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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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.

FAREWELL, THEN, MINNIE MINOSO

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What is it about being a kid that makes you attach yourself to certain ballplayers, none of whom you’ve ever come close to seeing in a real game and only rarely on television? Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax were obvious targets for our affection, of course, although in my schoolyard it was always either Mantle or Mays, never both. Even when I was barely knee-high to a Baltimore Chop, this lifelong Yankee hater was a Mays man all the way.

harmonkillebrewBut the guy who really had the number one claim on my heart was Harmon Killebrew, a big, strong-armed power hitter from the potato state of Idaho. He was hardly Mr. Colourful. Asked once whether he had any hobbies, the devout Mormon thought for a moment. “Just washing the dishes, I guess,” the soft-spoken slugger eventually replied. So why did I latch onto Killebrew, from among all those flashier stars? Other than the fact that he was a hell of a hitter, who knows? It’s just one of those unfathomable mysteries of youth. But he remained my favourite ballplayer for 15 years, until his retirement in the mid-1970’s.

Another ballplayer I loved almost as much in those lazy, hazy carefree days of baseball was good old Minnie Minoso. He found his way into my young heart through the usual vehicle of silent box score and baseball cards, plus the entrancing rhythm of his name. I knew nothing about him, really, other than that he stole a lot of bases, played the game with enthusiasm, and, a solid clutch hitter, he knocked in a lot of runs. But most of all, as a kid, what was there not to love about someone baptized Saturnino Orestes Arrieta Minoso Armas, who gave himself the sweet tag of Minnie Minoso?

As he kept on playing, oblivious to Father Time’s order to hang up his spikes, my fondness grew. He didn’t seem to know the meaning of retirement. When his major league career was done, the ageless Minoso drifted down to the Mexican League, where he played through his 40’s. At the age of 45, he hit .359 to win the Mexican Winter League’s batting title. In his final season, by then nearly 48, he played 120 games, hit 12 home runs, knocked in 83 runs and batted.265. Three years later, Minoso was brought back to his beloved White Sox by owner Bill Veeck, the best baseball impresario in all the world. Two months short of his 51st birthday, Minoso faced major league pitching for the first time in 12 years. He went one for eight, knocking a single off a Sid Monge fastball. That made him the fourth oldest player in big league history to get a hit. The Gordie Howe of baseball. (Minoso might have been even older for these landmark moments. His birth date tended to bounce around like a Mexican jumping bean.)

Someone with a lot of time on his hands added up everyone’s major and minor league lifetime statistics, and figured out that Minoso stood second, behind only Pete Rose, on the list of most total hits in professional baseball. Ty Cobb was third.

Much later, I learned that the Cuban-born star was also a baseball pioneer, the first black from Latin America to play in the allyn2majors, suiting up with the Cleveland Indians in 1949, and the first black to play for the Chicago White Sox. That was in 1951. In his first at bat, he hit a home run, launching a lengthy tenure with the White Sox that made him one of the most popular players in team history, with his own statue at what I will still call Comiskey Park.

When Minoso passed away a few days ago, there was universal sadness at the loss of someone whose embrace of the joy of baseball was unsurpassed. I’m also sure I wasn’t the only one taken aback by his death, despite his many years on Planet Earth. Heck, if anyone could defy the odds and live forever, surely it would have been Minnie Minoso. I kind of thought he would live forever.

Here’s the NYT obit on this great man. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/02/sports/minnie-minoso-dies-treasured-white-sox-ballplayer.html?_r=0 Even better, if you’re obsessed, like I am, about Minnie Minoso, and have a few spare moments, this is a marvellous, definitive look at his long career, with incredible detail and photos from his days in Cuba and early years in the majors. Outstanding. http://www.cnlbr.org/Portals/0/Hero/Orestes-Minoso.pdf

Fidel Castro Sitting Next to Baseball Player Minnie Minoso

(Actually, Minoso hated Castro and left Cuba, never to return, in 1961. But late last year, after President Obama announced a landmark rapprochement with his homeland, Minoso expressed the hope that he might now go back and revisit the sugar cane fields where he laboured as a youth.)

Meanwhile, although I never saw him play, I do have one Minnie Minoso anecdote. It goes back to my time in Newmarket, Ontario, when our gang of four seemed to be the only true-blood baseball fans in town. Besides myself, there were Doug Cane, Dennis Myers and the great Paul Ingledew, who might have been a slugger in his own right, except for a bad eye.

One evening, we were playing home run derby. You got three tries an inning to hit the ball far enough for a homer. We had set up Ingledew’s bike out in the field as the home run marker. But it was too far. As dusk approached, not one of us had even come close to belting the ball over the bike for a homer. Up came Paul Ingledew for his final at bat. For who knows what reason, he suddenly announced in a loud voice: “Pinch hitter, Minnie Minoso!” Whereupon, he whacked a towering blast that soared way over his heretofore-unreachable bike for the only home run of the game. We laughed ourselves sick. Then we went home.

RIP, Minnie Minoso. And shame on all those sports writers who broke your big heart by keeping you out of the Hall of Fame. “Even if it hurts on the inside, I will always be smiling on the outside,” said Minnie, after falling short once again in 2011.

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BASEBALL, GIRLS AND MIGHTY KATIE AT THE BAT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

WINLESS IN SEATTLE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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