Monthly Archives: August 2015

Stieb and Henke

A week from today will mark the 25th anniversary of the first (and so far only) no-hitter in Blue Jays history. Dave Stieb blanked the Indians for a 3-0 victory in Cleveland on September 2, 1990. Sportsnet marks the anniversary this Sunday with Dave Stieb: Almost Perfect. I’m sure it will be good, as all their special features have been.

As anyone who knows Blue Jays history is aware, Stieb had a reputation for being prickly. In the early days, when he was so much better than most of the players around him, he often glared at teammates who made errors when he was on the mound. You still hear stories that the rest of the Jays never liked him much. I must say, though, for whatever it’s worth, he was always perfectly nice to me when I was on the ground crew.

For example, my brother Jonathan had a girlfriend he wanted to impress by getting Stieb’s autograph. When I asked him if he’d sign a piece of paper for her, and he said, “don’t you think she’d like a baseball better?” He signed a ball for her, and also gave me an autographed picture. I gave the ball to Jonathan to give to the girl. I kept the picture (which I still have!) for myself.

Stieb autograph

As anyone who knows Blue Jays history is also aware, Stieb had several heart-breaking near-misses en route to finally throwing his no-hitter. The first of those came 30 years ago this week, on August 24, 1985. Facing 300-game winner Tom Seaver of the White Sox in Chicago, Stieb had a no-hitter through eight innings. He’d walked three, and only two runners had gotten as far as second base, but on the first pitch in the bottom of the ninth, Rudy Law took Stieb deep. No-hitter gone. Shutout too. Three pitches later, Bryan Little hit another home run.

Pitch counts were never reported in those days, so it’s unclear how many pitches Stieb had thrown. He told reporters his arm had begun to tighten up and that manager Bobby Cox might not have sent him out for the ninth if not for the no-hitter. Now, Cox turned to Gary Lavelle … who promptly gave up a home run to Harold Baines. After finally recording the first out, Lavelle surrendered a single to Carlton Fisk. The near-blowout was in danger of getting away, bringing Cox back to the mound.

Since the Blue Jays had started to contend in 1983 the bullpen had aways been a weakness. Now, finally, Toronto had someone to turn to when the game got tight. Only it wasn’t the person we’d all expected when the 1985 season began.

I remember exactly where I was when I heard that the Blue Jays had acquired Bill Caudill from Oakland at the Winter Meetings in December of 1984. (The deal cost Toronto Dave Collins – a player I liked a lot – and Alfredo Griffin – whom everybody liked, but, paraphrasing Sports Illustrated, “who was Alfredo Griffin to keep Tony Fernandez in the minors?” … and, by the way, when the Blue Jays first called up Fernandez in September of 1983, I was sent to the airport to pick him up! He gave me a bat as a souvenir.)

Caudill signs

Caudill’s contract was expiring when the Blue Jays acquired him, and I also remember exactly where I was in February of 1985 when I heard they’d avoided going to arbitration with him. I was thrilled. Locking up Caudill was the move that was going to put us over the top, but it went bad right from the start.

Caudill struggled in spring training, and then pitched poorly (despite picking up a pair of wins) when Toronto opened the season in Kansas City. A few days later in Baltimore, the Blue Jays were leading the Orioles 7-3 in the bottom of the eighth when Caudill entered the game with two on and nobody out. (Remember when teams used their relief aces that way?) He promptly issued a walk to load the bases, gave up a run-scoring ground out, a single to make it 7-5 … and then a monster three-run homer to Eddie Murray. Jim Acker got out of the inning, but the Blue Jays lost 8-7.

“I’m no superman,” Caudill would say as his struggles continued … but fortunately, the Blue Jays had Clark Kent waiting in reserve!

Henke

I most decidedly do not remember where I was when the Blue Jays claimed Tom Henke from the Texas Rangers in January of 1985 as compensation for losing Cliff Johnson to free agency. But as Caudill struggled, I do remember the reports on Henke in the press notes I would read in the photographers dugout where we on the ground crew watched the games. The late-blooming 27-year-old bricklayer from Taos, Missouri was putting up stunning numbers in Syracuse. By the time he got to Toronto on July 28, Henke’s Triple-A numbers read: 51.1 innings, 13 hits, 18 walks and 60 strikeouts. He had a 2-1 record with 18 saves and had surrendered only five runs (all of them earned) for an ERA of 0.88.

Henke got a nerve-wracking win in a 4-3, 10-inning victory in Baltimore in his Blue Jays debut on July 29, 1985. He picked up a more efficient win two days later. His first save came at home versus Texas on August 2. Bill Caudill earned a sloppy save the following night, but it was the last one he got in 1985. Tom Henke ruled the back of the bullpen now, and it turned the franchise around. Henke got the final two outs to save Stieb’s near no-hitter 30 years ago this week, and kept on racking up saves until the Blue Jays were World Series champions in 1992.

One Book to Guide Them

The NHL Official Guide & Record Book was completed this week and sent to the printer. This will be the 84th edition of a book that dates back to the 1932-33 season. Milt Dunnell, the dean of Canadian sportswriters who died at the age of 102 in 2008, used to send a note to Dan Diamond every year saying something along the lines of, “Jim Hendy could never have guessed what his little pocket guide would become.”

Jim Hendy worked on what he called The Hockey Guide until 1951, after which he turned over the book to the NHL. Through expansion after 1967 and right into the 1980s, the book maintained its “pocket” format, although as the NHL grew from six to 21 teams it was split into two books: a Guide and a Register. In 1984, Dan Diamond proposed a reorganization and redesign that saw the NHL Official Guide & Record Book remodelled into magazine-sized pages including photographs for the first time. Dan’s first Guide was 352 pages. Over the years, it’s grown to 672 pages!

Guide Cover
The National Cover

No matter what the size, Dan Diamond & Associates takes its mandate of being the NHL’s Official Guide very seriously. A tremendous amount of care and attention goes into being accurate. Obviously, the NHL Communications department aids greatly in this, but you can help too. Every year, a note in the Guide states: “We appreciate comments and clarifications from our readers” and that, “Your involvement makes a better book.”

This year, we corrected a decades-old error in Alec Connell’s record from 1927-28 for the Longest Shutout Sequence By a Goaltender based on an article Don Weekes wrote last fall for The Hockey News and brought to our attention. (And, yes, we go with Alec. Although Connell’s given name was Alexander and many call him Alex, Alec does seem to be what he went by himself for most of his life.)

Dallas Montreal
Dallas and Montreal custom covers

I’ve been working with Dan Diamond & Associates since the summer of 1996. Among the many jobs I do, it’s been my responsibility for the last decade or so to assemble statistical panels for newly drafted North American players that will appear in the Guide’s Prospect Register for the very first time. As often as possible, we like to include a line of statistics from a player’s last year of minor/youth hockey before he moved up to Junior A or college. There are many web sites that aid the cause these days, though I always like to double-check (and often triple-check) what’s on any stats-specific site against what’s on a league or a team’s web site. Every summer, there are numbers that don’t match or can’t be found, and can only be resolved by contacting a team, or a coach, or a parent directly.

It’s always fun talking to a proud coach or parent in the weeks after a young player has been selected in the NHL Draft. This past spring (even before the NHL Draft was held), I had the opportunity to “talk” via email with Connor McDavid’s father to try and clarify his son’s statistics from his last year of midget hockey with the Toronto Marlboros of the GTHL.

Devils Rangers
Devils and Rangers custom covers

I had noticed that while every stats site seemed to have the same amazing totals for McDavid’s spectacular 2011-12 season (88 games, 79 goals, 130 assists, 209 points), none of the sites that broke down his numbers into season games, playoff games and tournament games showed the same results. A big deal? Not really. But I thought that if Connor McDavid was going to be the next great NHL superstar everyone believes he will be, it would be nice to get it right! Turns out, Connor’s father felt the same way.

I contacted the Marlboros (who, I know, from past years, do not officially keep statistics for their players) and they put me in touch with Brian McDavid, who had tracked all of his sons stats that season. “Please don’t lump me into the ‘crazy hockey dad’ category for doing this,” he wrote, “but I felt Connor had a chance to be a significant player in the game in the future and … that his season would be lost from a statistical view if I didn’t do it myself.” He sent me an Excel sheet showing Connor’s performance game-by-game, not only for the Marlboros that season but also for his team at the PEAC School for Elite Athletes in North York (a Toronto suburb).

Colorado Calgary
Colorado and Calgary custom covers

So, while we can’t match the up-to-the-minute aspect of the many sports web sites out there these days, you’ll be hard pressed to find any one site on the Internet that can give you all the information as neatly and concisely as that contained in the NHL Official Guide & Record Book … and I dare say you’ll have an even harder time finding one that does so with such attention to detail.

This year’s Guide will be in bookstores in early September. Or you can order it online right now at the dda.nhl eBay site.

Rhapsody in Blue Jay

I’ll admit it. I’ve been pretty pessimistic when it comes to the Blue Jays over say, the last 22 years. Can you blame me? But, to my credit (or maybe not), I’ve never bailed on them. Now that I live in Owen Sound, I don’t get to see them live nearly as much as I used to, but I keep watching on television night after night after night. I haven’t always been sure why I do. Sometimes, it felt like a strange kind of loyalty to my younger self.

Still, I kept watching. But any time I was foolish enough to even let myself start to believe for a short time, they’d break my heart. Now? I’m pumped! This past weekend in New York was amazing. And – even though it’s August and not September – it got me thinking back to the pennant race of 1985 … the first time Toronto won the American League East.

As many of you know, my family lived and died with this team in those days. (OK, we still do!) We still have the season tickets we’ve had since the moment they went on sale prior to the first season in 1977. I grew up with this team and it was a blast! In 1985, I was in my fifth and final year on the Blue Jays ground crew as the team made the journey from worst to first.

Jay Crew

On August 4, 1985, the Blue Jays were 67-39. They were 9 1/2 games up on the Yankees in the American League East. Over the next five weeks, the Jays went 21-12. They Yankees went 29-6. They had two seven-game winning streaks and an 11-game streak during that stretch. Every night, it seemed, they were trailing, only to rattle off a big inning late in the game to pull out a victory. It was testing my faith.

There was an old security guard who worked in the Blue Jays bullpen in those days. I’m very sorry I can’t remember his name. I loved talking with him. As a boy in 1930s, he’d lived in New York and worked at the Polo Grounds. As on old man (in the days long before the Internet), he carried papers in his pocket on which he tracked all of baseball’s all-time leaders and which current players were gaining on them.

I remember walking out to the bullpen one day and admitting to him how nervous I was getting. Dennis Lamp (who went 11-0 in relief that year) glared at me. People may remember a picture of him in the clubhouse after the Jays clinched, pointing to a sign he’d made that said something along the lines of, “People counted this team out, but we never heard the bell.” I’ve never told anyone this before, but I sort of felt he was talking to me. But that’s getting a little ahead of the story…

When the Blue Jays headed into New York to begin a four-game series on September 12, their once-big lead was down to 2 1/2 games. That Thursday night, the Jays were leading 4-1 through six innings. But as they had done for weeks, the Yankees rallied in the seventh. Two brutal errors by Tony Fernandez led to six runs on just three hits. The Yankees won the game 7-5.

Amazingly, the Blue Jays bounced back. They won the next three in a row, and stretched their lead back to 4 1/2 games. Though things got nervously tight again over the next couple of weeks, Toronto clinched the AL East Division on October 5, 1985, with a 5-1 victory over the Yankees.

I was right there on the field a few seconds later, assigned the job of protecting home plate in case any excited fans wanted to dig it up as a souvenir. In some of the film footage (unfortunately, not the TV footage you can find on YouTube) you can clearly see me running onto the field, hugging a fellow ground crew member, and then turning to face the stands, where my brother Jonathan had been sitting, and waiting for him to race onto the field to leap into my arms.

Jays 85

The World Series wins were great. My wife Barbara and I often remember the nervous feeling in our stomaches as Game Six in 1992 went into extra innings, and I remember wading through a room full of people after the game, struggling to reach and embrace my brother David. But for me, 1985 will always be special. It staggers me to think it was 30 years ago…