In the summer of 1987, the biggest story in sports was Paul Molitor’s bat. The future Hall of Famer had smacked a hit in 39 straight games—one of the longest streaks in baseball history—and was threatening to break the unbreakable: Joe DiMaggio’s 56-gamer. On the last Wednesday of August, with all eyes on Milwaukee, Molitor and his Brewers hosted the last-place Cleveland Indians.
On the mound for the visitors was a rookie right-hander named John Farrell. “I shouldn’t have even pitched that night,” he says now, smiling at the memory.
He is not exaggerating. At 25, Farrell was mere days into his big-league career, and only got the starting nod because a teammate twisted his ankle. Even then, the game almost never happened; heavy rain hit Wisconsin all afternoon, drying up just in time for the national anthem. “There was no batting practice,” Farrell recalls. “Did that have something to do with what happened? Possibly.”
What happened, of course, was Molitor went 0 for 4, with a strikeout, a double-play groundout, and nothing close to a base hit. The streak was snapped.
Nobody knew it at the time, but for Blue Jays fans, the box score from that night offered a glimpse of the glory to come. Playing first base for the Indians was Pat Tabler, who, five seasons later, would help hoist Toronto’s first-ever championship trophy. The Cleveland left fielder—Joe Carter—was destined to be a post-season hero (“Touch ’em all, Joe!”). And Molitor, who joined the Jays in 1993, would bat .500 (12 for 24) and earn MVP honours in the same World Series that ended with Carter’s bottom-of-the-ninth blast.
Today, almost two decades later, John Farrell is the one wearing the blue and white uniform, hoping to lead the Jays back to playoff greatness. “There is a rich history here,” says the new manager, who remembers pitching against Toronto in the days when “every last seat” was occupied. “There is no reason why that can’t return.”
It is easy to believe him. At six foot four, with big hands and a movie-star jaw, Farrell isn’t the sugar-coating type. He is the first to admit that besting Molitor was “one of the few highlights among many lowlights” of an underwhelming playing career (36-46, 4.56 ERA). And he is quick to acknowledge what many others have already pointed out: that he’s never managed a single game. But unlike the 25-year-old Farrell who took the mound at old County Stadium, the 48-year-old version is no wide-eyed rookie. He knows what his team is up against—i.e. the Yankees and the Red Sox—and he is hardly intimidated.
“In this room, we think we’re going to contend this year,” Farrell says, sitting in his office at the club’s spring training complex in Dunedin, Fla. “We didn’t come here to get in shape. We came here to compete and win, and if we put limits on our players, our coaches, or the people that sell tickets, and say, ‘Well, we’re really not doing this until 2013,’ then we’re punching the clock between now and then. We’re not built like that.”
Farrell certainly isn’t. A New Jersey boy who grew up on the deck of his father’s lobster boat, he understood—by the tender age of six—the true meaning of hard work and preparation. “I’d be digging bait out of a tank at four in the morning, and you’d fight off throwing up because of how raunchy it was,” he recalls. “It wasn’t a glamorous life, but it was one that is clearly etched in my mind.”
After his playing days ended, Farrell moved to the Indians’ front office as director of player development, where he quietly helped build one of baseball’s top-ranked farm systems. In 2007, he returned to the dugout as Boston’s pitching coach, helping to win a World Series for the Fenway faithful that same season. His mix of credentials—former player, top evaluator of talent, championship coach—was enough to land him on a list of 18 candidates for Cito Gaston’s old job.
Late last season, Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos phoned Farrell for what was supposed to be an hour-long introductory chat. “That first conversation lasted 3½ hours,” says Farrell. “So apparently through the first 60 minutes I must have been doing something right. It was a very easy conversation.”
Returning to the playoffs will not be so easy, especially in the American League East, baseball’s toughest division. But as Farrell stressed in his first speech to the team, success won’t come by coincidence—like his chance encounter with Paul Molitor. “I think it was heard clearly,” he says. “We can’t sit here and say: ‘Well, if New York’s market changes or Boston’s market changes, and their payrolls change as a result, now we’ve got a chance.’ Those things aren’t going to happen.”