THE BALM OF POETRY #2

For all of us who don’t know

 We can read what we want to read

 Believe what we want to believe

 Hope what we want to hope

 Say what we want to say

 Eloquently, beautifully, compellingly, persuasively

 Presidents, prime ministers, dictators

 We can blog, tweet, post, proclaim

 Reach thousands, millions

 We can want what we want

 Do what we want

 COVID-19 is not impressed.

This rather sombre poem about the relentless of COVID-19 was written by Ken Dryden, if not his first published poem, certainly the first I had come across. It appeared April 1 in the National Post. Dryden, of course, is the legendary Hall of Fame goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens, best-selling hockey author and former federal Liberal cabinet minister, who has been so consistently impressive over the years with his intelligent, considered and caring response to just about everything that attracts his interest. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have considered posting a poem like this, given that I have been turning to poetry as a way to help soothe the soul in these unprecedented, perilous times. But if we are going to get through this, I found it a reminder of just how much all of us need to come together, regardless of ideology, income, rank, instant expertise and on down the list. From jet-setters to Boris Johnson to the frail elderly in our long term care homes, COVID-19 is a threat to all, a leveler of the direst nature. Dryden said he had written his poem in late March “after much thought”.

Plus, in a more cheerful vein, it gives me a chance to relate my one encounter with Ken Dryden, way back when we were oh-so-young, Martha. Somehow, perhaps with the help of me sitting on the bench, the Newmarket Pee-Wee all-stars had managed to make it to the final of an annual baseball tournament in Listowel, Ont.

Our opponent was North Toronto, and their pitcher was Ken Dryden. That created a buzz on our team because somebody knew he was the brother of Dave Dryden, who played goal for St. Michael’s Majors in the exalted ranks – at least to us – of Junior A. Who cared about his younger brother? We felt touched by fame because of his connection to brother Dave. Little did we know…

(Dave Dryden, during his time at St. Mikes. He subsequently played in both the NHL and WHL, but is best known for devising the first cage-style goalie mask, which remains the norm today.)

The other player on the powerful North Team who created a stir before the game started was their second basemen. It was none other than Rossie Armour, one of my first best friends when I moved to Newmarket. He lived just up the street. Until his family departed for Toronto, we bonded over our love of sports, even at our ridiculously young age. Of course, as was common in a small town like Newmarket, us kids pretty well knew everybody of the same age, if they played sports. “Hey, it’s Rossie Armour,” we nudged to each other.

As for the game itself, we were totally in over our heads. I mean, North Toronto against little old Newmarket. They clobbered us 9-0. Ken Dryden was overpowering on the mound. Our only hit was a slow dribbler down the third base line. (“Looks like a line drive in the box score!”). Most of our batters struck out. The only time one of them reached the outfield was a drive to left field by Gary Toporoski, who managed to time a Dryden fastball just right. Unfortunately, the new bat Toporoski used was broken an inning later by Lloyd Harris, as he managed his squib of an infield hit. I don’t think Toporoski ever forgave him.

When the shellacking mercifully came to an end, I think most of us felt a bit embarrassed by the lopsided score, but also a tinge of pride that we had been in the presence of such prowess. It was a feeling that only grew over the years as Ken Dryden made his mark in the NHL as one of its greatest goalies ever.

Years later, after a stop in Victoria during his federal Liberal leadership campaign, I asked Dryden if he remembered that game in Listowel against Newmarket. He said he did, but I think he was just being nice to a reporter. However, he did have firmer memories of his North Toronto team-mate and my early buddy, Rossie Armour. As I tried to prolong the conversation, he looked impatient. A moment or two later, he was gone, bundled away by his aides, leaving me with my memories and he with a look of anticipation to the next campaign stop.

One final note: the coach of the North Toronto team was some guy named Roger Nielsen*. Ever heard of him?

Be well.

* You can find his statue outside Rogers Arena in Vancouver.

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LARRY AND FERGIE: AS CANADIAN AS MAPLE SYRUP

Two. Count ‘em. Two. Although still styling itself, with typical American hubris, as the National Baseball of Fame, Cooperstown now has two Canadians cluttering its hallowed walls among all those Yanks, plus a scattering of Latinos. And they will soon be joined by one of the greatest to ever play the game, the incomparable Ichiro “I am very rare” Suzuki from the distant shores of Japan.

It didn’t happen without great gobs of tension. As befits a ballplayer known for coming through in the clutch, outfielder Larry Walker left it to the proverbial bottom of the ninth. Because of the arcane way most things work in baseball, this was the 10th and final year Walker would be on the list of eligible candidates. In order to succeed in his last crack at the bat, Walker needed a nod from at least 298 (75%) of the 397 baseball writers who get to vote. Some are wise, some less so. Some are fair, some less so. It’s a crap shoot at the best of times. Even Walker thought he would be nipped at the plate. A few hours before the official count was announced, he tweeted: “Although I believe I’m going to come up a little short today I still wanna thank all you that have been pulling for me and showing your support…Cheers 🍻 LW”.

As we know, however, the good old boy from beautiful downtown Maple Ridge squeaked home safely, evading the catcher’s tag by just six votes. He was in. Ferguson Jenkins, the fabulous pitcher from Chatham, Ont., who won 284 games in his 17-year career, now had company. Amid these ever-darkening times, it was a rare bit of wonderful news. Jenkins was quick off the mark to welcome his Canadian compatriot, tweeting out a picture of the two of them together at Walker’s induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame a few years ago in idyllic St. Mary’s, Ont. “The biggest thing is you’re able to put ‘HOF’ behind your name, and people recognize your career because of the fact that you’re one of the best,” said Jenkins. “That’s what Larry Walker is now — one of the best.”

As someone who began following baseball as kid, when the only Canadian in the majors was a mediocre infielder from Windsor named Reno Bertoia, it’s difficult to overstate how special it is to now have two Canadians with a plaque in Cooperstown, alongside the likes of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Warren Spahn and my boyhood hero, Harmon Killebrew.

How Canadian is Larry Walker? His twitter handle is @Cdnmooselips33. His profile pic is the Canadian flag. Growing up in Maple Ridge, he played endless street hockey with a bunch of pals that included Hockey Hall-of-Famer Cam Neely. He dreamed of cracking the NHL as a goalie. “Being Canadian, you’re born into this world with a stick in your hand and skates on your feet,” Walker has said. “So that’s how I was as a kid. You played hockey, and that’s all that really mattered.” But after failing a couple of Junior A tryouts, he stumbled into baseball. At one of his whistlestops in the minor leagues, just for fun, he would sometimes use his spikes to sketch a semblance of the Canadian flag in the dirt, during the Star Spangled Banner. And, of course, he spent his first six years in the majors with the beloved Montreal Expos. For the humble Walker, his selection wasn’t just about him: “As a Canadian, it was a proud moment for me to represent my country and be able to join Ferguson Jenkins in the Hall of Fame.”

Jenkins’ Canadian roots also run deep. His mother’s family first came to southwestern Ontario via the legendary Underground Railway that brought fleeing slaves to a safe haven in Canada. Like Walker, he too played hockey, an athletic, rushing defenseman who made it to Junior B. His heroes were the great Montreal Canadiens’ great blueliner Doug Harvey and the local Chatham Maroons, who waxed the renownedTrail Smoke Eaters in 1960 to win the Allan Cup, Canada’s senior hockey championship. While playing for the Chicago Cubs, Jenkins occasionally worked out with the hometown Blackhawks, borrowing Dale Tallon’s stick to join the likes of Bobby and Dennis Hull on the ice. “My baseball friends won’t like this comment, but I still look on hockey as a greater challenge than baseball,” says Jenkins.

Whenever he took the mound at historic Wrigley Field, where he enjoyed his greatest success, the Cubs’ PA guy would play Canadian Sunset. As further evidence that you can take the pitcher out of Canada but you can’t take Canada out of the pitcher, at the end of his long, stellar career, Jenkins returned to his stomping grounds in southwest Ontario and pitched two seasons for the semi-pro London Majors. At 42, he was riding the bus with awe-struck teammates and spinning tales of “the show”. He has his own Canadian postage stamp, and finally, since few things are more Canadian than beer, Jenkins naturally has a Chatham craft beer named after him. Fergie’s Classic Pilsener is advertised as having “a crisp delivery just like his slider hitting a catcher’s mitt.”

On a personal note, I remember how thrilled I was when a guy from Chatham ended up at my high school. I asked him if he knew Ferguson Jenkins. “Fergie?” he replied. “Sure. Everyone in Chatham knows Fergie…” Now I could claim I knew a guy who knew him well. Okay, small bragging rights, but bragging rights nonetheless.

These are different times for Canadian ballplayers. No longer is it rare for them to not only play, but star, in the major leagues. Like Larry Walker, another BC player, Justin Morneau from New Westminster, where a US baseball announcer once speculated that moose ambled down the main street, has won a Most Valuable Player award. So has Cincinnati’s celebrated first sacker Joey Votto. His lifetime batting average is fourth among current players. Last year, Mike Soroka of the Atlanta Braves finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, after the Calgarian fashioned a 13-4 record from the mound and dazzled in the playoffs. Lest we forget the “Big Maple” himself, James Paxton from Ladner, who memorably threw a no-hitter on native soil against the Toronto Blue Jays. There are so many other, more modestly- talented Canadians in “the bigs”, it’s hard to keep track of them all. Rowan Wick, we hardly know you.

When I was kid, any Canadian who made the majors was a big deal. I remember being stunned to find that someone from Canada, the aforementioned Reno Bertoia, was actually playing for the Detroit Tigers. From just across the river in Windsor, he often walked back across the international bridge to attend Windsor’s Assumption University as part of his successful pursuit of a teaching degree. Later there were Penticton’s Ted Bowsfield, and southpaw Mike Kilkenny from Bradford, a small community just up the road from my hometown of Newmarket. (I once saw him pitch for Bradford’s bantam team against our bantams at the grassless Newmarket Fair grounds. He rang up strikeout after strikeout.) And then there was John Hiller, a fireballing reliever who spent 15 years with the Tigers. Hiller was the first Canadian in my lifetime to star in the major leagues, rather than just scuffling along.

Okay, one more. A special tip of ye olde Mickle hat to the amazing Ron Taylor, whose life might be an inspiring Hollywood movie. After ending his major league career at 34, he beat even higher odds than those of the Miracle Mets winning the 1969 World Series, with Taylor as a key reliever, by entering U of T’s medical school in his mid-30s and getting his MD. But that’s not the reason I wanted to include Ron Taylor. There’s this. He pitched a total of seven no-hit innings in two World Series – for the winning St. Louis Cardinals in 1964 and the New York Mets in 1969. I think that still stands as a World Series record for most career innings pitched in the Fall Classic without giving up a single hit.

So, all hail Larry Walker and Ferguson Jenkins, both of whom inspired all those Canadian ballplayers who came after them. The torch has been passed. Observed Mike Soroka, on the eve of spring training: “I think as Canadian players we have a certain duty in Major League Baseball to represent and wave that flag and make sure people know.” As fabled baseball announcer Mel Allan used to say: “How About That!”