By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
The first time I met Ian MacDonald I was terrified.
(Of course in 1978 if memory serves I was ‘afeared’ of everyone walking into Olympic Stadium save for Dave Van Horne ... after all he’d been in our house, in my father’s car for years, in my apartment and in my car ... or at least his voice had, so therefore I thought I knew him).
But Ian MacDonald was the veteran scribe on the baseball beat, the dean of the press box.
I was absolutely frightened when we walked off the elevator together headed towards the Montreal Expos clubhouse after a game and I asked if a player was “a good guy?”
“What do you care if he’s a good guy or not? Write about how he played the game, ask him questions and write down what he says,” MacDonald snorted. “These guys are not going to be your friends. And you are not hear to be a cheer leader. It doesn’t matter if they are good guys or not.”
After a couple of road trips he was no longer Ian, but Mac.
Everyone called him Mac.
He was helpful once he saw I was going to be around more than a series.
Don’t do that, make sure you do this.
He was blunt. He could be curt. But along with Eddie MacCabe, former Ottawa sports editor, Graham Parley, Ottawa Citizen sports editor and Wayne Parrish, former Toronto Sun boss, Mac helped me get started and survive as much as anyone.
You know that saying about people “not suffering fools lightly” well Mac had some of that quality but more so he “did not suffer know-it-alls lightly.”
And he could put people in their place -- didn’t matter who -- toute suite.
Once early in the year Mac, as president of the Montreal chapter of the Montreal Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, handed out the BBWAA cards which are numbered. The lower the number the more seniority you had.
Green as grass I caught up with Mac and said “Look at this ... I went down nine numbers from a year ago.”
“You know what that means?” Mac snarled. “Either nine guys died or their paper’s folded. Are you happy now?”
I never looked at my number again.
Like the rest of us in those early days when the boulevard beckoned, Mac would go for a drink. And the first time I ever had a pint with him was at the Montreal Press Club. I finished a beer and told the bar tender I’d buy another round, one for Gerald Redmond, one for myself and one for Mac, who had gone off to phone his office.
“No, you won’t,” said the bar tender.
“Ah, yes, I will,” I said.
“OK,” the tender said, “I warned you.”
Mac returned and was in midst of a three-way conversation when he stopped, noticing an extra beer in front of him.
“OK, what idiot bought this?” Mac demanded.
I said it was me.
“You (expletive deleted) guys from Ontario come down here on expense accounts and think you can buy, well I buy my own beers. I have my own money -- I don’t need your friggin’ charity. Take it back.”
And he gave it to the bar tender, who gave it to me ... one more couldn’t hurt.
I did hear a story once how someone actually bought Mac a beer. The old Marriott in St. Louis was a foul ball away from the park.
Darold Knowles pitched out of the Expos bullpen in 1978. He stopped at the lobby bar. He knew Mac did not want anyone buying him anything. And he knew Mac and the other writers would be soon make a customary stop at the bar. Knowles bought two beers for Mac and had the bar tender put them on ice with instructions to place in front of Mac as soon as he arrived.
As Mac entered, Knowles got up and left. The bar tender plunked down the two beers. Mac looked to his left and right, Knowles looked back in from the lobby and waved a quick good nite.
* * *
Mac was one of the proudest Canadians I had ever met and a friend of his told me he almost made the Olympic swim team. When I asked him about it he would change the subject. He loved watching Canadian athletes at the Olympics and his chest stuck out a little further the day after we won a medal ... “wasn’t that a great effort by the kid?” he’d ask.
Dick Pound of the Canadian Olympic Association and he were close pals growing up.
Mac could be combative challenging Montreal Alouettes coach Jim Trimble to a fight the night before a Grey Cup.
Later, Mac would he hadn’t had a fight since Dec. 4, 1980 and then after a pause he’d add “I haven’t had a drink since Dec. 4, 1980.”
Serge Touchette of Le Journal de Montreal and J.P. Sarault of Montreal Matin used to torture Mac. It wasn’t so bad at home ... but on the road ... “whoof!” as Serge would say.
Someone in the press box at Candlestick in San Francisco or Three Rivers in Pittsburgh would announce “tonight’s attendance 25,948 (or whatever),” and Serge would scream “Mac! Mac! Mac!”
Mac would ignore until finally he would turn around and Serge would ask innocently with his impish smile “question ... does that count the Montreal writers ... because we’re all fans of the Expos.”
Mac would tell him to take a hike or something like that.
Sarault delivered the supreme bomb during the 1981 National League Division Series in Philadelphia. Sarault liked to pretend he didn’t know the game and ask Mac questions an onlooker would deduce for sure that not only was it Sarault’s first time inside a big-league stadium, but this game ... was the first he had ever seen.
So, it came to pass Mac was seated to my left in the front row of Veteran’s Stadium and Red Smith, legendary New York Times columnist was to my right. The Expos had men on first and third when someone hit into an inning-ending double play.
Sarault yelled down from the second row “Mac! Mac! MAC!” Mac turned and Sarault asked “Mac did the runner from third cross the plate before the out was at first? Does that run count?”
With Red Smith two chairs away Mac could only get red in the face, sit and stew.
Mac also made the NFL picks for the Gazette. There was a rumor he did not wager. He’d take Sundays off, watch football and meet the team charter at Dorval. We remember a couple of Sundays Mac trudging down the hallway towards the gate where we were waiting and Serge asking “Mac, Mac, Mac! You look down. Were you watching Sunday afternoon cartoons?”
* * *
One night Mac was at Olympic Stadium doing some work for The Sporting News and was about to leave for home since he had the night off. Expos P.R. maven Richard Griffin, a dear friend of Mac’s stopped him with a problem: the regularly scheduled score keeper had been involved in a car accident in Friday night traffic and would not make first pitch ... would Mac fill in?
The Gazette had a policy against its staff score keeping games and being in the business of making news. Mac decided to fill in as a favor. Now, if you read 162 game stories in a season you might read the official scorer’s name maybe once a season. Or twice.
On this night the Cincinnati Reds were in town and manager Pete Rose didn’t like the fact Mac had given Expos two errors -- making for two fewer hits for the Reds. The next day the Gazette game story contained the scorekeeper’s name.
And on Monday Mac had to go into the office.
After he retired Mac still ran the Montreal chapter and was national president of the BBWAA in 2001. He arrived at Shea Stadium New York to score the middle three games of the New York Yankees-New York Mets World Series and take office at the BBWAA meeting.
I asked him how it was going.
“Well, I have my opening line for the meeting ... “nice to be here, but once again Americans are treating Canadians like second-class citizens -- they put me in a hotel where the TV does not work.”
Jackie O’Connell, BBWAA secretary-treasurer, never called him Mac, he would say “anyone see the Scotsman?”
A couple of decades earlier Mac proposed a motion to have the BBWAA name shortened since when translated to French the words almost doubled. Mac went toe-to-toe with Dick Young of the New York Post.
* * *
Don Campbell used to cover the Expos and once in a while Mac and he would head to the Blue Angel on Drummond: beers for Campbell, orange juice and soda for Mac.
Campbell always marvelled how Mac knew every single on waiter many former amateur boxers and talented athletes in their younger days.
“Mac knew em all, everything they had ever done in their sporting lives,” Campbell said. “He knew everybody who ever played anything in Montreal in the 1950s and ‘60s. It was like I walked into a bar with a celebrity.”
Campbell would tell Mac how he would summer in the Eastern Townships with his grandparents, race to the general store to get the Star and the Gazette so he could listen to Russ Taylor and Van Horne at night.
“Then, I’d tell him how I grew up reading Bob Dunn in the Star and Mac in the Gazette on the Expos, how I read every word both wrote. Mac would look at me, say ‘take a hike, I am not that old’ and we’d laugh.”
Mac earned the Jack Graney award from the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys in 2009 and said it was simply a matter of “longevity.” Sure, and Andre Dawson could hit a little.
* * *
Mac, 87, died in Pointe-Claire Wednesday night of heart failure.
He first lived in Cote des Neiges area, attended Montreal High and spent a year at Sir George Williams College (now Concordia University).
He began writing in the 1940s with the Montreal Herald. He moved to the Star in 1953 to cover college and amateur sports taking over the Alouettes beat in 1959 remaining there until 1970. The Montreal Gazette hired him to cover the Expos.
Deepest sympathies are expressed to son, Garry MacDonald (Lynn McVey), and daughters Sandra MacDonald and Cathy MacDonald. He was the proud grandfather of Derek Wallace (Bianca Bayer), Amy Wallace (Peter Grant), Larry MacDonald (Stephanie Boyadjan) and Virginia Clarke, and great grandfather to Liam, Aubry, Sydney, Aidan and Amelia.
He was a man I sat beside 100s of nights until 1986, travelled with and a man I respected. He was a proud Montrealer with a baseball-shaped heart,
He was a good guy.
He’s probably up there and by now has run into former Expos boss John McHale and catcher Gary Carter discussing the races in each league.
Rest In Peace Mac.