Elliott: Little League memories, more being made in Mirabel
By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
Seven teams are in Mirabel, Que. this week.
Six will go home when all is said and done.
And the other -- the one with dreams still dancing in their heads -- moves south and a berth in the annual Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., an annual event which began in 1947.
Team British Columbia, Team Prairies, Team Atlantic, Team Alberta, Team Quebec, Team Ontario and the host Mirabel Diamond are the competitors vying for the Canadian title. You can catch the action by following along as CBC’s Matthew Cullen brings you the live action.
The finale is set for Saturday and then one team gains Canada’s berth in Williamsport to compete against seven other International Teams: Asia-Pacific (South Seoul, South Korea), Australia (Gold Coast, Queensland) Caribbean (Guayama, Puerto Rico), Europe-Africa (Barcelona, Spain) Japan (Kawaguchi, Japan), Latin America (La Chorrera, Panama) and Mexico (Matamoros, Tamaulipas).
The winner will try to do what a Canadian team of 11 and 12-year-olds has never done - win it all. Stoney Creek reached the 1965 final, losing 3-1 to Windsor Locks, Conn.
When it comes to the phrase Little League, they bring back a number of memories:
Little League Memory I: Years ago, writing about the districts at Lansdowne Park ball diamond (behind the Cattle Castle) in Ottawa, I remember asking a player, who had a good game for the losing Glebe team, when his next game was.
“Tomorrow ... and if we lose, that’s it,” he said. “Our season will be over,”
Glebe lost the next night and it was pack up all the gear. Double-elimination tournament over. Season over.
School was not yet out for the summer ... so my first experience of Little League ball was not exactly impressive. Plus the umpire called 17 walks against one team and 14 for another. Maybe he was getting paid by the hour.
Young players should be on the diamonds in July and August I thought. Our best two months weather wise. And hitting the ball, fielding ground balls and learning to catch fly balls. Why not expand the strike zone? Make then hitters will put the ball in play.
Little League Memory II: It was a rainy day in New York early in the 1990 season, when I had headed to Yankee Stadium early to beat the traffic.
Bench coach Hector Torres and I were sitting in the clubhouse talking about his playing days and coming into the Bronx with the expansionist Jays. An elderly photographer walked by, then came to a full stop and opened his eyes wide. He pointed a bony finger at Hector and said “I know you ... will you be here tomorrow? I’ll have something for you.”
Hector’s reply was “Unless they make a change ... I’ll be here.”
Hector said he was intrigued and said “I should be there early to see what the man had.”
The next day photographer walked in with a manila envelope and handed it to Hector.
Torres opened it and there was a picture of a 12-year-old Hector sitting in the Yankee dugout with future Hall of Famer Whitey Ford.
Writers have good memories. Photographers remember faces. Hector looked up to say something and the man was gone. Never once did he call Torres by his name.
Torres was the staff ace of the Monterrey, Mexico team that won at Williamsport in 1958. He won eight straight decisions. The seventh a one-hit shutout over Hawaii and on two days’ rest, he held Kankakee, Ill., to two hits, in a 10-1 win as Mexico won the title.
Hence the trip the New York. Just as the way the Blue Jays often bring the Canadian champs to a game -- if they are at home -- when Williamsport ends.
It was an amazing scene to see unfold. Suddenly, the 44-year-old had memories of being 12 again ... as if it was yesterday.
Little League Memories III: The Blue Jays won the World Series in 1992-93, the Montreal Expos could have made it in 1994 without a work stoppage and in 1995 the High Park Braves reached the 49th annual Little League World Series at Williamsport.
It was a vastly different experience than Ottawa: driving through the rolling Appalachians where Mike Mussina grew up, free admission too all games, families seated on blankets along the hills surrounding Lamade Stadium, youngsters trading pins, home runs, dramatic wins, outfielders stealing home runs, pure enthusiasm, tears being shed by players from around the world ... yet half an hour later you’d see youngsters from opposing teams eating an ice cream and sharing laughs.
Players were the reason the Braves went in 1995: like Mike Visca, son of Pat Visca, respected Ontario Blue Jays coach, hard-throwing right-hander Armando Arauz and slugging catcher Christian Chmielewski.
The all-star team was put together by the Four Wise Old Men of High Park. The group included Dick Perry, who at the time was involved in High Park for 25 years, Dave Trimble, a 25-year veteran and Bill Barry, who was in his 23rd year and the newcomer Bob Bardyn ... in his 16th season.
When house-league games begin in May, the four could be found in lawn chairs behind the centre-field fence, 210 feet from home plate. In front, they saw prospective players for the current edition. Between innings they’d turn to see last year’s players on the bantam diamond. Or they would look left to check out future Little Leaguers on the T-ball diamond. They were known around the leafy park as the Centre-Field A.C.
High Park was founded by Jack Wilson 55 years ago. Ancaster, Stoney Creek, Port Arthur, Windsor South, Orleans, East Nepean and Erindale in Mississauga’s are some of the Little League programs in Ontario. Most associations field Ontario Baseball Association peewee teams, reasoning teams can play longer schedules from May to Labor Day.
Alumni who spent time in the High Park uniform include Greg O’Halloran (Marlins), the Butler brothers Rob (Phils, Jays) and Rich (Jays, Rays), Derek Bieniasz (in the Seattle organization), Derek Reuter and Tom Dejak (who both pitched in the Toronto system). Manny long-time High Parkers said the best player the program ever produced was Jonathan Lockwood, who pitched in the Mariners system and then for the Canadian National senior team.
That season -- like this one -- included the districts, which High Park hosted in 1995, the Ontarios in Thunder Bay where the team headed to McDonald’s. And while doing what 12-year-olds do at PlayLand, infielder Greg Hetherington, became stuck inside a tube. How stuck was he? Well, he was so stuck that the jaws of life were needed to pry Hetherington loose, earning him the nickname ‘Ham Burgler.’
It was later shortened to ‘Burger.’ Burger Hetherington was a star receiver at McGill University where he had 14 career touchdowns, and then moved on the Calgary Stampeders and the BC Lions in the CFL.
High Park beat the Glace Bay Colonels in Perth at the nationals as Armando Arauz fanned the first four hitters he faced, 11 in all, before the final out settled into the glove of third baseman Matty Medeiros in foul territory.
Mike Visca drove in a pair of runs, Christian Chmielewski homered over the centre-field fence and Brent Kossitt had a run-scoring single in front of a TSN audience. Interviews done, they boarded the bus for the eight-hour trip to Williamsport. Players ate sandwiches prepared by wives of Perth Legionnaires, watched Home Alone II, Iron Will and Cool Running movies.
Saudia Arabia -- made up of sons of U.S. soldiers from base in Dhahran -- scored three runs in the final inning to beat the Braves 5-4 in the opener. Up 4-2 in the fourth, Andrew Felice was on third and Daryl Mulzac was on first, thanks to a back-to-back singles by the Braves hitters.
The Saudi catcher faked a throw to first, the first baseman dove, the second baseman and right fielder took off chasing an imaginary ball. The trick play was from the movie Little Big League. It worked in the movie. It worked in Williamsport as the Saudi Americans pulled off the double play with the fake throw.
We recall ESPN broadcaster Joe Torre creating a stir that summer by saying Arden Hills, Minn., catcher Brian Christianson was pudgy or rolly-polly ... just as Torre was as a rookie. The 4-foot-11, left-handed catcher Hills was listed at 119 pounds.
The Dominican Republic beat Canada 7-2 and Chinese Taipei scored a 12-2 win against the High Park to conclude the schedule with an 0-3 mark.
We also remember Matt Parrish, son of Blue Jays catcher Lance (Big Wheel) Parrish, who spent 10 years with the Detroit Tigers, playing for the U.S. West champs. Parrish flew in on an off day for the Blue Jays to see his son double as Yorba Linda beat Toms River, N.J., 8-3.
And we recall talking to the players. They were somewhat south of Montreal Expos ace Steve Rogers as when it came to thoughtful, revealing answers. They were also behind junior hockey players. There were a lot of “no sirs” and “yes sirs.” But we remember two ...
“Walking on to that field was a dream come true,” said Burger Hetherington said. ”It was just like Mr. Trimble told us way back when we started with our tryouts. The stadium. The green grass. The hills behind the outfield fences. We were told to work hard, do our best and we’d get here.”
These were sensible thoughts from Hetherington, who filled out a tournament survey on his favourite saying as: “When caught ... deny everything.”
Besides Hetherington’s observations, how else does one explain the Williamsport experience?
“The biggest difference? There’s more girls here than Thunder Bay or Perth or our tournament combined,” said Medeiros, with a smile 10,000 mothers would love.
When they boarded the bus, home the first video was a tape of TSN’s coverage of Arauz pitching them to the Canadian title as the Braves became No. 1 among 176 Little League teams in Canada.
This month a team will be watch a CBC video.