Tuesday, September 29, 2009
A Night With the Stephansons
Every sport has a family that just seems to dominate. Hockey has had a few Gretzkys, a few Hulls, the Richard brothers, and half a dozen ruffians from Viking, Alberta named the Sutter brothers. Baseball had the Dimaggio brothers, father, son and grandson in the Boone family, several members of the Alou family. Doug Flutie and his brother both played in a rock band, and in the Canadian Football League.
Without belabouring the point any longer, athletic endeavours at the highest level often come from a family pursuit.
Paula Stephanson is only the second person in the world to conquer all five of the Great Lakes as a swimmer. She would be the first to admit that she could not have done it without the support and guidance of her entire family. Incidentally, the other swimmer to have accomplished the feat is Vicki Keith from Kingston.
Stephanson almost fell into the swim game naturally. As reported in the Ottawa Citizen, she states: “I was a competitive swimmer, and I was always better at long distance events.” Keith’s success was a challenge. “It sounded so cool. And I thought, if she can try to cross Lake Ontario three times, surely I can go across it once. And so I decided I wanted to do that.”
The Stephanson children and mother Eleanor all got together recently at the Belleville Club to celebrate the feat. There was a video documenting her exploits, and the exasperations. There was a fine panel discussion involving all family members. There was an evening of good-natured teasing and appreciation of her accomplishment.
Those in attendance were quickly made aware that long-distance swimming is not a one person activity. In fact, there are many people involved in the pursuit. That is where Paula came to rely on her family, and found them more than eager to help.
Amanda Taylor and Sarah Hutchison are long-time friends of Paula Stephanson. Through their efforts, the evening unfolded perfectly for all concerned. Taylor drafted several questions to get a response from the panellists: Paula, her mother Eleanor, brothers Tyler and Sean, and sister Brina Cassan. Paula’s father Owen was also an important member of the crew until he succumbed to cancer after she had conquered the third Great Lake.
All agreed that Superior was the coldest of the lakes, without question. It was 56 degrees Fahrenheit when Paula dipped her toe in before the swim. Sean remarked: “That was the only lake we encountered when I did not get in the water.” Paula gritted her teeth, and spent more than 13 hours in her conquest of Superior.
Lake Ontario was the favourite of most of the family. Brina commented that “We were most proud of it because it was the first.” Paula indicated that if she were to do any of the lakes again, Ontario would be on the top of the list. “I was just a young kid (17), and I didn’t know what was in store for me.” Eleanor liked Ontario because, “that was a whole lot less planned. It was also more prestigious for Paula.” They were met in Toronto by a substantial crowd, whereas not many were there to greet her when she arrived at the conclusion of the other lakes.
Lake Michigan was agreed upon as the lake that gave them the most grief, simply because they had difficulty finding a boat. Lake Erie gave them the most consternation, because of a mysterious shoal. Most had the greatest fear while on Lake Michigan, when Paula was fighting eight foot rollers during a storm. She was pulled from the water at that point. A day and a half later, after much treatment with massage and ice packs, she barrelled into Michigan again for another twenty-four hours, and completed the swim.
Without question, Paula remains an enigma to her fans, and to the best of her friends. She is relatively quiet, unassuming, humble and most modest. Good friend Sarah Hutchison also realizes that Paula loves challenges. “Even in high school, she didn’t like inactivity. ‘Let’s go and DO SOMETHING,’ she would say. She always would make goals, just for herself.”
Along with several other Canadian long distance swimmers, she celebrated the Fiftieth Anniversary of Marilyn Bell’s conquest of Lake Ontario. Bell was justifiably proud of all of Stephanson’s accomplishments, and called her when Paula had finished the final Great Lake. “We are about the same size, around five feet two inches, and we completed Lake Ontario at the same age.” Cindy Nicholas, Vicki Keith, and Kim Lumsden, were there to celebrate Bell’s initial triumph.
All five swimmers spent time with Peter Gzowski on his morning radio show, a real highlight for Stephanson.
Paula is currently teaching school in Ottawa. She dodges questions about future swims. There are other challenges out there; for the moment, she plans to enjoy the Great Lakes’ accomplishment. She is engaged to Andrew Duggan, and plans to be married next summer.
The Zodiac that accompanied her on her swims is currently in dry dock. The crew involved in swim preparation is now on stand down. No one is currently busy securing boats and permission, purchasing supplies and food, packing proper clothing and emergency gear, stirring up the media. Crews and ship personnel, and those involved in transportation are resting. Friends and family that swim along with Paula are comfortably dry, at this time. Personnel from Solo Swims Ontario, the group that oversees the events, are awaiting other calls.
Paula is busy preparing lesson plans for Ottawa students. Maybe, just maybe thinking about another swim.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Derek Jeter Takes the Torch!
The Toronto Blue Jays headed to New York last week for a final three game series against the Yankees. It was a meaningless series in many ways for both teams. The Yankees are well out in front of the pack and are guaranteed a playoff berth. Conversely, the Jays trail everyone except the lowly Orioles, and are tooling up for next year.
Two weeks ago, in Toronto, Derek Jeter came within two hits of placing himself squarely beside Lou Gehrig as the Yankee with the most hits in a baseball career. The Yankees did return to the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium for three games, and Jeter pushed a sharp single down the first base line to move past Gehrig.
Derek Jeter is the Yankees’ captain. He was chosen by team owner George Steinbrenner in 2003. There is some mystique to the captaincy of the team. Another Yankee great, Don Mattingly, held the position from 1991 until 1995 when he retired. At that time “The Boss” chose to wait eight years before deciding that one of his players was worthy of the title.
Other previous captains were all Yankee greats, including: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Thurman Munson, Willie Randolph, Ron Guidry, and Graig Nettles. Those of you who are reading this and are greying slightly at the temples can understand why each of those players deserved the award.
Once he had punched that single into right field, Jeter turned on first base and accepted the adoration of his fans graciously. He is highly respected by baseball fans everywhere, and much of that stems from his approach to the game.
A fine American sports commentator, Colin Cowherd, has a mid-morning talk show on ESPN radio. Cowherd pulls very few punches, often finding himself in hot water because of outrageous comments. He has nothing but complete respect, even awe, for Derek Jeter. “When you consider that ninety per cent of the other major leaguers are doing steroids, and they still cannot catch up to Jeter, that should tell you something.”
Cowherd’s estimate of the number of steroid users may be a little high. To me it means that even though the other players have tried to gain an advantage on Jeter with medication, they still can’t touch him. Another fine hitter, Ichiro Suzuki from Seattle, is the first player in baseball history to reach 200 hits in nine consecutive seasons. I believe Ichiro accomplished the feat without enhancements. He will be thirty-six in October, and may be running out of time to catch Jeter, or even Pete Rose.
Jeter has a ton of individual awards to his credit: 3 Gold Glove Awards, 10 All Star appearances, 3 Silver Slugger Awards, in 2000, he was the MVP in the All Star game and the World Series.
He was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1996, and led the Yankees to a World Series title that year. He has three other World Series rings in his closet.
He is adored in Yankee Stadium. The crowd breaks into a hand clapping routine to acknowledge his presence. They say his name in syllables: “der-ek je-ter” then clap those four syllables. They then continue on with the other players. It is done in Fenway as well. I am certain the organizer of that activity is not all that happy when Jonathan Albaladejo takes the mound!
Jeter still chases a few other Yankees for top stop on the All Time team lists. He trails only newly inducted Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson in steals. He is in fourth place in the run category behind Mickey Mantle. He is half a dozen doubles short of Don Mattingly’s total of 442 for fourth place, and he recently surpassed Yogi Berra for games played in pinstripes. But he has more singles than any other Yankee, ever, and he has been up to bat more than any other Yankee. And Ouch! He has been hit by pitches more than any other Yankee.
Now that you have recovered from the opening weekends of the National Football League, you can pull the handle on that Lazy Boy and catch some Jays on the tube.
Monday, September 21, 2009
A recent blurb in the Toronto Globe and Mail brought back vivid memories of an encounter we had years ago in Belleville.
In about 1953, a university professor from Toronto, George Luste, grew up in the NDG area of Montreal. He and his friends played football for hours near the apartments on Walkely Avenue. On one particular summer day, a stranger came up to the group and asked if he could teach them how to play better.
“He was unassuming and patient as he showed us how to throw the football-fingers gripping the lacing, how to plant your feet when throwing long, with throwing arm back, how to improve the spiral on the football, how to elude incoming linemen, when to throw, and on and on. We continued our game and he played quarterback for both sides. In our huddle, he explained where the receivers were to run, where they might expect the ball to go, how the linemen had to block and provide a protective pocket for him.”
Luste had no idea who the man was, but he realized that the man threw “gently that day for us eager but clumsy young kids.” One of the older boys then realized that the man was Sam Etcheverry, star quarterback for the Montreal Alouettes.
Sam Etcheverry was one of our heroes as well. “The Rifle” came to Canada from the University of Denver, where he still holds most of the Pioneers’ passing records. On many a bright fall Canadian afternoon, he dropped back in the pocket and fired a perfect strike to his favourite receiver, Hal Patterson. He was an East Division All Star six times, and the CFL’s most outstanding player in 1954.
Etcheverry still holds the record for passing yards in a Grey Cup game with 508 yards. The Alouettes in fact lost that game in 1955 to the Edmonton Eskimos.
For some inconceivable reason, the Alouette brass traded Etcheverry and Patterson to the lowly Hamilton Tiger Cats in 1960. “The Rifle” headed south to play for the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL, before retiring in 1962. He returned to Montreal in 1964 to coach the Quebec Rifles of the United Football League. He later coached the Alouettes to a Grey Cup victory in 1969.
Sam Etcheverry is a member of the CFL Hall of Fame, and was voted one of the top 50 players of the modern era. He died August 29, 2009.
Metro Prystai played twelve years in the National Hockey League. He won three Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings in 1952, 1954, and 1955. The Yorkton, Saskatchewan native began his career with the Black Hawks, but had his heyday with the Wings.
Probably at around the same year, and the same time as “The Rifle” threw at the kids in Montreal, we were playing a little pickup hockey on Church Street in Belleville. It was not easy, as the Protestants were pouring out of St, Andrews Presbyterian, St Thomas’ Anglican, and Bridge Street United. The Catholics headed south on Church from St. Michael’s.
A lot of vehicular traffic to deal with. No one hollered “Game ON!” at that time. We just played. A smartly dressed young man watched for a moment, then asked to join in. Obviously, he knew something about the game. He stickhandled around us and deposited the ball between the posts with ease.
We were neither shy, not intimidated. “Who are you?” we bellowed. He quietly responded, “My name is Metro Prystai, and I play for the Detroit Red Wings.” We were awestruck. Simply the mention of the name of one of the “Original Six” gained reverence.
Prystai was staying with a few other Red Wings in Rossmore, just across the Bay of Quinte. A Detroit scrap dealer, Larry Eggert had a cottage there, and would invite the players for a weekend of water skiing. They would line up for ice cream cones at Tobe’s County Gardens. You might find Red Kelly, Len Lunde, or Bob Goldham in that lineup. Eggert’s daughter Pam was known to model a hula skirt at the evening dance parties at Tobe’s! Those were the days!
Metro Prystai currently resides in Yorkton, Saskatchewan.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
You Just Never Know!
In the first inning of last Friday’s game against the New York Yankees, Kevin Millar made a spectacular play at first base to stab a shot off the bat of Eric Hinske. He was going to run to the bag to get the out, but realized he might not make it in time. He looked up and saw his pitcher loping over to cover the bag. He flipped the ball to record the out.
These kinds of plays occur in every baseball game, with little or no significance; however, the importance of the play was not lost on Millar. As a veteran player approaching his thirty-eighth birthday, he has seen his share of ground balls. After the game, I asked him about the play. He remembered it vividly. “You never know when a play like that might hold up,” he told me.
That play did “hold up” until the sixth inning when a rookie shortstop scorched a double to right field. Ramiro Pena spoiled “Doc” Halladay’s bid for a “no hitter” with one out. The hit unnerved Halladay slightly, because he walked two more batters before facing Alex Rodriguez with two out.
When asked about that situation after the game, Jays’ manager Cito Gaston stated: “Sure I realized he was facing a future Hall of Famer in Rodriguez. Who would you rather have out there on the mound? Great players make great adjustments.” Halladay fanned Rodriguez, and went on to shut out the Yankees without allowing another base runner. Final score: Jays 6 Yankees 0.
Halladay has yet to register a no-hitter in the major leagues. On one other occasion he pitched a one-hitter, against the Detroit Tigers in his second major league start in 1998. Bobby Higginson homered off Halladay in the ninth inning to ruin that attempt.
In his post game interview, Hallady reflected on the accomplishment, and on the characteristics of a somewhat disappointing season. “It hasn’t been great for me. Sometimes there are some things that are out of your control.”
The Jays have not always given “Doc” enough runs for him to cruise through many wins. In this game, they struck for two runs in the first inning on a couple of doubles by Aaron Hill and Adam Lind (who else?). That was the cushion that Halladay needed to record his fourteenth win of the season. At one point in the season, he was in contention for another Cy Young Award, but that vision dissipated in his last few starts.
Halladay listed several reasons why he excelled that evening: “My changeup and my curve ball worked a lot better for me. Location-wise, I felt pretty good. I felt like I could make a pitch if I had to. I was just trying to be aggressive. Sometimes I have a tendency to be too careful, but not tonight. It is always gratifying to have a game like this. It validates what you are trying to accomplish.”
He quietly responded to questions about the past season. “It’s never easy when you have to deal with all of the trade talks. There are parts in every season when there are highs and lows. Things don’t always go your way when you are on the mound. You just have to do the best you can. You need to have a game plan that you can execute. You have to accept the situation you are in and make the best of it.”
The camera lights went off, the scribes folded their notepads, stuffed their recorders in their pockets and headed for their laptops. Just another night in a long and difficult season for the Jays. A remarkable night, nonetheless, for a remarkable baseball player.
The Yankees split the weekend series with the Jays. They left Toronto Sunday night following a 14-8 battering at the hands of the Jays, and now await the results of the other divisions in the American League as they cruise to another title. The Jays, meanwhile, are making plans for 2010. Jays’ fans pray that those plans include “Doc” Halladay.
Wednesday, September 02, 2009
Labour Day Classic-2009
It has not been the best of times lately for the Toronto Argonauts. Prior to their game against Calgary, the media blurb to all die-hard fans indicated that they would be kicking off to the British Columbia Lions. Oops! The note from the team also spelled Stampeders incorrectly. Two for two.
The Argonaut players spent an extra eight minutes on the field preparing for the game last Friday. They headed to the dressing room with 22 minutes left on the countdown clock. That did not give the little minor league football players much time to show their stuff.
Someone had arranged to have the Tim Bits players on the field prior to the game. They ran a few plays, in full gear. They most certainly relished the opportunity to do their thing on the broad expanse of the Rogers Centre field. But to go to all that trouble for six minutes? Hardly worth it.
The Argos were escorted onto the field by a minor football player or two-nice touch. An experience those kids will never forget. We stood for the National Anthem, wincing occasionally, as the brave singer changed the key about five times.
Following the kickoff, we enjoyed a spirited half of two and out. For the most part, it was a kicking duel, and the half ended 3-3. Several friends who watched parts of the game on television at home told me that it was a typical Canadian Football league game, settled in the dying moments of the fourth quarter.
Paul Paddon, retired high school coach from Quinte Secondary, found the game painful. A former collegiate star in Canada and Hec Crighton winner in 1970, he related to me that the Argos desperately need a new focus on offence. “The defence is playing well, but Coach Andrus needs to designate some of the offensive responsibility.” He agreed with me that part of the problem lies in the fact that the coach is still acclimatizing to the Canadian game, and its quirky differences from the American game.
He was roundly criticized for not attempting a field goal in the dying seconds of the game, and even second guessed himself the next day. His quarterback got the ball near the end zone on a “Hail Mary” pass, but it fell short, dropped to the ground, and resulted in yet another Argo loss.
The two gentlemen seated in front of us were not terribly impressed with the Argos tenth consecutive home loss. “We have been season ticket holders since 1960,” they told me. “Far too long,” one of them added. As good armchair quarterbacks, they second-guessed virtually every Argo offensive play from scrimmage. I was reminded of the two elderly critics in the balcony on the Muppets show.
There will be plenty of roster shuffling over the next couple of weeks in the CFL. Players cut from NFL teams will be looking for a pay cheque, and will inevitably bump some current players from the CFL teams. The recently reported signing involves “Pac Man” Jones, a star south of the border who has had his “brushes” with the law. The Blue Bombers may have taken a chance on Jones, likely with baited breath.
This happens every year, and makes it a little difficult for the fans to relate to their favourite teams. No sooner do they become familiar with, and attached to certain key players, than they have moved on to accommodate stars from the south. A couple of years ago, Rickey Williams added a certain flair to the Toronto offense, then returned to the Dolphins. Following a spate of maturity, he has settled in nicely in Miami, recently signing a contract extension, and a retirement date.
The Hamilton Tiger Cats have rebounded this year from several dismal seasons. They are on the road to the playoffs, and continue to put more and more fannies in Ivor Wynne Stadium. Jamall Johnson has been a whirling dervish on defense, tied for the league lead in tackles. With quarterback Quinton Porter on the sidelines last week, Kevin Glenn almost got the job done, losing by a single point to Edmonton.
The Argos head to Hamilton Monday for the annual Labour Day Classic. For the first time in several years, the Ticats are favoured to knock off the Double Blue. The return engagement only four days later in Toronto will also be worth watching. There is an intense rivalry between these two neighbours. There are times when there is a powder keg atmosphere, and the team that racks up the most penalty yards usually ends up with less points on the scoreboard at the final gun.
The Ticats’ Arland Bruce will certainly have the adrenalin flowing for the games against the Argos. He was unceremoniously dumped in the early part of the season by the Boatmen, and would like to remind them he is still playing. There are always half a dozen players on either side who have moved between the two teams, and they always have a little extra spark for the game.
All worth the price of admission.
Tuesday, September 01, 2009
The Jays in the Home Stretch
The Toronto Blue Jays are entering the home stretch of the 2009 season.
It began with such promise, and a string of victories that had them leading the pack until May 23rd. The old pundits kept mumbling that it wouldn’t last. In this case, they were correct.
What they did not know was that a couple of the key players in the mix would have the most disappointing seasons in their careers. Both Vernon Wells and Alex Rios stumbled throughout the season. Fortunately, the Jays were able to dump Rios and his enormous salary to the White Sox after the All Star break on August 10th.
There have been 660 games missed by players on the disabled list this year. Pitchers have dominated this list including, at various times this year: Scott Downs, Roy Halladay, Shaun Marcum, Casey Janssen, Jesse Litsch, Dustin McGowan, B. J. Ryan, Ricky Romero, Scott Richmond, and Bobby Ray.
Regarding the pitching, inconsistency unfortunately has been most evident. In those key situations when the door had to be shut, when the opponents had to be sent unsuccessfully to the showers, the arms just didn’t materialize. Sometimes it was in the early innings; at other times, it would happen with two men out in the bottom of the ninth. Management could not come up with a key closer a la Mariano Rivera.
Many Jays’ fans were hurt when Scott Rolen was moved to Cincinnati. Due to the fact that most Blue Jay fans concentrate on the American league, Rolen came to the Jays this year as a somewhat unknown commodity. He had been an all star and a golden glover in the Senior League for years, but his health was suspect. As it turned out, he had little problems with his health, and played superior ball while in a Jays’ uniform. He was the epitome of a Major League baseball player, almost a throwback. A leader in the clubhouse, he excelled in the field, and consistently hovered around .300.
Reports indicated that he wanted to play somewhere closer to home, and the Jays traded him for Edwin Encarnacion, Josh Roenicke, and Zachary Stewart. No trade should be judged in the first ten minutes, not even in the first ten months. Give it time. The proof will be in the pudding next year; however, that wise old horse trader from the Montreal Canadiens, Sam Pollock, always said that the team that got the best player in a trade, got the best deal. Obviously, Cincinnati, in this case.
There are stars on this team that will be fun to watch for years to come. Marco Scutaro, Aaron Hill, and Adam Lind have been worth the price of admission all year for the Jays. They have supplied the team with consistent hitting, hovering around .300, and have also supplied power when required. Hill and Lind will both finish the season with more than 30 home runs.
Randy Ruiz joined the team on August 11, called up from the farm team in Las Vegas (AAA). He has knocked the cover off the ball, and has provided spark in these doldrum days. Travis Snyder is also a pleasure to watch. I am sure the Yankees would like to see him in pinstripes jerking those fly balls into the short porch in Yankee Stadium.
The Jays’ catchers, Barajas and Chavez, have thrown out more than 30% of the runners attempting to steal bases, a remarkable improvement over last year. Greg Zaun was a popular Jay, but he threw out only 10% of those trying to steal bases.
The Blue Jays currently are at the top of the American League in quality pitching starts. The Jays had committed 55 errors in late August, first in the American League. They had turned 125 double plays, second in the league.
So where have the wheels fallen off? Inconsistency. Injuries. Timely hitting. Baserunning errors. A few little things that will quickly lead you from first place to where they are now-almost 20 games out of the playoffs. Time to retune the engine.
And maybe act as a spoiler, here and there. The Jays have home series against the Yankees and the Twins, critical to the success of both of those teams. They wrap up the season in a home stand against the Orioles and the Mariners.
And that is where you should be to experience the game. Bob Lavender is running a bus from the DukeDome to the Yankees game on Sunday. Call Bob at 613-399-1486. Only four tickets remain. $ 75 for the bus and game ticket.