Baseball: Toronto look for a flag day: Sprightly Sprague springs a shock to the Braves bullpen to give the Blue Jays hope of a first title

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The Independent Online
DURING Sunday's World Series pre-game performance by the United States Marine Colour Guard of the national anthems of the United States and Canada, the Canadian flag was displayed upside-down. A maple leaf is a maple leaf no matter which end is up, but not to Canadians. A protest resulted and in the second innings an official apology was issued by Major League Baseball 'to the people of Canada and all baseball fans for the unintentional improper display of the Canadian flag'.

The travesty serves to fuel a controversy that points to the World Series as a battle of nations. To superstitious Canadian fans, such improprieties may have caused a degree of rancour, although not a single Blue Jay player can boast Canadian citizenship.

None the less, Canadians are besotted by their team and overjoyed by the long-awaited participation in the World Series, proving that the 'world' exists north of Detroit and into the Commonwealth. Unfortunately, the home team's 50,000-seat SkyDome will not house the many local fans who are unable to purchase a ticket to games three, four or five, even at the scalper's rate of dollars 1,000 ( pounds 600) and up.

The World Series is now tied at one game each, thanks to the dramatic ninth-innings home run off the bat of Toronto rookie Ed Sprague - another of the many unlikely characters who have elevated themselves to hero status in the post-season - whose wife became an unlikely heroine by recently winning an Olympic gold in synchronised swimming. Ed Sprague, when asked if he was now more famous than his wife, said cautiously: 'Well, synchronised is not the most popular of events.'

Most vitally, and what is most popular among Toronto's fans is his home run which exposed a weak Atlanta Braves bullpen, and more especially the apparent demise of the once-omnipotent relief pitcher, Jeff Reardon, the all-time leader in saves. To his credit, Reardon saved the World Championship for the 1987 Minnesota Twins and play-offs for the Boston Red Sox in 1990. When asked how Sprague got the better of him, Reardon said: 'I threw him a pitch that I always got batters out with - a low fastball.'

If indeed the Blue Jays have found a permanent crack in Atlanta's bullpen, then with the prospect of low-scoring games the Blue Jays will be buoyed by the knowledge that they have a late-innings advantage: this also with thanks to Duane Ward and Tom Henke, whose combined efforts on Sunday evening saved game two.

Even more startling than Sprague's contribution was Roberto Alomar's home run in the play-off against Oakland's golden reliever, Dennis Eckersley. This raised questions about the once-impregnable A's bullpen and led to Toronto's sixth-game pennant victory.

With the offensive contributions of Atlanta's and Toronto's superstars, a new hero has appeared almost nightly for one team or another. The rookie, Frankie Cabrera, beat Pittsburgh with a base hit in the final inning to win the pennant and two days later the substitute catcher, Damon Berryhill, hit a three-run homer off Toronto's best starter, Jack Morris.

In the meantime, it has been a post-season for the small man to make his mark. Fans anticipate who will be the next to emerge. The last eight World Series games, going back to last year, have been decided by one or two runs. One careless pitch, such as the one Morris tossed to Berryhill, could change the course of the game; the bullpens will be vital.

Juan Guzman should pitch well enough in the SkyDome tonight to give Toronto a 2-1 game advantage, but if the Blues Jays are to bring the title north of the border they must win two out of three in Toronto, which means Morris must return to the form that he showed all season.

Morris is the toughest of competitors and it is said he has ruined more parties than closing time. He appears untroubled by his previous defeat in game one. The pragmatic veteran smiled and said: 'The sun will rise in the morning and set at night. Isn't that funny?'

The Braves manager, Billy Cox, appeared to have aged considerably after Sunday's loss, while his counterpart at Toronto, Cito Gaston, appears to have shed a decade. He now hopes to shed the 'loser' label given to him for his laid-back approach to managerial strategies, and for Toronto's playoff defeats under his aegis in 1989 and 1990.

He happily takes credit for introducing Sprague in to the crucial ninth pitch-hitting role. 'We had it all set up from the seventh innings,' Gaston said. 'You'll see a lot of this kid. He'll play a long time in the Majors.'

With the meat of Toronto's batting in semi-repose, Gaston will appreciate Sprague's further contributions.

He referred to the upside-down Canadian flag incident: 'Let's just hope it was a mistake. Anyway, this is not a battle between countries. We are proud to represent Canada, but this is a battle between two baseball teams. Let's keep it that way.'

(Photograph omitted)