A note from the author: Throughout the course of the Alumni Weekend, I had moments of inspiration listening to these five alumni speak and recall moments of their past. The way the spoke about a single pitch or an at-bat throughout their careers was unbelievable. This post is a compilation of notes I made on my Blackberry throughout the four-day encounter with five of the greatest players to ever play for the Toronto Blue Jays. It’s scattered and random resembling the weekend, the time they spent in Toronto and the time we spent organizing and shuffling them around making it happen. The time and day mark the note that was written in that moment.
When you have a detailed itinerary, highlighted and marked with various to-do lists and a meeting midweek to hash out the events, you can expect little to no sleep and a three-day adrenaline rush. This past weekend, that was the life we lived in the land of professional baseball in Toronto. When I began in April, I never thought I’d be picking Dave Stieb, (the only pitcher in Blue Jays history to throw a no-hitter) and his nineteen year old daughter up from the airport after a late Thursday night flight from Reno. Nor did I ever imagine that I’d have a memo in my blackberry marked “Stieb’s coffee order,” noting the way he and Pat Hentgen, took their coffee for an early morning media visit the following day. Spending bursts of time shuffling five Alumni players around the stadium and the city, made me think of he glory they shared and lived before I was born. I know about it, thanks to old footage or reading about it, but it was never the same as hearing about it, as they recalled moments around me that weekend. They proved their young selves during their prime, made something of the organization in it’s initial years and for Stieb, earned himself a spot on the – now Rogers
Centre – Level of Excellence.
FRIDAY – 7:30am
Ward, Hentgen and Stieb were catching up as Jordan and I drove them to an early media appearance. They spoke of their children and how teenage girls are an absolute handful and how they went from worrying about ERAs and contracts to their teenage daughters with boobs (and boys) and teenage temper tantrums. They talked about everything except baseball: their homes, the guys who didn’t make it to a normal life after their baseball careers, etc. Three guys in the late forty’s early fifty’s; American’s who made names for themselves in a Canadian city. They spoke about their beliefs about politicians and corruptions in areas of the United Sates. It was old friends, co-workers catching up.
The pitchers that I’ve met are generally all the same: quiet, reserved and they’ll listen and process a conversation and make a select few good comments rather than babble on. Stieb embodies this. Hentgen and Ward however, are chatty guys. I liked that about them.
Duane Ward was asked at a radio interview on Friday morning about his experience at bat in his time in the major leagues. “One time, I got to bat,” he said. And when asked how he did at the plate he replied, “I smacked that ball 500 feet.” The host laughed. “250 feet up and 250 feet right back down.” You know, he’d used that line before; I was told so.
FRIDAY – Noon
At a visit to the Sunnybrook Veterans Centre with Hentgen, Barfield, and Stieb, the veterans had a chance to ask the alumni any questions in an informal setting. One gentleman asked about the 1993 World Series and how it felt to be there when the final home run was hit.
With a smile on his face, Pat Hentgen took to the Mic and replied: “I was probably the happiest person in the dugout when Joe Carter hit that home run. I had to pitch game 7.”
SATURDAY – 11:00am
I walked onto the field from the left field wall with four of the five alumni players. The current team was tossing baseballs around in the outfield. It was a beautiful sunny day – we discovered – after taking hidden elevators from the hotel that only the players knew about so we didn’t have the go outside. A moment. I had one. The division between team and media. I was with the team this season, and in that particular moment. The media relies on such greatness, on the moments these players can recall on a whim. Stories are written daily by the people in this city, who are quick to make judgement and share their opinions and shed negative light on something that isn’t perfect for six months and into the post-season. The reality is, without a team, those people would have nothing to report on, nothing to write about, and no purpose in their sports journalism careers. I appreciated those players more than I ever had at that moment. They are the reason sports journalism exists. Their dreams and passions create dreams and passions for writers who gave up on their hopes of playing or had passions for the written word. That moment of appreciation felt rare, but I was thankful for it.
The history of the organization was embodied with these five guys. Their records, most which remain unbeaten to this day. The memories they share together remain unforgettable, for themselves and the people around them. The fans too, who witnessed such greatness remember it as though it was yesterday.
SATURDAY – 2:00pm
Watching the afternoon game, the topic of pitching in the day’s game came up amongst the three alumni pitchers. “If they through me out there right now,” Ward said, “I’d be throwing 47 miles an hour.”
SATURDAY – 2:30pm
Walking Duane Ward to an interview in stadium, I asked him about his pitching camps that he has in Colorado. I wanted to know what he teaches to young kids who dream of pitching professionally, but may not have ever done it under instruction before.
“The first thing I teach in my camps to a young pitcher is strike one.” He said matter-of-factly. “Which teaches them the most important thing: how to throw strikes.”
SATURDAY – 3:00pm
It was like constant locker room talk from five guys who have known each other for over twenty years. It was as though they hadn’t missed a beat, chatting about the good days and the new days and having non stop fun together. “That’s what its like everytime we”re together,” Ward told me. They looked on at the young players together each game, commenting on their form and reminding each other of their glory days and time and time again when so-and-so couldn’t strike whats-his-name out. Ever. Not once. But everyone else on the team could and it bothered him beyond no repair. I don’t think they’ll ever let him live that down.
They way they recalled moments with such fact and precision. They make me love baseball even more.
Their thoughts on the players of today, are hysterical: The long hair and how you can’t tell who’s a big guy and who’s not because they wear such baggy pants. Regardless of their opinions, they were watching. They were on their feet, cheering as Bautista hit his 42nd home run against Verlander on Friday Night as fans.
I asked Ward, while running to a TV interview (I ran to the wrong place and ending up having to go back…with a two time World Series Champion who was overheating and needed water..ugh) what the transition into life was like when he stopped playing. His words, “I realized that I had my career and I enjoyed every minute of it. I had no regrets and that’s what I think when I look back on it.”
SATURDAY – 3:30pm
I’m with Barfield right now in the broadcast booth for his interview. Tabby [Pat Tabler] just gave him the biggest hug and asked how his wife was. One word: Team. That’s what these guys were. It’s what a lot of the guys of today aren’t.
SATURDAY – 5pm
Sitting next to five of the most historical Blue Bays hosting an event for the Fan Club. I introduced them all and made mention of their achievements in Toronto before opening the floor for a Q & A session. The way they spoke and recalled their moments, shed light on the days when baseball was so much more than just a game for young players. It was a life style a career, and something they put every thing into…together.
I asked them what it was like to transition into their lives once their major league careers ended and all five of them answered to similar extents: they knew it was time and they enjoyed the moments they had. Now, obviously Hentgen and Stieb did make brief returns to the Blue Jays years after their retirement but after that they chose to start their lives and move on, enjoying the memories they had and twenty years of baseball which they endured.
SUNDAY – 1:00pm: Dave Stieb Day
Watching the compilation of his moments on the video board, the roof open, the CN Tower in the corner of my eye. Five greats; five reasons to love the blue jays even more. Even though so much time has passed since such feats, the memories they had gave me chills as they replayed history on the video board. The crowd cheered as they were on their feet, proud to be fans of such a great ball player. He had tears in his eyes as he hugged Cito, accepting his award marking the 20th Anniversary of the only No-Hitter in Blue Jays history. The crowd remained on their feet. Stieb spoke about the almost no-hitters and his voice shook, trying to find the words through the emotion of seeing his moment – a moment in club history – replayed for him in such a removed setting. The no-hitter was his favourite memory with the club. Four current starting pitchers presented him with a painting, hugged him and offering congratulations. He did something that all of them hope to do in their career.
After the presentation, Stieb prepared to throw out the first pitch. He took to the mound, one last time for the Blue Jays in his powder blues. Number 37: a great in Toronto history.
SUNDAY – 2pm
Talking stats with Duane Ward while driving to the airport to catch his flight back to Colorado. He said to Chris and I, ” 70 to 80 percent of the time the team that wins scored more runs in one inning than the other team did the whole game. Look it up.”
He hugged me goodbye and thanked me for all my trouble throughout the weekend, including my pen which he took with him back home.
I wish I could have thanked them all. They let me see into a world of baseball that I had never experienced before. Life was different then and so was the game. Their stories spoke of true team players and the idea that a team is a family: you play together, you practice together, and you win together. So, if you ever run into Dave Steib, you’ll be in the presence of a man who single-handedly contributed a lot of pitching history to Toronto. A man who, along with four other alumni, told stories of the good old days for four days together, and are proud of their time in Toronto. Shake his hand and buy him a coffee; cream and sugar.