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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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.)

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.