The first 50 years are the toughest

By Bob Elliott

St. PETERSBURG, Fla. _ Fifty years ago this week a frightened teenager (me) was called into the sports editor’s office on a Sunday night at the Kingston Whig-Standard.

Doug McConnell was a good boss, but a little intimidating for a high schooler.

“How do you write your name: Bob Elliott, Jr. Or Bob Elliott Jr?” he asked as he wrote the variations on paper.

First name and last names I answered.

The next day -- April 4, 1966 -- I opened the Whig and there on page 11 was my first byline. Surprise. I’d been working for almost two years and this was my first. Old pal Claude Scilley gave me the clip a few years ago:

“It was too close to lose by one point, I’d rather be beaten by 100 points,” said Fort Henry coach Neil Patterson.

The Montreal Wiseman edged Fort Henry 32-31 in the Fort Henry Heights biddy basketball tournament halting the Fort’s attempt to win a seventh straight tourney with Bill Curwen Bob Gaudet, and James Baldwin.

Growing up to be a biddy hoops scribe was not in my future. Years later the ‘Jr.’ was added to the byline. ALCAN told my father he could not moonlight writing for the paper. 

How many bylines does one have in 50 years? One year as the Jays beat man (1989?) the total was 591, a distant second in the department to prolific Leafs scribe Lance Hornby. Infomart shows 20,161 but it only goes to 1985. 

There were a few news stories (John Olerud signing, Olerud being traded: Rickey Henderson coming, Tony Fernandez returning, Shannon Stewart leaving, John Gibbons returning) over the years besides that 1993 game story where Juan Guzman won 4-1 in Cleveland.

Some memorable ones ...

1968, Talbot Park, Leaside, Whig _ Father had a stroke in the top of the second. The lead was the Kingston Ponies lost more than a ball game Saturday, they lost their coach. Father was paralyzed on his left side but came back to curl, winning the Silver Tankard a third time.. 

1981, Montreal _ Charlie Lea threw a no hitter against the Giants in the second game of a doubleheader. It was Mother’s Day. I was the only one to wait to ask for his mom’s phone number in Memphis. Mom came through “my daughter gave me flowers, my one son gave me chocolates, but the best gift of all was from Charles.”

1989, San Antonio, Tex. _ The boss send me to Texas to interview Cito Gaston’s mother, Gertrude, and Johnny Cardona, who operated the Cardona Welders team where the Milwaukee Braves spotted Gaston. Welders manager Chon Cantu and Cardona were as tough as any desk. After interviewing them at the welding shop, I returned to the Hyatt to write. Every 15 minutes they phoned asking “you ready? We’re taking you for real fajitas.”
Finally filed, we ate and stopped at Lambert Field. They told of outfielders playing back in the trees Gaston hit the ball so far, or the night he threw a guy out at the plate. One story followed another as memories snowballed and then silence. One man had his handkerchief out, wiping his eyes. The other had tears streaming down his cheeks. Let’s go, I have three graphs to add. 

1989, Pullman, Wash. _ The Jays drafted John Olerud in the third round from Washington State. I flew in and visited the campus for a doubleheader and took the family for lunch. 
As with any feature there were follow up questions. I called from Seattle, Lynda Olerud answered some questions and set up the call for the next day between 7 and 7:30 am. The Jays played 12 innings and we took the charter to Oakland.
By the time I checked into my room at the Oakland Hyatt I checked my watch and it was 7:20. Purr-fect. I called the Olerud house to speak to Dr. Olerud. Mrs. Olerud sounded a tag groggy when she answered and said “why no the doctor had not left for work yet.”
As I waited I slowly turned and looked at the clock on the night stand. It read 4:20. Of course my wrist watch was set to Toronto time. The Doctor answered the questions and the next day I send roses to Linda and an apology for calling at 4:20 am.  

1990, Chicago _ The Robbie Alomar and Joe Carter for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez deal happened at 3 pm. Carter and Alomar were available via phone, Fernandez was not. McGriff apologized when he finally answered around nine that night. He and wife Veronica had been at pre-natal class. Bob Nightengale, then of the Los Angeles Times and now of USA Today, tells the story that someone said “Fred thanks for your time, unplug the phone, get some sleep, it’s been a tough day.”
 
1991, Crownsville, Md. _ Boss Mike Simpson called at 9:30 am and his first words were “great lead on the game story.” Stretch. C’om Mike, what do you need?” He asked if I recalled two AWOL Canadian soldiers charged with shooting a Canadian police officer. I did. Off I went to Annaolpis, Md.
State troopers Kimberly Bowman and Kimberly Brooks, of the Annapolis barracks, had stopped the hitch hikers on U.S. 50 in Davidsonville the night before. Trooper Bowman was hit in the belt buckle by a bullet. The fugitives escaped into a nearby woods. One was captured the day I arrived as I spent seven hours in the median of the highway and listened to a P.R. guy spew cliches. The only thing worth writing was when a helicopter with a stopped over a brush with an infrared camera. 
One TV crew ran down the median ... the on-air talent, cameraman and producer. Then, another crew and another. We’re not sure who stepped on whose cord or who went down first ... but some one went down, tumbling into someone else and about eight TV types -- half with suits on -- were sprawling in the grass and mud resembling Made That Spare TV show. And then a rabbit hopped out of the underbrush.  
An FBI man drove me to Camden Yards since there were not any cabs. Half way into town I asked “so what would have happened when the fugitives names were read and they asked for wants and warrants? All kinds of bells and whistles go off.” He said no, State cars don’t have computers. The man explained how the “bells and whistles” would have gone off at the dispatcher’s computer. And then the dispatcher would have said the magic words “What ... is ... your exact position?” Everyone would go silent and as soon as the officer responded everyone within ear shot would have bolted for the location.
I arrived at Camden during batting practice and Tom Henke asked where I’d been? “Fighting crime,” I said.
They caught both soldiers eventually and they were sentenced.   

1992, Southern California _ After five years of asking and being told no, I was finally given approval by Pat Gillick to accompany his scouts on the road in April. There were two conditions: the story could not run until a few days before the June draft and I had to fill out a yellow card rating each player ... so they could tease. Two nights before hooking up with the scouts in Irvine I saw the Expos play at San Diego. The Padres clubhouse did not have TVs, but in the Expo clubhouse there sat Marquis Grissom and Delino DeShields staring at the TVs as fires burned. I asked someone “where in Europe is that.” John Silverman called me away “you know those cops in Simi Valley. They got off. That’s L.A. People are rioting.”
That night I drove to Irvine and answered the phone the next morning too hear a man trying to disguise his voice as a woman “yes, I’m calling from the office ... would you go to Compton and Crenshaw and cover the Rodney King riots?” Gillick. Two hours later I answered and sports editor Simpson said “what to you think about going to Compton and Crenshaw and covering the Rodney King riots?” No I told him. I’m on the seventh floor of the Irvine Marriott and I’ll interview any baseball people I see. I did phone a former Royals and Dodgers scout who was in Watts. I asked if he could turn the TV down due to the gun fire. He said it was not TV.
The next day we went to Torrance, Huntington Beach, San Diego State University, then West Covina and San Diego State again the next, then Long Beach and Torrance and then we flew to Seattle Kirkland, Wash. and Bellevue, Wash. as I saw wonderful men at work and great story tellers like Bobby Mattick, scouting director Bob Engle, cross checkers Tim Wilken and Wilbur (Moose) Johnson, plus Don Hinkle, Billy Moore, Chris Buckley, Chris Bourjos and others. 
     
1993, Montreal _ Curtis Pride hit a pinch-hit, two-run, double for the Expos in the seventh cutting a Philadelphia lead to a run as 45,757 cheered his first hit in the majors. During a pitching change, coach Jerry Manuel called him to third and told him to tip his cap when he returns. Ump Gary Darling mouthed: “Smile.” 
And the noise grew as he tipped his cap and smiled.
Pride was 95% deaf since birth, but in a series of 1-on-1 interviews he says he heard the ovation “here,” tapping his heart. He stared intently awaiting the next question. All he can see is someone gulping, fighting back tears.

1993, SkyDome _ Paul Molitor mentions he has found a place to live in Toronto during the off season. I said hold on a second, that’s big news. Molitor said it wasn’t. I pointed out a player had not lived in Toronto year round since Rick Bosetti in 1980. It became a big deal.

1999, Tampa _ Catfish Hunter, the New York Yankee Hall of Famer dropped by the Blue-Jays-Yankees game. Hunter had ALS. The dominant right-hander first for the A’s and then the Yankees said “Some days you want to cry, some days you feel lucky you’re living,” Hunter said, his steel-blue eyes misting over. “I hope they find a cure. I hope I last that long.”
I ran into him in the elevator later and extended my hand. He could not lift his. 

2004, Nettuno, Italy _ It was a big day: Canada beat Cuba to win a pre-Athens Olympics tourney with Stubby Clapp, Pete LaForest, Shawn Hill and Danny Klassen playing a large roll. Filed the story and called the office. 
“Did you get my message?”
Ah no, the cell does not work in Italy.
“Oh, well the Jays fired Carlos Tosca ... can you write something?”
I wrote and headed to the hotel office where there was a line to use the phone. Another scout was ahead of me and asked how the Jays were doing. “I said well when Vernon Wells, Carlos Delgado and Josh Phelps are out, they put in Frank Menechino, Dave Berg and Howie Clark ... it’s like a Smurf convention.”
I looked up and there was Jays assistant GM Alex Anthopoulos, who was scouting for the Greek team.  

2006, Mississauga _ Michael Kim, 16, was hit by a Ford F-150 pickup walking along Mississauga Road. He won 24 games, had a 2.22 ERA and knocked in 128 RBIs for coach Remo Cardinale’s Mississauga North Tigers. Yet the most important number was eight. His parents participated in the organ donation program. His lung, pancreas, liver, two kidneys, two eyes and heart went to eight children in need. It’s why I signed up for the donor program. Years later Michael’s father John needed a kidney ... a transplant was done.

2012, Dunedin _ Omar Malave’s grand daughter needed help. Omar, a man that makes an organization strong (31 of the previous 32 seasons were with the Jays) didn’t want help, refused to ask.
Grand daughter, Elisse Jensen needed heart surgery and since her father had switched jobs he did not have medical coverage. Jose Bautista, Luis Perez and others came up big behind the scenes, but for Elisse’s Give Forward page it was Jays fans chipping in $5, $50 or $100 a pop. 
It was amazing the size of the heart of ball fans helping the damaged heart of a 17-month old. A total of $20,000 was needed, you fans raised $25,858. Every time I see Malave he thanks me, asks me to “thank the Blue Jays fans, they are priceless to me.”

They say the first 50 are the toughest.