My best weekend ever in baseball -- from playing second in the Kingscourt Little League, to being the batboy for father's Kingston Dunbricks, to coaching peewee and senior teams for 35 years, to covering major-league baseball across the continent -- was the final weekend of July, 1999, when I got to hob-nob with some of the game's all-time greats at Cooperstown, New York. As the crow flies, Cooperstown is only about 130 miles from Kingston. But, really, for a kid who spent dreamy Saturday mornings in Bert Vince's Smoke Shop on Princess Street, we're talking about traveling to the moon.
As president of the Baseball Writers of America Association--no big deal, it rotates city by city on a yearly basis -- I was invited to speak ... er, mumble ... at the National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. It was a banner year, with Robin Yount, Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Orlando Cepeda leading the list of the seven inductees. Thankfully, due to the large cast of inductees, my scheduled five-minute speech was reduced to just a few opening remarks. All I had to do was welcome the crowd and present Bob Stephens of the San Francisco Chronicle with the 1998 J.G. Taylor Spink Award for meritorious contributions to baseball writing. Oh, and I should mention that I'd be standing in front of a future American president, a live audience of 50,000 at Cooperstown, and a North American television audience. It was a long way from the Cricket Field where I spent so many happy childhood hours with father but, then again, not so far at all. What to say to such an audience? What would father say? Easy. I told them I was proud to be Canadian ... and that baseball is the best game of them all.
My son had joined me for the trek to Cooperstown. When I was young, I'd spent countless hours with my dad and his pals as they talked baseball. Now, Bob Jr. was at my side as we spoke to Hall of Famers Jim Palmer, Nolan Ryan, Bobby Doerr and Enos "Country" Slaughter. We bumped into Pete Rose at a restaurant on Sunday. On the Saturday tour of the Hall we ran into Texas Governor George W. Bush. When we first encountered Bush, he ran the Texas Rangers. He was the son of the President, George Bush, back then, and he'd shoot the breeze with writers behind the batting cage at Arlington Stadium. Sometimes he'd point out a secret service man who'd be standing in the shade of the second-deck overhang, hiding from the 100-degree heat instead of keeping close tabs on Bush. "Watch this," Bush would say, and then he'd clap his hands loudly. The secret service man would recoil as the noise crackled in his earpiece.
In Cooperstown, we reminded the future President what a difficult interview he'd been when we sat with him for five innings in Port Charlotte, Florida in 1991, as the Jays played his Rangers. He was shocked and asked why. The problem, I said, was that he was seated to my right in the box seats along the first-base line. It's common practise to look interview subjects in the eye, but that would have been potentially suicidal this day because, as I explained to Bush, with a grunting Nolan Ryan firing heat, the Jays' right-handed hitters, failing to get around on Ryan's fastball, kept fouling pitches our way. Etiquette suggested I should be looking at my conversation partner, but survival dictated I keep an eye on the ball. With that, I got my son away from Bush before he could ask the presidential candidate if he thought he actually could beat wrassler Hulk Hogan, who was thinking of running for U.S. president.
The next day the people on the dais met behind the stage in the lobby of a hockey rink, where I ran into former Jays president Paul Beeston, then the CEO of Major League Baseball and a man who knew my deep-seated aversion to public speaking. Better that I could have stuck my hand into a rattlesnake's nest. "THERE ARE 50,000 PEOPLE OUT THERE, IT'S ON ESPN, IT'S ON TSN, DON'T SCREW IT UP!" Beeston yelled. "IF YOU FOUL UP YOU WILL EMBARRASS OUR WHOLE COUNTRY!"
Just what my nerves needed. We headed elsewhere, walking aimlessly amongst the Hall of Famers, when all of a sudden we heard: "Hey you, over here." It was Willie Mays, he was talking to me. "You and me are going to talk baseball, let's go ..." Mays said. Surely he was not a Toronto Sun reader. I asked why and he said, "start talking and eventually you'll know why." Me? Talking ball with Willie Mays? Not even the best stories from Harv Milne's Bicycle Repair Shop all those years before had an ending like this.
"Okay, I got one," I told the best player in the room. The Jays had been at Yankee Stadium that April as the Yankees paid tribute to the legend Joe DiMaggio, who had died during spring training. DiMaggio always insisted upon being introduced at banquets as the "greatest living ball player." It didn't matter where he was, or whether Ted Williams, Hank Aaron or Mays was also there. The previous month we were in Montreal and asked Expo manager Felipe Alou who he thought was the greatest living player. Starting in 1958, Alou played six years in right field alongside center fielder Mays with the San Francisco Giants.
Traded to the Milwaukee Braves in 1963, he spent six years in center alongside right fielder Henry Aaron.
"Who did Felipe pick? Who did he pick?" said Mays, who was sloped over the way a lot of 68-year-olds are. When I told him that Alou had picked him, Mays stood as erect as a West Point cadet. Alou reasoned that he had played with Mays in winter ball, in Japan and in the majors and he'd "never seen anyone as intense. He is the one player I tell my children that I played with. He was a slugger with speed, ran headlong into fences and never got hurt."
During my story I'd noticed Governor Bush to Mays' left and New York Governor George Pataki to his right. Mays would rather talk to a dopey ball writer than a politician.
Then it was show time, and Cincinnati Reds broadcaster George Grande gave out way too many compliments when he introduced me. I got through my opening remarks okay, said how indeed I was proud to be from Canada, "like Ferguson Jenkins to my left and Paul Beeston to my right and like Larry Walker. At the risk of not being allowed back into the country by immigration, I'm here to say that baseball is the best game of them all."
They told me later some people cheered. A couple of other comments and I'd be done, save for reading the inscription on the Spink plaque. This was going to be a snap. Why had I even worried? Four graphs down, one to go ... and I tripped over the word "accurate." Not once, not twice, but three times. Listeners heard "act-U-lat, act-EUR-Lat, and act-Uh-ler-ate." Finally, I said, "aw, I just write it, I can't pronounce it."
After pictures were taken, on the way to my seat Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson motioned me over. I was expecting a good-natured shot. He stuck out his hand. "Good job, son, you did fine." Whispered Bob Feller, the Cleveland Indians' Hall of Famer seated beside me: "One good thing, you kept it damn short."
Ted Williams, confined to a wheelchair, left part way through the ceremony and was given a standing ovation. Williams was my father's favorite player and I thought somewhere from above the hills outside Cooperstown, my father must be watching it all unfold. There was a commercial break with George Brett on deck to speak, so we headed to the arena and the washroom. Governor Bush, having heard Nolan Ryan speak, was getting into his van to make a flight home. Bush got out of the van and we shook hands. I moved quickly with my right hand to put it up to my mouth to whisper something to him, but the words never came. Instead, implanted in my chest with a thud, was the sharp elbow of a Texas Ranger--not the ballplayer kind, but the pistol-packing kind.
"He's okay," Bush said. "What were you going to say?" I could only reply that I lost my train of thought when the elbow landed.
Growing up in Kingston, former players often dropped by my father's house. One night Harold Buck arrived about 15 minutes before we left for a peewee game. (I played for the Tigers and a patient coach named Jimmy McLaughlin.) Buck was called "Hair Pin." I asked father why and he said it was because Buck was wound a bit too tight and was prone to do things that were unexpected, like a woman's hair pin flying loose.
On the way to the game, Buck began telling stories. Like the one about how, when he played the infield, he'd ask a runner to step off the bag so he could straighten it and then, with the ball in his hand, tag him out. Or, when someone slid in on a bang-bang play, he'd tell the runner it was a foul ball. The guy would retreat to first and he'd throw him out. They were great stories for a 12-year-old, but did things like that really happen? When one of the umps failed to show for the game, Buck volunteered to work the bases. Walking onto the field he winked at me and the light bulb went on. Sure enough, the first time a guy stole second, he was safe. Holding the ball, I asked him to step off the base so I could straighten the bag. He did, was tagged and Buck screamed: "Yer out!"
From father to father's former player to father's son.
Two innings later a guy slid in safely on a bang-bang play and I said, "foul ball." Up he got and trudged to first. I threw to first and--perhaps this is the reason I became a writer--the throw sailed wide and he arrived safe. Driving to the park that evening I already had a deep love of baseball, formed while reading The Sporting News on the bottom rung of the newsstand at Bert Vince's Smoke Shop in Kingston. When the opposing coach complained to Buck about my trickery, my heart beat faster. What would happen now? Buck returned to his position and gave me another wink. With that, my love affair with baseball was crystallized.
Over the years, ballpark memories have been made thousands of times with thousands of youngsters in hundreds of towns across this country. For many, they would be moments to treasure or to share later when getting together with old friends. For others, they would be moments that launched college and pro careers leading to the minors, the majors, and even around the world, playing for Team Canada.
That's the magic of the game, a made-in-Canada magic. These days it is clearly spreading, taking more Canadians to the forefront of the sport than ever before. The northern game is entering a new, golden era.
I meant what I had said in Cooperstown. Baseball really is the best game of all.
Reprinted with permission from The Northern Game: Baseball the Canadian Way, c 2005, Sport Media Publishing (www.sportclassicbooks.com).
When we first encountered Bush, he ran the Texas Rangers. He was the son of the President, George Bush, back then, and he'd shoot the breeze with writers behind the batting cage at Arlington Stadium. Sometimes he'd point out a secret service man who'd be standing in the shade of the second-deck overhang, hiding from the 100-degree heat instead of keeping close tabs on Bush. "Watch this," Bush would say, and then he'd clap his hands loudly. The secret service man would recoil as the noise crackled in his earpiece.