R.I.P. Michelle McRae, Jim Hughes

By Bob Elliott
Michelle McRae and Jim Hughes never met.

They are linked in this space because they were good baseball people ... good baseball people gone too young.

Michelle was a loving wife, a wonderful mother and the kind of woman you hear about.

For behind every great baseball man, as the saying goes, stands an even greater woman.

The great baseball man may have coached sandlot ball for 20 years, work the radio booth like Tom Cheek (hello Saint Shirley Cheek).

Or he could have taken over the four-win Canisius College Golden Griffs program and turn it into a Metro Atlantic powerhouse and an NCAA tournament regular as coach Mike McRae did.

Michelle is gone far too early at age 46 after a year-long battle with cancer.and so is Hughes, former Blue Jays scout from the glory years, at age 80. 

You can read about Marcus Stroman vs. Mark Buehrle elsewhere, there is more to the game than “who starts Saturday?

These few lines are dedicated to Michelle, a strong woman from Niagara Falls, Ont., who stood behind the good baseball man, her husband, and Hughes, a good baseball man.  

Michelle was always at Canisius games in Buffalo, with son Mason and daughter Madison in tow often. Michelle was always laughing, smiling and socializing, for the strong woman behind the good baseball man had a magnetic personality, which naturally drew people to her.

Michelle knew more about the game than many and she especially knew more than the umpires if a call didn’t go the Griffs way. 

Michelle got Mason to practice on time with his ball team while Mike was recruiting coast to coast in Canada. There is a reason he had double-figure Canucks on his roster each year. And they were not roster filler, playing leading roles like this spring: Connor Panas, drafted by Blue Jays scout Jamie Lehman in the ninth round in June, Devon Stewart of Maple Ridge, B.C. drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the 10th and Windsor’s Brett Siddall, selected in the 13th round by Oakland A’s scout Matt Higginson. 

“Michelle was very supportive of Mike and the program making a lot of sacrifices so Mike could turn the program into what it is today,” said Paul Panik, an assistant coach with the Griffs and the brother of San Francisco Giants second baseman Joe Panik. “Michelle was Very family oriented taking very good care of Maddy and Mason.

“One of the greatest joys was seeing her on the field after we won the MAAC championship. Michelle was so supportive of us and Mike.”

McRae began his career by becoming the first head coach at Brock University and from there, joined Niagara’s staff as a hitting instructor in 1996-97 before moving to Winthrop University in from 1997-98. From 1998-2001, McRae served as an assistant coach at Maine, where he was responsible for the 12-man pitching staff.

McRae returned to Niagara from 2002-to-04 and was named conference coach of the year came in 2003, setting a school record for wins with 26 in 2003 and topped that with 27 in 2004.

He then joined Canisius and led the Griffins to a breakout season in 2007 as Canisius made its first MAAC playoff appearance since 1994. Then they moved onto the national scene in 2008 with a 21 1/2 game improvement in its won-loss record from 2007 (20-35), and second-biggest in the NCAA since 1998. Canisius, along with Miami, Kentucky, Oklahoma State and North Carolina, was one of five programs at the Division I level to finish in the top 50 in scoring, earned run average and fielding percentage.

The Griffs won their second regular-season conference title in three years in 2010, jumping out to a 16-2 start in conference play en route to a 19-5 MAAC record. In 2009, Canisius posted a 36-22 record, qualifying for the MAAC Tournament for third consecutive season. After dropping its first game in the postseason, the Griffs battled back and won three consecutive elimination games to force a decisive championship game.

McRae, who has a 329-327 career record in 12 years, is the only coach in league history to be named conference coach of the year at two different schools, winning at Canisius (2010 and 2008) and Niagara (2003). 

Visitation for Michelle is 4-to-6 Saturday afternoon with a service to follow at the Patterson Funeral Home (6062 Main St.) in Niagara Falls. Friends and family are welcome to pay their respects at Chippawa House (3876 Main).

The baseball community has reached out to Canisius looking to support Michelle’s memory, as well as Mike, their daughter Madison and son Mason. Canisius athletics and the fundraising website GoFundMe have created a page to help the McRae family cover medical expenses, funeral costs and to help with Madison and Mason’s education fund.

The link to the GoFundMe site for Michelle.

In another time zone in another country there a household in Prosper, Tex. where Betty Hughes lives was in mounting. Her husband Jim, an infielder, played 11 seasons in the minors with the Detroit Tigers (double-A Birmingham, triple-A Denver), Boston Red Sox (triple-A Seattle), Kansas City Royals (triple-A Portland, triple-A Dallas, triple-A Vancouver) and the Oakland A’s (class-A Burlington). He died of lung cancer despite the fact he never smoked.  

Hughes scouted for the New York Mets from 1969-to-1980, then joined the Blue Jays as an amateur scout until 2002. He became a pro scout in 2003 and was then told his services were no longer needed.

With the Mets he signed Ron Gardenhire and John Gibbons and with the Jays he signed the likes of Vernon Wells, Mike Timlin and Woody Williams. We once asked a scouting director what a good career was for an area scout. His reply was “10 players making the majors is a Hall of Fame career.”

Hughes signed 15 Jays who made the majors and four players with the Mets playing a combined total of 4,570 games. Hughes was part of the golden days of Jays scouting when Bobby Mattick, Moose Johnson, Ellis Dungun, Tim Wilken, Joe Ford, Epy Guerero, Bob Engle, Tom Hinkle, Bus Campbell, Don Welke, Wayne Morgan, Al Lamacchia, Paul Ricciarini and others reeled off a string of 11 consecutive No. 1 picks making the majors and 11 consecutive winning seasons.   

“We had our organizational meetings in January of 1981 at a government building in Toronto and the club hosted a very, very formal dinner,” said Riccarini. “I sat with Joe Ford and Jimmy -- two steak and potato eaters, one from Oklahoma, one from Texas.”

Riccarini remembers consommé soup, a salad, which consisted of a lettuce leaf, tomato and garnish being served.

“Pat Gillick came by our table asking how things were? Joe Ford said ‘Pat, Jimmy gave me a scouting report on why our guys didn’t hit much this year.’”

Gillick raised an eye brow looked at Ford and Hughes. Then Ford said ‘our hitters musta been eatin’ at this place all year.”

Two uneaten salad leaf-capers, etc. remained on the table.

The 1981 Jays went 67-95 (.414 winning mark) hitting .251, second worst in the AL.

“Jimmy was such a solid baseball man, scout, instructor, he was decent and respectful in every regard, but he was innocently the straight man for Joe Ford,” Riccarini said. “I loved Jimmy, a classy easy going lovely man who could flat out scout.” 

The national scouting body recognized Hughes as scout of the year in 1995.

Deepest sympathies are extended to Betty Hughes and to Mason 14, Madison 17 and Michelle McRae’s husband Mike.

Jim Hughes drafts who made the majors
Blue Jays
Name Signed Round Jays GP Others Total

Vernon Wells 1997 1st 1,393 338 1,731
Mike Timlin 1987 5th 305 753 1,058
Xavier Hernandez 1986 4th 7 456 463
Woody Williams 1988 28th 166 258 424
Ben Weber 1991 20th - 228 228
Darren Hall 1986 28th 47 83 130
Mike Coolbaugh 1990 16th - 44 44
Steve Davis 1982 21st 13 12 25  
Jeff Hearron 1983 4th 16 - 16
Brad Cornett 1992 Undrafted 14 - 14
Jeff DeWillis 1983 3rd 13 - 13
Shawn Jeter 1985 7th - 13 13
Matt Williams 1981 1st 4 6 10
Kevin Batiste 1985 2nd 6 - 6
Webster Garrison 1983 2nd - 5 5
Totals 1,984 2,196 4,180 

Name Signed Round Mets GP Others Total

Ron Gardenhire 1979 6th 285 - 285
Bob Myrick 1974 20th 82 - 82
John Gibbons 1980 1st 18 - 18
Dave Smith 1979 27th - 5 5
Totals 385 5 390