But What Do I Know? . . . Jordan Romano, James Paxton, John Hiller, Kirk McCaskill, George Bell

Kirk McCaskill (Kapuskasing, Ont.) turns 62 today.

April 9, 2023

By Kevin Glew

Cooperstowners in Canada

Some Canadian baseball news and notes from the past week:

-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 player 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.

-The Toronto Blue Jays have five wins in nine games to start the season and Jordan Romano (Markham, Ont.) has saves in four of those. The Canuck closer has not allowed a run and permitted just one hit, while striking out four, in four innings. His four saves through the Blue Jays’ first eight games left him one shy of his own team record. He recorded five in the first eight games last season. Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Duane Ward also had five saves in the Blue Jays’ first eight games in 1993. Romano’s dominance has continued from last season when he recorded a 2.11 ERA in 63 appearances. An Ontario Blue Jays and Junior National Team alum, the hard-throwing right-hander also registered 36 saves, which was the third-most in the American League and became the first Canadian to register 30 saves in a season for a Canadian major league team. For his efforts, he was named the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s 2022 Tip O’Neill Award winner, as top Canuck player.

-Left-hander James Paxton (Ladner, B.C.) started an extended spring training game for the Boston Red Sox in Fort Myers, Fla., on Tuesday. He tossed three innings and his fastball was clocked at 95 mph. Pete Abraham, of The Boston Globe, reports that Paxton will start today for the triple-A Worcester Red Sox. Paxton has not thrown in a major league game since exiting his spring training start on March 3 with a hamstring injury. The Canuck lefty, who had signed with the Red Sox prior to the 2022 season, exercised his $4-million option with the club in November. After undergoing Tommy John surgery in April 2021, Paxton had been working his way back in the Sox system when he suffered a grade 2 lat tear in late August 2022 that shut him down for the season. A North Delta Blue Jays and Junior National Team alum, the Canuck lefty has pitched in parts of nine major league campaigns and owns a 57-33 record and a 3.59 ERA in 137 starts.

-It’s early in the season, but two Canadians – Matt Brash (Kingston, Ont.) and Rob Zastryzny (Edmonton, Alta.) – have each made five appearances, which is the second-most (tied with several other pitchers) in the majors. Brash has struck out eight batters and posted a 2.08 ERA in 4 1/3 innings for the Seattle Mariners. Meanwhile, Zastryzny, who registered a win in relief on Opening Day for the Pittsburgh Pirates, has permitted four runs in 4 1/3 innings, while fanning six batters for the Pirates.

-Speaking of Zastryzny, he is wearing No. 62 for the Pirates. After I saw that, I couldn’t name a single other player that has worn that number. So I did some research, Zastryzny is the second Canadian to wear the No. 62 in the big leagues. Right-hander Aaron Myette (New Westminster, B.C.) wore No. 62 for the Chicago White Sox in 1999.

-Longtime Detroit Tigers reliever and Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee John Hiller turned 80 yesterday. Recommended to scout Cy Williams by Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Prentice, Hiller was signed as an amateur free agent by the Tigers in 1962. After serving primarily as a starting pitcher in the minors, the Canadian southpaw established himself as a reliable reliever with the Tigers from 1967 to 1970, posting a 3.00 ERA over that four-season span and contributing the club’s 1968 World Series title. In January 1971, Hiller, just 27 at the time, suffered a massive heart attack. Doctors told him he’d never pitch again, but the stubborn Canuck was determined to return. His hard work finally paid off when he was cleared to return to the mound in June 1972. Any lingering questions about his stamina were laid to rest in 1973 when he pitched in 65 games, notched 10 wins, posted a miniscule 1.44 ERA and recorded 38 saves (a major league record at the time). For what is still recognized as one of the greatest seasons ever by a relief pitcher, Hiller was named American League Fireman of the Year and finished fourth in both the American League Cy Young Award and MVP voting. A member of the All-Time Detroit Tigers’ All-Star Team, Hiller toed the big league rubber for 15 seasons, registering 87 victories, 125 saves and a career ERA of 2.83. He struck out 1,036 batters in his major league career – a feat that ranks him fourth amongst Canadian hurlers, behind Fergie Jenkins (Chatham, Ont.), Ryan Dempster (Gibsons, B.C.) and Erik Bedard (Navan, Ont.). And if all of this information about Hiller doesn’t impress you enough, maybe this tweet will:

-Cleveland Guardians slugger Josh Naylor (Mississauga, Ont.) is the early leader among Canadian big leaguers in hits (8), home runs (2) and RBIs (5). He has played in eight of the Guardians’ nine games this season. Returning from a devastating leg injury in 2022, the Ontario Blue Jays and Junior National Team grad set career-bests with 20 home runs and 79 RBIs. In 122 games for the Guardians, he also established career-highs in hits (115), doubles (28) and runs (47). Naylor also registered six hits in seven postseason contests, including a home run in Game 4 of the American League Division Series against the New York Yankees at Progressive Field.

-Happy 62nd Birthday to former California Angels pitcher and Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Kirk McCaskill (Kapuskasing, Ont.). Though his father was a professional hockey player, McCaskill opted for a career in baseball after starring in both sports at the University of Vermont. A finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, as the top U.S. college player, McCaskill was selected by the Winnipeg Jets in the fourth round of the 1981 draft. The high scoring forward suited up with the American Hockey League’s Sherbrooke Jets for the 1983-84 campaign before concentrating solely on a baseball career. Drafted by the Angels in 1982, McCaskill made his major league debut against the Blue Jays on May 1, 1985. With 12 wins and six complete games in his first season, McCaskill proved to be a bona fide big league pitcher. He followed that up with his best season in 1986, recording 17 wins, 202 strikeouts and a 3.36 ERA. More importantly, he helped lead the Angels to a berth in the American League Championship Series, where he would start two games. Hampered by elbow troubles for two seasons, McCaskill returned with a vengeance in 1989, even taking a no-hitter into the ninth inning against the Blue Jays on April 28. He finished the season with 15 wins, four shutouts and a sparkling 2.93 ERA. He toed the rubber for two more seasons with the Angels before signing with the White Sox, where he was converted into a reliever in 1993. When McCaskill called it a career in 1996, he had accumulated 106 wins (third-most by a Canadian), tossed 30 complete games and hurled 11 shutouts over 12 big league seasons.

-On this date 22 years ago, right-hander Chris Reitsma (Calgary, Alta.) earned his first major league win. The 6-foot-5 righty started for the Cincinnati Reds and allowed just two runs in six innings to the Pittsburgh Pirates in a Reds’ 8-2 victory. It was also the first game ever played at the PNC Park, the Pirates’ beautiful new ballpark. It was the first of 32 wins Reitsma registered in his seven-season big league career.

-Happy 39th Birthday to former big league left-hander and Baseball Canada alum Adam Loewen (Surrey, B.C.)! After honing his skills with the Junior National Team in 2000 and 2001, Loewen was selected fourth overall by the Baltimore Orioles in the 2002 MLB draft, which made him the highest Canadian ever chosen. In 2006, as a 21-year-old who had never pitched above Class-A, Loewen started against the powerhouse United States squad in the first World Baseball Classic. He kept an American lineup that included three Hall of Famers – Derek JeterKen Griffey Jr. and Chipper Jones – off the scoreboard for 3 2/3 innings and earned the win in Canada’s 8-6 upset over the U.S. at Chase Field in Phoenix, Ariz. Loewen also pitched for Canada in several other international competitions, including the 2009 Baseball World Cup, 2013 World Baseball Classic, 2019 Pan Am Games Qualifier and in the 2023 World Baseball Classic. He also played parts of five big league seasons with the Orioles, Blue Jays, Philadelphia Phillies and Arizona Diamondbacks between 2006 and 2016. Remarkably, after suffering two stress fractures in his throwing elbow, Loewen abandoned pitching and made it back to the big leagues as an outfielder with the Blue Jays in September 2011.

-After homering for the triple-A Louisville Bats on the first pitch of his minor league rehab assignment on April 1, Joey Votto (Etobicoke, Ont.) has struggled at the plate. He is currently 4-for-24 (.167 batting average) in six games in triple-A. There is no set timetable for Votto’s return to the Reds as he continues to recover from shoulder surgery. The 39-year-old underwent the surgery last summer, just four days after playing his 1,989th major league game which broke Larry Walker’s record for most games played by a Canadian. The 16-season veteran has one year left on his contract with the Reds (with a team option for 2024). If Votto can return early in the 2023 season, he has strong shot at breaking more of Walker’s all-time Canadian big league records. For example, Votto has 2,093 career hits, which is just 67 short of Walker. The Reds first baseman has also belted 453 doubles. Walker had 471.

-It was 42 years ago today that George Bell made his big league debut with the Blue Jays. Selected from the Philadelphia Phillies in the Rule 5 draft on December 8, 1980, the then 21-year-old Bell was sent in to pinch run for John Mayberry in the eighth inning after Mayberry singled off Detroit Tigers’ ace Jack Morris at Tiger Stadium. Bell then played the bottom half of the inning in left field, but didn’t get an at bat. The Tigers beat the Blue Jays 6-2.

-Please take some time to read Sportsnet’s David Singh’s excellent feature about Jake Sanford that was just published. A Cole Harbour, N.S., native, Sanford was selected in the third round of the 2019 MLB draft by the New York Yankees. He received a $597,500 signing bonus but he blew it all when his gambling spiraled out of control. The left-handed hitting outfielder was released by the Yankees last spring and played the 2022 season with the Ottawa Titans of the independent Frontier League. In January, he was traded to the Sioux City Explorers of the independent American Association. He still hopes to make it to the big leagues as he and his family continue to pay back his gambling debts.

-The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony to be held on June 17 is free to attend. But the Hall does rely on donors, sponsors and advertisers to be able to hold this event. One of the ways you or your business can help the Hall is by taking out an ad in their annual induction program which is sold on induction day and in the museum for the rest of the year. You can purchase an ad for as low as $125. Click here for more information.

-This week’s trivia question: John Hiller made 545 major league appearances. Who is the only Canadian left-hander with more major league appearances? Please provide your answer in the “Comments” section below.

-The answer to last week’s trivia question (What Montreal Expos pitcher made the most Opening Day starts for the team?) was Steve Rogers, who made nine Opening Day starts for the Expos.

14 thoughts on “But What Do I Know? . . . Jordan Romano, James Paxton, John Hiller, Kirk McCaskill, George Bell

Add yours

  1. Thanks for a great Sunday read. Was Paul Spoljaric the Canadian lefty with the most appearances?

  2. Happy Easter, great \Sunday morning read. Would Rheal Cormier be the Canadian lefty with the most appearances?

  3. Thanks for the tip on the Jake Sanford story, Kevin. Well worth the long read. I hope Sanford finds a way back to professional baseball. Hope you have a great Easter!

  4. I have watched a ton of baseball on TV in my life, but as I’m watching the New York/Cleveland game right now, I’m pretty sure I have never seen 3 players, in the same screen shot who’s jersey numbers add up to 1

  5. I took your suggestion and clicked on the link to David Singh’s story on Jake Sanford. This is a very compelling story and I suggest anyone who hasn’t read it should click on it.

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