By: Danny Gallagher
Canadian Baseball Network
Howard Starkman is an unsung baseball hero, a public-relations guru, one of those anonymous types, one of those behind-the-scenes guys, who helped make the Blue Jays the organization they are today.
Starkman, now semi-retired but still doing consulting work for the organization, remembers like it was yesterday how the name Blue Jays came into existence.
“My first project was the name-the-team contest,’’ Starkman said as he touched on one of the highlights of his 40-year Jays’ career during a conference call dealing with his induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys.
Heading into the hall with Starkman June 18 are Blue Jays pitching great Pat Hentgen, Expos pitching legend and El Perfecto Dennis Martinez, scout Wayne Norton, broadcaster Tony Kubek and long-ago executive William Shuttleworth.
“We had 34,000 entries in the team name contest,’’ Starkman said. “A number of media members brought that number down to 10 and they were passed on to the board of directors. There were 144 submissions of the name Blue Jays. The winner was from Etobicoke and he got a free trip to Florida.
“We wanted to get blue into the name because blue is a passionate colour of the city. The Leafs, University of Toronto and Argonauts all had blue and it all tied in with Labatt, one of our sponsors, and Labatt Blue. One of the most interesting, invigorating things for me in my career was the start of the team. We had a small group and we had to get a name.
“I never thought of being in the Hall of Fame. I never swung a bat or pitched a ball. I’m happy and humbled to be recognized,’’ said Starkman, who helped out at 15 World Series and 10 all-star games.
Another unsung hero on the induction list is Norton, a former minor-leaguer who specialized in scouting for years and helped run many Baseball Canada programs along with the National Baseball Institute which was based in B.C., his home base for decades.
“I want to thank Pat Gillick, who spearheaded my nomination into the Hall of Fame. I was very pleased to hear the news,’’ Norton said.
A third unsung hero, of course, is Shuttleworth, of Brantford, Ont., who is credited by some as being the founder of Canadian baseball more than a century ago. He died in 1903.
“William was the patriarch of baseball in Hamilton. He was also an umpire and a catcher in the era when they wore no gloves,’’ said astute historian Bill Humber, who presented Shuttleworth’s name for consideration as an inductee. “I think he would be ecstastic with this recognition.’’
Kubek was a terrific Blue Jays’ television analyst for 13 years at a time when his work with NBC had diminished and he was looking for additional employment gigs.
“Peter Bavasi called me up and asked me what I was going to do and I told him I did want another job,’’ Kubek said. “It was the perfect opportunity.’’
When you’re talking pitchers who excelled with Canadian teams, Hentgen and Martinez are near the top of the list. Hentgen pitched 10 seasons for the Jays and Martinez resurrected his stalled career by pitching seven and a half seasons for the Expos after being obtained from the Baltimore Orioles.
”I grew up not far from Toronto in Michigan and I have property in Canada. I remember growing up and remembering the pitching battles between Dave Stieb of the Jays and Jack Morris of the Tigers,’’ Hentgen said.
“I was so grateful to be traded to the Expos, to a different country, to a different culture,’’ Martinez said. “That was my second chance in baseball. They treated me so good in Montreal. I was so happy to play there. People took me under their wing.’’
Of course, that perfect no-no July 28, 1991 was the highlight of Martinez’s career. What his remembers from that time was not so much the day itself but a day of recognition weeks later when he was feted in his homeland of Nicaragua.
“I pitched that game in L.A. but to share it with my people in Nicaragua is something I will never really forget,’’ Martinez said. “It was an unbelievable feeling, a great day I will never forget. Everytime I look at the video of the game, I’m living a dream. It happened 25 years ago but it feels like yesterday.
And we’ll leave it to Starkman to leave the last smile on everyone’s face as the media conference wound down. When renowned columnist Bob Elliott asked Starkman how Hentgen rated among the players he dealt with over the years, the PR man replied, “He was the exact opposite of David Wells.’’