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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read what I wrote here:

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

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.