Former trainer Carson recounts first Blue Jays spring training in memoir
By Larry Millson
Ken Carson’s career as rink rat, athletic trainer and executive has spanned sixty years from junior hockey to the NHL and from major-league baseball to the minors. Carson has sharpened skates with Bobby Orr as his helper; been frightened out of a wrestling ring by Yukon Eric; lived at the arena in Rochester, N.Y.; stitched up players for the Pittsburgh Penguins; celebrated the Blue Jays’ first AL East championship at Exhibition Stadium as the team trainer who doubled as director of team travel. He was the first trainer for two expansion teams in two sports, the Penguins and the Blue Jays, participating in the 1976 NHL All-Star Game and the 1980 MLB All-Star Game.
In 1987, Carson became the Blue Jays’ director of Florida operations, which included the role of general manager of the Class A team at Dunedin. As a respected minor-league executive, he became president of the Class A Florida State League in 2015.
In the following excerpt from his new memoir, From Hockey to Baseball: I Kept Them in Stitches, Carson writes about the Toronto Blue Jays first spring training in 1977:
Travelling secretary Mike Cannon, visiting clubhouse manager Jeff Ross, equipment manager John Silverman and I left for Dunedin, Florida in January of 1977 because we knew there would be a lot to do to get the facility ready for the Blue Jays’ first spring training. Mike did not drive, so I drove him around to set up bank accounts, buses and all other business issues. One of the first things we did was to set up the medicals at Mease Hospital with Dr. Martin Kornreich, an orthopedic surgeon in Dunedin.
The clubhouse was not finished so when supplies came in, they were stored under the stadium. John and Jeff took turns sleeping over with the supplies until the clubhouse was finished. They slept underneath the stands in a small room behind the ticket office. The final coat of paint was applied the night before pitchers and catchers reported to spring training and a crowd-control fence and additional stands were added just before the exhibition games began.
The finished clubhouse was so small and there was no heat and, believe it, Florida during spring training can be cool. It had about 30 lockers, a very small training room and two offices for the player development people, Pat Gillick, his assistant, Elliot Wahle, and their support staff, Sue Turjanica and Carolyn Thiers. Howie Starkman and his administrative assistant, Judy West, worked out of a trailer for a few years. The visiting clubhouse was an old school house on the third-base side. I thought it was great because I didn’t know any better. Roy Hartsfield, our manager, arrived in Dunedin about the first of February with his coaches, Don Leppert, Bob Miller, Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr, Harry Warner and Jackie Moore. Gillick, Wahle, Starkman and the support gang came in at the same time. Players started to arrive in the middle of the month. The minimum salary was $19,000 and almost everyone was making that with the exception of Bill Singer and Bob Bailor, the first player we took in the expansion draft. Our total payroll for that year was $750,000.
I had convinced Hartsfield to allow me to have the players do stretching exercises on the field that year. I really wanted to make sure we could prevent injuries as much as possible. I was new and that was apparent. As a result, I was really tested by everyone. Several players had one of those round snuff containers in their back pockets. I asked what was in their pockets and was told they were carrying hockey pucks in my honour. What did I know about tobacco? We never had that in hockey. This was all new to me.
I spent the first spring training learning not only the baseball lingo but the culture of the game. During the transition, I gave the players and coaches of this new team some good laughs. It took me time to adjust to the different types of injuries in baseball. I learned that a relatively minor injury that would not keep a hockey player out of a game could have a major effect on a batter’s swing or a pitcher’s delivery. Bill Singer, who had been a star with the Dodgers and the Angels before shoulder injuries caught up to him, would give me sessions during the first spring training. He would show how a guy can mess up his arm if he has a sore foot because it altered his delivery. He would start by showing pinpoint control by knocking a cigarette out of somebody’s mouth with a pitch, then he would take off one shoe and could not do it. And would not even be close.
I also became aware of how coaches could detect an injury in a player by the way he swung at the plate or by the way he threw off the mound. I might not be able to detect it but they could. I’d go ask the player and he would admit to an injury, maybe even a slight one. I’d been around hockey all my life, but I was finding out that baseball can be much more difficult to understand. I was only getting started. As it turned out, so were the players. Once the games began, it was all over for me. They had me going to the umpires to find out if they had the key to the batter’s box. This joke was traditional for all newcomers. Bob Bailor told me I had to learn the lingo. He said when there was a runner on first base to holler out “Cadillac.” That was supposed to be lingo for “get a double play.” So when I yelled it out, the umpires, players and everyone looked at me like I was daft. I took it all in stride.
Phil Roof, our backup catcher and first-string prankster, would set me up in spring training. He might tell me to yell out “Turn ‘em over” for a double play, for example. But I was on guard so I waited for someone else to say it first. If they did, then figuring it would be all right, I’d yell it out too the next time it was appropriate. Roof had me then. Next he would tell me something like, “Kick it in the fender.” It didn’t mean anything, of course, but I would be emboldened by hearing it so I’d yell it out. The next thing I would hear was, “What’s he talking about?” I did have some players who really helped me adjust to baseball and Singer was the best. He was a veteran and understood how important it was to the team that I have as much knowledge as possible.
My education took different paths. The first game we played in spring training in 1977, it rained like crazy. Jim McKean, the umpire, who is from Montreal and was a quarterback and punter in the Canadian Football League, suggested we get some gasoline and put it around the clay of the infield, then light a match to it and it would dry it up. It actually worked. That first stadium in Dunedin was really old and small. Only 500 of the 1,200 seats were under the roof. All the media, radio and TV broadcasters were in the stands. You could hear our deep-voiced announcer, Tom Cheek, all over the park.
You can purchase a copy of From Hockey to Baseball: I Kept Them in Stitches by Ken Carson with Larry Millson here.