By CJ Pentland
Canadian Baseball Network
Four years ago, Geoff Ehresman didn’t know where he’d go to continue his baseball career. The Vancouver teenager knew that he wanted to play in the BC Premier Baseball League, but it just was a matter of where. To help decide, he talked with some of the guys from Team BC – and after doing so, it didn’t take him long to set his sights on the North Shore Twins.
“They said John was the best in the business, so I talked to him on the phone and met up with him before my first year with Twins. He was the reason I went there.”
The legacy of John Haar on the baseball field has had plenty of time to grow over the past 70 years, and it shows no signs of fading away any time soon. With an upcoming induction in the BC Sports Hall of Fame, the famed coach will sit amongst the province’s greatest sportsmen and sportswomen for decades to come – but his impact will continue to stretch well beyond the walls of the hall and go well beyond being just a baseball coach. He may possess one of the best baseball minds in the business, but Haar’s mind has proven to be capable of much, much more.
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Between the levels of T-Ball and the majors, Corey Koskie estimates he’s had 30 coaches in his life. Twenty-two of them were unhelpful, five didn’t hurt him, and three were actually beneficial: Jim Dwyer, Bill Springman, and John Haar, his coach with the National Baseball Institute. Haar spotted Koskie at the Canada Summer Games in Kamloops, BC, and after the Manitoban rapped two doubles off of BC’s top pitcher, Brent Crowther, Haar quickly jumped at the chance to offer Koskie a spot at the NBI. After two years under Haar’s tutelage, the Minnesota Twins selected him in the 26th round of the 1994 amateur draft.
As a small-town Manitoba kid heading out west to Vancouver, Koskie remembers being a bit overwhelmed by his first couple of weeks with the NBI, but he does remember Haar’s batting practices. John Leonard, the first shortstop for the NBI back in 1986, recalls them fondly as well, calling Haar the best batting practice pitcher he’s ever have.
“Here’s a guy who’d go and throw 1,500 balls for batting practice,” said Leonard, who grew up in Oakville, Ont. and spent five years with the NBI. “And he never sat around. He was always doing something, and that rubs off on each individual player.”
Ehresman might not wholeheartedly agree with Leonard’s statement on Haar’s BP – “he always paints the outside corners. It’s a grind sometimes” – but almost 30 years later the teenager is another beneficiary of the hard work and personalized baseball insight that the coach offers.
“I know one time I was struggling this year, [and] he would come out and give extra time for me and some of the other guys who were struggling just to work on our swings and work on our approach, which is one of the things he’s really keen on,” said Ehresman, who’s in his fourth year playing for the Twins under Haar.
“He really works with you 1-on-1. He’s going to bring you out and ask you what you think about at the plate, and how your approach is going up at the plate and how you’re feeling that day.”
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It’s a baseball knowledge that started at a young age for Haar. His father, Rud Haar, played a significant role in his life, coming home after working long hours for BC Tel to either toss the ball around in the back lane or hit fly balls at the schoolyard. He played baseball, soccer, and hockey up until the age 13 when he could no longer fit all them into his schedule, but in the decision to stick with both soccer and baseball, it was baseball that held a step up.
“I loved the game of baseball, and I used to set up little games with the boxscore thing taped to the bannister in the backyard, and I had a strike zone on the back cement stairs,” said Haar. “I used to create games in my mind where the New York Yankees were playing the Boston Red Sox and all that stuff. It was just – I dunno, I couldn’t get enough of it.”
Haar later headed to the University of British Columbia to study physical education, and he landed spots on the varsity baseball, soccer, and football squads. A foray into pro baseball followed shortly after, as after a 1964 summer trip down the Pacific Coast with the Thunderbirds to take on American college and amateur teams, the San Francisco Giants signed him to a pro contract and sent him to Rookie ball in Idaho to play for the Magic Valley Cowboys. The Giants organization released him at the end of the season, but in 1966 the New York Yankees picked him up to give him another shot. He responded with strong numbers for the Johnson City Yankees in Rookie ball, but over the next two seasons Haar didn’t reach Double A.
He came back home to UBC to finish his degree, and by the end of his time at Point Grey he cemented himself as one of the greatest athletes to ever don the T-Bird blue and gold. In 1968 Haar won the Bobby Gaul Memorial Trophy for top male graduating athlete, and he remains the only athlete in school history to have an opportunity to play three sports professionally; the Dallas Cowboys came calling after his roommate convinced him to respond to a Sporting News ad that said they needed a kicker, and his skills on the soccer pitch gave him the chance to pursue that path if he sought to. Yet it was baseball that remained his true calling.
“I’d gone away to play professional baseball and just wasn’t good enough – and that was a disappointment,” said Haar. “But I came home and I certainly did have that passion for the game and wanted to do something. And Wayne Norton, who was an executive director of Baseball BC at that time, contacted me and asked me if I’d be interested in joining him, and he was involved with the national team program. And I said yes I’d like to help out, so he was instrumental in getting me into coaching.” His first team was in 1969 – a Canada Games team that traveled to Halifax.
Norton, a Canadian scout, played another key role in Haar’s coaching career many years later. He and then-Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick brainstormed the idea for the National Baseball Institute, with the objective to keep as many Canadian ballplayers at home to give them a good education, improve Canada’s national team strength and keep Canadian players out of the draft. (At the time Canadians could only be drafted if they attended U.S. schools.)
When Gillick rolled into Vancouver in 1986 with the Blue Jays Caravan, Haar received an invite to the Hyatt hotel downtown to sit down for an interview with Bob Prentice, Paul Beeston and Gillick. Come the end of the talk, Haar was the new coach of the Vancouver-based NBI – a position that he held for the next 14 years.
“I said at that time ‘I would love to have been a professional player, but I really do think I was put on this earth to be a baseball coach.’ I love the game, and so they gave me that opportunity to really get into the coaching thing at the NBI, and it just kind of ballooned from there. And between Baseball BC and Baseball Canada – but in particularly the Toronto Blue Jays – they created some opportunities and situations for me that were absolutely spectacular.
“I know a lot of people told me, and I knew [that] next to the professional ranks of the Blue Jays I probably had – for that period of time in the NBI – maybe the best job in baseball in Canada. It was pretty exciting.”
Haar was also named manager of Team Canada in 1986 and promptly led them to a fifth-place finish at the World Cup, and it didn’t take long for Haar to propel the NBI program forward as well. At the 1987 Pan Am Games in Indianapolis the team lost a heartbreaker to the United States in the semi-final, but still finished fourth and defeated some international teams that Canada had never beaten before.
With each passing year, Haar strove to make his group of Canadians a little bit more successful then it had been – and his coaching peak came in 1991 when he led the Canadian Junior Team to Baseball Canada’s first and international gold medal. The effort led to Haar being named Canada’s Coach of the Year in 1991 and the International Baseball Federation’s top coach in 1992.
Nine of his NBI players eventually made the jump to the majors (Matt Stairs, Denis Boucher, Aaron Guiel. Rob Butler, Paul Spoljaric, Steve Sinclair,Derek Aucoin, Jason Dickson and Koskie) while several others played in the minors. Others became coaches – one of which being Terry McKaig, who played for Haar in 1995-96 and revived the UBC varsity baseball program 18 years ago. With McKaig jumping straight from playing into coaching, Haar ended up being the young head coach’s biggest mentor.
“When you do that, you pretty much try to emulate the people that you looked up to, and John would be the main guy that I had respected the most from my playing days,” said McKaig, who will become UBC’s director of baseball next season. “I think there are some similarities … and as I got more comfortable I’m sure I found out unique things that I like to do, but John is definitely a big reason for my coaching style in my 18 years.”
McKaig fondly remembers his first encounter with Haar, and it didn’t take long for him to become a fan of his. After a single to left field off a lefty, the left-handed hitter trotted down to first base feeling pretty proud of himself. But once he made his way around to third, Haar unexpectedly greeted him with “What was that?”
“I said, ‘Well, I thought I did a good job of keeping my front side in.’ He went, ‘You’re a power hitter! I want you to hit the ball over the fence! Never mind this going the other way – with two strikes, fine.’ I’m just looking at him like ‘What?! I thought that was a pretty good piece of hitting.’
“He’d tell me, ‘You’re here to hit the ball over the fence.’ So I quickly became a fan of John Haar, just because of his style of coaching. Those were two of my best years of baseball.”
Haar’s current player, Ehresman, tells a bit of a different story in regards to hitting approach, with the left-handed hitter being told to stay relaxed and use the whole field. The end result appears to be the same, though, as Ehresman has a 1.114 OPS through his team’s first eight games and calls Haar “the best coach I’ve ever had.”
Jeff Mallett, the man who helped build Yahoo! and is now part of the ownerships for the San Francisco Giants and Vancouver Whitecaps – among many other sporting and entrepreneurial ventures – has met many prominent figures during his 14 seasons with the Giants, but stands behind the claim that Haar is “without question” the best baseball mind he’s ever met.
The two first met when attempting to create the short-lived Canadian Baseball League, and have formed a friendship that lasts to this day. Like clockwork, Haar was one of the first calls that Mallett received after the Giants took home each of their past three World Series titles, and throughout the year he’s always leaving lengthy voicemails that are breaking down the play of the Giants and Whitecaps.
He’s described as a throwback by his life-long friend Ed Richmond, and will tell it like it is to his players. But that’s because he knows more than anybody else. “Not figuratively, but literally,” said Richmond. “He’s been there done that. Put it this way: he gets more wins than [his teams] would have if they had somebody else coaching.”
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Haar called Leonard one of the most competitive players he ever coached. A left-handed hitter, Leonard played shortstop for the NBI between 1986 and 1991, and when told this was how Haar regarded him, he quickly noted where that mentality came from.
“You practice what you preach, because one of the hardest-working coaches was John,” said Leonard, who now works as a bylaw enforcement officer for the City of Port Coquitlam.
Well before a game or practice starts, Haar can be found there preparing and organizing to get his team any advantage. It’s a mentality he passes along to his players and fellow coaches, and he wants to make sure that what he’s asking of them is something that he gets done himself beforehand. Koskie mentioned how the coach demanded respect from all of his players – offering no special treatment and putting in the effort to mold his young players into better people. Yet in return, he demanded that he saw similar effort.
“He was a fierce enemy, but a gracious and caring coach,” said Gary Wilson, who played under Haar with both the Vancouver Puccini’s baseball team and the Vancouver Firefighters Soccer Club. Haar might’ve been stern, but he cared about his players and wanted to send a message that he deemed to be valuable. He would help provide his players with the answers they were looking for, but make sure that they found those answers themselves.
“He’s very determined at what he does, and he lets you know this is what he wants from you,” said Wilson. “It’s up to you to maintain that level of play or you’re not going to be playing.” He remembers a time when a teammate got fouled and then kicked the opposing player in retaliation; he got a red card for the action, and it was his last action as a member of that team. “That’s how John was. He liked the hard-nosed effort, but he was fair about it.”
Leonard remembers a time in Idaho with the NBI when a pitcher – whom he opted to leave unnamed – decided to stay in his room to do homework since he wasn’t pitching that day. Haar’s reaction to that was “If you want to go home, we’ll send you home” – and the player was placed on a bus back to Vancouver. It also just so happened to stop at basically every stop on the way back, making it a 15-hour trip back.
“The one thing John always said was ‘You quit this program and everything else in life becomes easier to quit,’” said Leonard. “And I remember that stuck with me the whole time I was there, because he’s a very easy person to play for – he was always fair.”
On another weekend with the NBI, Leonard suffered a charley horse during a collision at home plate on the Friday night game. When he woke up the next morning he could barely walk, and informed Haar that he wouldn’t be able to play that day. Haar had none of it; he told the shortstop that he needed him that day, and to go upstairs to get dressed. The two then cabbed to the field together, and Haar said “Let’s go,” before proceeding to run for 45 minutes with his player until his leg was stretched out.
Even after his players have hung up their jerseys, he still stands by their side. He’ll often get together for dinner with those who still reside in BC, and for those out of town he’ll exchange Christmas cards. He attends an annual golf tournament in Pitt Meadows with fellow alumni of the Vancouver Puccini’s team, and is constantly rekindling friendships with former players he bumps into around town.
“It’s been so good, and I’ve met so many good people and made so many great friendships that have been developed through the games, and it’s not just with people who played for me – some of the best friendships I have are with people that played against us,” said Haar.
“He makes a big difference,” said Richmond. “There’s nowhere we go [that] he doesn’t run into guys that used to play for him. It’s amazing.”
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Haar always seems to know what each situation called for, and that stems back to his immense preparation. Hit and run, or a bunt? Confront a player after a mistake, or let them learn from it? Help a player, or – well, he pretty much always made the choice to help.
He sticks around after practices to offer batting tips. He talks to McKaig to recommend players that would be a good fit at UBC. He’d help NBI players – often away from home and their families – pay the bills if they were struggling with school and act as somewhat of a father figure. All the while, he’s made the time to raise two daughters with his supportive wife, Carol.
Yet Haar also knows the balance between serious and laid-back. He’d had have fun with his players, but it wasn’t like they didn’t know if Funny John or Serious John would show up to the park that day.
“He never wavered,” said Wilson; the combination was part of his personality, and because of it Wilson and his teammates always enjoyed heading to the park to play for Haar. Leonard also considers him the most quick-witted person he’s ever met – with the defining example coming on an Easter weekend in Lewiston, Id.
On the Sunday, Lewis & Clark State coach Ed Cheff threw the umpires out the game due to their lacklustre performance – and Haar had a good chuckle and went along with it. Those same umpires then came back for Monday’s games, and after one call that Haar didn’t take particular fancy to, an extravaganza ensued.
“This umpire got into John’s face, [and] I’ll never forget this: his face turned this red, and he started on this umpire,” said Leonard. “And this umpire, all he could do was back up. Everybody was standing on the field just stunned, and when this was over they started applauding. He had every one-liner that you could imagine thrown at this umpire, and the umpire couldn’t get a word in at all. It was a complete reversal, which was memorable.” It was the only time he’d ever seen Haar like that.
There were also times when his teams were short players or were struggling, so he’d lace ‘em up and head out on the field to offer support. Yet he wasn’t out of place at all, since he not only put in the work as a coach, but also often practiced with his squads. At one soccer game out in Haney, he entered himself into the match and promptly scored the winning goal – “and of course he’d let us know that,” said Wilson with a laugh.
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His hard work kept the National Baseball Institute running for a total of 14 years, with Haar doing his best in the later years to keep it together with local sponsors. He took that passion into the Canadian Baseball League, and his reputation as a “real genuine baseball guy” caught the eye of Mallett and convinced him to commit to the league. The league did not succeed as planned, but Haar did all that he could to make it work.
“It was our first opening game back in Quebec in Trois Rivieres, and we had some field problems,” said Mallett. “And literally, 24 hours before first pitch and John himself was out there – I swear we had to pull him off for a few hours to sleep – but he was on the field non-stop getting it ready. He had a big role for us – he was responsible for the players, recruiting, drafting, rules, and umpires, but he did absolutely everything. And I just saw with my own eyes – in the middle of nowhere with no fans there – and he would not sleep until he had the field ready. That made a big impact on me.”
Even at age 70, Haar still won’t rest. He coaches at the Baseball Academy at Sands Secondary in Delta most afternoons, and then in the evenings is back with the North Shore Twins of the PBL. Each year he wonders if it will be his last, and he took the fall off from coaching since he realizes that there are a good group of younger coaches in North Shore program who could take over. “Maybe next year” he said – but the success hasn’t slowed down at all. The Twins took home three-straight PBL championships between 2007 and 2009, and after he rejoined the senior team last year they almost took home another in extra innings despite having to play three games on the final day.
“Apparently it did work, whatever it is,” said his life-long friend Richmond in regards to Haar’s coaching style. “I guess it still does.”
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Koskie knows a thing or two about Hall of Fames. He was inducted into the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010, and in the summer of 2015 he’ll join his former coach in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame; Stairs, another former player of Haar’s, will also be enshrined. Yet Koskie notes that he’s in for his accomplishments on the baseball field, while Haar is going into the BC Sports Hall of Fame – and already in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame – because of his impact on other people’s lives. To him, Hall of Fames are made to remember guys like Haar.
“I don’t think there could be a better example of a body of work,” said Mallett, who flew Haar to St. Mary’s for Haar’s 2007 Canadian Baseball [corey koskie] of Fame induction. “He’s the least self-promoter. Someone with a different make-up and a PR person could’ve wowed things up over the years, but John answers to the players and to the coaches and the people who genuinely do it, and that to me really just caps off everything he’s done as a person.”
The news came as a huge surprise to Haar – especially since he thought the phone call was from a financial company and about to deliver bad news about the stock market – but not to those he’s encountered. They’ll remember him as more than just a baseball coach, just as Haar will remember his players for more than just what they accomplished on the field.
“I certainly do enjoy working at any time with young people, and you get a lot of good feelings as a coach when you see kids smile and they start to do things they never thought they could do and they have some success,” said Haar. “I haven’t gotten tired of that experience yet. I’ll be doing something.”
When he’s enshrined in the Hall of May 28, he’ll have just 2 1/2 minutes for his induction speech – though he was told that he didn’t need to speak that long if he didn’t feel comfortable. Haar quickly remarked that the opposite would be the case.
“I go back to 1969, and now we’re in 2015, and I don’t know how you sum it up in 2 1/2 minutes. It could be a 33 RPM on at 78.”
That’s John Haar: still going at full speed.