Elliott: Freeway Matt Nokes can park a plane, once battled Goldeyes mascot

By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network

LANGLEY, BC _ Masterful Master of Ceremonies Rob Fai was winding his way through a Q and A session with former slugger Matt Nokes at annual BC Baseball Coaching Conference banquet at the Sandman Hotel.

Then, Fai went to a changeup:

“Which is more difficult hitting a home run off Todd Stottlemyre or ... landing a plane on a freeway?”

Huh! 

Say what?

Well, Fai had done his homework and knew that Nokes, who hit 131 homers with the New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers, San Francisco Giants and Baltimore Orioles in his 11-year career, had taken Stottlemyre deep seven times ... more than any other pitcher he faced.

And Fai also knew about Nokes’ landing on Interstate 15 north of San Diego in the catcher’s Lancair IV four-seat, low-wing plane. For drivers it was more shocking than Chevy Chase looking over to see Christie Brinkley speeding alongside.

“Hitting a home run is something that’s a knack, it’s a feel,” Nokes told the audience. “Landing a plane on the freeway, same thing. I had just gotten a brand new plane. So I’m 3,000 feet up and the BMW engine goes out.

“I climb, I’m looking around and there’s no place to land. There are rolling hills and some cows.”

After taking off from Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, Calif. he realized he could not make the nearest airport and estimates he glided seven miles around 1:45 on a Friday afternoon. Then he saw the highway.

“There was serious bumper-to-bumper traffic, but it was moving, I was about 100 feet above the highway when I saw this nice little three-car gap,” Nokes explained to laughter.

A nice little three-car gap?

Sure ... like I found a nice little three-car gap at the mall to park my new car three spots from the door. Nokes took his plane to the gap “threw down the landing gear, was able to slow down, put full flaps down and sort of hang there. I set it down nice and easy on a five-lane freeway.”

Nokes recalls a lady in a passing car giving him a thumbs up. 

“I pulled off the freeway, didn’t even block traffic,” Nokes said. “The only emotion that came over me was anger. It crossed my mind to land in Lake Hayden and I had this vision of a crane pulling my plane out of the water covered with seaweed.”

Sitting in the plane Nokes heard a knock on his window.

“I open the window and the guy says ‘Hi I’m Frank from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration).’” he recallled. Nokes was not hurt. There were no injuries and no damage to the plane. 

Paramedics, the San Diego Police Department, ambulance and fire trucks all showed on the scene. 

“Hey Fred look at that ... the plane arrived early and it doesn’t have a gate,” we could imagine one policeman joking.

The plane was towed down the highway eventually and returned to a nearby airport.  

“The engine stopping was one in a million, it was a brand new turbo-charged engine, those machines last for 80 years, they don’t fail.” 

* * * 
Asked his to pick his No. 1 best teammate, Nokes rhymed off a bunch to Fai: Alan Trammell, Frank Tanana, Fred Lynn and Gary Pettis with the Detroit Tigers as well as Don Mattingly, Wade Boggs and Jesse Barfield of the New York Yankees, plus Cal Ripken, Jr. of the Orioles.

Yet, it was apparent that Nokes’ first over-all No. 1 choice was Mattingly. The two sat near each other in the Yankee dugout when Minnesota Twins catcher Junior Ortiz, who like Nokes had a speech impediment, went to the mound to settle down his pitcher. A Yankee made a dopey remark “like that much be a great conversation.”

Mattingly replied “that’s nothing to be ashamed about.” It was only a few words. They were said by the Yankee captain and Nokes said that dugout incident helped him face and ease away from his problems. He called Mattingly as a “man’s man.”

* * *
An 11-year major league veteran, Nokes was an American League All-Star in 1987 with the Tigers, the year of the MoTown Melt Down and was runner up to Mark McGwire in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. He played for San Francisco, Detroit, Yankees, Baltimore and Colorado from 1985-95, compiling a .254 average with 136 homers and 422 RBIs. 

Nokes homered off him Stottlemyre seven times. The only hitter with more was Jose Canseco with eight. He also got Stottlemyre twice to break up shut-out bids: June 19, 1988 with two out in the sixth inning as the Blue Jays beat the Tigers 6-4 and June 17, 1990 with two out in the ninth as the Jays the Yankees 8-1 at Yankee Stadium. 

That second one was on Father's Day and Stottlemyre badly wanted to pitch hi first shut out as a tribute to his father Mel Stottlemyre, the former New York Yankees right-hander who was busy in Pittsburgh as  pitching coach with the New York Mets. 

* * *
Nokes’ major-league days behind him he played in 1998 for the Saint Paul Saints in the independent Northern League which finished up the track behind the Winnipeg Goldeyes, led by Wes Chamberlain, Scott Samuels, Troy Fortin, Rick Forney, Gregg Press and Eric Anderson.

When the Saints visited Winnipeg and the old Winnipeg Stadium, the home of the Blue Bombers, Nokes chased Goldie the mascot. 

“They were beating us 12-0 and this mascot, a chicken or something, was jumping up and down pounding on the roof of the visitor’s dugout, I told him to cut it out,” Nokes said. The next day with Nokes’ team up by a similar amount, he chased Goldie, who was a large Goldeye not a chicken and pinned him against the wall.

Goldie responded with a “Call to arms to all the mascots of Manitoba” to rise up against Nokes. Later that season, the two shook hands and made up. 

That same season Nokes hit a game-winning homer in the playoffs off reliever Jason Hart to beat Thunder Bay Whiskey Jacks. 

* * * 
Nokes later sold his Lancair IV four-seat, low-wing plane. On April 2, 2016, the man he sold it to, Dennis Hogge, crash landed it on the same highway. The plane struck a vehicle that stopped on the side of the road, killing a passenger in that vehicle and injuring five others, including Hogge.

* * *
Also on the card: Besides Nokes, acclaimed pitching coach Tom House; Donald Hooton, Jr., of the Taylor Hooton Foundation to raise awareness of performance enhancing drugs; Eddie Diaz, manager of the Toros de Tijuana; Ryan Harrison of Sports Performance Vision; Jeff Krushell of Athlete Performance and Talent Development; Chris Carminucci, Arizona Diamondbacks special assignment scout; Pete Caliendo, Chicago coaching guru and president of Caliendo Sports International and Wayne Parro of Coaches of Canada also appeared at the annual BC Baseball Coaching Conference at the Langley Events Centre. It is the longest running and largest convention in Western Canada. 

* * *
Carter will have name change: Outing Baseball Canada president Ray Carter will now be known as HOFer Ray Carter. He will be inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in June at ceremonies in St. Marys along with Roy Halladay, Vladimir Guerrero, the late Doug Hudlin, an amateur umpire from Victoria, BC and Canada’s 2015 Pan Am Games gold-medal team.

“We were a reactive group when I took over,” Carter told Fai. “Something would have happen and then we would react. We needed to be pro active.”

Carter hired Jim Baba as executive director and Greg Hamilton as director of national teams.

Carter hopes to get an autographed jersey from the 2011 and 2015 Pan Am gold medal winning teams.

“I look at those players as all my sons,” said Carter who sat behind home plate in Ajax when Peter Orr made his mad dash from first base to score on two errant throws.  

* * *
That should have been my ring!: Fai interviewed Chris Carminucci of the Diamondbacks and relayed how the DBacks Northwest League affiliate, the Hillsboro Hops met the Canadians in the best-of-three league championship final in 2014. Vancouver had won three straight titles and Fai was looking for a fourth championship ring.

In Game 1 Vancouver blew a 5-0 lead at home and then they almost blew the exact same lead in Game 2 as Rowdy Tellez flew out to the deepest part of the park to have us come up a run short. Miguel Castro is the only Canadian on that team to go on  to the majors, first with the Blue Jays and now with the Colorado Rockies. Lefty Zac Curtis made his debut with Arizona last year.

Fai did not let Carminucci off easy. “You traded Dansby Swanson?”

Carminucci admitted “as scouts we’re not perfect.”

Arizona acquired RHP Shelby Miller from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for OF Ender Inciarte, RHP Aaron Blair and Swanson.

Chicago Blackhawks Hall of Famer Bobby Hull and Chicago baseball coach Pete Caliendo.

Chicago Blackhawks Hall of Famer Bobby Hull and Chicago baseball coach Pete Caliendo.

* * *
Flying high with a HOFer: Caliendo sat in the first row of economy class and could see in the last row of first class was former Chicago Blackhhawks sniper Bobby Hull. Before the Chicago-Vancouver flight took off Caliendo asked if he could have his picture taken with Hull. The Hall of Famer agreed.

After take-off, a flight attendant asked Caliendo to come up front so to talk to Hull, who asked “Hey, have you got George Morneau’s phone number?” Caliendo didn’t have the phone number of Justin Morneau’s father. George Morneau and Hull have met and George has always said he wants to be buried in his Blackhawks No. 9 sweater. 

* * *
Top 100 list: There have been many insults hurled our way over the years after people would read our annual most influential Canadians in baseball each year.

Fai complained about making the top 100 and then told guests how he had bought Siena South Granville, an Italian restaurant. And with that bit of news he pulled off the smoothest zing we have ever received regarding the top 100 list.

He explained how he had a top 100 menu list which he updated at the end of each month. (Seated in the crowd I thought that was dumb ... every time I see one of those restaurant make over shows, the fixer always says cut the menu down to 10 items from the kitchen). And then he delivered the bomb.

“And No. 102 on our menu ... is the Bob Elliott special.” 

Now, that was pretty clever.

In the Q and A portion, Fai also wanted to know why President Carter was 34th in the top 100 list in 2015 and last year he did not even make the cut when he was about to be inducted into St. Marys. Well, I said, he stepped down from office after 18 years in the summer and his successor Jason Dickson (Chatham, NB) made the list. Fai wanted to know where HOFer Carter was. Well, he did not get elected until January of this year.

“So,” asked Fai “who will be higher on the most influential list come this December, Carter or himself?

“Ah,” I answered, “Mike Kelly.”