McRobie has surprise 70th birthday to remember

Bob Elliott

Canadian Baseball Network

GANANOQUE _ Brian McRobie was 66 years old when he walked into the Glen House Resort for dinner with Carol Payne recently.

McRobie spotted the car of his friend Paul Sloan.

Then, he saw another friend from his hometown of Brockville.

A golf pro from northern New York State

And then friends from Toronto.

All said the same thing: “surprise ... happy birthday.”

Dear friend Carol Payne, wife of the late Alfie Payne, McRobie’s best pal, was the best decoy possible to get the guest of honor from Brockville to Gan on the purpose of her scouting the place out for her and her girlfriends to take a vacation this summer.

Then McRobie’s pal Ted Cullen arrived from Ottawa with James McRobie, Brian’s nephew, who flew Orlando to Ottawa.

But the real surprise came after McRobie blew out the candles on his birthday cake.

Yes, he was 66 when he walked in the door -- according to Baseball-Reference.com -- on April 17.

Yet, everyone had gathered for his 70th birthday.

So, how old was he?

The Philadelphia Phillies signed the Brockville Braves catcher in 1969.

“I knocked a couple of years off to get my age down to 20,” McRobie said. “The scout from Buffalo said ‘we better say you are 19. It looks better.’

“Everyone did that back in those days.”

McRobie was not everyone.

McRobie, given his love and respect for the game from Jack Giffin, played four games for the rookie-class Pulaski Phillies in 1969 playing for the legendary manager Dallas Green. The next year he spent 10 games with Pulaski playing behind Jim Essian, who made the majors and three with class-A Spartanburg.

From there he played in the Quebec Provincial League and returned to Ontario playing for the Orillia Majors, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Brantford Red Sox. In the Inter County, he played with Payne but their friendship never lapsed.

Payne passed March 28, 2012 after a 12-year battle with Leukemia at Princess Margaret Hospital. Payne’s friends, the people he coached and the lives he touched could fill the SkyDome, with spillover going to Jurassic Park and the Air Canada Centre. Buck Reed, John Hopper and McRobie would be in the front row.

McRobie arrived in Toronto after answering a newspaper want add -- posted by Leafs manager Jim Liness -- in search for a catcher for the 1972 Leafs. It almost never came about as the front page of The Globe & Mail sports section showed a picture of a benches clearing brawl with the Brantford Red Sox and the Leafs.

Payne picked McRobie up at the train station, they went out to meet a couple of the players, get aquatinted over beers and go over first-and-third defence. 

McRobie was not much into drinking and that night he was with Bob (Flakey) Johnstone, Payne and others accomplished partiers, according to Reed.

“The performance in his first game was not up to Brian’s fine level of play so he told coach Liness he could play better, Jim replied ‘I sure hope so,’” recalled Reed. “He played well in his second game and all was good from then on as Mac went on to be a mainstay of that year’s Intercountry and provincial champions

“He is a good man and a better teammate.”
   
McRobie scouted for the Toronto Blue Jays and the Colorado Rockies.

Bill McKenzie and McRobie drafted and signed lefty Mike Kusiewicz in the eighth round of the 1994 draft from the Ottawa-Nepean Canadians. Kusiewicz won the ERA title in the class-A South Atlantic League with the Asheville Tourists and pitched for nine more seasons.

After Giffin passed, McRobie wrote Rockies scouting director Pat Daugherty a letter saying in effect he could no longer scout, he had to run the Bunnies, he could not let the program die. Daugherty wrote back “we’re not accepting your resignation, you are doing the right thing, keep doing what you are doing, keep the program alive and let us know when you come across someone in your travels.”

Tributes to Jack Giffin (top) and Brockville Bunnies founder Bunny Bradfield on display at the respected program's 50th anniversary.

Tributes to Jack Giffin (top) and Brockville Bunnies founder Bunny Bradfield on display at the respected program's 50th anniversary.

Bunny Bradfield started the Bunnies organization and after running the Brockville Braves seniors, Giffin took over the Connie Mack team.

The Bunnies turned 50 years young last summer and honored their two major leaguers: Andy Stewart, who reached the majors with the Kansas City Royals, and right-hander Peter Hoy who pitched for the Boston Red Sox.
 
“I have had the honor of knowing Brian since I was 15,” said Stewart, “That was the year that I tried out for the famous Brockville Bunnies in 1985 as a young shortstop. Jack Giffin, Wayne Hamelin, Rodger Hodgkinson and Brian worked me out and hit me 15-20 ground balls. After the workout, Brian said ‘if you want to be on the Bunnies, I would need to become a catcher.’  

“I spent the next three years under his guidance and leadership. I respect Brian so much for volunteering his time and thank him for teaching me how to use the ‘tools of ignorance.’ If Brian and the Bunnies hadn’t been a part of my life I don’t know where I would have been. Thanks again for everything Brian and Happy 70th!”

Stewart was promoted from triple-A Omaha to the Kansas City Royals, making his major league debut on Sept. 6, 1997 when he was pinch ran for catcher Mike Macfarlane in a 9-3 loss to Oakland. 

And in his second game, Sept. 18, he hit an 0-2 pitch to right off Chicago White Sox reliever Chuck McElroy for a double. He came around to score on a Jay Bell single cutting the White Sox lead to 9-2. 

Later, he singled off Scott Eyre of the White Sox in a 4-3 Royals loss at Comiskey Park II. He had two hits in his eight major-league at-bats. 

Stewart played 11 seasons in the minors with the Rookie-Class Gulf Coast Royals, class-A Baseball City, class-A Wilmington, double-A Memphis, triple-A Wichita and triple-A Omaha all in the Royals system, plus double-A Reading in the Philadelphia Phillies system. He spent 2004 with the independent Winnipeg Goldeyes, where he starred during the 1999 Pan Am Games to get primed for the Athens Olympics. 

In 903 games, he had batted .280 with 71 home runs, 200 doubles, 14 triples, 71 homers, 431 RBIs and a .761 OPS. 

Eventually, he became bullpen catcher for the Toronto Blue Jays, the personal batting practice pitcher for Carlos Delgado who took him to the 2000 all star game and home run derby at Turner Field in Atlanta. He also earned the nickname "Mileage."

Stewart managed the class-A Williamsport Cross-Cutters in the New York-Penn League in 2003 and now coaches at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

Stewart had great memories of Gord Duff and Giffin running the Bunnies, riding his bike into Fulford Park and hearing sounds of the “real baseball music” Giffin had playing, smelling hotdogs and hamburgers cooking and going into the clubhouse to look at pictures of past teams on the walls and watch baseball on TV. 

Hoy pitched for the Bunnies and then headed to the LeMoyne Dolphins and coach Dick Rockwell, who also had Tom Browning, who pitched 11 years in the majors mostly with the Cincinnati Reds, Jim Deshaies, 12 seasons primarily as a Houston Astro and first-round pick Jon Ratliff, who went to the Chicago Cubs. 

Who would Rockwell start in a win-or-go-home game? “Peter Hoy,” he told us one night at Canisius College in Buffalo as Cameron Pelton was squatting. 

The Red Sox drafted Hoy in the 33rd round in 1998 and he pitched at class-A Elmira, class-A Winter Haven, double-A New Britain and triple-A Pawtucket before making the 1992 Boston roster. His debut came in the third game of the season when he worked a scoreless inning with a 5-3 lead over the Cleveland Indians: retiring Paul Sorrento on a fly ball, allowing singles to Sandy Alomar, Jr. and Brook Jacoby, current Blue Jays hitting coach, before getting Mark Lewis on an inning-ending double play.

The game lasted 19 innings with Tim Naehring hitting a homer off Eric Bell to make a winner out of Mike Gardiner (Sarnia, Ont.). Hoy appeared in four more games with two scoreless outings before being returned to triple-A. He pitched at class-A Fort Lauderdale, independent ball for the Regina Cyclones in the North Central League and the Adirondack Lumberjacks in the Northeast League. 

“Brian McRobie told me how to do everything, how to do things the right way,” said Hoy. “Whether it was something simple like wearing my hat the right way or putting on my uniform the right way. 

“From the Bunnies I went to LeMoyne and then pro ball and never did anyone say ‘hey you’re doing that wrong,’ other than when I didn’t get anyone out.”

Giffin and McRobie taught Hoy the finer points when he arrived from down the road in Cardinal.   

“I’d always make an attempt to get up and say hello, to see Brian and Jack when I came home,” said Hoy who remembers one specific trip after he was released by the Red Sox.

“I was struggling after I got released, I went there and threw a bullpen for Brian and the other Bunnies coaches. Brian was a catcher but he had an excellent understanding of pitching mechanics.”

After that Hoy pitched for the Ottawa-Nepean Canadians forming a durable twosome with right-hander Shawn O’Connor for manager Don Campbell. 

Who is pitching the first two games of the OBA eliminations? “O’Connor,” Campbell would say, “and Hoy will pitch the next two.” Hoy should be included in the next class of the Ottawa-Nepean Canadians Hall of Fame. 

Hoy then returned to LeMoyne as pitching coach and now coaches St. Lawrence Unviersity Saints in Canton, NY. 

Besides the Bunnies, McRobie coached Team Canada in the 1983 Pan Am Games and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

“I don’t know what it was,” said Toronto sandlot legend Howie Birnie, “but Brockville was always known for strong catching: Andy Stewart, Nick Noonan.”

Noonan played a 454 games for Brantford, Waterloo, Stratford and Kitchener in the Inter County behind the league’s career leader Arden Eddie with 854, No. 8 overall. In 1,705 at-bats, he had 521 hits, 16 home runs and 245 RBIs. He stole 93 bases and had an impressive lifetime batting average of .306.

McRobie calls the 1977 edition with the likes of Larry Crooke, Gerry Crooke, Dan Collison, Mickey Collison, Bobby Morrow, Pete Proverbs, Jerry Garvey, John Flanigan, Dan Caldwell and Kevin Brownlee the best Bunnies team ever.  

Roger Hodgkinson prefers the 1984 team with Tim Wilson, Dan Burns, Mike Hoy, Billy Loshaw, Chris Gill, Kevin Harper, Shawn Ogilvie, Hoy and others. McRobie says the best players were Danny Collison or Dan Burns. 
  
Besides the major leaguers, RHP Wayne Crowder (Brockville, Ont.) pitched in the New York Yankees system from 1968-to-1970 with class-A Oneonta, class-A Fort Lauderdale and class-A Kinston; LHP Wayne Amyotte (Brockville, Ont.) signed with the Detroit Tigers, pitching three seasons from 1969-71 with rookie-class Bristol, class-A Lakeland and class-A Rocky Mount; and RHP Joe Leeder (Brockville, Ont.) pitched 1971-73 for the class-A Jamestown, class-A West Palm Beach in the Montreal Expos chain and McRobie were some of the Bunnies who turned pro. Plus a multitude of players headed south on scholarships.

Hodginson, who spent 33 years of coaching, managing and instructing, Stewart and Hoy were honored at the 50th anniversary, just as Bradfield, Giffin and McRobie had been honored after 25 years.

The fact that McRobie was a success teaching or has friends after all these years is not a surprise.