It’s not every day you have an opportunity to rub shoulders with greatness.
To the Lethbridge Bulls players who shared a room with a trio of former Major League Baseball stars at the Bulls’ Legends of Sports Gala recently, Ferguson Jenkins, Andre Dawson and Bill Lee might have just been names from the history books.
For those of us old enough to have been around when they played, it was a genuine thrill to have these three baseball greats in Lethbridge.
At least, that’s how I felt.
Even with a newspaper career that is closing in on 40 years, during which I have had the opportunity to meet and/or interview several dozen sports celebrities, I still get a kick out of encountering my boyhood heroes. I wasn’t at the Bulls’ sports gala held April 22 in any official capacity; I was just a fan. And believe me, I was a fan of the three guests of honour.
I became a baseball fan in the mid-1960s, about the time Jenkins was embarking on his career as a big-league pitcher in 1965. Lee started his career in the majors a little later, in 1969. I had baseball cards of both of them; in fact, I still have Lee’s, which he was kind enough to sign when I interviewed him some years back during one of his visits to Lethbridge for a charity softball game.
I’m not sure what became of my Ferguson Jenkins card; I wish I still had it, just like I wish I still had the stack of Beatles bubble-gum cards from my youth. I sometimes wonder what those might be worth today.
I may not have my Fergie Jenkins card, but I have the memories of watching him pitch on TV. When I think of Jenkins, I think of a pitcher with great control and stamina who was a true craftsman on the mound, a master of the fine art of pitching. I’m not sure that degree of craftsmanship exists in the game today. Modern pitchers may throw harder, but I think they could learn something from Jenkins about the science of getting batters out.
Lee, too, was an artist on the mound. He didn’t have a blazing fastball, but he was smart. He knew how to change the speed and location of his pitches to attack a hitter’s weaknesses.
Warren Spahn, a Hall of Fame pitcher like Jenkins, once observed, “Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.”
I was fortunate to interview Spahn in Lethbridge many years ago, when he was serving as a roving pitching instructor in the Angels organization, back when Lethbridge had a team in the Pioneer Baseball League. I remember watching Spahn pitch batting practice to the young Idaho Falls hitters before a game, and every once in a while he would toss up a slow breaking pitch that would twist a batter into knots as he tried to hit it. Spahn, then closing in on 60 years of age, would cackle with delight and go back to serving up more hittable pitches.
To me, Fergie is a link to a time when pitchers still set out to finish what they started, and managers gave them the opportunity. Today, the complete game has become a rare event in baseball. There were only 38 complete games pitched in the National League last year, and no major league pitcher had more than four. In 1971, Jenkins had 30 complete games – tops in the majors – all by himself. It was one of eight times in his career that Fergie went the distance in 20 or more games in a season.
Jenkins was a 20-game winner seven times in his career, including six seasons in a row. These days, those numbers would make him worth $30 million a year, based on the salaries of today’s top pitchers.
Lee was no slouch himself. He was a 17-game winner for three straight seasons with the Boston Red Sox, and won 16 games for the Montreal Expos in 1979 when the Expos came within two games of winning the National League East pennant.
But Bill is perhaps best known as one of the most colourful characters in the game, a man with a sharp wit and the courage to speak his mind. As expected, he thoroughly entertained the audience at the Bulls’ gala.
Dawson hadn’t been to Lethbridge since he played here in 1975 during his first year of professional baseball. For those of us who rooted for the Expos before the team’s demise, Dawson was perhaps the key member of a talented young ball club that captured the heart of Canadian baseball fans before the Toronto Blue Jays established themselves.
Fergie Jenkins and Andre Dawson are both Hall of Famers, and if there was a Hall of Fame for baseball flakes, Bill Lee would be in it. The Bulls’ Legends of Sports Gala was a great opportunity for baseball fans to appreciate the careers of three of the game’s former stars, and for fans of my vintage to revel in the memories of the game in the pre-steroid era.