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)

 

 

 

 

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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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TORONTO BLUE JAYS, RIP. A FAN’S LAMENT

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And so it ends, as it almost does in baseball when you embrace a team, with heartache and a taste of bitterness. After a magical, three-month run that delivered such delirious thrills and joy to me and millions of others across the country, the Toronto Blue Jays are gone, leaving players and fans to agonize over what might have been.

It happens every year. Teams get so close to the final hurdle, only to falter at the finish line. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t be sports, and everyone’s team would win every year. In baseball, only one team out of 30 wins the World Series. How often is it the team you root for? The Cubs haven’t won since 1908, the Red Sox went 90 years without winning, Seattle and San Diego have never come close. Dare I mention the Expos (sigh)? Often, their losses go right to the heart.

Even this year, consider the Texas Rangers. Once a strike away from winning the World Series before collapsing, in the deciding fifth game against the Jays, they took a one-run lead into the bottom of the seventh inning. Whereupon, they committed three straight errors on routine grounders to throw the game away. And over in Houston, the young, fun-loving Astros blew a four-run lead in the eighth inning of their do-or-die showdown against, yes, Kansas City. How do you think their fans feel?

Now it’s our turn. Almost better to go down in a dispiriting 6-1 loss, than to cough it up the way the Jays did on Friday night, falling down on good old baseball fundamentals. Jose Bautista throwing to the wrong cutoff guy, as the winning run scored. Going an unforgiveable 0 for 12 with runners in scoring position. Failing to get down a bunt. The ninth inning was worst of images-2all, when the Jays appeared poised for yet another gritty comeback. Down a run, speedster Dalton Pompey stole second, then third, with none out. (As an aside, I was at the BC Lions game, amid a group of fans all following the Jays on our iPhones. The cry went up simultaneously: “Pompey stole third!”. I love this country…) But his razzle dazzle boldness on the base path went for naught. The next three Jays couldn’t deliver in the clutch, helped not at all by the umpire’s atrocious called strike on Ben Revere. Pompey was left on third, and Toronto went quietly into that good night. Losing a critical game you were so close to winning and could, should, have won, after Bautista’s heroics at the bat, leaves a real pain in ye old ticker. You could sense it in the players, too.

That’s the thing with baseball. You really have to love it to keep coming back. Truly, there is no sport like it. Hockey, football, basketball are slam-bang, fast-action affairs, ruled by a clock. There are only so many ways to score, and the team with the most points at the end of an hour’s playing time wins. Pretty basic. But in baseball, a zillion things can happen on every pitch. Often, the key play is some little tweak of brilliance that pales in grandeur to the mighty home run. And of course, as we know, there is no clock in baseball. In a big game, tension builds and builds to an almost unbearable level. As the final innings crawl by, most of the time is spent in dread, waiting, with no idea of what will happen next. After all that, when one cares as deeply as we did about the Blue Jays, losing such a tight, winnable game to an admittedly solid Kansas City club was tough to take. I spent the night tossing and turning, the game still whirling around in my head. If only this…If only that…

But man, overall, what an amazing season. The Blue Jays’ transformation into a can’t-lose, baseball powerhouse, after the acquisition of Troy Tulowitzki, Revere and David Price, was as much fun as this lifelong fan has had in a long, long time. And my screams when Bautista smashed that epic three-run homer against Texas, followed by the bat flip seen round the world….well, that’s baseball, too. An up and down escalator of emotions.

Like no other, baseball is a seasonal game. Hope in the spring, the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, expiring in the deepening chill of fall, with a long winter to recover. I’ve been hooked since I first discovered baseball cards and the Brooklyn Dodgers. So, despite the unbearable heaviness of losing, I’ll be back next year. But it still hurts.

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THOUGHTS OF SPACEMAN BILL

Suddenly, baseball is fun again, at least if you’re a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays. Although the Montreal Expos remain closest to my heart, I still root for the Jays. Those World Series years of 1992-93 were wonderful. (Devon White!) Of course, it’s been mighty lean pickings, since then. Now, finally, as they tussle with the hated Yankees for first place, Canada is back on the Jays’ bandwagon,

With this renewed whiff of baseball in the air, I offer a special Mickle treat for Canadian ball fans, especially those who remember the Expos from 1979, when they first drove for the pennant, and 1981, when they fell an inning short of the World Series, done in by Rick Monday’s cruel home run off Steve Rogers, a starting pitcher inextricably brought in to pitch the ninth by manager Jim Fanning.

Our guide is the one and only Spaceman, the irrepressible Bill Lee. I talked to him last spring. We focused on one particular game the team won against the Pirates late in 1979, thanks to a pinch-hit double by unknown John Tamargo. We also weighed in on Rick Monday’s mortal blow. According to the Spaceman, Fanning should have let him pitch, not Rogers.

Just back from Cuba, Lee was up in Courtenay, where he’d overseen a weekend baseball school for oldtimers, organized by his good friend, former IWA activist Sy Pederson. That’s pretty well how the 68-year old, one-of-a-kind, endearingly-off beat southpaw makes his living these days. He barnstorms. When he talks, there’s never a dull moment. So sit back and enjoy his his style of candid banter that remains unique in the world of baseball.

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(Bill Lee and Sy Pederson)

Bill: It’s been a rough winter (back east). I lost my voice, but I’m getting over it. It’s because I talk too much.

Me: We’ve had crazy warm weather. You’re a lucky man to be here.

Bill: Yeah, I am. It’s unbelievable how beautiful it is. And we played ball. We had a good time. I’m heading back to Sechelt tomorrow.

Me: Why don’t you stay around?

Bill: Well, I’ve gotta thing…I think it’s called work.

Me: Oh, that.

Bill: Yeah, it’s a weird thing people have to do every Monday through Friday, which I tend to do Friday through Sunday. I work weekends.

Me: You call baseball work?

Bill: Well, I do. Like today, I threw, and I taught a lot of these guys a lesson, about why they don’t quit their day jobs. They found out they couldn’t hit a 70-year old. Then the mayor here, the mayor of Comox, threw to me, and I hit some bullets. He had an Expos uniform on. I said: “You realize, I’ve never hit off an Expos pitcher before.”

Me: Now you know how Mike Schmidt felt.

Bill: Yeah, the first ball I hit went over the right fielder’s head up against the wall, next to his house. I said: “You better move farther back, or I’ll wear your house out.”

Me: Actually, you were a pretty good hitter, weren’t you?

Bill: Yep, and I’m a pretty good hitter right now, because the pitching around me is getting old.

Me: So, let’s talk about the 1979 Expos. There had been all those doubleheaders, but you went into Pittsburgh on top.

Bill: It was the rainiest season, and it cost us because of (Dan) Schatzeder’s performance in Atlanta, when we had a five-run lead in the fifth, and he couldn’t get the third out. That’s the game that killed (manager) Dick Williams. He remembers that game as the coup de grace, not the Pirate games.

Me: I’m thinking of a specific game. You went into Pittsburgh for that series in late September, half a game in front. It started with a twi-night double-header. The Expos got thumped in the first game and were losing 6-3 late in game two. It looked bad.

Bill: Oh, that’s the game (John) Tamargo got the big hit in the eighth inning. That was a great game. (Stan) Bahnsen had to pitch in both games, and (Ross) Grimsley came in in relief…

Me: Your memory is amazing.

Bill: I remember every time we battled back against Pittsburgh. But the game you should look up is that game where williamstwo584Schatzeder only went four and two-thirds. He complained his spikes were muddy, asked for a tongue depressor, couldn’t throw, walked the next guy, and the umpires got mad and called it a wash-out. We had to fly back to Atlanta to replay that game. If we get that out and win that game, then we’re tied with Pittsburgh, and don’t have to go back to Atlanta and play a doubleheader. Look it up. That game broke Dick Williams’ heart. I was sitting next to Dick. I was going to run out and grab the ball from Schatzeder and just say, “Lets go.” I wasn’t even going to warm up. “Give me the goddamned ball, and I’ll get the last out.” I was a great mudder. Schatzeder was a great athlete and a good hitter, but he was stupid that night.

Me: All those doubleheaders in a row were crazy.

Bill: The rain was really nasty. I remember I’d thrown the first three innings in a game, and there was a rain delay. I fell asleep under a table in the family area. Kids were dancing on top of me, jumping up and down. I was sleeping under the table, with my shoes sticking out, like the Wicked Witch of the West when the house fell on her. They wake me up, I go out there, do my running, 50,000 fans are cheering. I start doing long toss to (Gary) Carter. Every pitch, I get a cheer. I go out to the mound and they cheer me on. I pitch into the ninth inning. We win the ball game and they carry me off the field.

Me: Going back to that other game, who’d even heard of Tamargo?

Bill: I’ll tell you, Dick Williams was a genius. He had Tamargo. He had Jerry White, (Tom) Hutton. He always had three or four left-handed hitters. He had switch-hitters, too. Tamargo was a switch-hitter. White switch-hit. Hutton hit left-handed. Then he had (Dave) Cash who could hit right-handed. And he had Rodney Scott, also a switch-hitter. Then he had a complement of left-handed and right-handed relievers, so he could make moves other teams couldn’t. That’s what set Dick Williams apart.

Me: Yet you guys didn’t like him very much.

Bill: Oh, we hated him, but we respected him. Everybody liked (manager Jim) Fanning, but didn’t respect him. Well, a lot of us didn’t even like him….In ‘81, when (Rick) Monday hit the home run, it just broke my heart, because I had warmed up on my own and tapped my cap. Fanning went to the mound. He could have taken Rogers out. Instead he walked back with his hands in his pants, grabbing his nuts. He could have brought me into the game to face Rick Monday. Then we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

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Me: I said at the time it was a mistake to bring Rogers in.

Bill: We all knew that. He didn’t call out to the bullpen to get a lefthander to warm up. I warmed up on my own. People don’t remember this, but Ron Cey hit the first pitch from Rogers 400 feet down the left field line. It was foul by three inches. They had already lit him up. We knew it. I knew it. I was in the bullpen. I saw him warm up. I saw him labour. He couldn’t get loose.

Me: Well, he wasn’t a relief pitcher.

Bill: It took him forever to warm up, and he wasn’t ready.

Me: Let’s go back to 1979.

Bill: We were a team of comebacks, a team of long-haired, hippy freaks that no one wanted. I came to spring training with long hair and a beard. I was arrested. Did you know that? I was brought by police to the park and they wouldn’t let me in. It wasn’t until (Warren) Cromartie said: “No, no, that’s Bill Lee, the new pitcher we signed.” I had a back pack, army fatigues, cut-off shorts, coming to spring training, with long hair and a beard. I was going through a rough time. I was looking the way I felt. And Dick Williams gave me a shot.

Me: You had a great year.

Bill: I had a tremendous year. For a guy who had a bad arm, I went out and I dealt. That’s what I call it. Dealing. Dick source_743_16527-849x1024Williams stuck with me. Here’s a great story you don’t know. The year before, I am 10 and 6. I lose four tough games and (Red Sox manager Don) Zimmer, The Gerbil, benches me for the rest of the season. I was 10 and 10. I go to Montreal, I’m 10 and 6. I lose four tough games. Williams comes to me and says, “Bill, I’m still committed to you. You’re going to be my starter for the second half of the season. Don’t get depressed.” This was at the all-star break. I went out and I won my last six games. That’s the difference between Don Zimmer and Dick Williams.

Me: It was amazing to put Tamargo, a .230 hitter, into that clutch situation.

Bill: He was a good pinch hitter. Williams knew talent. He knew guys with guts, guys who wanted to go to the plate, guys who didn’t want to go to the plate, guys who didn’t want the baseball. We had to win that game. We were battlin’. But all that energy and stuff didn’t help us the next two games. We just couldn’t beat the Pirates. The following year, Bahnsen gives up the home run to Schmidt, and we lose to the Phillies. And then Monday hits the home run, and we lose to the Dodgers.

Me: I’m laughing, but I’m really crying.

Bill: Well, you’re right. Those are the three things that stick in my craw.

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Me: All those great young players. 1979 was the first year the Expos really gelled.

Bill: They had attitude. Dick Williams brought me in specifically, because he knew that I was a winner. A competitor. We were a contender for three years, and I believe I was responsible for some of that.

Me: The team won 17 out of 18 games down the stretch in 1979. Close again in 1980, and one bad pitch away in 1981.

Bill: Rogers was a great starter, a great competitor. He just didn’t like Dick Williams, which was too bad, because I think that was instrumental in Fanning coming in. The wrong person. After Fanning arrived, we’d lost three in a row, and Cromartie calls a team meeting, just players.  He goes: “Anyone know where Dick Williams lives?” And I stand up, and I chew the whole team out. “You guys hated Dick Williams. You don’t know how good you had it. He was a pain in the ass, but at least he knew how to manage. Fanning can’t manage his way out of a paper bag. If you guys want to win this, you’ve got to do it yourself, and don’t put Fanning in a position to beat you.” Managers don’t win games, they lose games. Players win games. So I yelled at the team, and I told Cromartie to go sit down. I was the rebel guy who stood up and put everybody in their place.

Me: Did you like the guys on the team?

Bill: Oh yeah, I liked ‘em. As (John) Milner said, I was the only white guy allowed in the back of the bus.

Me: 1979 was so much fun. It was beyond expectations. They just got on a roll.

Bill: It was their first great year, and I feel very proud to be instrumental in that. My locker was over on the black side, between Rodney Scott, Andre Dawson, Cromartie and all the guys. All the rednecks, the white guys, were over there. We had an apartheid dressing room. Except for me. I insisted on taking my locker and sticking it right in the middle of the black guys.

Me: But didn’t the players get along, generally?

Bill: No, they didn’t. You had red necks. You had Andre, a nice guy, but he was so quiet he wouldn’t say shit if his mouth was full of it. Cromartie was the loudmouth. He was like a court jester. He would say stuff that nobody understood. Then I would get up and try and interpret what he said.

Me: What about Carter?

Bill: Carter was over there. Me, me, me, I. He was “the Kid”, just an excitable boy. He would sell a load of horseshit, if it fell off on the 401.

Me: And Tony Perez…

Bill: Great guy. Great clutch hitter. You had Rudy May, you had me. You had four lefthanders, four righthanders. Dick Williams knew how to manage. He finally had a team, and he had young guys. (Tim) Raines wasn’t on that team.

Me: Well, he came up at the end of the year, but he couldn’t hit. He was petrified.

Bill: You’re exactly right. He was over-awed. It happened to Mickey Mantle, too, when he first came up.

Me: How was Cuba, by the way?

Bill : I just got back. I was there when (Yoan) Moncada got signed by the Red Sox. I gave him my bats. I was there for the tryout. I’ve got four teams from Cuba in Halifax for the summer to play ball. I’ll be coaching up there. We want friendship first, competition second, between Cuba and Canada. Both great countries.

Me: And you tolerate Sy (Pederson)….

Bill: Sy and I are just a couple of union rabble-rousers. Workers of the world, unite! (Laughs heartily.)

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THE GOOD OLD BASEBALL GAME

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One of my favourites among the many things Yogi Berra never said is: “There’s one word that describes baseball: you never know.” Like so many Berra-isms (“It gets late early out there.”), it has a wisdom all its own. For it really is one of the great things about baseball: you just never know.

So many sports have a sameness to them, and I don’t mean that as a knock. I’m a huge hockey fan, but basically, the players go up and down the ice trying to score. It’s pretty basic. How many Kevin Bieksa-type stanchion goals are there in a season? Not so with baseball. It’s been played for more than 125 years, and you can still go the ballpark and see something that’s never happened before. Last year, at Safeco Field, I saw the left fielder throw out a runner at first (explanation available on request). On the scoreboard, it was listed as “grounded out to left field”. Surely, a first. And just a few days ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates turned, after all these years, baseball’s first ever, 4-5-4 triple play. (http://thebiglead.com/2015/05/10/the-pittsburgh-pirates-turned-the-first-4-5-4-triple-play-in-mlb-history-last-night/)

So it was last Friday night at warm and fuzzy Safeco Field in Seattle, where we journeyed to watch the hometown Mariners take on the visiting big bad Boston Bruin, er Red Sox. There was nothing as historic as the Pirates’ bizarre triple play, although the infield shift against veteran Boston slugger Big Papi (aka David Ortiz) did produce a pretty rare, 6-5-3 double play. But it was another example of how a game can lumber along, high on the snooze chart, and then, all of a sudden….well, you just never know.

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Big Papi (6’4”, 230 pounds) was a major reason we were there. One of these years will be his last in the big leagues, and maybe it’s this one. Baseball’s best ever designated hitter and an incomparable clutch hitter will be 40 in November, and the diabolical shift applied against him must take a lot of the fun out of the game. Both the shortstop and the second ortiz-red-soxbaseman crowd the infield gap between first and second, while the third baseman plays just to the right of second base, making it almost impossible for Ortiz to pull the ball through the infield for a hit. He was batting a mere .218 coming into the game.

But it’s hard to keep Big Papi’s face in a permanent frown. There he was yukking it up before the game with fellow Latino stars, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz, who happen to play for the Mariners. Ortiz gave Cano a big bear hug before they headed to their rival dugouts. I love that stuff.

Once the game started, the Mariners made Boston starter Clay Buchholz look like pre-steroids Roger Clemens on the mound. No matter that Buchholz came into the game with a mere two wins and a bulging ERA of 5.73. He was more than enough for Seattle’s woeful banjo-hitters. Even the mighty Cruz, a one-person wrecking crew for the M’s this year, struck out all three times up against the baffling Buchholz, who was mixing pitches to perfection. His totals after eight innings: 3 hits, no walks, 11 strikeouts. Something to admire if it had been an ace like Roy Halladay or Madison Bumgarner on the mound, but against Clayton Daniel Buchholz from Nederland, Texas? Zzzzz.

In fact, he made only one bad pitch all night. Of course, baseball being baseball, some guy named Seth Smith hit it eight miles high into the centerfield bleachers in the bottom of the sixth inning to tie the game at a scintillating 1-1. That brief moment of excitement, however, failed to temper the accumulating groans, as Mighty Clay Buchholz struck out all three flailing Mariners in the seventh. As my constant companion observed of one hapless victim: “That guy couldn’t hit the nose on his face.”

With the Red Sox almost as quiet against ex-Blue Jay J.A. Happ, it was slumber-land, folks. You know it’s a snoozer when the Green Boat’s video victory in the moronic, between-innings Hydro Challenge produced the loudest cheer of the night.

Then came the last of the ninth. The scoreboard still registered a night of plate failure: seven hits for Boston, three for the hometown Mariners. Score 1-1. For some reason, the crowd woke up. All of a sudden, everyone was on their feet, cheering. With one down, Brad Miller beat out an infield grounder by the hair on his chinny chin chin.

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The slumping Cano was an easy out on a roller to first that sent Miller to second. Two out. But the crowd continued to roar. Maybe that unsettled Red Sox manager John Farrell. He pulled a rock. With first base open and Nelson Cruz, far and away Seattle’s best hitter, coming up, Farrell replaced leftie Tommy Layne with right-hander Junichi Tazawa to face the right-handed hitting Cruz. Sure, he had already fanned three times and was batting just .125 against Tazawa, but he was still the ever-dangerous Nelson Cruz, hitting .355 for the year. Why not leave Layne in the game, walk Cruz and pitch to left-hand hitting Kyle Seager and his mediocre .248 batting average? With two out, a man on second and the scored tied, a runner on first is meaningless.

Farrell ignored my advice from 30 rows up out in right field and decided to pitch to Cruz. The count went to 3-2. Surely now, Tazawa would put him on, or at least give him nothing decent to hit. Nope. With the crowd in a frenzy, the pitch came in across the heart of the plate. Cruz smacked it on a line to the wall in left-centre field. Miller scored easily. In a classic baseball finish, on a full count, with two out in the bottom of the ninth, the Mariners had snatched the game. After 8.5 innings of somnambulism, the crowd cheered itself hoarse, and we had an early getaway back to Vancouver, feeling good. You just never know.

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P.S. Afterwards, Farrell admitted he’d been a goof. “Terrible decision on my part,” he said, of not walking Cruz. “I own that one.’’ As has been said more than once, baseball managers don’t win many games, but they sure lose a lot.