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  Mon, June 7, 2004


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OTTAWA LYNX




Jenkins remains a baseball ambassador
By MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

No matter how much time passes, he is the face of Canadian baseball.

Even with the likes of modern-day Canadian stars such as Larry Walker and Eric Gagne, when the words baseball and Canadian are spoken together, the name Ferguson Jenkins follows quickly.

At 61, Jenkins still looks an imposing figure. He's six-foot-five and a little heavier than the 215 pounds he pitched at. He spends most of his time these days touring the country doing the celebrity dinner and charity circuit, playing in legends baseball games and doing what he's done best after his 19-year major league career ended . . . being an ambassador for baseball, specifically Canadian baseball.

He spent the weekend in his hometown of Chatham, coming back to promote a book and to be honoured with a myriad of certificates of appreciation for what he's done for Chatham. The Ontario Baseball Association named an award after him, to go yearly to the player named the best pitcher in the OBA.

The presentations were made at the Civic Centre patio in Chatham yesterday in front of friends and family, including Jenkins' three daughters, two of whom still live in Chatham.

Last Thursday, Jenkins was honoured by McMaster University. He received an honorary doctor of laws degree from the Hamilton university. The degree celebrates Jenkins' athletic achievement, charitable works and his ongoing role as a goodwill ambassador to Canada.

"Once you have family ties, it pulls you back to where your roots are," Jenkins said. "I'm happy to have those roots. My mother told me as a kid, you have to be proud of your heritage, your religion and by far who you are, period. That's why I never wanted to change my citizenship. I'm a Canadian, I'll stay a Canadian."

As the years pass, it's easy to forget the type of career Jenkins put together. He played for 19 years with the Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox.

He's the only Canadian in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

He owns a National League Cy Young Award as the league's best pitcher.

Jenkins never received the fame his accomplishments warrant. He had 284 victories, six consecutive 20-win seasons paired with 200-plus strikeouts, pitched more than 300 innings five times and is high on the all-time strikeout list with 3,192.

He never pitched on a pennant winner, though, and was usually on teams that were known more for hitting than pitching.

How good an athlete was Jenkins?

In the Rangers' 1974 season finale, manager Billy Martin allowed Jenkins to hit for himself rather than use the designated hitter, the first such incident in the American League all season. Jenkins singled to break up a no-hitter by the Minnesota Twins' Jim Hughes. Jenkins scored the Rangers' first run and went on to win his 25th game of the season 2-1.

He retired to do some farming and coaching but never strayed far from the game.

He appears often promoting the game and working for charities.

The Ferguson Jenkins Foundation raises about $120,000 a year for a variety of charities, including the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.

Jenkins lives in Arizona. He walks out of his backyard onto the first tee of a golf course. He sold his farm in Guthrie, Okla., last fall. No longer will he and wife Lydia have to take care of some 50 head of cattle, 11 horses and 65 acres of grass.

He won't have to worry about the numerous twisters that have often visited the area. Being on the road 28 weeks of the year prompted the decision to sell the farm.

"Lydia's happy now," he said. "With me on the road so often, it was difficult for her. It seemed whenever I'd leave the pump would break or the horses would get out. Now she's close to family and I'm on a golf course. It's great."

Who knows if Jenkins will ever get involved with baseball in an official capacity again. His last foray was as commissioner of the ill-fated, short-lived Canadian Baseball League experiment. The league proved a black eye for baseball in Canada. A lot of people lost piles of money, money people are still looking for.

But in typical Jenkins fashion, he refuses to dump on the league, saying only that "poor marketing" and "poor weather" were the main reasons the league failed.

For now, Jenkins will travel and promote his book, The Game is Easy, Life is Hard. It's an appropriate title for a man who has been dogged by tragedy. His second wife died in a car crash. His girlfriend committed suicide and killed his young daughter in the process.

But no matter what has happened in his life, Jenkins remains upbeat, positive and accommodating.

"I coined the phrase for the title of the book," he said. "Yes, a lot of tragic things have happened but it's life and it goes on. I consider myself truly blessed because of everything I have."