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Blue Jays’ legends of the fall touch ’em all again — 25 years later

At the plate, Joe Carter was just as uncertain. He watched, heart banging, willing it to stay fair, took a few tentative steps down the first-base line. Then, hoo-boy, a leap and a bound and the batting helmet goes flying.

A country unbound, World Series gaga in back-to-back championship seasons. But the first time it had ever happened on Canadian soil.

The 90th World Series.

Bottom of the ninth, Game 6, Blue Jays trailing 6-5 when Wild Thing, Philadelphia closer Mitch Williams, served up a slider on a platter, down and in on a 2-and-2 count for dead-pull hitter Carter to smash just over the left-field wall. Three-shot blast and celebratory pandemonium.

That ball landed just below the auxiliary pressbox, actually bounced off the 100 level and right into the glove of bullpen coach John Sullivan, who’d act dumb when the hall of fame retrievers came sniffing around.

In the stands, two overjoyed strangers hugged. One explained: “I’m Pat Hentgen’s mother and now he doesn’t have to pitch Game 7!’’ The woman practically wept with relief.

The other gushed: “I’m Paul Molitor’s father and he was on base!”

So was Rickey Henderson, who’d drawn a four-pitch walk batting leadoff. As the greatest base stealer in baseball at the time, a definite distraction at first for Williams. After Devon White flied out, reached second on Molitor’s single.

Indeed, the chronically immodest Henderson claimed credit for what unfolded, bragging his pilfering presence forced Williams into a slide-step delivery, which the closer had never previously in his career used and which may have slightly slowed pitch velocity.

“Mitch was made aware about me,” Henderson would later boast. “He’s stealing third base to get into scoring position. So he ends up side-stepping and trying to throw a slider, but he hung the slider. It’s all me, I think it was all me. Mitch said it was all me. ‘If it wasn’t for you, Joe would never have hit that ball.’”

Williams, who would receive death threats as a result of that pitch and its consequences, was stoic in the immediate aftermath, didn’t duck the media inquisition.

“I made a mistake and he hit a mistake. I’m not going to commit suicide.’’

Climactic and instant classic, only the second walk-off home run for all the marbles in World Series history after non-slugger Bill Mazeroski’s dramatic 406-foot jack at Forbes Field against the Yankees won it for Pittsburgh in 1960.

Carter reprised history on Oct. 23, 1993, 11:39 p.m., as Toronto became the 18th team in World Series annals to win back-to-back championships and first to do so since the Yankees in 1977-78.

The late Tom Cheek, Voice of the Toronto Blue Jays, made the baritone call: “Touch ’em all Joe, you’ll never hit a bigger home run in your life.”

But it wasn’t just about baseball lore. It was a defining moment for Canada.

Maybe not quite so transcendent as the Glory Jays of a year earlier, when they’d crashed the World Series party in Atlanta, upstarts from north of the border snatching the trophy. At home sweet home, though, SkyDome as it then was, in front of 52,195 over-the-moon fans and an entire nation kicking up its heels. We’d scooped the jewel of the American pastime.

Twenty-five years ago. Golly, we were all so much younger then.

Carter had crowed: “We don’t rebuild, we reload.”

Who could have imagined, then, that 22 years would pass before Toronto got to the post-season again?

Backward glancing tends to blur the lines. Often forgotten is the Jays, who’d taken a 3-1 series lead, had been shut out in Game 5 at Veterans Stadium by Curt Schilling, who’d gone the distance in a pitching duel with Juan Guzman.

Returned to the SkyDome, with Dave (Death Stare) Stewart on the mound, Toronto jumped out to a 5-1 lead, Molitor going yard in the fifth and becoming the first player in World Series history to rack up at least two home runs, two doubles and two triples.

But in the seventh frame, the Phillies rallied hard, Lenny Dykstra smoking a three-run homer to knock Stewart out of the game. Single, stolen base, single tied the game; walk and single loaded the bases before Pete Incaviglia hit a sacrifice fly and suddenly the visitors were up 6-5.

So much tension. It felt as if the whole series hung in the balance as the bullpen door opened and Williams trotted to the bump. He had 43 saves that year. His Wild Thing moniker had nothing to do with erratic performance; it referred primarily to an awkward delivery in which he’d fall to the third-base side of the mound during his follow through.

In the dugout, Hentgen was charting pitches, nervous that Game 7 would fall on his shoulders. Thinking, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m gonna be pitching tomorrow.”

Because the momentum had clearly shifted.

During White’s long at-bat after the Henderson walk, Molitor, in the on-deck circle, was trying to calm himself down too, pushing away little-boy dreams of a World Series-winning home run. He’d already jacked one after all.

Keep it simple, keep it simple, Molitor urged himself.

Single to centre put the winning run at first.

Down to free-swinging Joe as the joint went crazy.

Lifetime, Williams owned Carter, who’d never had a hit off him, but they hadn’t faced one another in years.

Carter took a pitch, ball. Next pitch, ball. Fastball down the middle for a strike, then an ugly swing on a breaking ball. Williams shakes off whatever catcher Darren Daulton called for. Carter is thinking another breaking ball, which didn’t really make much pitching sense. Williams’ mistake met Carter’s wait-a-bit bat. It was just a matter of whether he’d hooked it fair.

Carter would later say he couldn’t see the ball’s trajectory, blinded by the bank of lights in left field, didn’t know if the ball would clear the fence. Only realized it was gone-but-good when left fielder Incaviglia turned away in despair. On the mound, Williams gave it a courtesy double-look, then walked away.

Molitor, rounding third, already had tears in his eyes. He would be named World Series MVP. At home plate, Carter was swarmed, falling to the bottom of an ecstatic pile-on, 8-6 victors.

Love him or loathe him — and believe me, Carter wasn’t at all the peachy fellow he showed to TV cameras — this moment would forever belong primordially to him, for all that a team and a country shared it.

In a way, it’s also been his cross to bear in life, what everybody who meets him wants to talk about, even when he’s worn out reliving it.

There will doubtless be plenty of revisiting at Tuesday evening’s reunion dinner, which has lured Carter and many of his ’93 teammates to Toronto: Molly and Devo, Robbie and Tony, Rance and Alfredo, Duane and Pat. And Cito.

It’s a funny thing. Nearly 53,000 fans came through the SkyDome turnstiles that night. Yet countless numbers claim to have been there.

I know I was.

Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno

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