By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
The relay was perfect both in its execution and delivery:
As good as say a relay from World Series hero Joe Carter on a ball in the gap to future Hall of Fame second baseman Robbie Alomar to World Series MVP Pat Borders.
Except this time the ball started rolling with Toronto lawyer David Wiseman, a former Etobicoke Rangers catcher.
Then, on to Greg Hamilton in Ottawa of Baseball Canada and then from the hands of one former Princeton Tiger to another, in Mark Shapiro, president of the Toronto Blue Jays.
So to recap ... Wiseman to Hamilton to Shapiro.
As Jerry Howarth, Etobicoke’s own, would say in his Etobicoke voice “call it ... a great night.”
The Wiseman-Hamilton-Shapiro trio was the reason why Joey Votto of the visiting Cincinnati Reds stood at home plate Monday night to catch the ceremonial first pitch from Etobicoke Rangers coaching legend Steve (Whitey to all who know and love him) Breitner, entering his 26th season managing the Rangers senior team.
A visiting player had never ever caught a ceremonial first pitch solo. There have been some events -- group throws -- were the visiting team was involved. We do remember Paul Beeston and the Blue Jays selecting former Montreal Expos owner Charles Bronfman to throw out the first pitch before Game 3 of the 1992 World Series ... the first Series game ever played in Canada. For lest we forget there would never have been a Toronto Blue Jays franchise without the success of the Montreal Expos.
A year ago Canada’s 1984 Olympic team, which knocked off the gold medal winning team from Japan at the Los Angeles Summer Games team had a reunion at the Rogers Centre. The Blue Jays gave them a sky box, which was nice but gave a thumbs down to LHP Rod Heisler (Moose Jaw, Sask.), who competed at more international events for Canada than anyone, throwing out the first pitch to New York Yankees bench coach Robbie Thomson (Stratford, Ont.).
After Breitner threw a strike -- well it would have been a strike at Connorvale Park with either Sam Leonard or Al Dresser working the plate -- to Votto, he hugged Whitey and then signed a ball for the reluctant Etobicoke legend. When they renamed the building in right centre at Connorvale Steve “Whitey” Breitner clubhouse, Whitey said “They should have named this after Bobby Smyth.”
Smyth was Votto’s No. 1 coach, mentor, father figure until after he was drafted and then moved to Ladysmith, BC. As Uncle Jed Clampett used to say “he growed up good,” becoming Canada’s highest paid athlete and someone for sandlot players to look up to if they are from Enderby, BC, Etobicoke or Edmunston, N.B.
Votto was on the catching end of a pitch for the first time since rookie-class Gulf Coast Reds in 2002, when he squatted for seven games. Drafted as a catcher in the second round, seven was his total number of pro games caught (50 put outs, eight assist and two errors). Votto did catch for the Rangers after George Kottaras left to join the Ontario Blue Jays. Miguel Pérez, who caught two games with 2005 Reds and Don Hawes, who peaked at the Gulf Coast, handled most of the catching in the Florida sun that year. The game on Monday was the 1,318th of Votto’s career.
As the veteran coach left the field 256 former Etobicoke Rangers and COBA major rival coaches it sounded like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was seated down the first base line. They chanted “WHITEY! WHITEY! WHITEY!” It was if Whitey Ford, another pretty fair lefty, was being introduced on Old Timers day at Yankee Stadium. Mark Walters and Kerry Hedden were there from Niagara Metros along with George Moore and Matt McCandless from the Milton Red Sox. Plus former Blue Jays scout Greg (Chopper) Miner.
Greg Cranker of the Erindale Cardinals was not there as they were playing at Greg Cranker Field. On Saturday Cranker stopped by the clubhouse to present Whitey with a new fungo bat.
Someone mentioned to Breitner down the first base line about the seventh inning that the pre-game ceremonies involving he and Votto were more important combo than the Canada’s 1984 Olympic team AND the New York Yankees ...
“Well ... I would say that I would have to agree with THAT,” deadpanned Whitey as the semi-circle of former players and players howled the kind of laughter old teammates share in good times. And this was a good time was had by all night, except for the Reds who were thumped by the Jays.
So kudos to Wiseman, who played on the same junior all-star teams as Hamilton in the late 1980s, for coming up with the idea of the Breitner-Votto combo.
And a well-done to Hamilton, who has his own busy schedule coaching the Canadian Junior National Team and putting together the World Baseball Classic roster of those who would play in Miami, for making the call.
And finally congrats to Shapiro, who like Hamilton wore the black and orange of the Princeton Tigers (Hamilton on the mound, Shapiro one year of football), and the Blue Jays for making it happen.
Whitey entered from the first base photographer’s bay and was greeted by Votto.
“I told Joey to go put on one of those catcher’s goalie masks so he would not get hurt,” Whitey said.
Greg O’Halloran, who was a Blue Jays draft, played 28 games with the Florida Marlins, then returned to play senior for Etobicoke and Whitey, told his former skipper that the pitch was way high and outside ... not “jussssst a bit outside,” as Bob Ucker likes to say.
Whitey’s response was “Greg, it was up and in ... right where I wanted it.”
As someone who saw Whitey in his prime and saw him dominate pitching for Ric Fleury’s Leaside Maple Leafs at The Shrine, known as Talbot Park, I can vouch for the fact Whitey could go up and in with the best of them. He was untouchable a lot of nights, unbeatable many nights, as long as he wasn’t facing Conrad Young of the Ottawa-Nepean Canadians, especially the 1979 team, adjudged by many old timers as the best in the storied franchise’s history.
Prior to the first pitch, Scott Crawford of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Tammy Adkin, board member, made the trip from St. Marys to present Votto with the Tip O’Neill award which goes annually to our country’s best ball player. It was the sixth time Votto’s had won the honour. Votto thanked the Blue Jays for making this unconventional ceremony happen -- amateur coach to one of Canada’s greatest position players along with Larry Walker (Maple Ridge, BC) from a visiting team.
And as Votto neared the plate he looked into the Jays dugout and expressed thanks again.
In the seventh, the Blue Jays were up 13-2. What would Whitey have said if they were down 13-2 one night at Connorvale.
The answer was “Gentlemen, let’s go, I am getting thirsty.”
And Whitey’s reaction to the turnout? “He would say that everyone is here to see Joey and see the game, I am Mr. Irrelevant, which of course he is not,” said lanky Joe Jurus.
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What players did Whitey see that he had not seen in a while? Right-hander Brad Evaschuk, who was at St. Catharines in 1988 and Medicine Hat the next year. “Probably haven’t seen him in about 15 years,” said Whitey. LHP Rob (Chicken) Poliot. Whitey told him to get up in the pen one night in the sixth inning. Poliot warmed up from the full windup. Greg O’Halloran was DHing and said to Whitey “Why isn’t he warming up from the stretch?”
Whitey yells down, “Chicken, from the stretch.” Chicken proceeds to put his glove down and start stretching his legs. Whitey screams down, “NOOOO, warm up from the stretch.” Gotch skip.
Whitey coached them all up. Father and son duos like Alfie Riverso and his son Ben; Rich Panas and his sons Ryan and Conor (“only had Conor for one game before the Jays signed him,”) and John Ferracuti, Jr. and his son Michael of the Ferracutifamily.
Who did he wish was there that was not?
The late Ric Fleury, who managed him all those years at Leaside. Mike (The General) Gauthier who now lives in Sussex, Wisc. “The poor guy put this whole thing together, spent hours on it and then was unable to make it.” The General was present and accounted for ... virtually.
Dr. Jonathan Cardella, who was also south of the border, professor at Yale and Bobby Smyth, under whose care, Connorvale was known as the best diamond in the province, who was in BC.
Lefty great Dane (Dean) Clatney pitched 11 years for the Rangers.
“The torch was passed from Bobby Smyth to Whitey,” said Clatney.
As with any baseball gatherirng it does not take many words to trigger a memory.
“Stanley Park, Niagara Falls,” Joe Jurus said.
“Oh, yeah,” and Clatney carried the ball, “we’re about to play and Bobby sends me up to the plate for the coin toss and he says ‘AND CALL HEADS!’ Why is he sending me out -- I can think for myself. So, I come back, Bobby asks what it was, I answer heads. So all our guys run out onto the field right.
“I say hold on Bobby, Bobby. I called tails. Bobby fired his clip board at me and hit me in the chest.”
Did Etobicoke win? No one could remember.
That is what surrives in baseball the greatest game, it is the stories, the memories, the laughs and the heart break.
In most stadiums on Monday night the talk was about Bryce Harper charging the mound to throw his helmet and then punches at Hunter Strickland or Mike Trout’s injury.
Down the first base line nattily dresed in their grey T-shirts with Whitey sayings on the back it was memory time, story telling time and good time all rolled into one.
Denny Berni , who runs the Pro Teach facility off 22nd stret near the water tower was there. It’s a place Votto will drop in a few times during the winter and work with kids since he began spending his winters in Toronto again.
Rob Pineau, an emergency doctor from Sudbury, was there too, His daughter, Lauren, had done a school project on Votto, was near the dugout with her sister Megan, pre game. They held a sign which read: “we came all the way from Sudbury to see Joey.”
It kind of reminded me of 1984 at Riverfront when Pete Rose, the Cincinnati kid returned home to Riverfront playing for the Montreall Expos. It was either after opening day in front of
fans when Cincy’s
or the finale in front of 18,923 when Bruce Berenyi walked Rose and was booed.
Rose was asked about the reaction from the Ohio fans said “Heck, 80% of the people here think that they know me and 60% of the people are probably right.”
People know Votto, Canada’s best hitter.
And people know Whitey.
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(We’ve captured a few Whitey memories ... but really former Rangers LHP Scott Langdon did a much better job).
_ Photos by Wiseman studios, Steve Sidoriak.