Emotional Boucher grateful for Canadian ball hall honour

Former big league pitching and longtime national team pitching coach Denis Boucher (Lachine, Que.) delivers his Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech on Saturday in St. Marys, Ont. Photo: Callum Hughson

June 18, 2023

By Kevin Glew

Canadian Baseball Network

Denis Boucher somehow managed to keep his emotions in check to pitch six strong innings against the Colorado Rockies in his first start with his hometown Montreal Expos in front of more than 40,000 boisterous fans at Olympic Stadium on September 6, 1993.

But almost 30 years later at his induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont., with a large group of friends and family sitting close by, he found it more difficult to hold back the tears.

“I got allergies, bad allergies today,” Boucher joked as he choked up on stage on Saturday afternoon.

But the former big league lefty still threw a complete game with his humorous and heartfelt speech.

“It’s a real honour,” said Boucher about his induction at the press conference prior to the ceremony. “You play baseball because it’s a passion, because you like it. It’s just great to be recognized with Fergie [Jenkins] and a lot of the people that I idolized when I was younger.”

Denis Boucher (Lachine, Que.), middle, is presented with his Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame jacket and plaque by Fergie Jenkins and Canadian ball hall chair Jeremy Diamond. Photo: Callum Hughson

Born in Montreal in 1968, Boucher grew up an Expos fan. Two of his favourite players were Andre Dawson and Tim Raines, both of whom were previously inducted into the Canadian ball shrine.

Boucher started pitching for his local minor baseball association in Lachine, Que., at a young age.

“I always had a pretty good arm, so as long as I can remember when my team needed pitchers, I was pitching,” said Boucher.

As a teenager, he developed into one of the top pitching prospects in Canada and he would hone his skills with the Junior National Team and at the National Baseball Institute (NBI) in Vancouver.

Boucher says he realized he might have a chance to pitch professionally when he was with the Junior National Team that played in the 1986 World Cup. He fared well against competition like the U.S. and Chinese Taipei and was named the top left-handed pitcher at that tournament. Future Cooperstowner Mike Mussina was tabbed the top righty.

“Baseball Canada is one of the main reasons why I’m standing before you today,” said Boucher during his induction speech. “I first played on the national team when I was 18 in Windsor in 1986 and then again in 1987 for the Pan Am Games in Indianapolis.

“In the 1987 Pan Am Games, I had a certain Fergie Jenkins as a pitching coach. I remember Fergie making us run a lot, but he also taught me a few good tricks. That’s where I started throwing my changeup and that became one of my better pitches.”

Most assumed that Boucher would sign with his hometown Expos, but they showed a lot less interest in him than the Blue Jays. Blue Jays scout Bill Slack and the Blue Jays director of Canadian scouting, Bob Prentice, monitored him closely.

“The Blue Jays, they followed me. They showed me the way to the NBI and they were always there,” said Boucher. “Their scouts were always there and even [Pat] Gillick showed up for games I was pitching at and . . . when a GM shows up, it becomes pretty interesting.”

On August 18, 1987, he officially signed with the Blue Jays as an amateur free agent.

The young southpaw then began his ascent through the Blue Jays’ minor league system. In 1990, he dominated with the class-A Advanced Dunedin Blue Jays, going 7-0 with a 0.75 ERA in nine starts. In his speech on Saturday, he credited Blue Jays coaches Bobby Mattick, Mel Queen, Richie Hebner, Bill Monbouqette and Dennis Holmberg for his success in the minors.

“They all played a big part in my development,” said Boucher.

After parts of four seasons in the minors, Boucher made his major league debut for the Blue Jays on April 12, 1991 at SkyDome. He was given the start against the Milwaukee Brewers and the first three hitters he faced were Paul Molitor, Robin Yount and Gary Sheffield. He managed to retire all three in order and ended up holding the Brewers to three earned runs in 5 1/3 innings and the Blue Jays eventually won 5-4.

Just under a month later, Boucher put together one of his best starts with the Blue Jays, limiting the Chicago White Sox to two runs in six innings. Making it even more impressive was that he could hardly hold himself together when he discovered that the first White Sox batter he’d face would be Tim Raines.

“I remember facing Tim Raines and that really hit me because he was one of my idols,” said Boucher. “In 1981, he had that great season, stealing all of those bases and the 1981 Expos were a great team. Then all of a sudden 10 years later I’m facing him. I’m on the mound and he’s with the White Sox and I’m facing him. I could hardly believe it.

In total, Boucher made seven starts for the Blue Jays before he was dealt to Cleveland on June 27 as part of a package for knuckleballer Tom Candiotti and outfielder Turner Ward.

On July 20 that season, Boucher picked up his first major league win when he allowed just one run in 7 2/3 innings to the California Angels to propel Cleveland to a 4-1 victory.

Boucher returned to Cleveland in 1992 but was selected by the Colorado Rockies in the National League Expansion draft after the season. The Rockies traded him to the San Diego Padres in March 1993. Unfortunately, he struggled with the Padres’ triple-A Las Vegas Stars.

“I was doing terrible in Las Vegas,” said Boucher in his speech. “And I’m not talking about at the blackjack table. I’m saying I was bad on the field. I had an ERA over 5.00. I couldn’t throw a strike and when I did, they hit it over the fence.”

So, the superstitious Boucher decided to take dramatic action to change his luck.

“I made a big fire and I decided to burn all of my equipment to start over from scratch,” said Boucher. “Yep, I made a fire with my glove, my shoes, my hat, my t-shirts, all my underwear. Everything was in there. And I did this right on the field behind home plate before batting practice . . . Other players joined in and threw their stuff in, too . . . And just like magic, a week later I was traded to the Expos.”

Boucher said he cried happy tears when he found out he had been dealt to his hometown squad.

After going 6-0 with a 2.72 ERA in 11 appearances (six starts) with the triple-A Ottawa Lynx, Boucher was recalled by the Expos. His highly anticipated first game – which would make him the first Quebec-born pitcher to start a game for the Expos – came on September 6, 1993 in front of more than 40,000 fans at Olympic Stadium.

“It was quite a day,” recalled Boucher. “It was a good thing I got prepared. I was up with the team a week before and I met the team in Colorado and then I was pitching against Colorado, so I got to see the players. Plus, I knew the players because I was with them in spring training . . . I guess all of those factors made it a little easier for me to have a good game.”

With Windsor, Ont., native Joe Siddall catching and Maple Ridge, B.C., native Larry Walker in right field, the contest represented the first time in modern baseball history that three Canucks have been in the starting lineup for the same team. As noted earlier, Boucher held the Rockies to one run in six innings and the Expos prevailed 4-3.

With that start, Boucher also became the first Canadian to have played for both the Blue Jays and Expos. In all, the young southpaw would go 3-1 with a 1.91 ERA in five starts down the stretch for the Expos.

Boucher returned to make 10 appearances for the Expos in 1994 and would play three additional seasons in the Expos’ organization. In total, he pitched 10 professional seasons and accumulated 87 wins, while posting a 3.99 ERA, in 263 games.

Photo: Baseball Canada

Following his playing career, Boucher joined the national team’s coaching staff in 2003.

“Baseball Canada also gave me the chance to become a pitching coach for the national teams to give back and pass on what I learned from all of the great coaches I had,” said Boucher. “They also give me a chance to have great life experiences through two Olympic Games, five World Baseball Classics and [multiple] Pan Am Games and World Cups.”

Boucher has also developed into a highly respected scout, first with the Washington Nationals from 2004 to 2009 and with the New York Yankees, from 2009 to present.

On a grassroots level, he has also helped develop youth baseball programs in his hometown of Lachine and has served as president of the Lachine Amateur Baseball Association since 2007.

For his efforts, he was elected to the Quebec Sports Hall of Fame in 2011 and the Quebec Baseball Hall of Fame the following year. In 2017, a baseball field in Lachine, Que., was renamed in his honour.

And on Saturday afternoon, an emotional Boucher received the ultimate baseball honour in his country – induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.

“I’m very grateful for this incredible honour and to the great game of baseball, thank you for the great memories and the lifelong friendships,” said Boucher to conclude his speech. “Merci beaucoup.”

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