February 1, 2023
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
When Jesse Barfield was 13, he was sitting in the upper right field bleachers at Comiskey Park watching the Chicago White Sox with his friends, when he leaned over to them and said, “You know one day I’m going to be playing right out there.”
“And they went, ‘Come on, are you kidding me? You’re going to be playing right field at Comiskey?’”
Well, eight years later, Barfield was enjoying a breakout season in early September with the double-A Knoxville Blue Jays when he was called into manager Duane Larson’s office.
“I walked in with my sandals and my t-shirt on – that’s the dress code in the minors – . . . and he said, ‘Hey, congratulations, you’re getting called up to The Show.’ And I said, ‘Come on, man, you’re joking,’” recalled Barfield.
Larson wasn’t joking.
The Blue Jays were in the midst of a series against the Texas Rangers at Arlington Stadium and Barfield assumed he’d join the team there. But no, he was to meet the team at the start of their next series, which was – as fate would have it – against the White Sox at Comiskey Park.
“My first game was exactly where I said it would be,” reflected Barfield on Wednesday.
And with that, his major league career, which earned him election to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame on Wednesday, would begin.
On September 3, 1981, in front of some of those same friends from eight years earlier and a cheering section from his hometown of Joliet, Ill., Barfield would record the first of his 919 hits and 527 RBIs as a Blue Jay with a single off lefty Steve Trout in the top of the fifth inning that scored George Bell.
“I had to pinch myself because I used to be one of those kids in the upper deck,” said Barfield.
That was one of the stories Barfield shared during the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s 2023 inductees conference call on Wednesday. The rifle-armed ex-Blue Jay will be inducted into the ball shrine, along with former Blue Jays and Montreal Expos left-hander Denis Boucher (Lachine, Que.), longtime Oakland A’s right-hander Rich Harden (Victoria, B.C.) and legendary Manitoba baseball coach and executive Joe Wiwchar (Winnipeg, Man.), in a ceremony in St. Marys, Ont., on June 17.
The four new inductees will be honoured alongside former Blue Jays first baseman John Olerud and legendary Montreal Expos broadcaster Jacques Doucet who were elected in 2020 but have not been able to attend the ceremony.
Barfield will join his longtime outfield mates – Bell and Lloyd Moseby – who already have plaques in the St. Marys shrine. Bell was inducted in 2013 and Moseby in 2018.
“I don’t worry about how I get there, [or] how long it took. We’re there, and that’s the main thing,” said Barfield, when asked about the wait to be elected. “The guys that are there now, deserve to be there. And I knew eventually I would have a chance to get in and it worked out great.”
Barfield’s long affiliation with the Blue Jays began when he was selected in the ninth round of the major league draft by the club in 1977. He’d spend parts of five seasons in the minors before making his major league debut. Just three days after his first game, he’d belt his first big league home run – a two-run shot off White Sox left-hander Britt Burns in the fifth inning of a Blue Jays’ 3-2 win at Comiskey Park.
“I was actually drafted as a centre fielder and so was Lloyd and, of course, they moved me to right, which was a good choice because Lloyd could really go get’em,” said Barfield.
Starting in 1982, Barfield became the club’s regular right fielder and he not only showcased power at the plate, but one of the greatest throwing arms in big league history from right field. He also evolved into one of the best overall defensive outfielders of his time.
“I had great coaches,” said Barfield when asked about stellar outfield defence. “Jimy Williams, by far, was the best all-around coach we ever had. He knew every position, the nuances, the footwork, about throwing – this man was incredible. We would work day in and day out on footwork, pirouette moves, spinning.”
“I take a lot of pride in my defence,” said Barfield. “You’re not going to hit every day, but defence has nothing to do with the pitchers, it’s all you. So I worked hard on it and it helped out.”
On April 24, 1982, Barfield became the first Blue Jay to hit a pinch-hit grand slam when he did so in the bottom of the eighth inning at Exhibition Stadium off Boston Red Sox left-hander Tom Burgmeier. It was one of his 18 home runs that season, which helped him earn Blue Jays Rookie of the Year honours.
For an encore, Barfield clubbed 27 home runs in 1983, his first of six 20-home run seasons. Two years later, the right-handed hitting slugger helped lead the Blue Jays to their first American League East title when he had 27 home runs, 22 stolen bases and 22 outfield assists. This made him just the second player (Willie Mays was the first in 1955) in big league history to have at least 20 home runs, 20 stolen bases and 20 outfield assists in the same campaign. His 22 outfield assists remain a Blue Jays’ single-season record. For his efforts, he was voted Blue Jays Player of the Year.
Barfield credits Cito Gaston, his longtime batting coach, for many of his improvements as a hitter.
“I can’t say enough about Cito,” said Barfield. “Wow, a tremendous ambassador for the game, a tremendous teacher, motivator. What can I say? He was Hank Aaron’s roommate, and all of the stuff that he instilled in us . . . He was a father figure to us. He was a big brother. He was an uncle and he knew about hitting.”
Barfield followed up his outstanding 1985 campaign by setting a then-franchise-record with 40 home runs in 1986. That season, he also became the first Blue Jay to lead the American League in home runs. He also finished second in slugging percentage (.559) and extra-base hits (77) and third in OPS (.927). His performance earned him his first All-Star selection and a Silver Slugger Award. For his standout defence in right field, he also received his first of two consecutive Gold Glove awards and for the second straight year, he was voted Blue Jays Player of the Year.
As mentioned, Barfield’s throwing arm is widely recognized as one of the greatest in major league history. In his nine seasons with the Blue Jays, he topped American League outfielders in assists four times (1985 to 1987, 1989) and right fielders in putouts three times (1985 to 1987).
In total, in his parts of nine seasons with the Blue Jays, Barfield played 1,032 games and ranks in the club’s all-time top 10 in several statistical categories, including fourth in WAR (29.5), seventh in home runs (179) and ninth in total bases (1,672) and RBIs (527).
On April 30, 1989, Barfield was traded to the New York Yankees for left-hander Al Leiter. He’d play parts of four more seasons with the Bronx Bombers.
But Barfield is best remembered for his heroics in Toronto, and for being part of what many consider to be the best outfield of the 1980s, and now he will finally have a plaque alongside his outfield mates – Bell and Moseby – in Canada’s baseball shrine.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Barfield who has been to St. Marys, Ont., in the past. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
For bios of all of the 2023 Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductees, click here.