July 20, 2023
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
It’s safe to say that Kevin Aitcheson saw Fred McGriff belting moonshot home runs long before almost all of us did.
The Stratford, Ont., native and former Toronto Blue Jays outfield prospect played with McGriff in Double-A in Knoxville in 1984, nearly three years before the 2023 National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee clubbed the first of his 493 major league homers.
“You knew he was going to be a great player,” said Aitcheson in a recent phone interview. “Fred was just big and happy and he played the game the way it should be played . . . And he hit some of the longest home runs I’ve ever seen.”
McGriff started the 1984 season in Knoxville and batted .249 with nine home runs in 56 games before being promoted to Triple-A Syracuse. The then 23-year-old Aitcheson actually had a higher batting average (.290) than McGriff in 87 games with the Double-A club that season.
“He just had a pure left-handed swing, so if they threw him a ball low and in, he would turn on that,” said Aitcheson of McGriff. “But I think it was his personality that sticks with me, how pleasant he was. And how nice he was to everyone . . . If he knew you were down a little bit, he’d give you some nice words to pick you up. And because of the person he was, you just wished him all the best.”
Unfortunately, as McGriff climbed through the Blue Jays’ ranks, Aitcheson found himself stuck in a system overflowing with good outfielders. The Blue Jays had Jesse Barfield, Lloyd Moseby and George Bell at the major league level with future big leaguers Mitch Webster and Ron Shepherd waiting in the wings.
Aitcheson didn’t feel confident about his future with the Blue Jays after they promoted outfielder and 1982 No. 1 overall pick Kash Beauchamp to Knoxville for the 1984 playoffs, and he was relegated to bench duties.
“I felt like the writing was on the wall at that point,” said Aitcheson.
The Canadian outfielder was released by the Blue Jays the following spring. He went to a few tryouts with other clubs and considered going to Australia to play, but he ultimately decided to come home to Stratford.
“I was married and I had a daughter at the time and I had missed out on finishing school,” said Aitcheson. “So, I thought I better get back to Stratford and do something that was going to make me a living.”
So, while McGriff became a superstar in Toronto, Aitcheson became one with his hometown Intercounty Baseball League (IBL) Stratford Hillers. He also became a highly respected firefighter.
Born in 1960, Aitcheson honed his skills in the Stratford minor baseball program, an organization that also spawned right-handed pitcher Larry Landreth, who would toe the rubber for the Montreal Expos.
“The program was very good,” said Aitcheson. “I can remember when you got to the junior age, the senior team was always short on players, so we were always tagging around with the senior team even at junior age. So, you got an opportunity to practice and go to games and hang out and see the older players play the game, so it was a good place to start. There was lots of talent. There were lots of left-handed hitters [like Aitcheson] and there was a short porch in [the main stadium in] Stratford, so it was good.”
Aitcheson quickly developed into a standout outfielder. He played his first season with the senior IBL Hillers in 1978 and two years later, he was part of the Hillers’ championship-winning squad, alongside Landreth.
His skills impressed legendary coach Bo Hall at Eastern Arizona College after Roger Kahle, a hard-throwing, 6-foot-5 left-hander also from Stratford who was at the college, recommended Hall take a look at Aitcheson.
“I basically went down there as a walk-on,” recalled Aitcheson. “And then I made the team and they covered some of my expenses.”
He spent two years at Eastern Arizona and in his final season, he batted .408 with 15 stolen bases in 38 games and signed a letter of intent to go to the University of Texas at El Paso.
But his play had garnered the interest of scouts from the Blue Jays and the California Angels.
“I already knew that Toronto wanted to sign me out of high school,” said Aitcheson. “I went to a tryout at the old Exhibition Stadium and they had offered me a contract. And I just decided a couple of years of school would probably do me good because I was pretty raw.”
He can recall former Stratford Hillers star and legendary Blue Jays scout Jim Ridley at his games, but he was signed by Blue Jays director of Canadian scouting Bob Prentice on May 1, 1981.
“The Blue Jays offered me a contract right after my last college game,” said Aitcheson.
Aitcheson reported to the Blue Jays’ Rookie Ball affiliate in Medicine Hat, where he hit .302 with 16 stolen bases in 70 games and following that season, he played in the Instructional League in Florida, alongside Tony Fernandez.
In 1982, he was elevated to class-A Kinston, where he lived in a mobile home with left-hander John Cerutti.
Aitcheson batted .268 with six home runs and 55 RBIs in 128 games that season and was selected to the play in the Carolina League All-Star Game.
“I can remember going on a bus with [then Phillies prospect] Juan Samuel,” said Aitcheson. “We picked up some players from other teams on the way to the All-Star Game. So, it was fun to hear stories from players on the other teams.”
In 1983, he was promoted to Double-A Knoxville and clubbed a career-high nine home runs before splitting the following season between Kinston and Knoxville, where on top of playing with McGriff, he also suited up alongside future big league all-stars Cecil Fielder and David Wells.
“It was a pretty star-studded team with Fielder and McGriff and David Wells and I think John Cerutti started the year there and Mike Sharperson was there. There was a lot of talent on that team, so it was a fun year,” said Aitcheson. “I would say the highlight of my [pro] career was being able to play with all of those guys.”
After returning to Stratford in 1985, he rejoined the Hillers. He’d belt 14 home runs for his hometown IBL squad in 1986 to earn league MVP honours. The ensuing year, he was the league’s playoff MVP and in 1989, he topped he circuit with 13 home runs. Along the way, he was part of four more Hillers’ championship-winning teams (1986-87, 1989, 1991).
“That was such a fun team to play with,” said Aitcheson. “It was almost like a reunion with all of the players I had played with in junior before I left.”
In all, in his IBL career, Aitcheson was selected to five All-Star teams and had his No. 19 retired by the Hillers. He was also selected as one of the IBL’s top 100 players during the league’s 100th anniversary season in 2018.
In 1991, he became a firefighter in his hometown alongside Landreth who, at one point, was his captain. Aitcheson became a captain himself and courageously fought fires for 28 years before retiring in 2019.
These days, Aitcheson spends as much time as he can with his wife, Joan, daughters Katelyn and Michaila and son Tyson and his four grandsons Archie, Nate, Cooper and Max.
The modest Stratford native rarely talks about his days in the Blue Jays’ organization, but he did follow the big league careers of the players he once suited up with, including McGriff, who will deliver his Hall of Fame speech in Cooperstown on Sunday.
“He always had a smile on his face,” recalled Aitcheson of McGriff. “And he was just a gentleman.”