LADNER’S JAMES PAXTON, AKA “BIG MAPLE”: HIS HISTORIC NO-HITTER AND MORE

When James Paxton came out for the bottom of the ninth against the hometown Toronto Blue Jays, he was pumped. Three outs away from an historic no-hitter, the steely hurler from Ladner, BC was not going to lose it by nibbling around the edges of the plate with sliders and curve balls. He came right at the Blue Jay hitters with fast balls. Despite having already thrown 92 pitches and never having pitched a complete game in his six-year, injury-plagued career, they were his fastest of the night. One broke the 100 mph barrier (160 kilometres per hour in Ladner). All seven were strikes. Anthony Alford fouled out on the first pitch. Hot-hitting Teoscar Hernandez went down swinging on three blazing fastballs. And dangerous Josh Donaldson lashed the ball hard, but straight at the Seattle Mariners’ smooth-fielding third baseman Kyle Seager. He threw carefully over to first, and that was that. Game, set, match. James Paxton was in the record books with a no-hitter, only the second thrown by a Canadian in the major leagues since the dawn of time.** And of course, it was also the first by a Canadian pitcher on his home and native land.

As Paxton’s team-mates mobbed him on the mound, Blue Jay fans stood and cheered their fellow Canadian. Before leaving the field, he acknowledged the crowd by gesturing towards them with the big maple leaf tattooed on his non-throwing right arm.

Canadian players are no longer a rarity in the big leagues. But some, once they get caught up in “America’s Pastime”, tend to downplay their Canadian heritage. (Hello there, Joey Votto. https://www.seattletimes.com/sports/mariners/fellow-canadian-joey-votto-apologizes-after-dissing-james-paxtons-no-hitter/) Not James Paxton. He has remained true to his hometown roots in bucolic Ladner. “Games in Toronto are the only ones they see us play, so it’s awesome that it was on TV in Ladner,” he told a post-game interviewer.

His parents Barb and Ted, uncle Lindsay and aunt Lisa had gathered at the family home in Ladner to watch the game. As the innings rolled by, they nervously abided by baseball’s deeply held superstition that no-hitters are never mentioned until the final out, lest they be jinxed. But when Seager’s throw disappeared into first baseman Ryon Healy’s glove, the emotional lid blew off. “We were all out of our seats with tears in our eyes,” Ted told Bob Elliott of the Canadian Baseball Network. “There was a lot of hooting and hollering going on.” Not long afterwards, James’ younger brother Tom walked in the back door, after finishing his construction shift, eyes agog. “He was in the same bewildered state as the rest of us,” said Pops Paxton, who reminded Elliott that last week’s gem against the Jays was not his son’s first no-hitter. He tossed one against Ridge Meadows when he was 12 and still has the baseball at his home in Seattle.

Back at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, as low-key, modest and Canadian as possible under the circumstances, Paxton paid tribute to his team-mates for making his no-hitter possible with several outstanding fielding plays. Then he explained his heartfelt wave to the fans, despite all their Blue Jay jerseys: “I wanted to show my respect to the Canadian crowd, to show them I had heard them and I appreciated that…I’m just so honoured to be Canadian and throw our country’s second no-hitter. And to have it happen in Canada…I mean, what are the odds? This is very special.” He noted, ruefully, that the first time he pitched for the Mariners in Toronto he’d been clobbered for nine runs.

Paxton’s Canadian pride and purposeful maple leaf tattoo have led his Seattle team-mates to tag him with an actual nickname, beyond adding a lame “sy” to his name. He’s Big Maple. In the middle of the tattoo, as a further nod to his upbringing, there is a depiction of Bowyer Island, a wee isle five kilometres north of Horseshoe Bay, where his family had a cabin. “I’ve been living out of Canada for 10 years now, and it reminds me of my family and home.”

Canada has been a tad late to embrace the James Paxton story, perhaps because he plays for Seattle out on the west coast, far from the home of the Jays and the self-proclaimed “centre of the Canadian baseball universe”. Also diminishing his profile has been a frustrating series of injuries that have put him on the disabled list year after year. Until last year’s dozen victories, he had never managed more than six wins or better than 121 innings in a season. So the height of his pre-no-hitter fame may have been early this April, when a befuddled bald eagle lit down on Paxton’s right shoulder during the American national anthem. Video of the bizarre incident and the pitcher’s remarkable sangfroid were a huge hit on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hxnx_VbN2A8 Some have suggested the eagle may have been channeling the spirit of his grandfather Lawrie, who died the morning of his grandson’s first major league start.

As it happened, I was there for that memorable game in the fall of 2013. Not by design, but thanks to tickets bought months earlier to complement a planned trip Seattle by taking in nine innings at beloved Safeco Field, a ballpark I never tire of. Expecting little from a routine contest between the mediocre Mariners and anonymous Tampa Bay Rays, I’d been pleased to learn that a pitcher from the Fraser Valley would be making his first appearance in “the show” that night. Even though I hadn’t heard much about James Paxton it was something to look forward to. And a fellow I met in the washroom before the game, one of many rooters who’d made the trip down from Ladner, assured me that Paxton was the real deal, despite his indifferent 8-11 record at Triple A Tacoma. “He’s hot. You watch him tonight.” The urinal guy was right. Showing no sign of nerves, Paxton pitched like a veteran and won the game. The memorable evening was made even better by running into his brother and uncle at the game.

You can read what I wrote here:

https://mickleblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/09/kid-from-ladner-hits-the-big-time/

I’ve followed his career closely ever since. I even have an autographed James Paxton baseball jersey. He donated it to a fund-raiser for local recovery houses, and there was no way I was going to be outbid! Savvy investor that I am, it’s surely now gone up in value.

The no-hitter and all the ensuing attention could not have happened to a more deserving guy. For those who think professional athletes are little more than pampered zillionaires, Paxton’s life and times in baseball are a testament to perseverance and sheer, hard work. Nothing has come easily. He inched his way up the ladder, with time in North Delta, the University of Kentucky and Alaska, before moving on to the illustrious Grande Prairie HairHogs, Clinton LumberKings, Jackson Generals, and finally to Tacoma, hometown of Neko Case. Gradually, he learned the craft of pitching, beyond simply throwing. Then, just when he finally made the bigs, he was stricken by injury after injury. Only 13 starts in each of 2014 and 2015. In 2016, he was sent back down to Tacoma, before being recalled. Last year, after not yielding an earned run in three starts, he was on the disabled list once more. In July he was 6-0, when, right on cue, a “left pectoral muscle strain” sidelined him yet again. Talk about being star crossed.

But “quit” isn’t in Paxton’s vocabulary. He’s come back more times than that pesky skunk under the neighbour’s porch. And lately, something has seemed to click. The game before his no-hitter, he struck out 16 batters on a mere 105 pitches, a major league record. Is the young man from Lander at last on the verge of showing the baseball world what having an “Eh game” is all about.

 

** (The first hitless game by a Canadian in the majors was tossed by Dick Fowler agains the old St. Louis Browns, while pitching for 82-year old Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics on Sept. 9, 1945. Even more remarkable was the fact that Fowler’s feat came on his first start after spending three years in the Canadian army. There’s nothing quite like baseball.)

 

 

 

 

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SALUTING AND MOURNING THE PEERLESS, TWO-OF-A-KIND SEDINS

(Most pictures by me!)

The outpouring of admiration and affection for the incomparable Daniel and Henrik Sedin, as they played their final three games for the lowly Canucks, was like nothing I’ve witnessed in my more than half a century of following sports. Fans, scribes, commentators, competitors, all the way down to the referees and well, just about everyone, joined in the celebration and heartfelt farewells in a way that went beyond the usual tributes to the end of a great player’s career. They seemed to be an acknowledgment that, in the 100-year history of the National Hockey League, the Sedins were something special.

Image 22TImage 19They were not the equal of Howe, Gretzky, Lemieux, the Rocket, or some of the other NHL greats of the past, but they played the game as it had never been played. Their ability to find each other with a no-look perfect pass, whether behind the back, through a crowd or simply by directing the puck to a seemingly innocuous part of the ice where the other Sedin would suddenly appear was other-worldly. At times, they seemed hockey-playing aliens from another planet.

They did so without howitzer shots, blinding speed or bruising physical play, absorbing all the hacking and physical punishment from lesser players without retaliation.  Daniel and Henrik were the antithesis of Don Cherry and that old-school consensus of “the way the game should be played.” Rather they were all about Finesse. With a capital F.

Even during the Canucks’ difficult last few years and beginning to age, whenever the Sedins hit the ice, you knew there was still a possibility of magic, a play that left you gasping with its brilliance. It was a magic that came to be known as “Sedinery”, an uncanny combination of dexterity and puckwork that surely had something to do with the chemistry of being identical twins. At their peak, they made journeymen linemates into 30-goal scorers, if they knew enough to merely wait for the puck near the net, where one of the Sedins would find them with a pinpoint pass.

sedin-twins-nhl-gallery-6Yet it’s often forgotten that their success was far from immediate or inevitable. They were not Gretzky or Lemieux, who were dominant pretty much from game one. One look at the pair of red-cheeked, innocent-looking teenagers drafted by the Canucks, and you could see the problem. How could these seemingly fragile kids from beautiful Örnsköldsvik possibly survive the rough and tumble, often brutal NHL? During their sometimes difficult, early years, they were mocked by many. Belittlers included some so-called Vancouver sports personalities, who shamefully dubbed them “the Sedin sisters” for their endless cycling of the puck and allegedly being Swedish soft. They also took a beating on the ice. But they never whined, never complained. Their extraordinary strength of character saw them through it.

Realizing that what had worked in Sweden wasn’t going to cut it in the rough, tough NHL, through sheer hard work they gradually got it right, improving their skating and building up their strength and stamina. Teammates attested to their fitness. No one showed up at training camp in better shape, a status they maintained religiously throughout the rigours of an NHL season. While their artistry with the puck grabbed the headlines, few remarked on how many plays began with Daniel or Henrik using their physical strength and toughness to protect the puck in the corner or along the boards, before passing. I have never seen players more skilled at operating in such little open ice. By season four, their climb to hockey’s elite had begun. Even this year, at the age of 37, with an unending rotation of nondescript wingers, both still had more points than in any of those first four seasons with the Canucks.

Image 23.jpgOver the years, there were so many good times, so many nights when they would get on one of their dazzling cycles and absolutely mesmerize the other team, before chalking up another goal. In 2009-2010, Henrik won the scoring title and the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. The next year, not to be outdone by his older brother, younger Daniel also won the scoring title, plus the Ted Lindsay Award as most outstanding player. There were also the not so good times, of course, particularly the devastating loss in the seventh game of the 2011 Stanley Cup final. And the last few years have been a challenge. But through it all, they never shied from the media or making themselves accountable when they had not been at their best.

In the three games that followed their retirement announcement, the way opposing players waited patiently for a last handshake with the Sedins before heading to the dressing room attested to the great respect they engendered around the league, a respect that extended to rabid supporters of the hometown Edmonton Oilers. At the end of their final game, they kept cheering as Daniel and Henrik skated around the ice, as if they, too, could not bear to see the end of their special talents. And, lest we forget the incredible, rollicking send-off in Vancouver two night earlier. Not only were there ovation after ovation for the local heroes, Daniel scored the winning goal in overtime, setting off a roar the likes of which hadn’t been heard since the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs. It was his second goal of the game, each assisted, naturally, by Henrik, as the twins cranked up their game one last time for a story-book ending to their astounding careers.

The reception in both their home and enemy rinks was as much a recognition of the Sedins’ exemplary character. They didn’t trash talk, didn’t make excuses, didn’t bemoan bad luck. They both remain married to their high-school sweethearts and are raising their kids as normally as possible right here in Vancouver. They are common visitors to city hospitals and involved with select charities, without attracting attention to themselves. When the Sedins gave $1.5 million to BC Children’s Hospital, only at the insistence of the hospital was their donation made public.

Late in their final game against the Oilers, hearing broadcaster john Shorthouse announce for the zillionth time: “Daniel, back to Henrik, pass to Daniel…over to Henrik…”, a wave of sadness, swept over me, as it sank in just how much I will miss them. They were as much a part of Vancouver as the rain, unaffordable real estate prices and the North Shore mountains. Watching the Sedins over their 17 seasons with the boys of Orca is one of the absolute highlights of my many, many years as a hockey fan. I still can’t quite grasp the fact that the twins will not be lacing up their skates for another season, and sweaters 22 and 33 will be missing from the Canucks’ lineup for the first time this century. A magnificent chapter has closed, and we will never see its like again.

I do have one last, mischievous thought. For the longest time not even their coaches could tell the Sedins apart. Now that the tumult and the shouting have died, I can’t help wondering: did Daniel and Henrik ever switch jerseys, just for the fun of it?

Image 6.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

COURAGEOUS CANADIANS

This year, I thought, my lifelong love of the Olympics, was, if not at an end, under serious challenge. Pyeongchang? The site of the Games conjured up no vision at all. Nor, with newspapers and other media so reduced, was there any real build-up to these Winter Olympics to whet the appetite. Once Gary Kingston, the Vancouver Sun’s consummate chronicler of BC’s winter athletes, departed, coverage dropped to virtually zero. As for the Globe and Mail, my former paper has regularly sent a healthy contingent to the Olympics, including, on occasion, me. This year, the Globe opted for a small force of three, The late, dispiriting, get-out-of-jail-free card delivered to Russia’s organized dopers didn’t help. Given that, the lack of buzz and an awkward time difference of 17 hours, I was wondering how much of the Games I would watch at all.

I should have known better. Wednesday afternoon, more than a day before the lavish Opening Ceremonies even took place, where was I? Watching mixed Olympics curling. Although Canada eventually lost this strange, albeit fun hybrid of the roaring game to Norway, I was already back inside the tent, hooked once more.

As always, bold predictions for our Canadian athletes are trotted out before the Games begin. Inevitably, there are disappointments. Nothing in sports is quite like the pressure of the Olympics. With the proverbial whole world watching and the added burden of carrying the hopes of your country, which resolutely ignores you the rest of the time, a competitor get one chance every four years to come through. There is no wait ‘til next year. No wonder pressure claims so many victims, while relative unknowns, with nothing to lose, often emerge as surprise gold medalists. That’s why the drama of the Olympics is unsurpassed, and that’s why Canada’s first five medals at these Games – four silvers and a bronze — were so inspiring. Mark McMorris, Max Parrot, Ted-Jan Bloemen, Justine Dufour-Lapointe and Laurie Blouin: with everything on the line, all won their medals with truly courageous performances.

In men’s slopestyle, the fact Mark McMorris was even at Pyeongchang was one of the major stories heading into the Games. At Sochi in 2014, the legendary king of “big air” from flatland Saskatchewan had gutted out a miraculous bronze medal, despite fracturing a rib just two weeks earlier. In 2016, he was sidelined with a broken right femur. And then, a mere 11 months ago, snowboarding with some pals in Whistler’s backcountry, he slammed into a tree and nearly died. His injuries read like a doctor’s meat chart: broken jaw, broken arm, ruptured spleen, fractured pelvis, more rib fractures and a collapsed lung. The picture of McMorris in hospital, with bandages and a zillion hook-ups all over his battered body has gone viral.

Once out of hospital, McMorris undertook a rehab program so arduous as to be absurd. Defying predictions he might never snowboard competitively again, he was back at in late November. But how would he do at the Olympics, where pressure and competition are at their most intense? If there was any fragility left from his astounding crackup, now is when it would show. No worries. Mark McMorris came through with high-flying colours . His soaring stunts brought him so close to a storybook gold, he was almost disappointed at winning bronze, against odds no one but McMorris thought beatable that dark, terrifying day in Whistler. Two Olympics, two miracle podium finishes for Canada’s Bionic Man. Courage.

Slopestyle team-mate Max Parrot, whom many ranked ahead of McMorris, succumbed to the swirling winds, falling heavily on his first run, and then again on his second run. As he awaited a third and final attempt, Red Gerard, the 17-year old American kid, was on top, McMorris second. Parrot was nowhere. The last snowboarder in the competition, this was it. There was no margin for error. The next Olympics were four years distant. He looked out over the snow-swept terrain, the series of tricky rails and tall, launchpad jumps and the crowd far below. “I had a lot of pressure and my heart was beating really fast before starting on the course,” he recounted, later. It was all or nothing. And the 23-year old Quebecker nailed it. The second highest score among all contenders and a silver medal. As for those two falls: “I hit my head twice, pretty hard actually. My helmet made it possible for me to survive. I’m really happy.” Courage.

There is something so calm and mesmerizing about the 5,000 metres speedskating event. Competitors circle the gleaming oval track in perfect, rhythmic harmony, usually with one hand or two tucked comfortably behind their back, while their long, powerful strides propel them forward, lap after lap. It seems so effortless. As the race wears on, however, distance takes a toll. In order to have maximum energy at the end, when it counts, you need to set a perfect pace. Otherwise, you falter. You tighten up, fighting for every breath.

It happened to Ted-Jan Bloemen. The Dutchman-turned-Canadian was a pre-race favourite, but these were the Olympics, his first. After building a quick early lead over his Norwegian track partner, he began to struggle. With just a few laps to go, Bloemen had fallen behind. He seemed done. Yet somehow, from somewhere, he summoned an inner reserve of strength and began fighting back. When the two skaters crossed the finish line, his skate blade flashed across the line a miniscule, two one-thousandths of a second ahead. It brought him the silver medal, the first by a Canadian at that distance since the 1930’s. The Norwegian, Sverre Lunde Pedersen, was stunned. “I thought he was tired, too tired to skate fast at the end, but he came back,” he told reporters, afterwards. “That was impressive.” Blomen’s time was his fastest ever at that altitude.. “I got everything out of myself that I had.” Courage.

Four years ago, “les soeurs extraordinares”, as I called them, captivated the country at the Sochi Winter Olympics. Justine Dufour-Lapointe hurtled down the treacherous mogul course to a gold medal. Beside her on the podium, with a silver medal around her neck, was none other than her sister Chloe. Justine was 19, Chloe 22. It was perhaps the story of the Games, and I blogged excitedly about it here. https://mickleblog.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/gold-silver-and-sisters/

But four years is a long time to remain at the top. In 2017, the sisters’ beloved, supportive mother was diagnosed with cancer (now in remission). Nagged by worry, Justine’s results fell off. And Canada had a new moguls champion, Andi Naude from Penticton. Coming into these Olympics, few foresaw another podium finish for the emotional French-Canadian. But once again, at the critical moment…. Well, let Justine explain: “When I was up there I was just thinking, this is it. This is my last run. My moment. And I want to control it. Despite all the world watching me right now, it’s me who will decide what happens next.” Under the pounding pressure, when it counted most, she put everything together with a beautiful, aggressive run, snatching second place and a silver medal. This medal, she said, as tears mixed with snow streamed down her face, meant more to her than gold at Sochi. “This has been the hardest year of my life, a hurricane in our family,” Justine said, noting as well the competitive setbacks endured by her other sisters. “This is more than a medal. It is a victory for our family, and that’s what we are celebrating.” Courage.

For many Canadians, their first glimpse of this year’s Winter Olympics was a long-range shot of a large red sled transporting Canadian snowboarder Laurie Blouin off the course, after she crashed hard during training on the Games’ first day. Taken to hospital, she was soon released, but Canadian officials were mum about her injuries. It was left to Mark McMorris to reveal: “She whacked her noggin pretty good and cut up her face.” Yet Blouin somehow made it to Monday’s final, which was clouded by controversy. Fierce, gusting winds buffeted the snowboarders as they soared high into the sky, causing fall after fall, including Blouin on her first high-flying venture. But the event continued. Having already fallen once, with memories of her crash still fresh, would Blouin’s psyche be strong enough to brave more danger from the ferocious gales, described as “terrifying” by another Canadian slopestyler? You bet. A backside 720, a frontside 540, a solid landing from a cab underflip, and Laurie Blouin had a silver medal, just three days after her release from hospital. “I’m really stubborn,” the young Quebecker, displaying a sinister welt and prominent cut under her left eye, asserted to English-language reporters. “Is that how you say it?” Yes it is. Courage.

 

 

 

 

LOOKING BACK ON BASEBALL, AS THE COLD WINDS BLOW

And so baseball winter has begun, made even harsher by the tragic death of Roy Halladay. The hopeful breezes of spring, the lazy hazy crazy days of summer and the beautifully slanted light of fall have all departed from the diamond, leaving us to bundle up and shiver through the bleak wintry months of no baseball. In that sweet, far-off time when I was a kid, the Series was always over by the second week of October, in time for the players to do their fall hunting. Now, with so many wildcard and playoff games piled on, the Series stretches into November, as ridiculous a month as ever was for the summer game. In November, you don’t think baseball, you think winter.

There was hardly a “wow” ending. The highly-anticipated seventh game of the recent Series was drearier than opening a tin of sardines. To paraphrase noted St. Louis Cardinal fan T.S. “Tommy” Eliot, “This is the way the year ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.” After two dreadful stanzas by Yu “Non-Whirling” Darvish, the Astros were up 5-0. Yet we had to endure seven more innings of tedium in front of an increasingly morose  crowd, before the Dodgers officially surrendered, 5-1, and the Houston Astros, of all teams, were World Series champions. It was a forlorn anti-climax to a Series that had been such a wonderful reminder of the kind of drama and individual heroics only baseball can deliver. There were spells of off-the-wall craziness never before witnessed on a World Series diamond. So many records were shattered, it felt like Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in 1979. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1CP1751wJA)

The Series even started with a record. The thermometer for Game One at Chavez Ravine hit 103 degrees on the fuddy-duddy Fahrenheit scale, nine degrees higher than the previous heat standard (baseball has statistics on everything). Then Dodger leadoff hitter Chris Taylor homered on the very first pitch his team faced. Had that ever happened? Nope. Mind you, there have only been 113 previous World Series.

Game Two was so full of extraordinary happenings it could have been the Trump White House. But in a good way. All told there were eight home runs, including a seemingly impossible five in extra innings. Both were Series firsts, with the added fillip of the Dodgers, down to their last strike in the bottom of the 10th, tying the game on a rare single, struck by a guy who hit .a measly 215 during the year.

The next two games were close, well-played contests, setting the stage for what many have called a World Series game for the ages. When home runs stopped rocketing into the bleachers, when three-run leads on both sides stopped being erased with a swing of the bat, and the last beleaguered pitcher staggered off the mound, the score was 13-12. Someone did one of those momentum charts. It went up and down like a pogo stick. The game lasted five hours and 17 minutes. Something inside me wanted it to go on forever. And after all that slugging, the game ended in the 10th inning with the puniest of baseball rallies: a two-out hit batter, a walk and a single. These few lines simply can’t do justice to the abundance of thrills that took place. But for those who want to read a fulsome write-up of the game, here’s a wild account by my favourite baseball writer these days, Jonah Keri. https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/astros-dodgers-world-series-game-5-the-moments-that-made-us-lose-our-damn-mind/ Even the New Yorker’s Roger Angell, the best chronicler baseball has ever had, roused himself at the age of 97 to write about it. https://www.newyorker.com/news/sporting-scene/astros-dodgers-world-series-home-runs

When the last of the Dodgers fell, befitting the team’s first World Series in its 55-year history, the young Astros naturally went wild.  Shortstop Carlos Correa was so pumped, he proposed to his girlfriend right there on the field. Live, on TV. Another Series first!

For Vancouver baseball fans, however, this was old hat. We had our championship moment in the sun weeks ago. For the fourth time in seven years, the hometown Canadians hoisted the highly-esteemed Bob Freitas Trophy, emblematic of baseball supremacy in the Single A Northwest League. We made the Everett Aquasox suck, forced the Tri-City Dust Devils to eat dust, sent the Hillsboro Hops hopping, doused the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, polished off the Eugene Emeralds, made too much noise for Boise, and forced the Spokane Indians to change their name to the Indigenous People. It may not have been the World Series, but the exuberance and abandon of the young Canadians bouncing up and down on the field and frolicking around their championship trophy matched anything we saw in Los Angeles, albeit minus an engagement ring.

Minor league baseball is so much fun. Yes, Bull Durham had lots of other stuff going for it, but the charm of baseball’s best movie came mostly from its spot-on depiction of baseball in the minors, including the community’s loyal fan base (in the case of Annie Savoy, a bit more than “loyal”…). The movie gets it right. The way Vancouver has fallen in love with venerable Nat Bailey Stadium and its Single A Canadians, even lower on the Blue Jays’ farm team ladder than the Lansing Lugnuts, reminds one that money, hype and saturation, endlessly-analytical coverage aren’t everything in sports. Sometimes there’s just the joy of the game, itself.

I can’t remember having a bad time at Nat Bailey. It’s a place for families and kids, lifelong baseball fans, couples on a date, “bros” who just want to suck back a brew or two in the sun and, well, just about everyone. The entire park is a no-lout zone. This past summer was particularly splendid. Not only did the Canadians qualify for the playoffs before sell-out crowds, they won it all. I took in two of the games, including the one that brought the C’s their league championship in glorious September.

Both were tight, 2-1 victories, but the mood in the stands was anything but tense. During Game One, half a dozen women sitting behind me were having a grand time, chatting away and watching the game, too. (“Can you imagine trying to hit 94 mph?….Their pitcher looks 12….”) When a dude photo-bombed their selfie, they killed themselves laughing. As for my lonely guy self, I was able to muse once again on that baseball imponderable: why are there coaching boxes if the coaches are never in them? I also noticed with delight that a coach for the visitors was a fellow named Turtle Thomas.

The game went into the eighth inning, still scoreless, when the C’s Logan Warmoth, who had only one homer all year and whose older brother is a morning TV news anchor in Florida, unexpectedly lined the ball into the left-field stands for a two-run dinger, and we all went crazy. After a nerve-wracking ninth, the players ran onto the field, celebrating as if this really was the World Series.

The good times continued on the night Vancouver claimed the trophy. Three infectiously happy young Latina women in the next row kept up a steady din of cheering in Spanish, standing up to dance every time there was a hint of music. They really lit up whenever the C’s young Venezuelan third baseman Dieferson Barreto came to bat. “Number 5. He’s the best,” one told me. Sister, friend, partner? Who cares?

You knew it was going to be a special evening when perennial also-ran Wasabi won the Sushi Mascot Race. Once again, Logan Warmoth was the hero. The Canadians had only two hits all night, but Warmoth’s two-run single was one of them, and the home team held on to win. As the final batter went down on strikes, the players hurled their gloves into the air and rushed into each other’s arm. It was a joyous sight. No matter this was Single A, no matter the trophy was named after someone they had never heard of and no matter they were playing for a city in a foreign country with a Queen, the metric system and weird coins called loonies, they could not have been happier. Nor could we in the stands. No one wanted to leave.

 

(Photo by Megan Stewart)

 

 

 

 

THE GREATEST

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A tough week for us sports fans of another generation. Losing two great heroes of our youth: Muhammad Ali, and now, Gordie Howe (he never changed his name to Gordon..). This is about the champ.

It’s been said many, many times, but it remains true. Never again will we see the likes of Muhammad Ali. “For all you kids out there”, it’s difficult to convey just how dominant a figure he was during those first 20 years he reigned as by far the most beloved and admired athlete in the world. Evidence of his unsurpassed skill and courage in the ring are easily found on YouTube. And most accounts written after Ali’s death relate in great detail his bold, in-your-face defiance of white America. He stuck it to “the man’, as few had before, with his loudly-proclaimed conversion to the radical Black Muslims, his name change from Cassius Clay to (gasp) Muhammad Ali, announced while standing beside Malcolm X (another gasp), and most of all, his willingness to go to jail rather than be sent to Vietnam to kill people “who never called me nigger”.

Still, it’s not really possible to capture just what it was like to actually experience those years, when Clay/Ali bestrode the world like the proverbial colossus. With his flashing fists, dancing feet and outrageous, versified braggadocio, he opened up the narrow, closed confines of boxing to the great beyond, as no one had before. The charged anticipation for every one of his big fights was unsurpassed. It was as if a cloak had been thrown over everything else going on, except for Ali’s showdowns against Sonny Liston, or Joe Frazier, or George Foreman. Everyone listened, watched on big pay-for-view screens, or followed round-by-round dispatches sent out by the wire services. Long before social media, we were a global Ali community.

Nor can one quantify the extent of outrage and villification that spewed down on Ali when he turned his back on everything American. Even those who loved him as a boxer were confused by his decision to join the Black Muslims, an extremist, black separatist group led by the shadowy Elijah Muhammad, who was a long way from Martin Luther King. Yet, with everything to lose, and it did cost him big, Ali stood up for his rights as a black man, loudly and unabashedly, and was hated for it. No wonder he feared for his life.

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(The famous cover from Esquire.)

It was only after he returned to the ring, three and a half years after his title was taken away for refusing induction into the armed forces, that sentiment began to soften. He was now admired, rather than loathed, for remaining true to his convictions, and for his renewed prowess in the ring. No longer able to float like a butterfly and sting like bee, he harnessed raw courage, tactical brilliance, and a frightening ability to take a punch that almost certainly contributed to the Parkinson’s Disease that finally silenced him to claim the heavyweight crown two more times. From the dusty villages of Africa, to the streets of Iraq, to the halls of presidents, he was celebrated and loved. It’s a lesser world without him, even reduced as he was over the years by the relentless scourge of his illness.

I saw Muhammad Ali, once. It was in Pyongyang in 1995, at the strangest event I’ve ever been at. For reasons known only to its alien-like leaders, the crackpot regime of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea staged a series of professional wrestling bouts before upwards of 150,000 bewildered North Koreans at the city’s massive public stadium. They called it the Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace. Participants were all from the Japanese wrestling circuit. They included the usual gang of archetypal villains in evil, spiked costumes, tough-looking women with blue hair, Canadian Chris Benoit, the legendary Ric Flair and Antonio Inoki, the most famous grappler in Japan.

The matches took place in almost total silence, as spectators had no idea what to make of competitors slamming their opponents’ head into ring posts, jumping on them from the top of the ropes, or hurling them out of the ring and stomping on them. The only hook for the absurd event seemed to be a tenuous connection between North Korea and Antonio Inoki. His early mentor was Rikidozan, founder of professional wrestling in Japan, who happened to have been born in what became North Korea. That was enough for Rikidozan to qualify as a national hero and for the wacky poobahs of DPRK to stage an entire festival around the first showdown beween Ric Flair and Inoki. Most of the Beijing press corps, complete with cameras, microphones and tape recorders, were among the select group of “tourists” invited to attend.

Just when I thought Wrestling Night in Pyongyang couldn’t get any more bizarre, they announced the presence of Muhammad Ali. But of course. Wasn’t he the world’s greatest athlete, North Korea the world’s greatest country, and the Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace the world’s greatest festival? To the organizers, it made perfect sense. Besides, Ali had once fought Inoki, himself. In the most ridiculous match of all time, Inoki spent all 15 rounds on the mat trying to kick his opponent’s legs, while Ali threw a grand total of six punches. You can look it up. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3vOssizwW4

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Anyway, there was Ali, unmistakeable in the stands. The crowd applauded politely, not quite sure how to greet a representative of the “Yankee wolf”, as English phrase books in North Korea labeled the USA. The champ half stood up and gave a half wave. Even from far away, I was thrilled.

All of which is a long-winded introduction to something I wrote a couple of years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Ali first great victory, his upset over the feared Sonny Liston to give him his first heavyweight championship. Looking back, I still find it hard to believe someone as wonderful and outlandish as Muhammad Ali really existed. As my original blog confesses, however, I was one of Cassius Clay’s many early doubters, a belief that socked me right in the wallet. But I was so spurred by the magnitude of his triumph that I tried a bit of Clay doggerel, myself, for the school yearbook. May you survive it, and may Muhammad Ali be sitting on the right hand of the black God he worshipped. We will never forget him.

SONNY LISTON OWES ME BIG

Fifty years ago today, I turned on the radio, smug in the belief that this was going to be the easiest dollar I ever made. That brash, upstart, crazy Cassius Clay was finally going to get his long overdue comeuppance, his taunts and boasts rammed down that big throat of his by the meanest, scariest fighter who ever lived, Sonny “The Bear” Liston.

An ex-con whose baleful scare frightened even hardened sportswriters was violence personified in the ring, Liston had twice taken on the skilled, much-loved former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. Patterson didn’t make it past the first round in either fight, hammered early to the canvas both times by Liston’s murderous fists. Few fighters dared to face him, despite the big payday of a heavyweight championship match.

Not so, Cassius Clay (the “slave name” that he later changed to Muhammad Ali….you may have heard of him…). Just 22, with thefastest mouth in showbiz but a spotty  record of dispatching ho-hum opponents, Clay had the audacity to challenge the seemingly invincible  Liston.  Not only that, he openly and repeatedly taunted Liston, even yelling at him outside his house in the middle of the night. An even-keel Liston was frightening, enough. Now, the Louisville Lip had made him mad. Yikes.

Some worried Clay might not even survive the fight, and just about everyone expected Liston to pulverize him in short order. Everyone, that is, except my friend Gary Toporoski, a bit of a loud-mouth in his own right. (sorry, Gary…). “Topper” was completely convinced Cassius Clay really was “gonna whup that big ugly bear”.  Why? Well, it seems he had seen Cassius Clay’s guest appearance on a CFTO sports show, and Clay started the show by flicking an array of lightening jabs at the camera.  “He’s sooo fast,” said my enthralled Newmarket High School friend. “There’s no way Liston can beat him. He’s too slow.”

I told him he was nuts. We decided to bet on the fight, something I’d never done before. In fact, I was so confident Liston would prevail, I even gave Toporoski the going 7-1 odds. His dollar against my seven.  I had already decided to treat myself to a hamburger at the Newmarket Grill with my big winnings. Instead, of course, I ate crow.

With a heavy but wiser heart, I handed Gary seven smackers (a lot of money in them there daze) at school the next day. He only said “I told you so” about 84 times. I’ve never bet on a match since.

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Months later, still stung, I burst forward into doggerel for the 1964 school yearbook. Move over, Longfellow.

THE INCREDIBLE UPSET

The Bear was ugly, mean and detested.

Only once in a fight had he been been bested.

The Louisville Lip had no more chance

To whip the Bear than the Premier of France.

 

But came that decisive night in Miami,

Cassisus Clay had some sort of whammy.

For he blasted the myth that the Bear was too strong.

He proved he could box, as well as talk long.

 

In the fifth, when not a thing could he see,

He displayed some footwork that baffled Sonny.

With a continual jab and by dancing around,

The man with the mouth survived that tough round.

The Bear was a Cub by the end of round six.

The fans in the Hall began to yell “Fix!”.

For he threw in the towel to the man he despised,

And Cassius Clay had our opinions revised.

 

He floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.

His speed had conquered the ferocious Sonny.

Clay’s gift of the gab was far from the latest,

But who could deny that he was “the greatest”?

— Montana Worthlesswords (c’est moi)

Here’s the famous fight that made losers out of both Sonny Liston and me.

 

 

SONATAS SCORE BIG, SUPER BOWL BLANKED

187463564The treasured Leila Getz, described in the program as “Head Honcho” of the Vancouver Recital Society, welcomed us with her usual enthusiasm. “Thank you for choosing András Schiff over the Super Bowl. The magic begins.” And indeed, it did.

Moments later, the stately, 62-year old master pianist, wearing a knee-length black tunic, walked out from the wings, acknowledged our applause, sat down on the cushioned bench, rested his hands on the top of the piano for 20 seconds of contemplation, and began to play.

While gazillions tuned into the greatest annual event in the history of the world, aka the Super Bowl, which surpasses even the Eurovision Song Contest in global importance, I sat entranced, with hundreds of others at the packed Vancouver Playhouse, for Schiff’s virtuoso recital. And to think, my first reaction when I discovered the cultural conflict between Super Bowl L and this long-ago booking was to ditch Schiff.

How could this life-long sports fan not prefer the performance of helmeted, gridiron goliaths bashing away at each other during those engaging snatches of football sandwiched between eight hours of commercials? Luckily, after one unsuccessful attempt to unload my Schiff ducat, I came to my senses. Denver and Carolina? Snore me big. Plus, I had PVR. András Schiff, it was.

The program by the renowned Hungarian-born maestro, no “hairy hound from Budapest” he, was sublime, even to these unclassical ears. Entitled The Last Sonatas, the program featured four pieces of music by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Schubert, all written during the composers’ final year of life. So there was a poignancy to them, too.

Still, I couldn’t help thinking of the Super Bowl, and how glad I was to be missing it. For one thing, András Schiff played 90 minutes straight. No half-time. Not a single time-out. No five-minute break for commercials every time he switched composers. Lovely. And mesmerizing.

Furthermore, what happened on the keyboard was easily the equivalent of what was taking place on the football field. You don’t believe me? You think a sonata is just a sonata? Take a gander at the commentary by wordsmith extraordinaire Donald G. Gislason in the programme notes.

Which is better? Another lame pass by Peyton Manning or the Star Wars-tinged Allegreto from Mozart’s Sonata in B flat major K. 570 “with its recurring tick-tock beat, [summoning] up the mechanical world of clockwork music, and [featuring} some robotic C-3PO-style humour in its cosmic leaps and mock-confused meanderings of imitative counterpoint”? To say nothing of Mozart’s ability to provide more than taco chips and chili at halftime. “[He is] like a celebrity chef challenged to create a multi-course meal using only a few ingredients,” Gislason tells us. “Mozart is masterfully economic in this movement, constantly re-using his material over and over again, making garnish and main course at will.”

I was hardly sorry to have missed all those third-and-outs by Manning and “Fig” Newton, when I got to hear the second movement from Franz Schubert’s Sonata in A Major D. 959: “A tour de force of compressed emotional energy that explodes into near-chaos in its middle section. It opens with a simple, sparsely textured, repetitive lament that circles fretfully round itself like a madman rocking back and forth in his hospital chair. More wide-ranging harmonic ravings lead to an outburst of unexpected violence and eventually to a dramatic confrontation.” Just like Von Miller taking down Carolina’s haughty, pouting quarterback.

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And okay, there have been worse half-time shows than Beyoncé, the Mars guy and Coldplay, but Beethoven’s Sonata in A flat major Op. 110 gave them a pretty good run for the money. “Beethoven lards his first section with rhythmic irregularities, dynamic surprises, dramatic pauses, and other raw signifiers of loutish humour,” enthuses Gislason. “The central section continues the mayhem with a series of tumble-down passages high in the register, rudely poked from time to time by off-beat accents”. With the added thrill of “[hearing] the same major chord, repeated over and over, getting louder and louder, leading back to the fugue theme…” A true pop sonata by that 57-year old hipster, Ludwig van. I slay, indeed….

So, all in all, with the help of a few, pretty fair country composers, András Schiff was my Super Bowl MVP, man of the match in every way. (In fact, the Stupor Bowl, still plodding along when I got home, was so boring, I wound up switching to curling, as its no offense and numbingly-long commercial breaks came to a stultifying close.)

I never bothered with the PVR.

 

DAN HALLDORSON, AN UNSUNG STAR OF CANADIAN GOLF

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You probably missed it, but one of my favourite golfers recently shuffled off this mortal coil. In fact, most of you probably don’t even have a favourite golfer. But never mind.

Apart from that, the reason you may not have noticed his demise, is that Dan Halldorson, tragically done in by a stroke at 63, defined the phrase “low profile”. Not only was he a Canadian professional golfer before Mike Weir, he had the on-course charisma of a dozing accountant. Not many noticed him during his golfing career, and after he retired, he was soon unjustly forgotten. Me, I loved the guy.

There was something so unassuming about Dan Halldorson, so unlike any other golfer on the PGA tour. Shunning the flashy polyester slacks and other riotous garb of the time, Dan preferred loose, almost baggy, dark pants. When the weather fell below 80 degrees, he often donned a formless sweater that might have been picked up on sale at The Bay. With his dour moustache, photo gray glasses and a thin expression that never seemed to change, whether he was shooting 80 or 65, he trudged around the golf course, as if fearing the worst on every shot.

Yet, in one of those unfathomable attachments that makes being a sports fan so much fun, I became a huge fan of Dan the Man. Long before the days of instant leaderboard updates, I would scrutinize the tiny agate roundup of the latest PGA tournament every Monday in the paper to see how Dan did. If he made the cut and pocketed a nice cheque, it cheered me up.

Maybe it was the fact that I love underdogs, and Dan Halldorson woofed with the best of them. He had none of that year-round golf on immaculate, sun-bathed courses, college scholarships, coaching and every other advantage that characterizes the competitive background of so many American pros. Dan grew up in dusty, nondescript Shilo, Manitoba, never went to college, and scratched around on the  barebones Canadian tour, before making it to the glamorous PGA tournaments through hard work, grit and determination. His career was a triumph of will over adversity.

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Despite missing more half-way cuts than Boo Weekly, plagued by a bad back and terrible attacks of eczema, Dan survived for more than 15 years on the toughest tour in golf. Even after he won the Pensacola Open in 1980, he never seemed to emerge from the fog into the sunlight. When he earned the biggest pay cheque of his career, a princely $88,000 for finishing second in a tournament 11 years later, Dan admitted afterwards: “I was totally confused out there.”

That tournament was a bonanza for Halldorson watchers. For the first time in a while, he was in contention. As the final holes approached, the American TV announcers were forced to talk about him. However, it was clear they knew almost nothing about this strange golfer from Canada, lurking behind those glasses. He seemed to belong on the other side of the spectator ropes, rather than vying for the lead. Finally, after an awkward pause, commentator Arnold Palmer offered: “Dan’s a fine player.”

Our man from Shilo approached the 16th hole, only a stroke or two out of the lead. But two bad shots left him with a short tap-in for a bogey. Unbelievably, his 18-inch putt slid by the hole.  Dan’s shoulders drooped as sadly as his moustache. He staggered off to the difficult 17th hole, a long par 3.

An indifferent tee shot left him about 8 miles from the hole. He let fly his mammoth putt. The ball scooted all the way across the green, over dips and dales and a break or two. And then, miraculously, it plopped into the hole. A completely improbable birdie. Too much. Dan’s reaction? He smiled slightly and headed to the 18th hole.

In a way, those two holes were typical of Dan Halldorson on the course. You just never knew what he was going to do. Likely, he didn’t either. Two examples. At the Canadian Professional Golf Association championship late in his career, competing against a bunch of fellow Canadians who could barely carry his bag, the veteran PGA tour competitor shot an opening round 80. That’s right, 80! Did Dan think of finally quitting this “crazy game of golf”? Nope. In the second round, he carded a 67. How can a golfer improve by 13 strokes in a single round?

A bit later, at the Greater Milwaukee Open, Dan was lights out for the first nine holes, shooting an incredible 29, seven under par. With visions of a 59 inevitably dancing in his head, Dan proceeded to shoot 39 on the back nine, a swing of 10 strokes. Then, after barely making the cut, while almost every other player was battering the relatively easy course with under par rounds, Dan shot 77, by far the day’s worst score. He plummeted to the bottom of the leaderboard. But Dan was ever a never-say-die kind of guy. On the final round, despite bad weather and difficult pin positions, Dan shot 67. He still finished last. But what a ride.

There’s little doubt that his many health problems were a major reason for these wild swings from wonderful to wobbly. If his back was feeling good, look out! If it was out of sorts, look out below!

Yet, besides his PGA tour win, Dan won two World Cup Championships, partnered with Jim Nelford and then Dave Barr, a few other miscellaneous tournaments, and compiled 28 top 10 finishes on the PGA tour. Said Canadian Tour one-time winner Adam Speith: “My dad used to tell me I was a ball-striker. After watching Dan, I guess it explains why I’m in advertising now.”

Added former pro Ian Leggatt: “I think it’s unfortunate really that a lot of people don’t know the amazing career that he had in the game of golf….But that was Dan’s thing. He never talked about himself. He was always more concerned about how everyone else was doing.”

Soft-spoken, modest to a fault, and a huge supporter of Canadian golf, Dan Halldorson was a class act all the way.

RIP, Dan. Gone too soon.

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