BASEBALL, GIRLS AND MIGHTY KATIE AT THE BAT

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The young Canadian team from South Vancouver has had a lot of attention at the storied Little League World Series in Williamsport, despite losing all three of its games. Without taking anything away from her fine team-mates, It’s mostly because of Emma March.

Amid all the media hullabaloo over the amazing “girl hurler” Mo’ne Davis, who was striking out boys at an unprecedented rate (what fun!), it’s been noted that she wasn’t the only girl playing with the lads at Williamsport. The long-haired Ms. March was there too, first sacker and occasional pitcher for Canada’s own Little League champs. In fact, the two girls roomed together for the first half of the tournament. This is a lovely story about their new-found friendship. And don’t neglect the affecting video that accompanies the story. The fresh-faced enthusiasm of Emma March, in particular, is a joy to behold. http://espn.go.com/espnw/news-commentary/article/11365891/mone-davis-emma-march-find-friendship-secret-hiding-place

images-1The two had much to talk about, including those strange beings who are 12-year old boys. But note also how cool, calm and collected both are about their sudden turn in the media spotlight. To them, the game’s still the thing. Girls just want to compete. 

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Unlike Mo’ne, however, Emma didn’t have a particularly good tournament. Despite one long drive that curved foul only at the last moment, she went hitless, garnering only a couple of walks. She was then knocked around pretty good during a brief turn on the mound in the team’s 10-0 loss to Venezuela. But the whole team played poorly that day, and she was flawless in the field.  

Of course, the hype on social media and in the regular press about Mo’ne Davis is, as usual, totally out of control. She’s just a kid, after all. Do we need pontificators weighing in on how much money she might make from her sudden fame. “Should she cash in now?” Gag me with a spoon. Yet , the advancement of girls and women in sports traditionally the preserve of guys is very real. “Throwing like a girl” is taking on new meaning.

Heck, during the time of the Druids when I went to high school, girls played only field hockey, volleyball and a stupefying form of basketball that allowed them to dribble the ball only three times, before they were obliged to pass or shoot. Otherwise, they might get winded or hurt or something equally dire, the fragile dears. On the track, these same brittle species of femininity were restricted to races no farther than 100 yards. Talk about your stone age attitudes…

As a kid, I well remember when Abby Hoffman was discovered to be a girl disguised as a boy in a Toronto peewee hockey league. The story went what passed for viral in them there days, making headlines around the world.

How times have changed. Today, Canadian women are among the world’s best in so many sports that were never on the radar back then: hockey, rowing, soccer, boxing, wrestling…The list goes on and on, up to and including, as we learned just recently, the ferocious sport of rugby.

At the same time, however, let’s keep matters in perspective. For all sorts of reasons, occasions when girls and women are able to compete equally with boys and men remain exceedingly rare, especially as they get older and guys go through that growth thing. The fact that Hayley Wickenheiser played a few games for a second division, professional men’s team in Finland doesn’t mean women will soon be playing in the NHL. Nor should one expect Mo’ne Davis to make it to the majors.

Still, there’s no denying that more and more girls are showing up on boys’ teams these days, and whenever they do, it’s wonderful. For Canadian girls playing baseball, their way to the field was pioneered by the great Katie Reyes. (And no, Tom Hawthorn, I am not forgetting all those terrific players from the Canadian prairies who dominated the wartime professional women’s baseball league in the United States, well captured by the movie A League of Their Own. But that was even before my time…)

Katie Reyes held down first base at the 2009 Little League World Series for the gallant Little Leaguers from East Hastings. Not only that, she stroked the winning hit in a spine-tingling, come-from-behind victory against Germany. Emma March knows all about it. Asked to name her baseball hero, she spurned the likes of Canadian major leaguers such as Justin Morneau, Brent Lawrie and Joey Votto. “Katie Reyes,” she replied.

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This old codger was so moved by Katie’s celebrated hit that he broke into verse to celebrate the first time in the long history of the Little League World Series that a game’s winning run was driven in by a girl.

 The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Hastings nine that day, /

 The score stood 13-10, with but an inning left to play, /

 But Cusati hit a homer, and fielder Woo worked a walk, /

 And so the sacks were loaded, with just one more needed sock.

 Then from a thousand East Side throats and more there rose a roar. /

 It rumbled through the streets, resounding store to store. /

 It sounded loud on Renfrew and drowned out neighbours’ chat, /

 For Katie, mighty Katie, was advancing to the bat.

 Martin was the twirler. He laughed. They couldn’t lose. /

 A girl can’t hit my pitch, he thought. It’s just some crazy ruse. /

 He looked at all the bases, and let the horsehide go. /

 And then the air was shattered by the force of Katie’s blow.

 Oh, somewhere in this fabled town, the sun is shining bright. /

 The Coaster’s scaring someone, and elsewhere, hearts are light. /

 And somewhere, girls are laughing, and Germany’s in shame. /

 But there is joy on Hastings – mighty Katie won the game.

P.S. Five years later, Katie Reyes continues her progress on the diamond, although she is now playing softball against other young women. She’s still pretty good. The great goddess Google informs me she was in line for a sports scholarship at Howard College in the heart of Texas. Good on yuh, Katie Reyes. And girls under Little League caps, everywhere.

 

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WINLESS IN SEATTLE

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It was not your normal crowd at an American ballpark. Those streaming through the turnstiles included a guy wearing a shirt with Naslund written on the back, a couple wearing Saskatchewan Roughriders green, fans wrapped in large Canadian IMG_3104flags, Bautista jerseys galore, plus thousands and thousands of blue-capped Vancouverites. Heck, there was even someone in full Expos regalia (okay, that was me…). Yep, it was Blue Jays night at Safeco Field in Seattle, time for the annual migration of Jays fans to the Emerald City, to remind “America’s National Pastime” that, hey, Canadians are interested, too.

Seemingly half of Vancouver, including moi-même, go every year when the Jays hit town, and it’s always a fun night at ye olde ball park, particularly when hometown and visiting fans try to outshout each other with their respective chants of “Let’s Go, Blue Jays!” and “Let’s go, Mariners!”. Yes, the Yankees and Red Sox attract hordes of their die-hard rooters to Safeco, too, but Blue Jay fans are Canadians. We’re nice about it.

The good nature of the fan rivalry has been helped by the fact that both the Jays and Mariners have been so hapless in recent years, nestling at the bottom of their respective divisions. So there’s been little at stake. Win? Lose? Who really cares?

Not this year. There was an edge in the stands. Both teams have surpassed pre-season predictions and are now contending for post-season wldcards. This Jays-Mariners series actually meant something. We were there for the first game last Monday night, and the buzz from the pews was electrifying, to say nothing of the sudden bolt of lightning and thunderclap that ushered in the seventh inning to a huge roar from paying customers.

Adding to the hype was the presence of the best pitcher in the American League on the mound, the Mariners’ “King Felix” Hernandez, who’s been in the best groove of his career this summer. There was also the lingering glow from the Jays’ spine-tingling 19-inning victory just the night before against Detroit. The thrill of it all produced a crowd of 41,000, an amazing turnout for a Monday night game in Seattle, including, of course, many thousands of Jays boosters from north of the border.

We were loud right from the start, our mighty voices singing along with great lust to O Canada. Used to their own fans’ jaded silence during the U.S. National Anthem, some Mariner players seemed startled by all that patriotic noise. They looked up at us with bemused astonishment: “What the….?”

Then, when Josė Bautista rocketed a 400-foot homer on a line to left field to put the Jays ahead in the fourth inning, we cheered ourselves hoarse. Alas, that was to be our last hurrah, as they say. “King Felix” hitched up his belt, and proceeded to whiff seven of the next 12 batters. By the time he left, after seven masterful innings, the once woeful Mariners had whacked extra base hits all over Safeco Field and led by the humiliating count of 11-1. We were a sombre, disappointed bunch, all right, as the raucous Mariner fans celebrated all around us.

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Their joint was jumpin’, and we headed quietly for the exits, our initial exuberance long since deflated. Sigh.

Yet, listening to the comforting hum of the Mariners’ post-game show on our way up the I-5, I was reminded once again how so much of sports is a matter of perspective.

For all us Jays fans who thought the game a dismal disaster, there were so many more Mariner supporters who hailed the night as the most enjoyable of the year.

Felix Hernandez, his team-mates, the Mariners’ marvellous manager Lloyd McLendon, and the commentators all talked about what a good time the game was. “I think that was the best crowd and the most excitement at Safeco Field all year,” said one of the radio guys. The loud presence of so many Blue Jay rooters created a true festive atmosphere and rooting rivalry in the stands, and, of course, as mentioned, the game was important to the two teams. You knew the evening was special, when Hernandez stuck around after his 7th inning departure, watching the rest of the game from the front railing of the dugout, while gesturing and kibitzing with the hometown fans. Amid my envy, I couldn’t help feeling happy for the long-suffering Mariners, a team I like a lot this year.

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   (Felix Hernandez yukking it up with his team-mates and fans, after leaving the game with an 11-1 lead.)

The next two games in Seattle were not much better for the faltering Jays. They dropped the pair of them, 6-3 and 2-0, managing a grand total of just four runs in their three games against a Mariners’ pitching staff that may be the best in the league.

As for the unsung Mariners, they have been on a tear, winning 12 of their past 15 games, to catapult them into the second wild card spot. This was a team that few expected to be far from another last-place finish. Yet here they are, 11 games over .500. It’s astonishing what timely hitting and lights-out pitching will do. To heck with the Blue Jays. This team’s fun. Plus, they have two Canadians on their roster (Victoria’s Michael Saunders and Ladner’s James Paxton) and one o the few former Expos left in the bigs, Endy Chavez. “Let’s Go, Mariners!”

(The Vancouver Sun’s Iain MacIntyre has a good piece on Paxton in today’s paper: http://www.vancouversun.com/sports/Greatness+written+over+James+Paxton/10126216/story.html And here’s my blog item on the young Fraser Valley phenom’s first major league start last September. https://mickleblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/09/kid-from-ladner-hits-the-big-time/ )

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      (Young diehard Jays fan celebrates the team’s third and last hit of the game, a late single by Rasmus.)

VANISHED JAPANTOWN AND THE POWELL STREET FESTIVAL

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The annual Powell Street Festival is one of my favourite events. It’s the one time of the year when the city’s Japanese-Canadian community, scattered by the devastating gales of internment, returns to its long-ago roots in Japantown. Few, if any, Japanese-Canadians live there now. Today, it’s part of the mostly-bleak landscape of the Downtown Eastside. Except for the still thriving, and well-preserved, Japanese Language School on Alexander Street , the imposing Buddhist Temple opposite Oppenheimer Park, and some ghostly lettering on a couple of buildings, the once bustling, tight-knit community of more than 8,000 people, has simply vanished.

Yet, every year during the B.C. Day long weekend, Japanese-Canadians come back for the Powell Street Festival at the old Powell Street Grounds, now known as Oppenheimer Park. Until internment, this was the historic heart of Japantown and the home diamond of the famous Asahi baseball (a rusting screen behind home plate is all that remains).

But this year, the Japanese-Canadians were evicted from their old stomping grounds once again. Less than two weeks before their festival was to begin, tents of homeless protesters filled the park. Organizers had no choice but to move – at exceptionally short notice — from the site that had been their base for 36 of the past 37 years. Much to their credit, organizers issued a statement supportive of the homeless protest, even if they didn’t hide their “disappointment”. As a long-time attendee of the Festival donor, I was disappointed, too. The protesters’ reluctance to temporarily move off-site to accommodate an event that has been a fixture of the park for nearly 40 years, commemorating a group of Canadians seeking to reclaim their own heritage from a grim chapter of racism and outright theft of land and possessions, was ill-conceived, in my opinion.

Be that as it may, organizers and volunteers did a miraculous job shifting the entire Festival to nearby streets with barely a hiccup. Opinions on how well it all worked out will undoubtedly be mixed, but it was far from a disaster, and the overall mood was good, if a little less festive.

Before tucking in to some delicious gyoza and chicken karaage, there was time for an instructive walking tour of old Japantown. As our guide talked about the hum and buzz of the large community that once dominated Powell Street and surrounding blocks, I felt renewed shame for what “we” did to all those innocent Canadians. Not only were they forcibly removed from the Coast to hard lives in work camps, desolate internment locations and the sugar beet fields of Alberta, their homes, possessions and businesses were sold off for a song. And then, just to put a ‘wow’ finish to this dark chapter of Canadian history, they were banned from returning to the West Coast until 1949, four years after the war ended. Only after a long, concerted campaign by determined members of the Japanese-Canadian community did the Canadian government finally say ‘sorry’ nearly 40 years later and grant modest reparation to surviving victims. Even now, after all this time, it still seems incredible that Canadians were capable of doing this to 22,000 British Columbians, simply because they were Japanese.

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“This was the High Street of Japantown,” said our guide, gesturing down Powell Street, lined by gloomy, run-down buildings and seedy rooming houses. “There used to be a building here, but last year, it was destroyed,” he added, pointing to the empty lot beside another ancient wooden structure at 439 Powell. That building was saved from the city’s wrecking ball only at the last moment by a vigorous community fight-back.

IMG_3030On the other side of 439 Powell were four rickety, false-front, yellow structures, which our guide called one of the city’s last examples of so-called “Boomtown architecture”. In the 300 block, we observed the poignant remains of Japantown’s main department store: the broad awning overhanging the sidewalk and the faint art-deco lettering splashed across the front identifying owner Tomekichi Maikawa. And the kind of stuff I love: two surviving Japanese names neatly emblazoned on the tiled entranceway to long-lost businesses — Morimoto and Komura.

 

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Sunday morning, there was another tour, this one out at the PNE, where thousands of Japanese-Canadians were quartered in appalling conditions before being transported out of the city. We looked at the buildings, and were told how they were treated, folks who had not committed a single unpatriotic act. The men were segregated from the women and children by chain link fences. Bathrooms and washing facilities were few, though conditions did improve somewhat later on, after protests. The food was Western and basic: milk, bread and butter, stew, boiled potatoes, etc. Many of those accustomed to a Japanese diet suffered from dysentery. The entire area was fenced off from the general public, leaving hundreds of idled Japanese-Canadian men with little to do but peer through the fence at the world outside. Meanwhile, authorities from the so-called B.C. Security Commission had moved into abandoned offices in Japantown and begun the methodical task of stripping residents of their property and businesses. Those who returned in 1949 found nothing left for them to reclaim. It was as if they had never set foot there at all.

So, every year, the Powell Street Festival does two things. It celebrates the survival of a revitalized Japanese-Canadian community in the Lower Mainland. And it makes sure the past is never forgotten. Long may it run.

Here is a 2007 look at Japantown by Heritage Vancouver: http://www.heritagevancouver.org/topten/2007/topten2007_10.html

And this is a story I wrote for the Globe and Mail in 2000 on one of the last attempts to keep a small Japanesese presence in old Japantown. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/civilitys-last-stand/article4165411/#dashboard/follows/