By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
My weekly observations and notes about some Canadian baseball stories:
– As you have heard, longtime home run champion and one of baseball’s most important and inspirational ambassadors, Hank Aaron, passed away on Friday at the age of 86. You can read my full obituary and a summary of his Canadian connections in the blog entry I wrote on Friday. Since that article was published, a number of current and former Canadian big leaguers have shared their tributes to Aaron. Here are a few of them:
– Right-hander Mike Soroka (Calgary, Alta.) and the Atlanta Braves are $700,000 apart as they head to an arbitration hearing in February. Jon Heyman, of the MLB Network, reported that Soroka has filed a request for a $2.8-million salary, while the Braves have countered at $2.1 million. As noted last week, the 2019 Tip O’Neill Award winner qualifies as a “Super 2” player. Every MLB player is eligible for arbitration after they accumulate three full seasons of service time, but the Collective Bargaining Agreement also dictates that the top 22 percent of players who have amassed between two and three seasons of time qualify for “Super Two” status and they become eligible for arbitration heading into their third season. Soroka, who made his MLB debut on May 1, 2018, made $583,500 last season and is set to receive a significant raise, despite only making three starts for the Braves in 2020. The 23-year-old righty tore his right Achilles tendon on August 3 and underwent surgery four days later. Experts say it generally takes nine-to-12 months to recover from this type of injury. In his rookie campaign in 2019, Soroka went 13-4 with a 2.68 ERA in 29 starts and finished second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting.
–Also according to Heyman, the Toronto Blue Jays are one of the teams that have expressed interest in free agent left-hander James Paxton. The 32-year-old southpaw, who hails from Ladner, B.C., threw in front of scouts from around major league teams at a recent showcase and his velocity reportedly reached 94 mph, which is right around his career average. Paxton, who underwent back surgery last February, made just five starts for the New York Yankees in 2020, going 1-1 with a 6.64 ERA before he was sidelined with a flexor strain in his throwing arm on August 20. In all, the Canuck lefty has pitched in parts of eight major league campaigns and had a career-best 15 wins with the Yankees in 2019.
–Please take a moment to remember former big league umpire and Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Jim McKean who passed away two years ago today at the age of 73. After graduating from Montreal’s Monklands High School, where he claimed top athlete honours, McKean became a quarterback with the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders and was part of the team’s Grey Cup-winning squad in 1966. A superb all-around athlete, McKean also served as a junior hockey referee and as a basketball coach at Concordia University before focusing on umpiring. He began calling games at the minor-pro level in 1970 and worked his first big league game in 1974. During his 28-year major league career, he oversaw seven no-hitters, three all-star games, three World Series and was named Major League Baseball Umpire of the Year in 1988. In 2002, he accepted a position as supervisor of umpires with the MLB commissioner’s office. Two years later, he was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
–It was 36 years ago today that the Blue Jays selected a hard-throwing right-handed pitching prospect named Tom Henke from the Texas Rangers as compensation for the Rangers signing free agent Cliff Johnson. The rest, as they say, is history. After he was called up in late July of 1985, Henke evolved into the greatest closer in Blue Jays’ history. From 1985 to 1992, he recorded 217 saves and compiled a 2.48 ERA. His finest season with the Blue Jays came in 1987 when he topped the American League in saves with 34 and was selected to the American League All-Star team. In 1992, his final season with the Blue Jays, he notched a pair of saves and pitched in three of the Blue Jays’ four one-run victories over the Atlanta Braves to help them win their first World Series. Fittingly, it was also 10 years ago today that Henke was elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont.
–Please take a moment to remember Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Russ Ford who passed away 61 years ago today at the age of 76. Born in Brandon, Man., Ford moved to the American Midwest with his family as a youngster and it was there that he attracted the attention of big league scouts. During his minor league stint with the Southern League’s Atlanta Crackers in 1908, Ford accidentally invented the emery-board pitch. After a pitch sailed over his catcher’s head and smacked a concrete grading, a scuff mark appeared on the ball. Using the same ball, his next pitch had an unusually sharp break. Armed with this information, he soon began employing a piece of emery paper on his ring and cut a small hole in his glove because he didn’t want opposing pitchers to find out his secret. With the emery pitch in his arsenal, Ford won 26 games as a rookie for the New York Highlanders (later the Yankees) in 1910. His eight shutouts that season remain a major league rookie record. He followed that up by posting 22 wins in 1911 to become the first Canadian to collect 20 wins in back-to-back big league seasons. He would win 20 games again in 1914 with Buffalo of the Federal League. It wasn’t until an interview with The Sporting News in 1935 – 18 years after his retirement – that Ford admitted to throwing the emery pitch.
– Who was the first player to walk to the plate for the Blue Jays in a regular season game? The answer is outfielder John Scott. He turns 69 today. The Jackson, Miss., native struck out to lead off the bottom of the first inning in the Blue Jays’ inaugural contest against the Chicago White Sox on April 7, 1977. The speedy outfielder would bat .240 and record 10 stolen bases in 79 games for the Blue Jays in 1977 before suiting up for the triple-A Springfield Redbirds in the St. Louis Cardinals’ chain in 1978 and then playing three seasons in Japan. He has since seemingly vanished. No one in the baseball fraternity – including ex-teammates – seems certain of his whereabouts.
– Save February 16 on your calendar so you can attend the Child Witness Centre’s annual Pancake Lunch virtual fundraiser. David Morneau, a longtime supporter of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and the director of the centre, has organized the event, which will feature former Cy Young Award winner and Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Pat Hentgen and longtime Toronto Star sports columnist and Jack Graney Award winner Richard Griffin as guest speakers. Based in Kitchener, Ont., the Child Witness Centre provides advocacy and support to children and youth who are or may become victims of or witnesses to violence, crime and abuse. Tickets are $30 and you can purchase them here.
– This week’s trivia question: Name a Canadian pitcher that Hank Aaron hit a home run off in the big leagues. Please provide your answer in the “Comments” section below.
– The answer to last week’s trivia question (Joey Votto (Etobicoke, Ont.) has 1,217 career walks. He is one of five Canadians to record at least 700 career walks in the big leagues. Can you name two of the other Canucks to amass more than 700 major league walks?) was any two of Larry Walker (Maple Ridge, B.C.), Matt Stairs (Fredericton, N.B.), Russell Martin (Montreal, Que.) and Jack Graney (St. Thomas, Ont.).