to put pressure on Atlanta's shallow bullpen.

If Winfield cannot come up with the big hits, the Series may go to a seventh game and a pitchers' duel between Guzman and Tom Glavine.

(Photograph omitted)