Elliott: Ridley heads for Milton Sports HOF

Jim-Ridley.jpg

He was a player, a scout, a coach, a teacher and an administrator. Now, the late Jim Ridley, who lived most of his life in Milton will be inducted into the Milton Sports Hall of Fame.

By Bob Elliott

Canadian Baseball Network

Jim Ridley was known for his dawn-to-dusk work ethic and his Australian cowboy hats.

Ridley’s all-time stash of lids consisted of two. He bought the first cowboy hat when Team Canada was in Australia. Ridley was Baseball Canada before Jim Baba and Greg Hamilton ran the place.

Years later while packing up his car in a rush Ridley left his lid on the roof of the car as he drove off to catch a plane. And?

“And it wasn’t there when I reached the airport, what do you think would happen the speed I drive,” Ridley answered a joker.

Dear friend Bill Byckowski remembered Ridley as being devastated, “like he’d lost his best friend.”

Ridley emailed Australia for a replacement and all was well in the head gear department again.

In 2014, after being nominated by Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer John Haar, Ridley was elected to St. Marys. Ridley passed away in 2008 at the young age of 64.

Also in the class 2014 were Montreal Expos broadcaster Dave Van Horne, Expos all-time hit leader Tim Wallach and three-time general manager Murray Cook (Sackville, NS).

And now Ridley, who lived and taught school most of his life in Milton, Ont. will be inducted into the Milton Sports Hall of Fame. Also about to be inducted by Hall president and chair Joe Yaworski:

_ Junior, university and American Hockey League star Darren Haydar.

_ Accomplished softballer Neil Teague, who shone on the provincial, national and international stage.

_ Retired NHL official Leon Stickle.

_ Longtime gymnastics coach Janet Campbell, who built up the Milton Springers.

The induction ceremony is Thursday, Nov. 14 at the Milton Sports Centre. Tickets are $50 and can be purchased via PayPal soon on the induction ceremony page at Milton.ca/sportshalloffame.

During Ridley’s final days at the Brant Hospital in Burlington, the procession was long for the past month since Ridley’s first surgery. Long-time friend Margaret Voucher (Burlington, Ont.) told of a 20-something tall, lanky pitcher coming in and sitting beside a sleeping Ridley and whispering “thank you Mr. Ridley.” Then, he sat there sobbing.

“He was like my big brother,” said Byckowski, a Cincinnati Reds cross checker. “As a coach he never lectured you, how you shouldn’t do this, you have to do this. He never did intimidating speeches, he was always philosophical.”

33559284416496d4b552ec6bd68a_Gallery.jpg

Coaching Ontario at the peewee nationals in Quebec City, Ridley and Brad Bedford of the Georgetown Eagles examine a new pitcher.

With the Twins, Ridley signed OF Rene Tosoni (Port Coquitlam BC), who earned Futures Game MVP honours and made the majors, as well as UBC OF Mark Zamojc (Burlington, Ont.), and INF Jonathan Waltenbury (Whitby, Ont.). Ridley took over scouting Canada and the eastern US for Howie Norsetter, who signed 3B Corey Koskie (Anola, Man.) and AL MVP winner 1B Justin Morneau (New Westminster, BC) among others.

With the Jays, Ridley signed LHP Clint Lawrence (Oakville, Ont.), RHP John Ogiltree (Mississauga, Ont.), LHP Sean Grimes(London, Ont.) C David Corrente (Chatham, Ont.) and C Alex Blackburn (London. Ont.) among others. Jays farm director Bob Nelson (East York, Ont.) and Ridley combined -- back in pre-draft days -- not only to sign LHP Paul Spoljaric (Kelowna, BC), who pitched in the majors, but spirit him off the field at the Canada Summer Games and register him under an assumed name. Meanwhile, three other teams scoured the city looking to sign Spoljaric.

None of the scouts let go by the Jays in 2002-03 took the news harder than Ridley.

Once at 9th Line in Mississauga after years after he had been fired by the Jays and was now employ of the Twins, I headed to the other diamond and then returned to where the scouts were.

“So are we winning?” Ridley asked.

Pardon?

“Didn’t you go to the car to check the score in the Blue Jays game?”

No.

Two years after being fired and the Blue Jays were still “we” to Jim Ridley.

In 1976, Ridley ran the first open tryout camp for the expansion team Blue Jays in Utica, NY. He was on the same diamond in 2002 when the people at 1 Blue Jays Way phoned to say his services were no longer needed.

Ridley coached the likes of Larry Walker (Maple Ridge, BC), Matt Stairs (Fredericton, NB) and Rob Butler (East York, Ont.). He received calls in the hospital from Hall of Famer Pat Gillick.

“Some days are better than others in baseball,” said Baseball Canada president Ray Carter (Delta, B.C.) on the day Ridley passed. “This is as bad as it gets. He was a great guy.”

The late John Jepson, GM of the Toronto Mets, recalled one winter night asking to come and see a pitcher and asked if he could throw his bullpen early in the evening, so he could get back home.

Jepson said the workout was over by 9:15 PM but Jim was still on hand at 11:15 PM. Instead of heading home early Jim stayed and worked with every Mets pitcher that evening, unable to tear himself away.

“He may have finished his career as a scout,” Jepson said, “but Jim was really a coach and teacher at heart. If a player was willing to learn, Jim was willing to teach.”

Twins scout Tim O’Neil described Ridley as “the ultimate grinder, who loved his job and the Twins. He was a true throwback and was greatly respected throughout the industry.

O’Neil told of spending the afternoon in Ridley’s hospital room when a young pitcher Tim Black asked how he was doing. Rid replied ”facing a good curve ball, got to adjust, Tim, got to adjust.”

Twins’ Australian scout Howie Norsetter brought Rids to the Twins. Norsetter would see a couple of tournaments in the summer, identify a few players and then wheel in for a month before the draft and try to see as many of those players as possible.

“By the time I got around to seeing my first player, Rids had already seen him a dozen times,” Norsetter said. “He probably would have already worked him out, would also know the kid’s family and friends. He would know the prospect’s personality and makeup to an extent that Rids was prepared for the draft before I had even cleared Customs.”

Ridley played for Columbus Boys at Christie Pits, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Stratford Hillers, where he won MVP honours, after two seasons on the Milwaukee Braves system with class-A Greenville, the rookie-class Braves and class-A West Palm Beach. He coached the 1988 Canadian Olympic team and ran the Cardinal Baseball clinics in Hamilton.

The man had a sense of humour. When Tim O’Neil made the drive from Lexington, Ky. it was the same week the Pittsburgh Pirates had signed Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel from India as part of the Million Dollar Arm program.

“Look Rids I just got off a conference call with (GM) Terry Ryan,” O’Neil said. “We’re restructuring. You have Canada and Afghanistan.”

Ridley removed his oxygen mask and said, “Well we won’t be signing infielders, I’ve seen pictures. Too many rocks.”