By Bob Elliott
Every night he’s with you in the car on the slow drive home.
We mean he’s right there along with the traffic reporter, Jerry Howarth and your almost worn-out George Strait Final Concert collection.
He’s with you even when he is in Buffalo ... or in Washington D.C. as he was Wednesday night.
“Hello ... I am Japanese ... when I play ... Bob Bannerman pays!” Munenori Kawasaki says in his unmistakable voice the radio ad.
Now, in San Francisco you might hear Buster Posey of the three-time World Series champion Giants doing a commercial.
In Boston it’s David Ortiz and in New York it might be David Wright and CC Sabathia pushing products.
Hits leader Jose Altuve does endorsements in Houston and former MVP Andrew McCutchen in Pittsburgh.
And in Toronto?
Why Kawasaki and not two-time major-league home run leader Jose Bautista or all-Canadian Russell Martin?
“We knew he was the fan favorite,” said Katie Shea, president of Bob Bannerman Chrysler Dodge Jeep conveniently located at Eglinton and Don Mills in North York, who chose Kawasaki for the add.
“Every time my husband I went to a game, he’s the player people were talking about most,” Shea said. “He makes us smile. He’s a big character. His teammates love him.”
Kawasaki signed the endorsement deal with Bob Bannerman last spring. Bautista does ads for Booster Juice. He not only likes the juice he now owns his own store at 2420 Bloor West. Edwin Encarnacion and Martin do ads for Rogers Communications, much like Brett Lawrie who was always picking up his dry cleaning at the same store and the ball fan never once recognized him.
Lawrie also did commercials for Spitz sunflower seeds when he was here. With Lawrie gone to Oakland, with Bautista pushing his own product and the other two doing in-house ads, is Kawasaki leader in ad revenue?
Kawasaki has started 165 games and has 138 hits in his career going into Wednesday’s finale in D.C.
When he signed with Bob Bannerman in 2014, he had made 93 starts and had 75 hits.
This is Toronto’s fan fave?
Well, John McDonald was before him.
“(Kawasaki) makes people happy, the average fan that goes to a game doesn’t know every stat or what everyone is hitting,” said Shea, reasoning fans want to be entertained. Kawasaki does that.
“Remember that interview he did when he said ‘I am Japanese,’ (after a walk-off double against the Baltimore Orioles, May 26, 2013) that’s why I chose that line for the add. Or that interview he did with Mark De Rosa? De Rosa was killing himself with laughter. (Kawasaki) relates to people.”
Covering the Montreal Expos fans loved Gary Carter, Andre Dawson and Tim Raines ... in other words the best. Legendary Montreal Gazette columnist Tim Burke once wrote the curse of Expo was to be slow and slumping to play third base as Bob Bailey, Larry Parrish and Tim Wallach were booed at times.
Jerome (Junkyard Dog) Williams and Matt Bonner were popular with Toronto Raptors.
And when we arrived in 1985 if you went on talent Jesse Barfield, George Bell, Dave Stieb or Tony Fernandez were the best, yet Ernie Whitt was the most popular.
McDonald could enter as a pinch hitter with the Jays down 11-3 and from the crowd reaction you’d think someone had just hit an eight-run homer.
Since we didn’t grow up here, we asked a native what the deal was?
“This city loves grinders, little guys who keep battling, scrappy guys who give their all, we fall in love with the guys short on talent, but high on desire,” was the answer.
When McDonald was dealt to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2011 we shook Bautista’s hand and wished him luck. As he looked back puzzled, I said “now maybe you’ll be the most popular.”
Shea visited a Yonge Street studio to tape the Bob Bannerman commercial and likened it to a visit to a “comedy show.”
And hopefully next Thursday Kawasaki II will be taped. But it’s tough booking your star pitch man when there are so few off days and when he could find himself at triple-A Buffalo the second Steve Tolleson returns, The new price reduction for a customer will be based on a Kawasaki “single, double, triple or whatever.”
Shea estimates between 40-to-50 customers have come in to ask for the Kawasaki discount getting a $1,000 off the price of their car, which is more than previous Bob Bannerman pitch man Jays’ Colby Rasmus drew.
Kawasaki has been to the Bob Bannnerman dealership handing out autographed bats and balls to customers and making everyone in the building feel special.
“He’s so endearing to people, so kind, so generous, I think that’s why he is so popular with his teammates and fans,” said Shea.
Shea has worked at Bob Bannerman for 30 years, became part owner 14 years ago and about a year and a half ago bought out her partner.
“So,” asked Shea, the president of Bob Bannerman, “are you interested in a new Chrysler?”