My weekly observations and notes about some Canadian baseball stories:
- It was 19 years ago today that Maple Ridge, B.C., native Larry Walker became the first Canadian to win a big league MVP Award. The left-handed-hitting slugger captured the National League honour by batting .366 and belting 49 home runs during the 1997 season. He also drove in 130 runs and swiped 33 bases for the Colorado Rockies and topped the National League in on-base percentage (.452), slugging percentage (.720), on-base plus slugging percentage (1.172) and total bases (409). For good measure, he also won a Gold Glove Award for his standout defence in right field. To put into perspective how great Walker’s season was, his WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in 1997 was 9.8. In comparison, Joe DiMaggio’s WAR in 1941, the year he enjoyed his 56-game hitting streak was 9.0. The next best single-season WAR by a Canadian position player (other than Walker) is 7.6 recorded by Joey Votto (Etobicoke, Ont.) in 2015. In other words, Walker’s 1997 campaign remains by far the greatest all-around season by a Canadian position player.
- It’s awards season, so that means it’s time for us to grouse about players we feel got snubbed. So let me start with Canadian Joey Votto, who lost out on the National League Silver Slugger Award for first basemen to Chicago Cubs star Anthony Rizzo. If you examine the statistics, Votto topped Rizzo in batting average (.326), on-base percentage (.434), on-base plus slugging percentage (.985) and hits (181), but Rizzo had more home runs (32) and RBI (109). The fact that Rizzo had the edge in these traditional statistical categories, as well as the success of his team, likely influenced the coaches and managers, who voted on the award.
- Happy 48th Birthday to 2016 Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Pat Hentgen! The Detroit native has been part of the Toronto Blue Jays organization as a player, coach, ambassador or special assistant for 26 years. During his 10 seasons as a pitcher with the Blue Jays, he was a two-time World Champion, three-time All-Star and the club’s first Cy Young Award winner (1996). In total, Hentgen registered 107 wins (fifth-most in franchise history) for the Blue Jays and also ranks fifth all-time amongst the team’s hurlers in games started (238), innings pitched (1,636) and strikeouts (1,028).
- Keep your fingers crossed for legendary Montreal Expos broadcaster Jacques Doucet, who was announced as one of the eight finalists for this year’s National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award on Monday. This award is handed out annually to recognize broadcasting excellence. Doucet was the French voice of Expos radio broadcasts for 33 seasons from 1972 to 2004 and he has called Blue Jays games in French since 2012. The broadcasting legend was inducted into the Quebec Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002 and he won the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s Jack Graney Award in 2004. The other finalists for the award are Gary Cohen, Ken Harrelson, Pat Hughes, Bill King, Mike Krukow, Ned Martin and Dewayne Staats. A committee consisting of 13 living Frick Award recipients and four broadcast historians/columnists will vote on the award. The winner will be announced on December 7 at the annual Baseball Winter Meetings.
- Happy 57th Birthday to Edmonton native and former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Dave Shipanoff! Signed as a free agent by the Blue Jays in 1980, the 6-foot-2 right-hander was shipped to the Phillies on April 1, 1985 as part of a package for first baseman Len Matuszek. In his sole big league season, he posted a 3.22 ERA and recorded three saves in 26 relief appearances for the Phillies. That earned him the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s Tip O’Neill Award, as top Canadian player, in 1985. He finished his professional career with eight appearances for the California Angels’ triple-A Edmonton Trappers in 1987.
- I’ve written many times about how strongly I feel that Montreal Expos legend Tim Raines deserves to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. But I never made Raines’s case as succinctly and eloquently as Brian Kenny of the MLB Network does in this three-minute clip. This is the Expos great’s 10th and final season on the baseball writers’ ballot, so I’m feeling hopeful that this is his year.
- Condolences go out to the family of former Montreal Expos coach and ex-Toronto Maple Leafs catcher Russ Nixon who passed away on Thursday at the age of 81. The Cleves, Ohio native was a catcher for parts of 12 big league seasons with the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins from 1957 to 1968. In one of his seven seasons with the Red Sox, he was demoted to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club’s triple-A International League affiliate, where he hit .323 in 31 games while playing for future Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams. Following his playing career, Nixon became a highly respected coach and manager. He managed the Cincinnati Reds for parts of two seasons in 1982 and 1983 before serving a coach for the Montreal Expos in 1984 and 1985. He later managed the Atlanta Braves from 1988 to 1990 and continued, primarily as a minor league instructor, until 2007.
- Congratulations to organizers Andrew North and Brian Marshall on an excellent first day for the first annual Canadian Baseball History Conference in St. Marys, Ont., on Saturday. More than 60 baseball fans and researchers are in the small Southwestern, Ont., town, which is the home of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, for the weekend. The presentations have been very educational. I’ll share some of the highlights in next week’s column and on the Cooperstowners in Canada Facebook page during the week.
- This week’s trivia question: On Friday, the Blue Jays signed Cuban prospect Lourdes Gurriel Jr. He is an outfielder/shortstop. Two previous Cuban-born players have manned the shortstop position for the Blue Jays. Can you name them? Please provide your answer in the “Comments” section below. The first person to provide the correct answer will win 1970 and 1971 O-Pee-Chee Joe Torre cards.
- The answer to last week’s trivia question (Who the first Montreal Expo to win the National League Rookie of the Year Award?) was Carl Morton. Morton took home the honours after posting an 18-11 record and a 3.60 ERA in 43 games for the Expos in 1970.