Ernie Whitt is hoping to be in St. Marys, Ont., on June 29 to watch two of his former teammates be inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
A two-time inductee himself – for his individual accomplishments (2009) and for his role as manager of the senior national team that captured gold at the 2011 Pan American Games (2012) – the beloved former Blue Jays catcher has fond memories of playing with 2013 inductees George Bell and Rob Ducey.
“George was one of my all-time favourite teammates,” said Whitt, who suited up alongside Bell in Toronto from 1981 to 1989. “The one thing that I respected most about George was that all he wanted to do was win and he played the game hard. He was my type of player. I just absolutely loved playing with him. He wanted to win just as much as I wanted to win.”
Whitt, who also toiled with the Red Sox, Braves and Orioles during his 15-year big league career and is set to manage the Canadian entry at the World Baseball Classic, was often wowed by Bell’s prowess at the plate.
“George was one of the best right-handed hitters that ever played the game, in my opinion,” said Whitt, “He was a tremendous low ball hitter. I remember in 1988 we opened up a series against Kansas City and that was the year that they (manager Jimy Williams) wanted to make him a designated hitter. He was just coming off a Most Valuable Player award and all of a sudden they wanted to take his position away from him. He’s got an awful lot of pride and rightfully so. He just wanted to prove them wrong and he ended up getting three home runs that Opening Day against Kansas City in Kansas City, which is not an easy place to hit a home run.”
But as much as he admired Bell, Whitt says that the two sometimes clashed. He remembers Bell throwing a ball over his head on a play at the plate at the Metrodome in Minnesota that allowed a run to score. At the end of the inning, a fired up Bell approached Whitt and told him that if he had jumped for the ball, they would’ve had the runner.
“I said, ‘George, it hit halfway up the screen,” recalled Whitt with a chuckle.
But Whitt appreciated Bell’s intensity.
“We had our battles. We had our differences of opinions, but we respected each other,” said Whitt. “And to this day, we remain good friends. We see other and we hug. It’s like we haven’t missed a beat. I see him a lot in spring training and in instructional league, because he’s still with the Blue Jays and I’m with the Phillies now.”
Whitt also shared a dugout with 2013 inductee Rob Ducey for parts of three seasons with the Blue Jays.
“He was a very good young outfielder,” recalled Whitt.
Whitt chuckles as he recounts a story about the Cambridge, Ont., native, who played parts of 13 seasons in the big leagues.
“I think Rob even tells this story now, but one of his first times when he was up in the big leagues, he was out in the outfield shagging balls and he would take a ball and throw it up into the stands. And of course the fans loved that and they kept yelling for him to keep throwing balls up there. And he kept throwing balls up to them,” said Whitt.
“And so we told him, ‘Hey, Rob. You can’t throw every ball that comes out here up into the stands. It costs the organization a lot of money.’ And he says, ‘Oh yeah right. They can afford it.’ So I made a phone call to Paul Beeston and told him what was going on and he ended up giving Ducey an invoice for the balls that he threw up into the stands. He actually took it out of Rob’s pay cheque. The next pay cheque they put it back in, but he kind of learned his lesson the hard way.”
Ducey later coached for Whitt with the Canadian national team.
Ducey and Bell are the most recent ex-teammates of Whitt’s to be elected to the Canadian ball shrine. Among the other honorees that Whitt played with are Dave McKay, Tony Fernandez, Dave Stieb and Tom Henke. The longtime Jay turned national team manager was also part of the Jays’ organization when inductees Paul Beeston, Pat Gillick, Don McDougall, Peter Widdrington and Peter Hardy were executives. And two of Whitt’s former Toronto managers – Bobby Mattick and Cito Gaston – have also been enshrined. Whitt has also worked with 2009 inductees Larry Walker and Bernie Soulliere with the national team and got to know the late Tom Cheek, the longtime radio voice of the Blue Jays who will also be inducted this year, well.
And while he was a young catching prospect in the Red Sox organization, Whitt was managed by 2002 Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Bill Slack in Class-A Winston Salem in 1973 and for part of the 1975 campaign in Double-A Bristol. Slack was born in Petrolia, Ont., and, between playing and coaching, spent more than six decades in professional baseball.
“Slackie was one of my favourite managers that I ever had,” said Whitt. “He would do anything in the world to help you get better. I remember him throwing for what seemed like over an hour of batting practice every day to try to help you get better. And if you had a weakness on breaking balls, he would throw breaking balls to you. He was – and still is – just a great baseball man. He knows the game very well. And his passion was to get his players better. I highly respect him for what he has done to help me in my career. He means an awful lot to me.”
Whitt hopes to reunite with Slack, Bell and Ducey at the Canadian ball hall’s ceremony this June.
“I’m happy for both George and Rob. Their induction is well deserved and I’m going to do everything I can to be there,” said Whitt.
But does the two-time inductee – who has made two speeches in St. Marys – have any advice for his former teammates when they have their turn behind the podium this June?
“I would tell them to just enjoy the moment and to take it all in and realize that they are being honoured as one of the premier ballplayers that’s ever played in Canada,” said Whitt. “I just hope that they can take that all in and appreciate it.”