My weekly observations and notes about some Canadian baseball stories:
· Please take a moment today to remember Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer and legendary Canadian baseball scout and executive Wayne Norton who passed away one year ago today at the age of 75 after a valiant battle with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Born in 1942 in Winnipeg, Man., he played in 1,206 minor league games – including five seasons in triple-A – before becoming a trailblazing baseball executive and scout in Canada. In the mid-1970s, he founded and established Baseball Canada’s Junior National Team and he became a long-time coach and manager for the organization. He also managed Canada’s Pan Am Games team in 1975, prior to helping to launch Baseball B.C. two years later. In 1986, he established the National Baseball Institute (NBI) in Vancouver, which developed into the best baseball academy ever created in Canada and is often cited as the standard for similar facilities. After leaving the NBI in 1994, he evolved into one of Canada’s most respected baseball scouts. Fellow Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer Pat Gillick hired him to scout for the Baltimore Orioles from 1996 to 1999 and when Gillick accepted the Seattle Mariners’ general manager position in 2000, he brought Norton with him. While with the Mariners, Norton helped the club draft and sign Canadians Michael Saunders (Victoria, B.C.), Phillippe Aumont (Gatineau, Que.) and Tyler O’Neill (Maple Ridge, B.C.). For his excellence in scouting, Norton was named Mariners’ International Scout of the Year in 2007 and Canadian Scout of the Year by the Canadian Baseball Network in 1998 and 2013.
· In case you missed it, Victoria, B.C., native Michael Saunders has agreed to a minor league deal with the Colorado Rockies. The left-handed hitting outfielder hasn’t suited up at a professional level since he was released by the Chicago White Sox last June. He played a combined 38 games in triple-A in the White Sox and Orioles organizations in 2018 and batted .158 with two home runs. The 32-year-old Canadian has struggled since his all-star campaign with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2016 in which he belted a career-best 24 home runs. He split 2017 between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Blue Jays, where he hit a combined .202 with six home runs in 73 games. In all, Saunders has batted .232 and socked 81 home runs in parts of nine big league seasons. The Canuck veteran is also set to suit up for the Canadian national team at the Pan Am Games qualifier in Sao Paulo, Brazil beginning on January 29.
· Happy 37th Birthday to Cambridge, Ont., native Scott Thorman! A first-round pick of the Atlanta Braves in 2000, the 6-foot-3 slugger would play 12 professional seasons, including parts of two major league campaigns with the Braves in 2006 and 2007. He has since embarked on a successful managerial career in the Kansas City Royals’ organization. Last year, he managed the Royals’ class-A Lexington Legends to a South Atlantic League championship. That was Thorman’s fourth season as a manager in the Royals’ system and second in Lexington. He previously managed the Burlington Royals of the Short-Season Rookie-ball Appalachian League in 2015 and 2016.
· Nine years ago today, former Montreal Expos great Andre Dawson was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his ninth year of eligibility. The five-tool outfielder, who had been inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004, became the second Cooperstown inductee to be pictured in a Montreal Expos cap on their plaque (Gary Carter was the first in 2003). Dawson was a standout at Florida A&M University when he was spotted by Expos scout Bill Adair, who convinced his employers to select the Miami native in the 11th round of the 1975 amateur draft. After minor league stints in Lethbridge, Quebec City and Denver, Dawson made his big league debut on September 11, 1976. The following year, he hit .282 and belted 19 home runs to claim the National League Rookie of the Year Award. Over his next nine seasons with the Expos, he evolved into the best all-around player in franchise history. During his tenure in Montreal, he was selected to three all-star games, won three Silver Slugger Awards, captured six Gold Gloves and was named The Sporting News Player of the Year in 1981. In his 11 seasons in Montreal, Dawson accumulated 225 home runs, 838 RBI and 2,679 total bases – numbers that rank second in franchise history.
· Please take a moment to remember Hall of Fame pitcher and the Blue Jays’ first radio analyst Early Wynn who would’ve turned 99 today. After a 23-year major league pitching career with the Washington Senators, Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox that would see him win exactly 300 games, Wynn was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. Following his tenure as a player, he embarked on a coaching and broadcasting career. His first broadcasting gig came in the Blue Jays inaugural 1977 season when he served as an analyst alongside legendary play-by-play man and Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Tom Cheek. Wynn worked as an analyst with the Blue Jays through the 1981 season. He passed away in 1999 at the age of 79.
· The deadline for baseball writers to submit their ballots for the National Baseball Hall of Fame was December 31. As usual, Ryan Thibodaux (@NotMrTibbs on Twitter) and his team have done an outstanding job of tracking all of the ballots that have been made public and it’s been great news for those of us who support Maple Ridge, B.C., native Larry Walker’s induction. Of the 153 ballots counted by Thibodaux’s team, Walker’s name has been checked on 66.7 per cent of them. This is a dramatic jump in support for Walker whose name was selected on only 34.1 per cent of ballots last year. According to Thibodaux, Walker has gained 34 votes from writers that didn’t previously vote for him. It likely won’t be enough to get him in this year, but it does give him hope for election in his 10th and final year on the ballot in 2019.
· A trivia question that I often stump people with: Who is the first former Blue Jays player to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame? The answer is knuckleballer Phil Niekro who posted a 8.25 ERA in three starts for the Blue Jays in 1987. Niekro, who won 318 major league games in a 24-year big league career, was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame 22 years ago today.
· A beautiful memorial service was held for my youth baseball coach and lifelong friend Lorne Thompson on Saturday in Dorchester, Ont. Lorne’s three children – Robert, Chris and Sarah – gave courageous and moving eulogies, while his grandchildren wowed us with their musical talents. Lorne would’ve been proud. I’ll be thinking about his wife, Barb, children Robert, Chris and Sarah and their families and sending them strength.
· My thoughts also go out to the family of Wayne Brown, who was the photographer at many Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame events over the years. Wayne passed away on December 31 at the age of 54 after a valiant battle with pancreatic cancer. Wayne was a skilled photographer and a happy-go-lucky guy that was always quick with a joke. I’ll miss him.
· This week’s trivia question: There are three National Baseball Hall of Fame inductees that have managed Canadian major league teams. Who are they? Please provide your answer in the “Comments” section below. The first person to provide the correct answer will win a 1982 Donruss Dave Winfield card, a 1985 Leaf Alan Trammell card, a 1985 O-Pee-Chee Robin Yount card and a 1986 Leaf Jim Rice card.
· The answer to last week’s trivia question (While Sandy Koufax never pitched with the Dodgers’ triple-A affiliate Montreal Royals, two other Dodgers greats who went on to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown did. Who are they?) was Don Drysdale and Tommy Lasorda.