Expos' Fanning a Canuck at 84

Former Montreal Expos manager Jim Fanning holds a picture of himself and Gary Carter, in London,...

Former Montreal Expos manager Jim Fanning holds a picture of himself and Gary Carter, in London, Ont., Feb., 17, 20012. (MORRIS LAMONT/QMI Agency)

BOB ELLIOTT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:33 PM ET

LONDON, ONT. - Maria Fanning can throw a party.

After all the woman has experience.

There was husband Jim Fanning’s 65th birthday.

His 70th.

His 75th.

Guests made the drive from Newmarket, Alliston, Georgetown, Chatham, Dorchester and Toronto on Sunday afternoon to celebrate Fanning, 84, becoming a Canadian citizen.

The doors opened at the Eastside Bar & Grill on Hamilton Road, a neighbourhood saloon, sunlight tumbled in and a familiar figure filled the doorway: Former Montreal Expos owner Charles Bronfman.

Bronfman owned the Expos, made them a success and make no mistake — without the early success of the Expos, the Blue Jays might have never come to be.

Do you remember who threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the first World Series game played outside the United States 20 years ago?

Jays president Paul Beeston phoned Bronfman, asking if he would do the honour. Bronfman threw a strike to Derek Bell.

The man on the Forbes and Canadian Business billionaires list, makes the Fanning invite list too.

We can’t guess how many other billionaires have the Eastside Bar marked in their day planner?

“Jim and I go back to Day One with the Expos, with John McHale, Gene Mauch, Harry Renaud, Gene Kirby, they were our team,” said Bronfman, who flew in from New York for this latest Fanning celebration.

The Expos were awarded a franchise May 27, 1968 and for months the front office was the face of what was to come until Oct. 14 when Manny Mota was selected in the expansion draft.

McHale was the president, Renaud vice-president and treasurer, Kirby travelling secretary, Mauch the franchise’s first manager and Fanning?

“Jim was the talent guy, he chose some awfully good people,” said Bronfman. “He was our catalyst, helped put our management team together. It was rough for a couple of years but we had fun.”

Bronfman recalled going for dinner Sept. 5, 1968, the day Gene Mauch was introduced as manager to “Montreal and the baseball world.”

“John McHale is telling Gene how I won’t interfere like some owners, Mauch looks at me and I said ‘that’s right ... as long as I can have a uniform,’” said Bronfman who asked for No. 83.

“Mauch’s looking at me, he’s not saying anything, but I know he’s thinking ‘this guy knows so little about baseball, he actually chose a football number.’”

There was a method to Bronfman’s selection process, Seagram’s 83 Canadian Whiskey was one of the distiller’s brands.

The Expos have had managers with track records: Mauch, 26 years (3,942 games) including the 1986 California Angels who reached the post season; hall of famer Dick Williams, 21 years (3,023 games) winning two World Series with the Oakland A’s and losing with the Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres; Bill Virdon at the helm for 13 years (1,918 games) guiding the Houston Astros to the playoffs; the popular Buck Rodgers 13 years (1,559 games) advancing with the Milwaukee Brewers; Felipe Alou 14 years (2,055 games) winning with the San Francisco Giants and Hall of Fame outfielder Frank Robinson, who managed 16 years (2,241 games).

None took the Expos to the post-season.

Only Fanning did.

Fanning took over from Williams on Sept. 8, 1981, at Veteran’s Stadium in Philadelphia. He had not managed since class-A Greenville in 1963. He guided the Expos to a first-place finish in the second half of the strike-shortened season, then a division series win over the Philadelphia Phillies and within one game of the World Series, when Rick Monday homered.

Now Fanning continues his passion with the Jays as an team ambassador, his 63rd year in baseball.

The Fanning children, Cynthia and Frank, were part of the speeches. Frank read emails from well wishers like former Expos Larry Walker, Felipe Alou, Steve Rogers, Wallace Johnson and Bill Lee, Blue Jays Dr. Ron Taylor and Kevin Briand, Pat Daughtery of the Colorado Rockies and Geddy Lee of Rush.

Most asked the same question: “What took you so long?”

Canadian citizenship judge George Springate drove from Montreal to London for Fanning’s ceremony. Springate, the former Montreal Alouette, told Fanning he was going to hit last in the order.

“It’s a solemn occasion, 23 people from 11 different countries, then I heard ‘William James Fanning,’ and George gets up, puts his arm around me and says ‘this guy played four years in the majors, he’s so slow he never stole a base.

“Now, it has taken 44 years for Jim to become a Canadian.”

This citizenship ceremony was the reason for Sunday’s celebration.

“Welcome to our country,” said Chatham’s Billy Atkinson, a former Expos right-hander. “Jim Fanning has always been honest and truthful. I’ve known him since I was 16, I call him Dad.”

Fanning took the microphone and said “I’m proud to be a Canadian.”

From the reaction around the bar on this bright spring afternoon, the guests were equally excited with the new Canadian in their midst.


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