By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
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, 6-foot-4, 240-pound slugger who became the 11th African-American to compete in the big leagues when he debuted with Cleveland 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 Cleveland, 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.
–Ontario Blue Jays and Junior National Team grad Jordan Romano (Markham, Ont.) picked up the win in relief for the Toronto Blue Jays on Opening Day against the New York Yankees on Thursday. It marked the second consecutive year that the hard-throwing right-hander notched a win on Opening Day. Romano struck out two batters while hurling a scoreless ninth inning before Randal Grichuk doubled in Jonathan Davis from second base in the top of the 10th for a 3-2 Blue Jays’ victory. Canadian Baseball Network writer Andrew Hendriks pointed out in a tweet that Romano’s second win leaves him just one shy of former starters Roy Halladay and Jimmy Key for the most Opening Day wins by a Blue Jays pitcher. Sportsnet Stats pointed out that Romano was also the first Canadian to record wins on Opening Day in back-to-back seasons since Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Phil Marchildon (Penetanguishene, Ont.) did so for the Philadelphia A’s in 1947 and 1948.
-It was good to see Joey Votto (Etobicoke, Ont.) back in the Cincinnati Reds’ lineup on Opening Day on Thursday. Batting third and starting at first base, the veteran slugger went 1-for-5 in the Reds’ 11-6 loss to St. Louis Cardinals at The Great American Ballpark. Votto had tested positive for COVID-19 on March 10 and was sidelined for close to two weeks before rejoining the club. Now 37 and entering his 15th MLB season, Votto is five home runs shy of 300 for his career.
-In that same Opening Day contest, Cardinals left fielder Tyler O’Neill (Maple Ridge, B.C.) belted his first home run of the season for the Cardinals. It was a two-run shot in the fourth inning off Reds reliever Cam Bedrosian. O’Neill, a Langley Blaze and Junior National Team alum, also scored a run in the first inning after he was hit by a pitch. The 25-year-old slugger is hoping to build on a strong spring with the Cards in which he went 16-for-45 (.356 batting average) with two home runs and 10 RBIs in 16 games. He batted .173 with seven home runs in 50 games in 2020, but won a Gold Glove Award for his defence in left field.
-George Farelli, of the Canadian Baseball Network, reported on Thursday that former Blue Jays outfielder Michael Saunders (Victoria, B.C.) will manage the Atlanta Braves’ low-A East League Augusta GreenJackets this season. The 34-year-old Saunders played parts of nine big league seasons and batted .232 with 81 home runs in 775 games with the Seattle Mariners, Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies. His best season came with the Blue Jays in 2016 when he belted 24 home runs in 140 games and was an All-Star. “I know I can speak on behalf of everybody when I say how excited we all are to have baseball back in 2021,” Saunders said in a GreenJackets press release. This will be Saunders’ first managerial gig.
-Left-hander James Paxton (Ladner, B.C.) had his first start with the Seattle Mariners pushed back to Tuesday against the Chicago White Sox. He was initially slated to toe the rubber against the San Francisco Giants on Friday, but the M’s decided to give him a few extra days after his abbreviated spring. Paxton, who signed a one-year, $8.5-million deal in February to return to the Mariners, pitched largely on the back fields at camp due to issues with his work visa. The team also wanted him to take it slow after his injury riddled 2020 campaign. The 32-year-old southpaw, 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 prior to being 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.
-It was 33 years ago today that Blue Jays slugger George Bell set a major league record by belting three home runs on Opening Day against the Kansas City Royals at Royals Stadium to lead the Blue Jays to a 5-3 win (You can watch the homers in the video below). They were all hit off Royals ace Bret Saberhagen. Bell begrudgingly served as a DH that game after a long spring training feud with manager Jimy Williams, who felt Bell, the club’s regular left fielder in 1987, should be the club’s full-time DH. I wrote a detailed article about Bell’s performance that day. You can read it here.
-Twenty years ago today, Chris Reitsma (Calgary, Alta.) made his major league debut with the Cincinnati Reds. He started and pitched six strong innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Cinergy Field, allowing just two earned runs on three hits, while striking out four, in six innings. Ken Griffey Jr. would pinch-hit for him in the bottom of the sixth inning. Unfortunately, he ended up with a no-decision when the bullpen surrendered four runs and the Reds lost 6-5.
-Speaking of major league debuts, it was 17 years ago today that Jose Bautista played in his first game. Then a 23-year-old infield prospect, Bautista was sent in to pinch run for Baltimore Orioles’ DH David Segui after Segui had doubled in the bottom of the eighth. Bautista eventually scored in the Orioles’ 7-2 win over the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards. In hindsight, it’s crazy to think that the O’s were the first of four big league teams that Bautista would play for that season. Here’s a summary of the transactions Bautista was involved in (from Baseball Reference) from December 2003 through the 2004 season:
-Thursday was April Fool’s Day and there have been some great baseball pranks played over the years. Thanks to Bob Elliott for sharing this one by the Daily Journal in Tupelo, Miss. They ran this list of transactions on April 1 last year.
-Not to be outdone, there was this April Fool’s tweet from legendary quarterback Tom Brady, who was selected in the 18th round of the 1995 MLB draft by the Montreal Expos, this year:
-On Thursday, left-hander Hyun Jin Ryu made his second Opening Day start for the Blue Jays. Two other Blue Jays left-handers have made more than one Opening Day start for the club. Can you name them? Please provide your answer in the “Comments” section below.
–The answer to last week’s trivia question (Jordan Romano (Markham, Ont.) recorded his first save for the Blue Jays on August 21, 2020 in the club’s 6-5 win over the Tampa Bay Rays. Two other Canadians have recorded saves for the Blue Jays over the years. Can you name one of them? ) was either Paul Quantrill (Port Hope, Ont.) or Paul Spoljaric (Kelowna, B.C.).