Fearless approach helped Ash rise through Jays ranks and into Canadian ball hall

Former Blue Jays general manager and newly minted Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Gord Ash with some of the Blue Jays memorabilia on display at the museum in St Marys, Ont. Photo: J.P. Antonacci

Former Blue Jays general manager and newly minted Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Gord Ash with some of the Blue Jays memorabilia on display at the museum in St Marys, Ont. Photo: J.P. Antonacci

June 15, 2019

By Kevin Glew

Canadian Baseball Network

Early in his baseball career, Gord Ash was always one to embrace new opportunities.

“Any time there was an opening [in the Toronto Blue Jays organization], I put my hand up,” he said from the podium during his Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech on Saturday. “After I worked in the ticket office [in 1978], they needed someone to supervise the grounds crew and I put my hand up, not knowing anything about running a grounds crew.”

It was this fearless approach, coupled with his strong work ethic, that helped him ascend from part-time ticket seller to general manager of his hometown Toronto Blue Jays during his 25 seasons with the organization.

Ash was honoured for his outstanding career in St. Marys, Ont., on Saturday when he was inducted into the Canadian ball shrine along with highly respected coach Rob Thomson (Corunna, Ont.) and former big league all-stars Jason Bay (Trail, B.C.) and Ryan Dempster (Gibsons, B.C.).

Born in 1951, Ash grew up a Giants fans in central Toronto (Oakwood and St. Clair area). He regularly attended Toronto Maple Leafs International League games at the old Maple Leaf Stadium with his parents until the team ceased operations in 1967. He also played a variety of sports, but baseball was always his favourite, although he was not good enough to crack his high school team at Vaughn Road Collegiate Institute.

“I wasn’t good enough to play on any kind of competitive team, so we just played recreationally and had a good time with it,” said Ash at the pre-ceremony press conference on Saturday.

After graduating from high school, he attended York University and completed a Bachelor of Arts in History and Sociology. He intended to become a high school teacher, but there were no jobs in the field at the time, so he ended working for CIBC.

“I was working in the banking business really for no other reason than that was what was available,” said Ash. “It wasn’t a passion.”

That was when a friend of his that worked in the Blue Jays’ ticket office hooked him up with a part-time gig in May 1977.

“My interest wasn’t in the job, it was in what came with the job which was the chance to go in and watch the game (by the end of the second inning),” said Ash.

Ash can vividly recall his first day working the ticket window for the Blue Jays. It was Victoria Day in 1977 and it was extremely busy. And keep in mind that back then there were no computers.

“It’s amazing to me to think back about how much manual work we had to do,” said Ash. “It was all hard tickets.”

But that hectic first day didn’t scare him away and he was hired full-time the following year to work the mail-order tickets desk.

“Believe it or not, I had to take a pay cut,” said Ash. “But at that point of my life it wasn’t a big deal and I really didn’t know what I was getting into.”

He obviously impressed with his work in the ticket office and over the next two decades, he’d be regularly promoted to new positions by the club.

“I went into baseball really just because I didn’t like my banking job and it was a great place to work. It was a fun environment with a lot of young people, but there was no plan to say that in 10 to 15 years, I’m going to be the general manager.” said Ash.

From 1980 to 1983, he served as the Blue Jays’ assistant director of operations before being promoted to player personnel administrator from 1984 to 1988. In 1989, he was elevated to assistant general manager to work under 1997 Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer Pat Gillick.

“I learned just about everything from working with Pat,” said Ash. “He was an analytics operator before there were analytics. He had a computer-like mind. I think what really stands out to me about him is the number of creative solutions he would come up with and his creative thinking – that’s probably the biggest influence he had on me.”

In his five years as assistant GM, Ash performed much of the behind-the-scenes work on player contracts, including working on those for key free agent signings like Dave Winfield, Jack Morris, Paul Molitor and Dave Stewart who helped the club secure back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993. When Gillick departed following the 1994 season, Ash was named his successor, which made him just the fourth Canadian to be a GM in the major leagues.

During Ash’s seven-year reign as general manager, the Blue Jays drafted future stars such as Roy Halladay (1995) , Vernon Wells (1997), Michael Young (1997), Orlando Hudson (1997) and Alex Rios (1999).

But Ash will tell you that his greatest accomplishment while working for the Blue Jays was meeting his wife, Susan, who was the producer of the team’s radio broadcasts. From the podium on Saturday, he told the story of how back in the early 90s there was no Internet, so to find out the scores of minor league games he had to check the teletype machine which was located in the radio booth close to Susan.

“I found myself going into look at the teletype a little more than I needed to,” confessed Ash. “I finally worked up the courage to ask her out for dinner and three short years later after the 1992 World Series we were married.”

His wife, Susan, along with their two children Peter Aaron (named after Hank Aaron) and Emily Babe (named after Babe Ruth) were on-hand for the induction ceremony on Saturday.

After he was relieved of his duties as GM for the Blue Jays following the 2001 season, Ash worked as a baseball analyst for TSN before he was hired to be the assistant general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers under fellow Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer Doug Melvin (Chatham, Ont.), who was present at Saturday’s ceremony. Ash’s relationship with Melvin dated back to their days when they were both serving as minor league directors.

“We would see each other at minor league meetings,” recounted Ash. “And then we were both hired as GMs around the same time, him as the GM in Texas and myself in Toronto. And then I lost my job and he lost his job around the same time. And then he went to Milwaukee and he was looking for somebody and I called and I said, ‘I’m still interested in being involved [with a major league team]. Would you consider me?’ and he did and we had a good run there.”

Ash worked alongside Melvin for 12 seasons and helped build the roster of the 2008 Brewers that advanced to the post-season, ending the club’s 26-year playoff drought. He also assisted in constructing the 2011 Brewers club that finished with a franchise record 96 wins and won the National League Central Division title. Since 2015, Ash has worked as the vice-president of Baseball Projects for the Brewers.

In all, Ash has spent more than 40 years in professional baseball and he can now add Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee to his resume.

“There’s no doubt I’m a lucky man,” said Ash in concluding his induction speech on Saturday. “But as Yankees legend Lefty Gomez once said, ‘I’d rather be lucky than good,’ and have I ever been lucky.”