June 17, 2023
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Canadian baseball fans still love Jesse Barfield.
That was resoundingly clear on Saturday afternoon in St. Marys, Ont., when he was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
The legendary Toronto Blue Jays outfielder received not one, but two thunderous standing ovations from the crowd of about 1,000 under a packed tent.
“This has been a long time coming and I’m very grateful,” said Barfield of his induction in the opening of his speech.
And longtime fans in Canada are grateful, too.
Grateful to have had the opportunity to watch him throw runners out with his cannon from right field at Exhibition Stadium for parts of nine seasons.
Grateful to have witnessed him evolve into an American League home run champion in 1986.
Grateful that he’s the type of person who asks his wife, Marla, to take a bow at his induction and acknowledges each of his family members present by name.
And they’re grateful that after all these years, Barfield still holds his former Blue Jays teammates and his fans so close in his heart.
Barfield is the type of ex-teammate who flew to the Dominican Republic for Tony Fernandez’s funeral.
“He was one of my best friends in life, not just in baseball,” said Barfield in his induction speech. “He loved helping kids and I miss him dearly. A part of me died when he left us.”
On that same trip, Barfield visited Damaso Garcia, another former teammate whose health was failing due to brain cancer. Garcia could no longer speak when Barfield visited but his eyes flickered – a sign that Garcia recognized him.
In fact, in his Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech on Saturday, Barfield paid tribute to almost all of his 1985 Blue Jays teammates and coaches. That was a club that won 99 games and secured the Blue Jays’ first division title.
“That year changed my life,” said Barfield in his speech. “It changed me as a person.”
But Barfield’s road to that division title was not easy.
Born in Joliet, Ill., his mother, Annie, worked hard to keep food on the table for him and his three siblings.
His mom was a competitive softball player and he believes he inherited his strong arm from her, but as a youngster, he also threw a lot of rocks at a closed down steel mill down the street from his house.
“There was a vacant lot with a huge fence with barbed wire around the steel mill,” recalled Barfield on Saturday morning. “My friends and I would pick up rocks and throw them to see if we could hit it. And I was building up my arm strength without realizing it. Then one day I finally threw it over the fence and hit the building and then a few weeks later I got one of the windows.”
With his strong arm, Barfield not surprisingly pitched a little in high school before opting to focus on being an outfielder.
He was discovered by the Blue Jays after he hit a game-winning double for his high school squad against future Montreal Expos right-hander Bill Gullickson, who was one of the hardest throwing pitching prospects in the nation in 1977. Barfield hit the ball so hard that it went through the outfield fence.
Bobby Mattick, who would soon join the Blue Jays scouting staff, witnessed the double and later convinced the Blue Jays to select Barfield in the ninth round of the 1977 draft.
Though excited to be chosen, Barfield was not thrilled with the Blue Jays’ initial contract offer.
“I was actually going to go to Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois to play there and I signed a letter of intent. I was going to college,” said Barfield. “Then the Blue Jays called and they said they drafted me in the ninth round, 233rd overall, and they were going to come and offer me a contract. So, they came by and offered me like $2,500.”
That was lower than the value of his college scholarship, so Barfield declined the offer. The Blue Jays then came back and matched his scholarship offer and the teenage outfielder signed.
When he entered the pro ranks, Barfield had never seen a slider and he struggled to hit pro pitching. In 1978, his first full professional season with the class-A Dunedin Blue Jays, he registered 22 outfield assists, but had his worst season at the plate.
“I hit a whopping .206 with only two home runs,” said Barfield of his 1978 campaign. “I remember an article with the headline; ‘Jesse Barfield: Major league arm. Minor league bat.’ And I didn’t like that, so I went to work on that.”
After that season, he started lifting weights.
“I built my body up and the next thing you know, my average started climbing up and the power numbers went up,” he said. “And a couple of years later, I’m in the big leagues.”
Barfield made his major league debut on September 3, 1981. Batting seventh and playing right field, he went 1-for-4 with an RBI in the Blue Jays’ 4-3 loss to the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park.
“In my first at bat, I hit a ball in the hole and I’m thinking, ‘I got this’ and Bill Almon went in the hole and picked it and threw across and got me by an eyelash and I went back and put my helmet down real nice. I was a rookie. I didn’t throw my helmet,” recalled Barfield. “And I remember saying to Lloyd, I said, ‘Man, that was a hit in Double-A a couple of nights ago.’ And Big John Mayberry heard it and he goes, ‘Youngblood, this ain’t no double-A. We make that play up here every night.’ And I just said, ‘Yes, sir.’”
In 1982, Barfield began seeing regular playing time in right field under new manager Bobby Cox. His 18 home runs that season helped him earn Blue Jays Rookie of the Year honours.
He continued to develop over the next two seasons and in 1985, 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.
Barfield gives much credit to Cox for the Blue Jays’ first division title.
“Bobby Cox had a fiery disposition, but he was well respected by the players and the umpires,” said Barfield. “That aggressive attitude spilled over onto us. We played very hard for him. He demanded that and he gave everybody an opportunity to go out there and compete.”
Barfield followed that up 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. His performance earned him his first All-Star selection and a Silver Slugger Award. He also topped American League outfielders with 20 assists. For his outstanding defence in right field, he received his first of two consecutive Gold Glove awards. And in the 37 seasons since, no player has led the American League or National League in home runs and outfield assists in the same season.
Barfield took great pride in being an excellent all-around player.
“If you want to be a five-tool player, you have to put the hard work in,” said Barfield of his 1986 season. “I call it the four D’s: dedication, determination, discipline and making the right decisions. All those things come together like a finetuned engine and that’s the results you get.”
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).
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).
And if the rousing ovations he received at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame on Saturday are any indication, he ranks No. 1 in the hearts of longtime Blue Jays fans.
“It’s been a long time coming. I honestly didn’t think I was going to get in,” said Barfield of his Canadian ball hall induction. “I just want to say thank you guys from the bottom of my heart.”
Thank you, Jesse.
At least, that’s what longtime Blue Jays fans would want me to say.
Barfield on Blue Jays/Executives
“I’ve got a great Pat Gillick story. It was the drive of ‘85 and I’m in a little bit of a funk. And Pat never came in the clubhouse. He wasn’t like George Steinbrenner. He very seldom stuck his head in there. So, this particular day he comes in and we’re all getting ready and it got quiet. It was Pat Gillick and he starts walking towards me. I’m thinking, ‘Am I going that bad?’ So, Pat comes up to me, he walks up and puts his hand on my shoulder and he goes, ‘Empty mind. Full bat. Full mind. Empty bat. Stop thinking so much and go out there and trust your ability and go get’em kid.’ And when he walked away, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I need butt wipes.’ But I took heed to his advice and I went on to finish strong in 1985.”
“Ernie would get down on that back knee and just yank homers. I love that guy.”
“When Cox came in, he wasn’t talking about getting to .500, he was talking about winning the whole thing . . . He made us believe that we could win the whole thing.”
“Without Tom Henke, we wouldn’t have made it that year . What a great pitcher he was.”
“What a great player he was. He had all of the tools. I know Ozzie Smith deserves a lot of credit, but in the American League, we had the best shortstop by far.”
“He was a great teammate and mentor.”