* J.G. Taylor Spink award winner Bob Elliott thanked Hall of Famer Johnny Bench for putting him at ease ... and then the church bells rang for the late Ron Santo./Photo: Johnny Bench ....
By Bob Elliott
That Johnny Bench guy?
He’s a Hall of Famer. And, he could catch too.
My family and I went to Jane Forbes Clark’s reception at the Farmer’s Museum Friday in Cooperstown on Hall of Fame weekend.
“All set for tomorrow?” asked Bench.
“Uh, no, scared witless,” I answered 20 hours before being presented with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award “for meritorious contributions to baseball writing.”
Shaking hands and posing for a picture I can do, as long as I remember to smile as I do now, or face the wrath of daughter Alicia ... or Buck Martinez.
Speaking to 3,500 fans at Doubleday Field from a stage in shallow centre, with 45 or so Hall of Famers sitting behind me was a different matter.
Bench, a man I had interviewed maybe four or five times in Cooperstown and in Cincinnati, looked me in the eye and asked: “Why on earth would you be nervous?
“You have good kids, right?”
“That must have been a great day, the days they were born.”
“You’ve seen thousands of games, right?”
“Great days, right?”
“You’ve covered 34 opening days, dozens of memorable World Series. Great days, right?”
“You seen Hall of Famers make outstanding plays? All great days right?”
“You’ve got lots of friends here from Canada?”
“Saturday is going to be the greatest day of your life,” said Bench, his voice moving up a notch. “Why on Earth would you be nervous on the greatest day of your life?”
I asked if he spoke at halftime of high school or college football games.
Johnny Bench was the reason I fared OK in my speech.
* * *
Boarding the Quebecor private plane Thursday afternoon — supplied for the weekend by CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau — I couldn’t help but think of Big and Rich’s lyrics in the song Big Time:
“I’ll probably never make a million bucks,
but saving accounts and the IRS never worry me much,
I don’t need that stuff,
Cause I’ve got friends like you,
To buy me boats and planes that I can use.
Daughter Alicia, son Bob, wife Claire and I, along with Bill Lankhof, my official biographer for the weekend, and his son Phil, climbed aboard the 10-seat Bombardier Challenger 604.
We asked Josee Ross, who set things up, what time we had to be at the private air strip and were told: “They can’t leave without you ... arrive five minutes early and you’ll leave.”
Of course I forgot to tell Lankhof, so he was there two hours early for the non-existent lengthy security lines.
We landed in Albany and then headed to Cooperstown.
* * *
During the walk-through at Doubleday Field on Saturday, the Hall of Fame’s Bradford Horn showed FOX Sports’ Tim McCarver, the Ford Frick Award winner for broadcasting, and I where the Jumbotron was set up, stage right, where we could not see it.
Videos would be shown of each of us, which we could watch on TVs stage right.
(Note to self: Don’t look at the video, as you did at the Rogers Centre the day of the ceremonial first pitch. Then, you won’t get emotional.)
“Why,” asked Marty Noble of MLB.com at the press conference, “are people in your city so excited about you winning? I’ve never seen anything like this except for Rick Hummel in St. Louis, the city went crazy when he won, and now you — and with you, it’s a whole country.”
That was a tough one ...
“You mean besides the fact we’re both so handsome?” I thought of saying.
“Canada is a patriotic country,” I did say. “We don’t really show it all the time, but we did during the Vancouver Olympics. We’d celebrate the first Canadian winning anything.”
McCarver explained how he saw first-hand how patriotic Canada when he was playing with the Expos at the same time as the 1972 Canada-Russia Summit Series series.
I’d met McCarver a few times over the years, writing how he and Ron Taylor were teammates with the Cardinals.
When he was near the end with the Philadelphia Phillies, Peter Bavasi phoned and offered him a radio job with the Blue Jays. Phillies boss Bill Giles gave Bavasi permission to talk to McCarver, but offered him a contract to continue playing and then move into the booth.
“I would have had the chance to work with Tom Cheek,” McCarver said.
Whoever suggested McCarver was a pretty good broadcast scout.
* * *
Speaking to journalism students, I’m asked about nerves. As in how to fight demons of walking into a clubhouse or talking to some high-paid athlete or gruff manager.
Nerves hit only once a year: My first day of spring training. There is no reason for it ... it’s just the way it is.
Walking into the Fenimore Room at the Otesaga Resort Hotel on Saturday as the Hall of Famers assembled for the buses and then the stage was the worst part of the weekend.
This is the greatest day of my life?
There were 300-game winners here. And 3,000 career-hit guys there.
What am I doing in a room with these guys? Who would be the first to tell me to get out?
I talked with Tony Perez for a minute or two before he was called away.
Then, I sat alongside Fergie Jenkins, thanking him for the story earlier in the week where he interviewed me.
Gaylord Perry, whom I’d never met, leaned over and asked: “How long is your speech?”
Using some Canadian humour, I said: “A hair under two hours.”
“It had best be not be a hair over 10 minutes or I’ll be throwing stuff at you ... we all will,” said a bug-eyed Perry.
The guideline for speech lengths was 10 minutes. However, in the meeting, I’d been cleared for 15.
* * *
Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle, introduced me and mentioned how I’d been the lead item on Don Cherry’s Coaches’ Corner, how I once asked someone where my cell phone was — while talking on my cell.
Guilty on the phone charges
It was not an easy start. Someone down the right field line yelled: “Let’s go, Knobber!” — which stunned me. (Knobber was my late father’s nickname, given to him while playing hoops at Queen’s University since he had knobby knees).
Minda Davis, who helped my with the delivery of the speech, told me people were not expecting Sir Winston Churchill, how I was a writer. I thought of that and got through the speech.
No tears. Only a few mumbles.
My daughter said the over/under on tears was 2 1/2 minutes.
And then I headed back to my seat ... hands shaking.
Didn’t even notice that the Hall of Famers gave a standing ovation.
Robin Yount, Carlton Fisk, Tony Perez, Dave Winfield and Dennis Eckersley all leaned forward from the second row to shake hands.
Looking at the paper days later, there was a picture of Robbie Alomar hugging me with Andre Dawson grabbing me by the arm.
Don’t remember either.
Alomar said the picture also ran in the paper in Puerto Rico.
After the ceremony was over, Fisk and I stepped backstage.
“You know you had those guys behind you laughing. That’s a tough crowd,” Fisk said. “You did real good. You didn’t say ‘eh’ once. I did hear you say ‘OUT’ once, that funny way Canadians do.”
Then the New Englander was telling me about “little Chris Carpenter” hanging around his place in New Hampshire.
About facing Bob Gibson for the first time in spring training. How Fisk doubled first time up. Then Gibson threw his grade-A slider for a swing and a miss with Fisk demonstrating how badly he looked ... foot in the bucket, rear end out. The next pitch hit Fisk in the ribs.
“I’m down on all fours, wind knocked out of me,” Fisk said. “I look up and there is Gibson five feet from the plate, glove on his left hip with a raised eyebrow, motioning for me to get to first. He didn’t like anyone breaking his rhythm.”
Walking to the lead truck for the parade to the museum, a fan asked me to sign the Bob Elliott page in the Baseball Encyclopedia.
Different Bob Elliott, this guy could play. I didn’t sign.
The parade to the Hall had McCarver facing one side of the street, me the other. Most of the ride was spent with me tapping McCarver on the shoulder as a Cards or Phillies fan with a camera on my side called his name, although I saw Guy and Carol White from Kingston, a few other people I knew and plenty Jays and Expos caps.
After signing for fans hanging over the barriers we went into the museum.
* * *
A woman approached me inside the museum and expressed thanks for the Ron Santo anecdote I’d passed along in my speech, how he’d gone the extra mile autographing a picture when I was a youngster.
“Did you notice what happened the second you finished your story?” she asked.
Not really, I told her, trying to read her credentials, but it was turned towards her so I had no idea who she was.
“Church bells began to ring,” the woman said. “What a magical moment.”
The woman was Linda Santo, the late third baseman’s 42-year-old daughter.
After a visit to the Scribes and Mikemen exhibit for pictures and the official portrait on the library steps, I was talking with an executive outside when a man introduced himself and his son, saying: “That was the best speech I’ve ever heard, I’m the mayor of Cooperstown.”
So, I winked at his son and asked: “Did he just get elected?”
* * *
The Jays hosted a reception Saturday night and there were about 95 people — friends from Kingston, Ottawa, Missisauga, Buffalo, Atlanta and writing pals from Houston, Denver, New York, Cincinnati, Anaheim and Chicago. Some weren’t covering the event.
Jays executives Howard Starkman and Paul Beeston both spoke.
In my job, you shake hands a lot. This time there were hugs. Buffalo’s Donnie Gilbert, Burlington’s Dwight Fowler, Ottawa’s Ace Powell, ESPN’s Claire Smith, Mississauga’s Remo Cardinale, New York’s Trevvy Mosley, Ottawa’s Cam Pelton, Kingston’s Arty Leeman, former boss Wayne Parrish, the Kusiewicz brothers Mike and Briany from Ottawa and on and on.
I thought of a phone call from Richard Justice from Houston of MLB.com a month earlier. He’d been in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York on the same trip and called to say: “You have no idea how happy people are for you.”
Methinks my friends were worried I’d pull a Bill Mazeroski: Get two words into the first line, break down, say “thanks” and sit down. Hall of Famers call Mazeroski’s the best speech ever. It was the shortest.
Later that night, I re-read the speech and noticed I’d skipped a page, but it worked out well.
When people asked “why didn’t you mention me?” the answer is now: “You were on the skipped page.”
Left out was talking about the most exciting game I’d ever seen: Canada beating Team USA 8-6 in the World Baseball Classic in 2006. But I’d said it in the press conference and it was in the copy that the office wanted.
* * *
McCarver and I were introduced to the 18,000 fans at the Clark Sports Center on Sunday. We posed for pictures with Clark and commissioner Bud Selig, then listened to Vicki Santo and Barry Larkin’s induction speeches. It was a good thing there was a napkin when Santo spoke.
Afterwards, 67 friends gathered at Nicoletta’s on Main St., for drinks and dinner. And then speeches.
Jack O’Connell, secretary-treasurer of the BBWAA, Dayton’s Hal McCoy, Sportsnet’s Scott Morrison, Claude Scilley of the Kingston Whig-Standard, Orangeville’s Phil Lankhof, Boston Red Sox scout Gary Hughes, Barry Toner and Paul Murphy of the 1970 Kingscourt bantams, Don Campbell of the Ottawa-Nepean Canadians, Atlanta’s Mike Arundel, Chicoutimi’s Joe Galouche, Ottawa’s Billy Courchaine, daughter Alicia and wife Claire all spoke in a roast.
Chicago’s Phil Rogers spoke and then read a lengthy text from Wyoming’s Tracy Ringolsby, and Slusser spoke and read a hilarious e-mail from San Francisco’s Ray Ratto.
* * *
Alicia was on the road at 4:30 a.m., on Monday, taking a car to Albany along with Wade Boggs and his wife. Alicia had a 7:30 San Francisco flight on business.
The Quebecor private plane left Albany at 2 p.m., and landed at Pearson 53 minutes later.
“This is the best assignment I’ve ever had,” Bill Lankhof said shaking my hand as we landed.
It wasn’t a bad weekend. Listening to stories told by Lou Brock, George Brett, Juan Marichal, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Tony Gwynn, Jim Palmer, Paul Molitor, Brooks Robinson and Jim Bunning.
It was the greatest weekend ever.
* * *
Many of the all-too-flattering stories in the papers and on Sportsnet site mentioned how I am always drinking Diet Coke.
Coca-Cola e-mailed me, asking if they could send me a “congratulatory package.”
My first endorsement deal?
* * *
At the Saturday reception at the Hall of Fame, I found Bench and thanked him. He complimented me on how well I spoke. “You were here,” he said, raising his arm shoulder high.
The reason, I told Bench, was his pep talk.
Normally I’m way down here. I told him how I am a terrible speaker, I get nervous and get emotional. And how the only reason I did so well was because Bench calmed me down.
Again I expressed my thanks. He did not have to express an interest. It’s not like I was going to be writing about him next week.
Bench had his head down while I spoke.
I shook his hand, he looked up. His eyes had misted over.
* * *
Going to work at the Rogers Centre on Tuesday was difficult.
There are 100s of e-mails and texts to answer, plus everyone wanted to talk, chat, hear details about the weekend.
Starkman had predicted as much, suggesting I arrive at 1 p.m., and have a press conference so I’d be able to do my work.
Writers, scouts, players, ushers, elevator operators and staff expressed congrats and asked questions.
Walking in the bowels of the dome, a guard stuck out his hand.
“Congratulations,” he said.
“So, when to you get your award is it this coming weekend or next?”