Monday, March 28, 2011


Opening Day-2011

They are packing their bags here in Florida for the annual trek north. On Friday, the Blue Jays open their regular season against the Minnesota Twins. As has usually been the case, the Rogers Centre is sold out for the first game; however, rest assured there will be plenty of seats for all eighty subsequent games.

The Jays have made some moves in the off-season, some quite unpopular. Vernon Wells will not be patrolling centre field this year for the Jays. As you might expect, that has freed up some necessary cash to fill the void. Other notables who have taken their skills elsewhere include: John Buck, Scott Downs, Kevin Gregg, Fred Lewis, Shaun Marcum, Bryan Tallet, and Dewayne Wise.

Last Friday night the Jays travelled south to tangle with the mighty Red Sox. The Sox fielded a strong lineup for their fans at City of Palms Stadium. There is a little political intrigue at work here in Fort Myers. Next year the team is moving to a completely new complex, not entirely supported by everyone in the community. Their current home is not yet 25 years old, and is in fine condition. But the practice fields are almost three miles down the road. There are very few “money boxes”, suites for better income. The current neighbourhood around the ball park was supposed to develop as a result of the building of the stadium. No such luck.

In many ways, the teams hold the cities hostage in the game of location, no matter what the sport, or the time of year. To turn a phrase from the wonderful baseball movie, Field of Dreams, the baseball moguls insist, “If you don’t build it where we want, we won’t come”.

Starting for the Red Sox: Ellsbury, Pedroia, new addition Carl Crawford, Gonzalez, Youkilis, Ortiz, J.D. Drew, Varitek, and Marco Scutaro. First rate squad. The Jays countered with: Corey Patterson, Mike McCoy, Eric Thames, Encarnacion, Cooper, Arencibia, Adam Loewen, Jonathan Diaz, and Anthony Gose. On paper, it looked like a complete mismatch.

The Jays started Jesse Litsch, the Sox Josh Beckett. This had the potential to be a strong pitcher’s duel. As the final score of 11-8 indicates, nothing could have been further from the truth. The Jays had 15 hits, the Sox 17 hits. There were stolen bases, hit batsmen, catcher interference, the whole gambit of baseball goodies.

With such a lineup of relative newcomers, I had a chance to focus on a couple of relatively new players. Adam Loewen has spent the last couple of years digging into the batter’s box for a chance to play major league baseball. His mission began almost ten years ago when he was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles, fourth overall, as a pitcher. He is presently 26 years old, and is working hard to re-invent himself as a player.

A native of British Columbia, Loewen knew he could hit. But it had been several years since he had stood at home plate. In the Orioles chain, up until 2008, he had been a pitcher. A stress fracture in his throwing arm kept him on the sidelines. In July of that year, he announced that he would convert to the outfield, or first base, or any place else except the mound.

He has spent the past three springs in the Jays’ spring training camps, vying for a position on the big league squad. Last Friday night, he clobbered a double of Josh Beckett, then sent a towering blast into the Florida sky. His batting average hovers around the .400 mark.

Could the Jays use such a bat? Are there others also lurking in the shadows, waiting for that opportunity to run the bases at the Rogers? You bet there are. That is why they are here.

Both the Jays and the Red Sox got hits from every position in the lineup. Pitching coaches got the night off. Don’t be surprised to see some of the aforementioned names in the starting lineup for the Jays in a week or two. Spring training is also an exercise in finding that “diamond in the rough”. That refers to the talent, not the field. Perhaps another metaphor would have been more appropriate!

Vladimir Guerrero. Carl Crawford. David Ortiz. Justin Morneau. Joe Mauer. Jim Thome. Just a few of the baseball personalities that we have seen this spring. Primed and ready to knock the cover off the ball. On the stage at Spring Training, 2011, now heading north.

James Hurst
March 28, 2011

Sunday, March 20, 2011


All Good Reasons!

At this point in the National Hockey League season, with less than a dozen games left, teams and individual players have a variety of motivations. Some teams are on the brink of elimination from post-season play, and are desperate to win to make the playoffs. Others have discovered that they cannot make the playoffs, and assume a spoiler role, trying to beat the teams that are above them.

Individually, some players are in the last year of their contracts, and they like to play well at the end of the regular season, and into the playoffs, to leave a good impression for contract talks coming up after the season.

Last week we headed over to Fort Lauderdale to see our final game before heading north. The Panthers were hosting the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers are in the process of jockeying for position at the top of the heap, playing hard to help determine whom they might play in the first round of the post-season games. The Panthers are playing for pride.

As has been the case with so many of the Panthers’ games this year, the result was in doubt until the final seconds. With more than 70 games under their belts in this 82 game season, the Panthers have had almost fifty games determined by one goal. There have been a few empty net games built into this statistic. They have had more than their share of overtime games, mostly losses. They have struggled with shootouts. They are close, but they do not emerge with the cigar.

Between Sections 115 and 120 at the Bank/Atlantic Centre, you will find an impressive display of Florida Panther memorabilia. That zone has been dubbed the “Den of Honour”, and features everything from soup to nuts about the history of the young Florida franchise. There is a special plaque at the front of the area acknowledging the contribution of Bill Torrey. He can be rightfully considered as the father of the franchise, as he oversaw the building of the team from its infancy. I chatted with him between periods about his days with the Islanders.

He built the Islander franchise, and was there for their series of Stanley Cups, sipping the champagne with the likes of Bossy, Bourne, Potvin, Clark Gillies, and Billy Smith. He would love history to repeat itself in Florida. No such luck up to this point in time; however, that myth about a southern team not being able to win the big one has been shattered a couple of times: Tampa Bay and the West Coast Ducks sport gaudy rings.

The “Den of Honour” pays tribute to players who have donned the Panther sweater in the past, and an impressive cast it is. Goaltenders: Roberto Luongo and John Van Biesbrouck. Skaters: Kirk Muller, Dino Ciccarelli, Olli Jokinen, Gord Murphy, Rob Niedermayer, Viktor Kozlov, Igor Larionov, and the Bure brothers-Valeri and Pavel. Current Panther colour man on the telecasts Bill Lindsay is also recognized. Scott Mellanby’s goal on the sixth of October, 1993 was the Panther first.

Torrey was at the helm, Bobby Clarke was the first GM, and Roger Nielsen was behind the bench when Mellanby lit the lamp. An impressive array of suits. Last year, Dale Tallon took over the reins as GM. He is a Quebec lad, from the Rouen-Noranda mines. We discussed his early days as he perused an email from a mutual friend. “I remember all those days with those guys,” he stated. He has the monstrous job of turning this franchise into a winner. He did so in Chicago, helping the Hawks to their first Cup since the early sixties. He has his work cut out for him, with a fine core of young players on which to build.

Two nights later, the Panthers blanked the Leafs 4-0, making it a little more difficult for the Blue and White to head into the playoffs. Then again, that is the nature of late season play. For all those good reasons!

James Hurst March 20, 2011

Monday, March 14, 2011


Great Sports Traditions

From the time that games began, several centuries ago, sport traditions have become an important part of life. Consider soccer without its cheers, and songs, and yes, its hooligans. Cricket goers always assemble on the lawn during a break to consume their cucumber sandwiches. And football without tailgating? That just won’t work.

There are a few great songs related to hockey, none more important than “The good old hockey game”, warbled from rink to rink by Prince Edward Islander Stompin’ Tom Connors. Baseball also has its great traditional songs. The prime example? “Take me out to the ball game!” It is sung at nearly every baseball park from coast to coast, usually during the seventh inning stretch-another fine baseball given.

A great tradition at Wrigley Field in Chicago is to have a celebrity sing “Take me out to the ball game”. It is someone’s responsibility to make sure that the singer knows some of the words, and is relatively sober when asked to step before the microphone. Naturally, that has not always been the case. Stars of stage and screen have been honoured with the task. One of racing’s Bush brothers, Kurt, (I think), sang the song for the Cubs’ faithful when I attended their game several years ago. He did a credible job, politely applauded.

Several years ago, another fine song hit the streets entitled, “Talkin’ Baseball”. It stirred the blood with references to the greats of the game. The Toronto Blue Jays adopted the tune, “O K, Blue Jays, Let’s play ball!” I am not exactly certain when that became a staple. Fans are encouraged to stand, sing the song, and wave their arms according to the gestures from on-field kids who know what they are doing. I am always a bar or two behind in the gesturing business.

For many years, the grounds crew in Detroit stopped at second base while grooming the field between innings. They then performed the traditional arm movements to the music of the Village Peoples’ “YMCA”, blaring from the sound system. Most of the grounds crew tip the scale near the 300 pound mark, adding a little extra to the exercise.

Another baseball tradition developed after the 9/11 tragedy in New York. Fans in American baseball parks rise and sing the most patriotic song, “God Bless America,”many with their hands on their hearts. The song was also used during the playoff runs of the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1980s. It was a stirring rendition by Kate Reid, often achieving the desired effect of raising the spirit of the fans to an absolute frenzy.

And what would Yankee Stadium be without the strains of “New York, New York” after every game from Frank Sinatra?

Kevin Millar recently retired as a major league baseball player. They have not yet cast his plaque for Cooperstown, and that is not likely to happen in the near future. But he was well respected as a player, and as a character. Fans loved him. He was not shy about cutting up a little to ease the tension. There are snippets on You Tube of Kevin performing “Born in the USA” a la Bruce Springsteen.

Apparently, Kevin also belted out “Sweet Caroline” occasionally to entertain his teammates. Duly recorded, it became a hit on the big screen at Fenway. The Red Sox Nation loved it. It became tradition. Nowadays, at every Boston game, they play Neil Diamond’s version of the hit, and the fans sing along. Last year, on or about July Fourth, Diamond snuck out of the Red Sox dugout to lead the fans in the singing of his song. It was well received, needless to say.

Even in Spring Training, traditions are maintained. Neil Caldeira is a Bostonian who winters in Fort Myers, and works as an usher for the Red Sox. He appeared in front of the bleachers and led us in a stirring rendition of “Sweet Caroline”, in fine voice. He may be ready for La Scala in Milan. The fans loved his enthusiasm, and his charm.

Yet another tradition from the great game of baseball.

James Hurst March 14, 2011

Sunday, March 06, 2011


Topps Baseball Cards-2011

My hands always tremble a little when I open my first pack of cards from a new issue. While checking out of the local Target store, I happened to spot a rack of trading cards near the news stand.

There was the usual mix of sport and non-sport cards. Surprisingly, there were packs of Upper Deck Series Two hockey cards. Included in the packs were Stanley Cup winner Patrick Sharp from the Black Hawks and the Leafs Nikolai Kelemin. The Hawks are in a dog fight just to make the playoffs this year in the seriously competitive west. The Leafs are making some waves, but have a mountain to climb before they decide on the parade route on Yonge Street.

I was surprised to find Donruss hockey cards as well, making their first appearance in several years. I only purchased a couple of packs, but netted a card of Dwayne Roloson, a veteran goalie who played a year with the Belleville Bobcats. David Booth, a spectacular young forward with the Florida Panthers, was in the second pack I cracked. Mike Smith, who has almost as many relatives in “The County” as Tod Lavender, is captured in his Lightning uniform with a picture of “Storm” from the X-Men movie on his mask. Storm as you will recall, was played by Halle Berry, never a bad thing.

Topps has been marketing baseball cards for 60 years. The 1952 series is the one most treasured by card collectors. The Mickey Mantle card in that series has truly driven the hobby for many years. Part of the mystique arose from Mantle’s prowess on the field. He played for the New York Yankees, who dominated baseball when Mantle roamed the outfield.

The Brooklyn Dodgers can rightfully be considered the main competitor of the Yankees during that period. Sadly, one of the great Dodger players passed away this past week. Duke Snider, a member of baseball’s Hall of Fame, became a fan favourite of Canadians following his storied career. He worked with Dave Van Horne on Montreal Expo broadcasts.
Personally, I really enjoyed rain delays during the Expo games. That gave Duke a chance to spin a yarn or two about the game. He was informative, humourous, and easily related wonderful stories about the game and its players. He had played for the Montreal Royals in the International League before joining the Dodgers.

Jackie Robinson also played for the Royals before moving up to the Dodgers. He was the first African American to break the colour barrier. A replica of Robinson’s 1952 topps was included in the packs I opened. Naturally, I would have preferred the original, with a value of several thousand dollars.

On the back of Jackie’s card, there is a wealth of information. He was the Rookie of the Year in 1947, when he played 151 games as a first baseman. In 1949, he was the league’s MVP, and an all star for the next three years, but as a second baseman. He led the way for so many other truly great African American players, and was a first ballot Hall of Famer.

Stephen Strasburg, the towering fireballer with the Washington Nationals, is pictured on card # 10. On the back of the card are the words: “Steven may miss 2011 as he rehabs from elbow surgery.” You may strike the word “may” from that sentence. He had “Tommy John” surgery, effectively eliminating him from play this season. The Senators, in effect, the transplanted Expos, will struggle again this season. They look forward to the arrival of Bryce Harper, the first overall draft choice out of Nevada.

Harper will start in the Nationals’ farm system, as he has yet to celebrate his nineteenth birthday. He does bring hope to the woeful Nationals, and every baseball fan will be watching his progress carefully.

Less than a month from now, the rosters will be filled, and the games will begin-all 162 for every team. In the meantime, I will enjoy four March games here in Fort Myers.

James Hurst---March 5, 2011

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