ADIOS, BUENVA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB

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It was a magical night, mixed with a heavy dose of poignancy, as the vaunted Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club made its final appearance in Vancouver. There will be no more tours. Many of the aging Cuban music stars we got to know and love from Ry Cooder’s venture to Havana in the 1990’s are no longer with us.

Only five Buena Vista originals remain, and one of them, the incomparable diva Omara Portuondo, will soon be 85. She could barely walk onto the stage at the sold-out Chan Centre. As soon as the music started up, however, her fountain of youth kicked in, transfixing us still with the haunting power of her voice and an aching ability to caress the lyrics. Spanish really is the loving tongue. For most of her short set, we were on our feet, showering her with the adulation befitting a legend who toured with Nat King Cole and began singing and dancing at the Tropicana Club way back in 1950. Legend, thy name is Omara.

The other old-timer who held centre stage for his own mini-concert was Eliades Ochoa. Although a relatively youthful 69, his strong voice now has a husky rasp to it Otherwise, he was the same endearing cowboy, clad in Johnny Cash black, with Stetson and a guitar, who was such a part of the initial group. In addition to his consummate musicianship, there is a lovely sweetness to Ochoa that just makes you smile when he’s on stage. Not only that, he shared his concern about the environment. Introducing a song about “la luna”, Ochoa noted: “Because of climate change, we may all end up living on the moon…”

(The other originals were trumpeter Manuel ‘Guajiro’ Mirabal, who stayed in the background, energetic laud player Barbarito Torres, who seemed to have aged barely a whit, and the 54-year old “kid”, Jesús ‘Aguaje’ Ramos, band director and trombonist extraordinaire.)

The now familiar saga of the Buena Vista Club remains one of my favourite feel-good stories. All those once celebrated veterans of the pre-Castro years of Cuban son living out their years, gradually forgotten as the revolution ticked on. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, Ry Cooder drops in from some kind of music heaven, and they become world-famous. At their age!

What was going through the minds of 90-year old Compay Segundo, 79-year old Ruben González, 71-year old Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo, as they left their modest rooms in crumbling Havana for the bright lights of New York and a concert at Carnegie Hall? On Wim Wenders’ affecting documentary, you could virtually feel them pinching themselves, staring out at the rapturous audience, their faces lit with such joy and emotion. Yet they were far from over-awed. Their swagger and aplomb from the old days remained intact.

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The day after their Vancouver appearance, we dug out the Buena Vista Social Club video (no DVD for us) and enjoyed it all over again. But this time there was the added, bittersweet reminder of the missing, so full of life back in 1998. In a nice touch, on a large, backdrop screen, the Vancouver concert ran silent profiles of members who had died, with many black Unknownand white photos from their early performing days when they were kings.

Meanwhile, their first CD remains the best-selling world album of all time. It charmed everyone, everywhere. The music is so infectious, with that rollicking Cuban beat, yet so simple -– songs about a couple going to the beach, an apartment burning down, someone heading off to the store and, of course, the enduring enchantment and mystery of love. Always sung with passion.

Many of those at the Chan were Spanish-speaking, and there’s nothing quite like an Hispanic audience. Many were soon up out of their seats and dancing wherever they could find a bit of room. It was great. Although many of the backing musicians had past connections with the original performers, organizers wisely injected some youth to the band. Singers Idania Valdés and particularly Carlos Calunga reminded us how it must have all looked and sounded at the Tropicana Club all those years ago.

All in all, it was a wonderfully satisfying night from musicians we will never see again. I couldn’t help think of the last few lines of Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas, the best poem ever written on the passage of time.

“Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,

         Time held me green and dying

     Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

Gracias and adios, amigos.

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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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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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I DON’T CARE IF I EVER GET BACK: A BASEBALL WEEKEND IN SEATTLE

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Saturday at ye “olde” Safeco Field in Seattle was a beautiful night for baseball. Temperature in the low 60’s, a large crowd lured by Robinson Cano Bobblehead Night, and a father and son spotted in full Montreal Expos regalia. There was a lovely version of the American national anthem by a sweet-voiced choir of elementary school girls, and, thankfully, God Bless America was missing from the seventh inning stretch.

Our seats were 11 rows up, just past third base. The crowd was the usual mix of odds and sods. Two twenty-something girls took the seats beside us around the third inning. The one next to me immediately hauled out her iPhone, barely glancing at the field. Then, they talked. Then, they left in the fifth inning, never to return. This freed up two seats for an older couple a row ahead of us, anxious to escape the loud, beer-soused louts in Row 9. “Real rocket scientists,” I observed scornfully to the kindly gent now sitting beside me. “How did you know I was a rocket scientist?” he responded, mishearing what I said. “I worked at Boeing, designing missiles.”

The game, itself, was also delightful, a great example of “small ball”, as the banjo-hitting, hometown Mariners scratched out a victory against the powerful Detroit Tigers, sporting two of the best hitters in baseball, Miguel Cabrera and clean-up man Victor Martinez, who could be on course to a remarkable rarity of homering more often than striking out. So far, Martinez has 13 homers and 14 whiffs.

Wily M’s manager Lloyd McLendon, who once hit five straight home runs at the Little League World Series (you can look it up), fielded a line-up full of right-handed batters, some barely hitting their weight, to face Tiger lefty Drew Smyly.

That produced some unlikely heroes. Take Cole Gillepsie…and many clubs have. On four different teams in four years, he’s totalled fewer than 50 hits. Yet, getting a rare start for the Mariners, Gillepsie knocked in the first run by lashing a slow roller past the pitcher’s mound. “Looks like a line drive in the box score!” I shouted. Later, the same Gillepsie scored a classic “small ball” run. Another infield hit, a steal of second, and across the plate on a single by much-loved, little-used veteran, Willie Bloomquist.

Nor was that all by Gillespie. He also made two terrific catches in left field: a falling forward, diving catch of a line drive, and a game-saving grab against the wall in the top of the 7th inning, with two on base and the M’s up 3-2. All hail the conquering journeyman.

I also enjoyed watching the Mariners’ skyscraper of a starting pitcher, 6’ 10” Chris Young, the second tallest player in big league history. Young’s been everywhere, man. A succession of grim arm injuries has had him drifting through the majors, trying to regain the elusive form that once made him an All-Star. Seattle signed him to a one-year contract, and he was terrific on Saturday night, holding the Tigers to just three hits and two runs over six innings. One of the runs came on a vintage, line drive home run by Miguel Cabrera that rocketed into the stands before I could gasp “Holy Moly!”. What I loved about Chris Young was the fact that, despite his imposing height, his “blazing” fastball never rose above a paltry 87 mph. Instead, despite his prodigious height and 255 pounds, he bamboozled batters, expertly nibbling the corners of the plate with curves, change-ups, sliders and slow-moving fastballs. A 6’10” junk baller. What will they think of next?

You want more about Chris Young? He is married to the grand-daughter of legendary Hockey Hall of Fame pioneer Lester Patrick! It was Patrick, who co-founded, with brother Frank, the Pacific Coast Hockey League that produced the Vancouver Millionaires, winner of the city’s only Stanley Cup in 1915. It’s a small world, after all.

And finally, yet another unexpected bonus: Endy Chavez, one of the few former members of the Montreal Expos still playing (sigh), was in the starting line-up, after spending the first two months of the season down the road in the minors with Tacoma. Every time he came up, I yelled: “Expos!”. People looked at me strangely. But then, I’m used to it.

So we went home happy, walking the many blocks through the balmy night to the groovy Ace Hotel in beautiful Belltown.

One more unforeseen treat followed on Sunday afternoon: a three-hit shutout by the Mariners’ rookie Cuban southpaw Roenis Elias. It was the first complete game tossed by a Seattle pitcher this year, and the first shutout by an M’s rookie since 1999. How impressive was the 25-year old defector, who not that long ago had been playing for the likes of the Pulaski Mariners, Clinton LumberKings, High Desert Mavericks and the Jackson Generals? Cabrera and Martinez, the heart of the Tigers’ lineup, were held hitless in the same game for only the third time all season. You can read about Elias’s dramatic “escape” from Cuba here.

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Oh yes, and Endy Chavez got two hits, the mighty Mariners drove last year’s Cy Young award winner, Max Scherzer, from the mound in the seventh inning, and the first Seattle run was knocked in by the pride of Victoria, B.C., Michael Saunders, who’s been on a tear, recently.

All in all, a wonderful weekend. Thank you, baseball.