My weekly observations and notes about some Canadian baseball stories:
- It has become an Easter tradition on this blog to pay tribute to ex-big league slugger Luke Easter on Easter Sunday. “Luscious Luke” was a hulking, six-foot-four, 240-pound slugger who became the 11th African-American to compete in the big leagues when he debuted with the Cleveland Indians on August 11, 1949. Known for clubbing tape-measure homers – including a 477-foot blast that was the longest ever recorded at Municipal Stadium – Easter, due to segregation, didn’t make his big league debut until he was 34. After three seasons in which he never socked less than 27 homers for the Indians, Easter, hobbled by knee and ankle injuries, was released, but he continued to belt moonshot round-trippers in the International League (IL) for the Ottawa Athletics in 1954. Later he starred with the IL’s Buffalo Bisons and Rochester Red Wings. A jovial, easygoing man who rarely refused an autograph request, Easter was once approached by a fan who told him that he saw him hit his longest home run, to which Easter responded, “If it came down, it wasn’t my longest.” Sadly, Easter was murdered in a bank parking lot in Euclid, Ohio on March 29, 1979.
- It’s a nice problem for the Toronto Blue Jays to have. Right-handers Aaron Sanchez and Gavin Floyd, who are in competition to be the club’s fifth starter, have been arguably the team’s two best pitchers this spring. In 20 innings, Sanchez has posted a 2.35 ERA and notched 19 strikeouts, while the 33-year-old Floyd has rebounded from multiple elbow injuries to post a 3-0 record and a 2.19 ERA in four games. I’d put my money on Sanchez, who tossed 6-1/3 scoreless innings on Wednesday, to win the job.
- Fun Canadian Baseball Fact: Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer and Maple Ridge, B.C., native Larry Walker belted 49 home runs and stole 33 bases for the Colorado Rockies in 1997. This makes him one of only nine players to sock 40 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same season. Of those nine players – a list that includes Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez – Walker posted the highest batting average (.366) in his 40/30 season.
- One of the Blue Jays’ most pleasant surprises this spring has been infield prospect Andy Burns. The versatile 25-year-old, who can play every infield position except for catcher and pitcher, has hit .333 and has a 1.011 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) in 20 games. But with Darwin Barney signed to a major league deal, Burns, who batted .293 in 126 contests for the triple-A Buffalo Bisons last season, is not likely to make the big league team. Manager John Gibbons did, however, tell the Toronto Star that if Edwin Encarnacion, who has been sidelined by an oblique injury, begins the season on the disabled list, there’s a chance that Burns could crack the Opening Day roster.
- Speaking of Blue Jays utility players, ex-Jay Cliff Pennington is 19-for-45 (.422 batting average) for the Los Angeles Angels this spring. The versatile infielder, who played 33 regular season and four playoff contests for the Jays at the end of last season, will serve as a back-up infielder with the Angels this season.
- Please take a moment to remember former Blue Jays pitching coach Mel Queen, who would’ve turned 74 yesterday. Born in Johnson City, N.Y., Queen inherited some of his talent from his father, also named Mel, who pitched in the big leagues between 1942 and 1952. Mel Jr. would make his major league debut with the Cincinnati Reds as an outfielder in 1964, but was transformed into a pitcher in 1966. He put together his finest major league campaign the following year, when he won 14 games and recorded a 2.76 ERA in 31 contests. Following his playing career, he started coaching with the Indians in 1979 before joining the Jays organization as a pitching instructor in 1986. Queen is best known for his tenure as the Jays’ pitching coach from 1996 to 2000. In his four seasons in that capacity, Jays hurlers won three Cy Young Awards (Pat Hentgen, 1996; Roger Clemens, 1997 and 1998). Queen also worked extensively with Roy Halladay and helped transform him into an eventual Cy Young Award winner. Queen died of lung cancer at age 69 on May 11, 2011.
- An interesting spring training stat: Blue Jays first baseman Chris Colabello has two triples in 15 games this March. He had one triple in his first three big league seasons combined.
- This week’s trivia question: This ex-big leaguer with “Easter” in his last name appeared as an opponent in three different Canadian ballparks during his major league career. Can you name him? Please provide your answer in the “Comments” section below. The first person to provide the correct answer will win a Tony Gwynn rookie card.