By Danny Gallagher
Canadian Baseball Network
The ancient baseball guard at the Toronto Sun has left the building but won’t be forgotten.
Ken Fidlin, Mike Rutsey, Bill Lankhof and Bob Elliott are all gone from the pages.
Fidlin and Lankhof took buyouts two days before this past Christmas, Elliott left in June 2016 and Rutsey departed with a buyout in November, 2015.
Indeed, it’s the end of an era. The Fab Four pounded out copy like it was going out of style for a paper that boasts the best sports section in Canada. They produced game stories, sidebars, notebooks, watches and columns.
I am quite familiar with Elliott and Fidlin. I first ran into Fidlin when I joined the staff of the Ottawa Journal sports department in 1978. We often found time to head across the river to Hull, Que. when we had put papers to bed and Ontario bars closed at 1.
Fidlin had astute command of the English language and its subtleties. He turned boring Blue Jays’ game stories into humour-filled, witty, eloquent essays that left readers wanting more.
Fidlin was never much for seeking attention. He preferred to stay in the background. Maybe that’s why you have never heard or seen him much as a commentator on radio or television. When he held court on the field before a game or in the clubhouse, Fids Fidlin fiddled with a pen or pencil. That was his trademark mannerism.
“I have witnessed some of the craziest circumstances you could ever imagine, from outrageous good fortune to catastrophic collapse,’’ Fidlin wrote in his farewell column the other day. “I have been a fly on the wall during what I consider sports’ golden age. The moments tumble over each other in a crazy quilt of memories.
Hundreds of them.
“But when I try to pick that one thing, that one emotional explosion that I will take to my grave, I think of June 20, 2010.’’
Fidlin was referring to a Sunday afternoon game at the Rogers Centre between the Blue Jays and San Francisco Giants, a Father’s Day battle, a story about John McDonald, whom the fabled writer figured “might be the most popular Blue Jay of all time.’’
McDonald was making his first appearance with the Jays after two weeks of special leave following the death of his father Jack in Connecticut. Fidlin set up the scenario in his fond adieu column by noting that McDonald went into the game as a defensive replacement for Aaron Hill in the top of the ninth with the Jays down 9-3.
Then in the bottom of the ninth, what does McDonald do? The improbable against lefty Jeremy Affeldt.
“It needs to be said that McDonald had not hit a home run all that season,’’ Fidlin wrote. “Indeed, in 12 previous seasons, he had hit only 13. Nevertheless, after looking at strike one from Affeldt, McDonald took a mighty swat at his second delivery and belted it into the Blue Jays’ bullpen. As he rounded first, the unassuming McDonald pumped his right fist.’’
Needless to say, there was hardly a dry eye at the park that day among those in the stands and press box but most of all in the Blue Jays’ dugout.
Now that Fids is working on his golf game, he’s a candidate for the Jack Graney Award administered by the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and given to the media member, who through a lifetime of work has made significant contributions to baseball in this country.
Fidlin joined the Sun from the Ottawa Journal in 1980 and covered the Argos for a few years before taking on the Jays’ beat from 1982-1991, a tenure that include a stint as the paper’s baseball columnist. From 1991-1997, Fidlin was a general columnist at the Sun writing on the NFL, the Leafs, the Raptors, but his best reads were when zeroed in on the Jays. Then he returned to the Jays’ beat from 2007-2016.
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Rutsey is also a strong Graney candidate. He worked the Blue Jays’ beat with the Canadian Press from 1979-86 and then with the Sun during a 23-year run from 1992-2015.
An agitator who still managed to be everyone’s friend, Rutsey had a unique approach wearing a beret to training camp one morning and startling manager John Gibbons. He was fond of using references so old few would pick up on it, which would provoke needling from John Lott, the wonderful scribe for the National Post and now The Athletic. Rutsey hit a new level when he referenced stars of silent movies.
Like the late Helen Thomas, the UPI writer who was always given the first question when the Presidents met the press, Rutsey always went first. His questions always had a double meaning which would leave Gibbons smirking. One night Rutsey had a told a Jays official he did not want to go first.
Out of habit someone jabbed the microphone in front of him. A surprised Rutsey looked up and decided to go with his sense of humour after in-and-out starter Drew Hutchison had just pitched his best game of the season, “John,” asked Rutsey, “why can’t Drew Hutchison pitch like that every game.”
It was a press room joke but humour does not go that well when Rogers Communications has its cameras and tape machines running. The clip was played a dozen times the next morning.
Rutsey was never really into the Twitter, but he actually got excited when he hit 97 followers. Then, 98, 99, 100 and 101 ... the next night he was at 92. Elliott had organized the Jays travelling crew into unfollowing him.
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Sports editor Scott Morrison gathered assistant Dave Fuller, Fidlin, Lankhof, Rutsey and Elliott in a conference room to discuss a six-part series on the 20th anniversary of the Blue Jays in 1997.
It was decided that the first chapter should be Doug Ault, the hero of opening day 1977.
“Bill, how ‘bout you do that one?” Morrison said.
Next was Pat Gillick.
“Bill, that will be yours,” Morrison said.
Then came Dave Stieb.
“Bill, that one is yours,” Morrison said.
On and on it went. Morrison wanted one voice for the series. Not a lot of different voices.
Elliott asked in surprise after the lengthy meeting “We’re only doing like three side bars in the whole series?” Fidlin responded “We’re high-paid consultants.”
Lankhof was a mainstay of the Blue Jays’ beat at the paper during an eight-year stretch from 1998 until 2005, covering Jimy Williams and his firing to Cito Gaston and the back-to-back World Series wins. He had been a general columnist and feature writer for the Sun since he left the Jays’ beat in 1996.
His first day on the beat came when the Minnesota Twins were in town. He was supposed to do a pre-game side on former Jays reliever Juan Berenguer. Lanhof knew baseball -- and was a high school hoops teammate with Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer Doug Melvin (Chatham, Ont.), he used to say how Melvin never passed the ball -- but arriving on the field at Exhibition Stadium he did not really have a feel for “do’s and don’ts.” He asked a Twins coach where Berenguer was. After all he was told to talk to him.
“That’s him out in left field,” said the coach. So, out Lankhof went into fair territory in the midst of screaming line drives and screaming players. He quickly retreated to the safety of foul ground.
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Elliott was in his 30th season at the Sun after arriving from the Ottawa Citizen where he covered the Expos from the late 1970s -- when he wasn’t managing or coaching in the Ottawa-Nepean Canadians’ senior organization. He had his first byline 50 years ago last April as the Montreal YMCA beat Fort Henry Heights by a single point in a biddy basketball tournament.
He is an illustrious recipient of both the Graney award and its U.S. counterpart, the J.G. Taylor Spink Award.
All and all they saw a lot of good baseball and not so good ... 81 seasons by Lankhof (eight), Fidlin (19), Rutsey (24) and Elliott (30).
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On Jan. 14, I noticed that baseball fanatic and fellow Ottawa Journal alumnus Bruce Kirkland wrote a farewell column to commemorate his 36-plus years as the Toronto Sun film critic. Kirkland mentioned “retirement’’ in his column but no, he’s not retiring. He’s just going to do less like Elliott, Fidlin, Lankhof and Rutsey.
As my mother used to always say, So and So is “pensioned off’ or “took the pension.’’ The word retirement was never used. As you can see with Elliott, he’s still writing for his website, which began in 1998 on SLAM! Sports and evolved into the Canadian Baseball Network in 2007.
Best to all you former Sun guys in your future endeavours.