My weekly observations and notes about some Canadian baseball stories:
· Montreal Expos legend and Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer Rusty Staub would’ve turned 74 today. He passed away on Thursday in a West Palm Beach, Fla., hospital. Bill Madden of the New York Daily News reported that Staub had been suffering from a number of ailments, including “cellulitis, which evolved into a blood infection that resulted in a shutdown of his kidneys.” The Expos icon had previously recovered from a heart attack he suffered on a flight from Ireland to New York in October 2015. To read more about his accomplishments with the Expos, as well as tributes from fans, teammates and reporters that covered him, you can check out the obituary I wrote for the Canadian Baseball Network here.
· Congratulations to Etobicoke, Ont., native Joey Votto who was named this year’s recipient of the Lou Gehrig Award which is presented annually by the Phi Delta Theta International Fraternity in Colton, Ohio to a major league player that best exemplifies the giving nature of Gehrig, who was once a member of the fraternity. On top of leading the National League in on-base percentage (OBP) (.454), walks (134), intentional walks (20) and on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) (1.032) in 2017, Votto made a significant impact off the field. He was heavily involved with the Reds Community Fund, the club’s non-profit arm that’s dedicated to improving the lives of youth and his generosity toward Walter “Superbubz” Herbert, a six-year-old fan fighting stage 4 neuroblastoma, earned him the MLB Award for Best Player-Fan Interaction. The Canuck first baseman also regularly visits the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and participates in meet and greets with patients and staff at the ballpark throughout the season. Votto will be presented the Lou Gehrig Award on July 27 at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. For more details, you can follow this link.
· Happy 35th Birthday to Port Dover, Ont., native John Axford! The Canadian right-hander had a rough regular season debut with the Toronto Blue Jays on Thursday allowing back-to-back doubles in the fifth inning before striking out New York Yankees centre fielder Aaron Hicks. But his Opening Day performance contrasted sharply with his spring performance that saw him record a 1.13 ERA and strike out 11 batters in eight innings in seven appearances after signing a minor league deal with the Blue Jays in February. In 22 contests with the Oakland A’s last season, the 6-foot-5 right-hander posted a 6.43 ERA but he was still averaging 95 mph with his fastball. The veteran reliever has registered a 3.71 ERA and notched 144 saves in 494 career major league appearances with the Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates, Colorado Rockies, A’s and Blue Jays.
· In case you missed it, Victoria, B.C., native Michael Saunders was released by the Kansas City Royals on March 24. He had a inked a minor league deal with the club on February 23 just two days after signing and then later asking to be released from a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates when the Bucs landed fellow left-handed hitting outfielder Corey Dickerson in a trade. A 2016 American League all-star, Saunders split 2017 between the Philadelphia Phillies and Toronto Blue Jays, where he hit a combined .202 with six home runs in 73 games. It was a difficult season for the Canadian outfielder after he enjoyed his best big league campaign with the Blue Jays in 2016 when he established career-highs in home runs (24) and walks (59). The Canuck veteran has socked 81 home runs in parts of nine big league seasons with the Seattle Mariners, Blue Jays and Phillies.
· I spoke too soon in last week’s column. Apparently it was not the end of the road for the last player to wear an Expos uniform. Veteran Bartolo Colon was released by the Texas Rangers on March 24, but he quickly re-signed a new deal with the club. He is now scheduled to start for the Rangers tomorrow. Set to turn 45 in May, Colon, who went 10-4 with a 3.31 ERA in 17 starts for the Expos in 2002, split 2017 between the Atlanta Braves and the Minnesota Twins and posted a combined 6.48 ERA in 143 innings. The 5-foot-11, 285-pound right-hander has 240 major league wins in 20 seasons.
· Over the past few weeks, I’ve noted several former Blue Jays that are still seeking employment for 2018. That list includes Darwin Barney, Jose Bautista, Melky Cabrera, Chris Coghlan, R.A. Dickey, Yunel Escobar, Scott Feldman, Jason Grilli, Aaron Hill, Adam Lind, Dustin McGowan, Drew Storen and Melvin Upton, Jr. More recently, I stumbled across the names of some former Blue Jays that are toiling in the triple-A affiliated minor league ranks: Steve Delabar (Round Rock Express, Texas Rangers organization), Bo Schultz (Indianapolis Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates), Moises Sierra (Syracuse Chiefs, Washington Nationals) and Chris Smith (Syracuse Chiefs, Washington Nationals).
· Please take a moment to remember Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer Jeff Heath who would’ve turned 103 today. Born in Fort William, Ont., (which is now Thunder Bay), Heath moved with his family to Victoria, B.C., when he was a year old. The 1938 season was Heath’s breakout major league campaign with the Cleveland Indians. That year, he finished second in the American League batting race (.343) and recorded 21 homers, 112 RBI and a league-leading 18 triples. He topped that season in 1941, when he became the first American League player to register 20 doubles, 20 triples and 20 home runs in a season. He also hit .340, stole 18 bases and was selected to his first all-star team. In 1945, he was dealt to the Washington Senators, where he played for two months, before being swapped to the St. Louis Browns. In December 1947, he was sold to the Boston Braves, where he was hitting .319 with 20 home runs and set to participate in his first World Series when he suffered an ankle injury sliding into home in the final week of the 1948 season. His ankle was slow to heal and Heath would play just 36 games in 1949 and retired the following season. For his career, Heath hit .293 with 194 homers and ranks among the greatest Canadians to play in the big leagues.
· One of my favourite trivia questions: Who is the first former Blue Jays player to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame? The answer is Phil Niekro. Yes, the ageless knuckleballer, who won 318 major league games in a 24-year career, posted a 8.25 ERA in three less-than-memorable starts with the Blue Jays in 1987. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997. P.S. Not surprisingly, no one lobbied for him to be pictured in a Blue Jays cap on his plaque.
· This week’s trivia question: As noted earlier, Jeff Heath was the first American League player to record 20 home runs, 20 doubles and 20 triples in the same major league season. Just two other American League players have accomplished this feat. Who are they? (Hint: They’re not Canadian) Please provide your answer in the “Comments” section below. The first person to provide the correct answer will win a 1961 Topps Reno Bertoia card, a 1969 Topps Bill Mazeroski card, a 1982 O-Pee-Chee Rickey Henderson card and a 1991 Stadium Club Jeff Bagwell rookie card.
· The answer to last week’s trivia question (This promising Canadian sustained a groin injury sliding into home plate in the first Pearson Cup Game played on June 29, 1978 at Olympic Stadium. Can you name him?) was right-handed pitcher Bill Atkinson (Chatham, Ont.).