My weekly observations and notes about some Canadian baseball stories:
• Hall of Fame slugger Willie Stargell would’ve turned 76 today. The Pittsburgh Pirates legend walloped 475 home runs in 21 major league seasons and was particularly potent with the bat against the Expos in Montreal. On July 16, 1969, he became the first player to belt a home run that landed in the recreational swimming pool beyond the right field fence at Jarry Park, an estimated 495 feet from home plate. This would be the longest of his 17 homers – the most of any opposing player – that he hit at Jarry Park. Just under nine years later, he also socked the longest home run in Olympic Stadium history. On May 20, 1978, Stargell deposited a fourth-inning pitch from Expos hurler Wayne Twitchell into the second deck in right field that travelled an estimated 535 feet. The yellow seat that the ball ricocheted off of is now on display at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont. Sadly, Stargell passed away on April 9, 2001 due to complications from a stroke.
• With the Toronto Blue Jays’ new executive regime in place, there has been renewed speculation that the club will move out of their aging spring training facilities in Dunedin, Fla., after their lease expires in 2017. The biggest beefs the club has with the current arrangements are that the major and minor league complexes are not in the same location and that the stadium and clubhouses have become antiquated. But you can count shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, in his first spring training in Dunedin, as a fan of the old-fashioned set up. “I like this place a lot better than Arizona,” Tulowitzki told the USA Today in an article published on Monday. “That place was like a country club. Guys get comfortable because it was so nice. This place has a better feel it reminds you of spring training. The way it’s supposed to be.”
• Fun Fact: The Blue Jays have had three Opening Day second basemen with the last name Garcia: Pedro Garcia (1977), Damaso Garcia (1980 to 1986) and Carlos Garcia (1997).
• Ten years ago, I don’t think anyone would’ve wagered that portly right-hander Bartolo Colon would be the last former Montreal Expo to play in the big leagues, but with Maicer Izturis, who played 32 games for the Expos in 2004, announcing his retirement on Friday, this will be the case. Colon, who was acquired by the Expos from the Indians on June 27, 2002 in exchange for then prospects Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore, went 10-4 and posted a 3.31 ERA in 17 starts for the Expos down the stretch that season.
• Speaking of former Expos, it was 29 years ago today that Andre Dawson signed a one-year, $500,000 deal with the Chicago Cubs. The five-tool outfielder and 2004 Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer, who had starred for parts of 11 seasons with the Expos, wanted to get away from the unforgiving outfield turf at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, but due to collusion by the owners had failed to receive any market value offers. In his first season with the Cubs, Dawson would slam 49 home runs and knock in 137 to win the National League MVP Award.
• One pitcher that I thought the Blue Jays should’ve expressed more interest in this off-season was left-handed reliever Matt Thornton, who signed a minor league deal with the San Diego Padres on Thursday. The veteran southpaw will make $1.6 million this season if he cracks the Padres’ big league roster. Yes, it’s true that he’s 39 years old and his velocity isn’t what it once was, but he was still effective in 2015 (2.18 ERA in 41-1/3 innings with the Washington Nationals) and he was an inexpensive, low-risk investment. If there’s an Achilles Heel in the Blue Jays’ bullpen, it’s the lack of effective lefty to complement Brett Cecil and this has been accentuated now that Aaron Loup, who struggled in that role last season, will be out for at least two weeks with a forearm injury.
• Former Montreal Expos infielder Kevin Collins passed away suddenly in Naples, Fla., on February 20 at the age of 69. The versatile infielder batted .240 in 52 games with the Expos in their inaugural season and was the first Expo to hit a pinch-hit home run. In all, he played parts of six big league seasons with the Expos, New York Mets and Detroit Tigers. You can read his obituary here.
• Spring training games have now started and Canadian slugger Justin Morneau (New Westminster, B.C.) still has not signed with a new team. The 34-year-old first baseman’s 2015 season was shortened by a neck injury and a recurrence of post-concussion symptoms, but when he returned in September, he hit .338 in 22 games for the Colorado Rockies. Morneau became a free agent when the Rockies declined their half of his $9-million, mutual contract option for 2016. In parts of 13 big league seasons, Morneau has clubbed 241 home runs, which is the third-most by a Canadian behind Larry Walker (383) and Matt Stairs (265).
• This week’s trivia question: In the previous bullet point, I mentioned the three Canadians (Larry Walker, Matt Stairs and Justin Morneau) who have hit the most home runs in the big leagues. Three other Canadian have belted more than 150 home runs in the big leagues. Can you name them? Please provide your answer in the “Comments” section below. The first person to provide the correct answer will win a 1979 Topps Andre Dawson card.