Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Marking 50 years on the legislature floor

George MacMinn photographed by Deddeda White.
With renewed attention being paid to the position of the clerk of the B.C. Legislature, here's a profile of George MacMinn, who spent a half-century in the post. 

By Tom Hawthorn
The Globe and Mail
June 4, 2008

George MacMinn's office contains one of only two working fireplaces in the capital's historic parliament building.
His desk has a plaque marking it as once having been used by the Queen.
Such perks are the reward for someone whose workday includes interminable hours at a table on the red-carpeted floor of the legislature.
He is the clerk of the British Columbia Legislature. For 50 years, Mr. MacMinn has been surrounded by politicians, his ears buffeted by the warm blast of rhetoric.
No table officer anywhere in the vast Commonwealth — from Antigua to Zambia — has enjoyed so long a tenure.
In the raucous chamber, in which sitting members square off like irate hockey players, the Speaker acts as referee, wearing a robe instead of a striped shirt. As clerk, Mr. MacMinn is the neutral and non-partisan keeper of the rule book. He is an expert in procedure, precedent and standing orders.
Some may think a half-century of listening to politicians to be cruel and unusual, but not Mr. MacMinn.
"It's a rather awesome experience sitting there in the middle of the action," he said. "Bullets flying back and forth. And none of them seem to hit me."
He's written what some parliamentarians describe as the bible. (No, not the Bible. He's not that old. He's only 78.) Mr. MacMinn is currently at work on the fourth revised edition of his Parliamentary Practice in British Columbia , which he hopes to get to the Queen's Printer later this year.
While not spellbinding reading, it does include a chapter with the promising title of "Offer of Money to Members; Bribery in Elections."
"Haven't had to consult that one," he said. "Yet."
He has served 15 Speakers, observed 10 premiers. His tenure has been such that he has seen sons follow fathers - the Gordon Gibsons, as well as Bill and W.A.C. Bennett - onto the floor.
He has had a front-row seat to some of the most dramatic events in the province's political history. He has felt the elder Mr. Bennett's dominating personality, heard Flyin' Phil Gaglardi in full rhetorical flight, witnessed a defiant Dave Barrett being carried out of the chamber.
He takes so seriously his role as a non-partisan officer that he has not cast a ballot in the 13 provincial elections since he joined the clerk's staff.
His hiring was an unexpected turn of events.
On a quiet day, the 27-year-old lawyer took a telephone call at his office. The voice on the other end wanted to know if he was available that day to meet the province's attorney-general.
"Just a minute, I'll check my calendar," Mr. MacMinn replied. The day's schedule was blank. He agreed to a 3 p.m. appointment.
Robert Bonner, a veteran who had been wounded during the war, was a powerful minister in the Bennett cabinet. The attorney-general had two questions.
"Are you closely aligned with any political party?" he asked.
"I must confess," Mr. MacMinn replied, "I haven't been too interested."
Mr. Bonner seemed pleased by the response.
His second question was succinct, though unexpected.
"Do you have a sense of humour?"
"I think so," Mr. MacMinn answered.
He was then dispatched to meet with a white-haired, craggy-looking fellow named Ned de Beck. The job interview with the clerk of the House was even briefer than the meeting with the attorney-general.
"Are you in any way related to Hope MacMinn?" he asked.
That was his mother.
"I play bridge with her," the clerk said. "You'll do fine."
His appointment was ratified by the House at its next sitting. His salary was a munificent $800. He has not left the table since.
He came to law only after realizing poor science marks did not herald a career in medicine.
He was born in 1930, on the cusp of the Depression, at New Glasgow, N.S., where his father was a bank manager. Earle George MacMinn had dreamed of being a doctor, passing on to his son both his name and his own thwarted ambition, if not necessarily his Conservative politics.
The family moved to Victoria when George was 13. Five years later, he was bird hunting with his father on a day when what seemed to be an inconsequential decision proved to be tragic.
The elder MacMinn slipped into a punt on a lake near Duncan to roust birds on the far shore. Unseen by his son, the boat tipped.
After spotting the overturned craft, as well as his father's hat, floating on the water, George ran for help. The RCMP were unable to find the body. On the following day, the lake froze over. His father's remains were recovered later.
He inherited from his father a love for tennis. Mr. MacMinn makes a biennial pilgrimage to Wimbledon. He has also transformed the expansive lawn between the sea and his Oak Bay house into what he calls Spoon Bay Centre Court. He thinks lawn tennis a subtle game and one easy on the knees of a septuagenarian whose backhand remains defiantly one-handed.
The province is celebrating its sesquicentennial this year, marking 150 years of modern history. The mighty MacMinn has sat dutifully in the legislature for one-third of all those years.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Jim Taylor (1937-2019), sportswriter

By Tom Hawthorn
The Globe and Mail
January 11, 2019

Jim Taylor was a sportswriter more entertaining than the teams he covered. He was certainly more popular.

Generations of Vancouver sports fans knew that however disappointing the performance of hockey’s Canucks, soccer’s Whitecaps, or football’s B.C. Lions, they would be treated the following day to a funny, acerbic and satisfying sports column.

Mr. Taylor, who has died on Vancouver Island at 81, showed little patience for prima donna athletes, or wannabe jocks in the press box. He abhorred cliché, eschewed the bland quote, and took delight in eviscerating the pompous.

His bon mots were shared at office water coolers, stuck to refrigerators, kept folded inside wallets and purses. In the days when he wrote for the afternoon Vancouver Sun, sports-obsessed schoolchildren raced home after the final bell to read his column.

Over the years, he wrote more than 15,000 newspaper columns, many of them produced on deadline. He did at least twice as many radio commentaries, as well as countless television appearances, and found the time to write more than a dozen books, including collaborations with wheelchair athlete Rick Hansen, big-band leader Dal Richards and the father-son duo of Walter and Wayne Gretzky. Two collections of his columns were titled, “You Mean I Get Paid to do This?” and “Forgive Me My Press Passes.”

His writing displayed a deft, conversational touch leavened by sarcasm and wit. It had been his ambition as a young man to be a humourist like Eric Nicol.

When a hockey team agreed to pay out the remaining $60,000 on a player’s contract, Mr. Taylor conjured an epistolary exchange with his editor in which he munificently offered to not write for a similar amount.

When another hockey player’s first-person account of skating in the Stanley Cup playoffs was pitched to his editor, Mr. Taylor’s response was a column in which he offered to be a sixth-string defenceman for the New York Islanders.

“In my entire life I’d bet on four horses,” he once wrote. “At last report all four were still running and the clocker was using a sundial.”

Mr. Taylor once explained to readers the positions of a curling foursome: “Each rink is made up of a ‘lead,’ who is first to the bar; a ‘second,’ who is a step slower; a ‘third,’ who arrives in time to buy the round; and a ‘skip,’ so called because he’s always in the washroom when the tab arrives.”

When the Edmonton Eskimos dominated football and the Edmonton Oilers hockey, Mr. Taylor assured Vancouver readers that those fans, however happy, still faced the ignominy of living in a barren wasteland.

“It’s Minor Hockey Week in Canada,” he once suggested. “Take a Canuck to lunch.”

The concluding series of never-ending hockey playoffs he described as “the Stanley Cup Finally.”

He dismissed baseball except for its soporific qualities. “To be properly appreciated,” he wrote, “baseball requires a great sofa.”

There was nothing athletic about Mr. Taylor, who was bald in his 20s and squinted behind thick glasses. He had a braying laugh and a habit of testing one-liners on fellow sportswriters. Colleagues nicknamed him Skull for his barren scalp. When he and fellow Sun columnist Jim Kearney both took ill during a road trip, Mr. Taylor branded them as “Butch Casualty and the Sunstroke Kid.”

His humour about gender roles and conjugal relations dated from the Mad Men era, yet he helped at least one aspiring young woman to break into sports writing. He was known for his generosity to young reporters, offering words of praise. His opinions about newspaper management were mostly unprintable. He left the Vancouver Sun when a new publisher forbade freelance work. Mr. Taylor’s impressive output in print, radio and on television was fueled by a desire to provide the best possible care for a daughter rendered a quadriplegic when crashed into by a reckless skier in 1976.

James Edgar Taylor was born on March 16, 1937, in the Saskatchewan village of Nipawin, population 892. “To get to Nipawin,” he wrote, “you headed the dog team north and when the last dog died, you were almost there.” He was the youngest of four children born to the former Ethel Florence Quinton, the daughter of a Winnipeg sheet-metal worker, and James Edgar Taylor Sr., known as Ed, a grocer who became the proprietor of a coffee shop.

Mr. Taylor’s earliest memory was of listening to hockey broadcasts on the radio on Saturday evenings with his father. At the grocery store, the boy would be plunked onto the counter to recite the roster of the Toronto Maple Leafs by memory in hopes of coaxing a nickel from customers.

The family opened a coffee shop down the street from their home. Taylor’s Lunch Room served fresh pies and doughnuts, as well as sandwiches for the lunch crowd. His mother cooked, a sister served and an older brother chopped wood to keep the ovens roaring. By then, his father had been left bedridden with cancer in a room off the dining area. He died two weeks after Jim’s seventh birthday. 

A fortnight after that, the boy was in a Winnipeg hospital to have an operation on a lazy left eye. In his 2008 memoir, “Hello Sweetheart? Gimmie Rewrite!,” Mr. Taylor recounts awakening from surgery to utter darkness. He screamed until calmed by nuns. No one had thought to warn him he would need to wear a bandage over his eyes for two weeks.

With an oldest brother fighting overseas during the Second World War, the family struggled financially, living briefly in Winnipeg, where his mother operated a rooming house before returning to Nipawin, where she opened a smaller coffee shop called Kozy Korner. They returned to Winnipeg before moving to Victoria to move in with her brother.

An English and journalism teacher at Victoria High School spotted the young man’s felicity with words and got him a part-time job at the Daily Colonist covering men’s softball. The youth was so inexperienced that for his first story he set the margins of his typewriter the exact same width as a newspaper column. So uncertain was Mr. Taylor of his future that for a time he retained his morning paper route for the same newspaper.

Mr. Taylor also successfully proposed a column about popular music for young people. (He mostly wanted free records.) The column, called “Needle Dust” before he renamed it “Off the Record,” is remembered for his prediction of the flash-in-the-pan popularity of a young singer named Elvis Presley.

In 1963, Mr. Taylor traveled from Victoria to Vancouver to cover the Grey Cup football championship, during which Angelo Mosca of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats delivered a devastating and possibly late hit on hometown hero Willie Fleming of the B.C. Lions. The Ticats went on to win the game. Mr. Tayor raced to the ferry, wrote his stories while aboard ship, dropped them off at the newspaper office, and then covered a local hockey game.

After a decade in the British Columbia capital, Mr. Taylor was lured to Vancouver to join the staff of the fledgling Vancouver Times, a daily founded by hustling advertising salesman Val Warren. The city’s third daily lasted less than a year before folding and Mr. Taylor retreated to the Colonist.

The Vancouver Sun hired him to cover the football beat in 1966. Four years later, he joined Mr. Kearney as a columnist in replacing the great Denny Boyd. The sports department also included the fine horseracing writer Archie McDonald and a stellar cast of beat reporters. Mr. Taylor covered the 1972 Winter Olympics in Japan, as well as hockey’s legendary Summit Series in September, which placed him in Moscow to witness Paul Henderson’s famous goal.

Mr. Taylor left the Vancouver Sun by moving down the hall of a shared building to write columns for The Province, his home for the next 16 years. In 1995, he was hired away to become the assistant publisher and marquee columnist for a weekly called Sports Only, a tentative foray into the Vancouver market by the Toronto Sun newspaper chain. After the weekly soon after folded, Mr. Taylor became a nationally syndicated columnist with the Calgary Sun until his retirement from daily journalism in 2001.

Mr. Taylor was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame (1989), the Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame (2006) and the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame (2005) in Vancouver. In 2010, he received the Bruce Hutchison Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jack Webster Foundation, the province’s highest journalism accolade.

Mr. Taylor died on Jan. 7 at his home at Shawnigan Lake, outside Victoria. He leaves a son, Christopher, and a daughter, Teresa. He was predeceased by his wife of 56 years, the former Deborah Easton, who died in 2016.

For all his accolades, Mr. Taylor readily acknowledged missing out on the sports scoop of his career. At the teary 1988 press conference announcing his trade from the Edmonton Oilers, Wayne Gretzky opened by saying, “I want to apologize to my friend Jim Taylor in front of everyone.” Mr. Taylor had learned of the pending deal but out of loyalty to the family pledged to hold the information until an approved time. Instead, news leaked out and Mr. Taylor lost the scoop. He did not regret it, he said. After all, he had given his word.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Old Ball Game: Ontario crossroads site of historic backwoods matchup

Players recreate the 1838 game between Beachville and Zorra as described by Adam Ford. Photo from the Beachville (Ont.) District Museum. 

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 4, 1988

NO ONE REMEMBERS how old Old Ned Dolson was when they started calling him Old. All that is known is that Old Ned hailed from Zorra Township and was about as fine a baseball player as had ever been seen in those parts.
So when the hard-working farmers of the area, near London, Ont., took a break from their chores on the King's birthday 150 years ago today, Old Ned was asked to bring his team, The Zorras, down to nearby Beachville for a game against the locals.
Among the spectators was a 7-year-old boy named Adam Ford, who was so impressed by this new sport that he never forgot it. Years later, Ford, a medical doctor and dipsomaniac, penned his reminiscences of the game.
The account he wrote stands today as the first recorded evidence of baseball being played.
That historic game will be replayed tomorrow, when Beachville residents challenge their neighbors from Zorra to a rematch under the primitive rules of 1838.
As if to make up for decades of neglect, this lost chapter in Canada's sporting history is being celebrated with a full lineup of commemorative events this weekend, including the induction of five players into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame at a banquet in Ingersoll tonight. Old Ned and all the other players from those two pioneer teams also will be inducted.
All this fuss is the result of a letter written by Ford to Sporting Life, a Philadelphia publication, in 1886. The correspondence describes in detail the players and rules of that early Beachville game.
Ford also included a drawing of the playing field with its knocker's stone (home plate) and five byes (bases).
But because he wrote the account almost 50 years after having seen the game as a child, some doubted the accuracy of his recollection.
A pair of academic detectives from the University of Western Ontario, however, have traced the names cited by Ford through land records and tombstones.
"This is beyond hearsay," says professor Bob Barney. "It's the oldest recorded validation. It fits another picture in the puzzle of baseball's opaque history."
Barney, who worked with graduate student Nancy Bouchier, says Canada's claim to the American game leaves some of his fellow academics in a dither.
"The reaction is one sometimes of disbelief, sometimes of scoffing," he said.
The New York village of Cooperstown was identified earlier in this century as the site of the first recorded game of baseball. Abner Doubleday, who would go on to become a Civil War hero, supposedly organized the first baseball game there in 1839.
Latter-day research has debunked that notion. It is now generally agreed that the Doubleday myth was fostered by baseball entrepreneur A.G. Spalding, a founder of the National League and of the sporting goods business that still bears his name. Spalding was keen on creating a suitably patriotic beginning for America's national pastime.
Ford descries the Beachville game being played on a smooth pasture behind Enoch Burdick's carpentry shops. No one knows the score, or even who won, and it probably didn't matter much at the time. The game was simply a pleasant diversion from long hours of labor.
It was Militia Muster Day, and a company of Scottish volunteers, raised to fight the rebellion of the previous year, stopped to watch. They saw George Burdick, Adam Karn, and William Hutchinson from Beachville take on Old Ned Dolson, Nathaniel McNames, and Harry and Daniel Karn from Zorra.
Dolson was so good it was said he could "catch the ball right away from the front of the club if you didn't keep him back so far that he couldn't reach it."
They played with a calfskin ball made of double and twisted woolen yarn fashioned by a shoemaker. Bats were rough-hewn blocks of cedar, although some used a wagon spoke.
The field was square, with the first bye only 18 feet from the knocker's stone. The idea was to allow runners on the bases, because it was considered fun to put them out. A runner was out if he was soaked — hit by a ball thrown by the fielding team.
Players dressed in their work clothes and wore no gloves. A striker (batter) was out even if his hit was caught on the first bounce. A game could last from six to nine innings, and teams fielded from seven to 12 players at a time. Sometimes, games ended when one side scored 18 (or 21) tallies (runs), which were recorded by cutting a notch into a stick.
It was while verifying Ford's account that Barney and Bouchier learned that Canada's first baseball chronicler led a life so rich in baseball and scandal it might have come from the pen of William Kennedy.
Ford seemed a paragon of Victorian virtue. He had a successful practice and was involved in both civic and sporting affairs. He was even elected mayor of St. Marys, Ont., in the 1870s. But the mayor had a weakness for alcohol, and it was his undoing.
St. Marys had an active temperance movement at the time, and the doctor was known to use a drug to lessen the effects of his drinking. (Which drug he took remains unknown.) At a party in his office, the doctor administered the drug to his drinking partner. The man suffered a violent reaction and died. As luck would have it, the man was secretary of the local temperance union.
Charges were eventually dropped, although an inquest revealed that a young woman was also involved in the now notorious drinking party.
"The entire town was scandalized," Barney says, "even though it never went to trial."
Ford abandoned his wife and a son in St. Marys to flee to Denver with his other son. He organized the first curling bonspiel west of the Missouri River there, and wrote his letter to Sporting Life.
Unfortunately, he descended into alcoholism and died penniless. He had spent his days caring for his son, who had become addicted to morphine.
The site of the game he described is now home to homes and a church. The re-enactment is being played on a nearby school ground.
As well, Tom Heitz, librarian with the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., is bringing his Leatherstocking Base Ball Club to Beachville for an 1838-style game this afternoon.
The Leatherstockings, who count an innkeeper and several students on their roster, are in their fourth season of playing baseball under old rules. They wear plain red workshirts and Amish-style twill pants to better resemble their predecessors. They play about seven road games a year, and today's match marks their longest journey yet.
"You really feel at times that you've stepped back into another century," Heitz said. "The form of baseball we will play (today) is a more primitive form than even we're used to."
A practice game played last month surprised organizer Bill Riddick of Ingersoll, who stepped up to the knocker's stone wielding a big stick.
"It was like a Hydro pole," he said of a hand-made bat that was more than four feet long. "It would have taken a mighty big man to swing that. And the ball was so soft, it was like a Nerf ball."
Still, Heitz says his Leatherstockings are ready.
"You don't need a great deal of skill," he says. "You just have to think a little differently. All this game really requires is unbridled enthusiasm and joy. Enthusiasm and joy, that's baseball."

Thursday, April 26, 2018

A beauty of a ballplayer

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The National Post
December 22, 2003

Mary Baker was a model and store clerk who left Regina in 1943 to become a professional baseball catcher.
She was featured in Life magazine, appeared on television's What's My Line?, and was likely the inspiration for the character portrayed by Geena Davis in the 1992 Hollywood movie, A League of Their Own.
Baker, who died on Wednesday in Regina, aged 84, was one of the stars of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Her dark good looks made her a favourite choice when a player was needed to pose for publicity photos. She became the face of the league. Male reporters dubbed her Pretty Bonnie Baker, giving the league what its owner most desired, a touch of glamour.
Many women have charm; not so many can also whack the ball.
She played more games in the storied circuit than any other player, with 930 regular-season and 18 playoff appearances. She was also the only player to become a manager, coaching the Kalamazoo Lassies for a season even as she fulfilled her daily catching duties.
A beauty in front of the lens, she was a pugnacious presence behind the plate. The catcher was a fan favourite for her spirited arguments with umpires. Those debates were often conducted in small sandstorms generated by the stomping of her feet, which soiled the polished shoes of the unwitting arbiter.
"She was a tough competitor," said Arleene Noga, 79, a farmgirl from Ogema, Sask., who played the infield for the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Daisies. "Like catchers do, she kept her team's spirits up."
The 5-foot-5, 133-pound fireplug hit only one home run in her nine-year career and finished with an unimpressive .235 average, but she had a discerning eye -- striking out just six times in 256 at- bats in her rookie season -- and was a threat to score once on base. Baker stole 506 bases in her career, including 94 in 94 games in 1946, when she was named the league's all-star catcher.
Baker spent the first seven years of her career in South Bend, Ind., with the Blue Sox. Her first visit to Bendix Field reminded her of her hometown.
"The dust was blowing and it was always very windy, but that didn't hinder me," she told the South Bend Tribune last year. "I felt like I was playing in Yankee Stadium."
Mary Geraldine George was born in Regina on July 10, 1919. (Some baseball sources list her birth a year earlier.) She had four brothers and four sisters, all athletes and every one a catcher. She was blessed with a powerful right throwing arm and once hurled a baseball 343 feet.
In 1943, she was working as a $17-a-week clerk at the Army and Navy store by day while playing softball for the A&N Bombers at night and on weekends.
She was discovered by Hub Bishop, a hockey scout who was recruiting players for a fledgling women's league being launched in Chicago. With her husband serving overseas in the air force, Baker was convinced by her mother-in-law to accept the invitation to a tryout at Chicago's Wrigley Field, without seeking her husband's approval.
The adventure was welcome. There was nothing to do on the Prairies during the war, Baker once said, "except play ball and chase grasshoppers."
The league was the brainstorm of Philip K. Wrigley, the chewing- gum magnate who owned the Chicago Cubs. He wanted to create a profitable wartime entertainment that would also furnish a tenant for his ballpark on those days when his men's professional team was on the road.
As it turned out, the league thrived not in Chicago but in the smaller cities of the American Midwest. South Bend was one of the league's inaugural teams, along with the Kenosha (Wis.) Comets, the Racine (Wis.) Belles, and the Rockford (Ill.) Peaches.
The Belles of the Ball Game, as they were called, were given instruction in etiquette and were accompanied at all times by a chaperone. The women wore uniforms of a short-sleeved, belted tunic dress with a flap that buttoned on the left side, leaving room for a circular crest on the chest. While wartime heroine Rosie the Riveter may have been depicted in jean overalls, the women baseball players had to wear skirts, often raising ugly welts and strawberries on their exposed legs.
As a base stealer, Baker suffered more injuries than most.
Before every game, the two teams would stand along the foul lines from home plate in a "V for Victory" formation in support of the war effort. Once, Dorothy Maguire, a catcher for Racine, took her place in the V only moments after learning her husband had been killed in action.
Life published a two-page spread on the league in June, 1945. Baker was featured in a photograph showing her in a catcher's mask.
The league's popularity peaked in 1948, as teams drew more than one million paying customers that season.
"The fans treated us as though we were stars," Baker told the Tribune. "They took us into their homes and treated us as family."
Once, she was even presented with an automatic washing machine made at a factory in South Bend.
Baker was traded to the struggling Lassies in 1950. As manager, she improved the club's performance, but the Lassies still finished last of eight teams with a terrible 36-73 record. After her stint, the league barred women from becoming managers.
Baker sat out the 1951 season to have a baby, and returned the next year for what would be her final professional campaign. She hit just .208, and for the only time in her career had more strikeouts (22) than stolen bases (20).
The All-American league closed its doors two years later.
Back in Regina, Baker took up softball again and led her team to the world softball championship tournament in 1953. She became a sportscaster for Regina radio station for CKRM in 1964. And she managed the Wheat City Curling Club in Regina for 25 years until retiring in 1986.
She has been inducted into the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame and the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame. The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont., inducted the league's Canadian-born players as honorary members in 1999.
In 1988, an exhibit honouring the All-American league was placed on permanent display at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
A League of Their Own also encouraged recognition for the pioneering athletes, an honour long seen as overdue by many. The movie starred Madonna, Tom Hanks, Rosie O'Donnell and Ms. Davis, whose portrayal of a character named Dottie Hinson was widely believed by the former players to be mostly based on Mrs. Baker. The family of another catcher, the late Dottie Green, also claim to have been the inspiration for the character.
Baker died of respiratory failure at the Santa Maria Senior Citizens Home in Regina on Dec. 17.
She leaves a daughter, Maureen (Chick) Baker, two grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and brothers Andrew and Patrick.
She was predeceased by her husband Maurice, who died in 1962, three children who died in infancy, two brothers and four sisters, including Gene McFaul, a pitcher who had been her teammate at South Bend in 1947.
A memorial service was held at the Wascana Country Club on Saturday. The eulogies were followed by a seventh-inning stretch, during which mourners sang Take Me Out to the Ball Game.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Sinclair gets another crack at Major League dream

By Tom Hawthorn
The Times Colonist

September 28, 1997

Not so long ago, Steve Sinclair had called it quits, had hung 'em up, had stepped down from the pitcher's mound for good, had seen his childhood dream go to that big bullpen in the sky. He had languished in the Toronto Blue Jays system for five yearsand the closest he got to the bigs was listening to Buck Martinez on TSN. He had had enough and came home to Victoria at age 24 to go to school, to get a job, to become a grownup.
He worked as a doorman at a fancy hotel and, on some summer eves, threw bullets and hit taters against amateurs at the same parks in which he had played as a kid. He decided he still had a love for the game. He also decided his left arm was meant for better things than holding open doors.
So, this spring he returned to the same small Florida town where he had toiled for so long for so little reward, and once again began the climb up baseball's ladder. He ended the season in Syracuse, New York, just one level below the parent club.
Along the way, his fastball picked up some zip. He had been throwing in the 88 to 89 m.p.h. range for years. After taking up weight training, Sinclair was throwing in the 92 to 93 m.p.h. range. It is the difference between a fastball that is ho-hum and one that is a hummer. As they age, ballplayers are expected to add heat to aching muscles, not to their pitches.
"Maybe I'm just a late bloomer," Sinclair says with a laugh.
Sinclair leaves today for Toronto to join Canada's Olympic team, for whom he will pitch in a qualifying tournament in Mexico City. He will then become one of the Boys of Winter, playing for Lara in Venezuela at the suggestion of the Blue Jays.
At spring training, he expects to be battling for a spot in Toronto's bullpen.
At 26, Sinclair is closer than he ever has been to earning the baseball immortality that goes to those who play in the major leagues. "Once you're in Triple A, you're just one phone call away," Sinclair says. "One injury away. One little break."
He got one of those little breaks this summer when the Jays traded relief pitchers Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric to Seattle. The Jays have yet to post a Help Wanted sign for their bullpen, but every vacancy helps. Sinclair is a left-handed relief pitcher, a baseball commodity for which demand never lessens.
First, though, he will get an education in beisbol. He knows little of Venezuela, speaks only "pequito" Spanish - not yet even enough to get himself a cold cerveca after a game - and truly hopes the fans do not carry the same passion for ball that they do for soccer. "All I know is that we're not going out on New Year's Eve," he said. "They shoot their guns off in the air to celebrate, so I guess we'll be staying in and having a party of our own."
Venezuela is a long road trip for someone who first fell in love with ball watching his father, Scott, play for the Seaboard fastpitch team in the 1970s.
"I would go on all their trips with him," he recalled. "I'd have a ball and bat in my hands when I got up from bed and I'd have a ball and bat in my hands when I went back to bed at night."
His first big break came in the minors when Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick came to take a look. Gillick, a former minor leaguer himself, hunched down behind the catcher to get a better look at Sinclair's stuff. Another prospect would have been intimidated by having his future depend on a few tosses. Not Sinclair.
"I was just up there letting loose," he recalls, "letting him know what I had."
His arsenal has improved over the years. Bull sessions in the bullpen with the likes of Frank Viola have taught him that pitching is far more than just rearing back and throwing.
"I've learned that to be successful you have to pitch inside and change your speeds. Once you pitch inside, you widen the plate both inside and outside.
"Most of the time, I lived outside. I had a good sinker and threw outside, outside, outside. At Triple A, you face much better hitters. They can take that pitch the opposite way. But if you can throw consistent strikes inside, then that's going to keep the hitters off balance."
Sinclair's repertoire includes a fastball, a changeup, a curve, and a split-finger fastball that he has yet to refine.
He was 2-5 in Dunedin, allowing 63 hits in 68 1/3 innings, showing good control with 66 strikeouts to go with just 26 walks, three of those intentional.
At Syracuse, he pitched just nine innings over six games, recording a 6.00 earned-run average with no decisions. He had nine strikeouts and three walks.
"I look at my numbers and I go, wow, 6-something, that's not so good. But you only need three or four good innings and that comes way down."
On a recent hot afternoon, Sinclair limbered up on a mound at Lambrick Park, tossing big looping curveballs to a friend, Todd McLaughlin. Sinclair wore a Blue Jays cap and a team windbreaker. In a year's time he could well be throwing curves from the mound at SkyDome.
If so, his name and statistics will be included in the Baseball Encyclopedia, the registrar of baseball immortality that shows that in a century and a half of organized ball, only a single Vancouver Islander, Steve Wilson, a left-handed pitcher, ever made the bigs.
Still, Sinclair's friend had a better reason to cheer for his friend's success. "I want him to make the big bucks," McLoughlin said, "so he can come back home and buy the beer."

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Peter Trower (1930-2017), bard of the British Columbia backwoods

The poet Peter Trower reads from a manuscript.

By Tom Hawthorn
The Globe and Mail
November 25, 2017

To some poets, a tree is worthy of rhapsody. To Peter Trower, a tree was as likely to crush him as inspire him.

Mr. Trower spent more than two decades working as a logger in the woods, a dangerous place where a moment’s inattention or a comrade’s carelessness could have grave consequence. Far from civilization in isolated logging camps, he endured lonely nights by reading Jack Kerouac, finding in the stream-of-consciousness prose an avenue for expressing his own poetic insights into life in the bush.

He eventually abandoned the forest for an impecunious yet beery life as a writer, producing several collections of poetry and three novels, an output which earned him praise in British Columbia as a bard of the backwoods. He was less celebrated by the Eastern Canadian tastemakers of Canadian literature.

His death at 87 marks the end of an era for worker poets whose sharp eyes and calloused hands conveyed the beauty and horror to be found in the sweaty labour of a resource economy.

He spent decades in caulk boots, a duffle-bag wanderer. He worked as a baker, surveyor, shake-cutter, choker setter, whistle punk, crane operator, and pulp-mill hand. The worst job he had was working the pot-line in a smelter, converting bauxite into aluminum, a cloud of black sputum erupting from his every cough.

In the act of falling a tree he saw an echo of the combat the older members of his crew had witnessed, as he expressed in the poem “Like A War:”

No bombs explode, no khaki regiments tramp
to battle in a coastal logging-camp.
Yet blood can spill upon the forest floor
and logging can be very like a war.

In the big city, many a night (and early morning) was spent with elbows on beer-soaked, terrycloth tabletops at dive bars on Vancouver’s skid row, where poets bellowed their stanzas over the blare of a jukebox and the roar of a night’s revelry. After such training, performing in front of an audience at a reading was a snap, even when burly loggers expected to be averse to verse filled a room.

When not at the microphone, Mr. Trower was a shy man so soft spoken as to mumble. With a fleshy, droop-eyed face and a downturned mouth, he resembled the actor Peter Boyle. He could be disheveled, though a Greek fisherman’s black cap and sunglasses gave him a certain élan.

“He looked like every toothless logger I’d ever met before,” one of his publishers said. “I couldn’t imagine him writing poetry.”

Mr. Trower persisted in large part because his mother had always insisted he would be a writer.

Peter Gerard Tower was born on Aug. 25, 1930, at St Leonards-on-Sea, a tranquil resort town on the English Channel. He was the first of two boys born to Gertrude Eleanor Mary (née Gilman), known before her marriage as Gem for the initials of her given names, and Stephen Herbert Gerard Trower, a test pilot.

His mother was the only daughter of the Acting British Resident to the Selangor Sultanate in Malaya. At first, her parents opposed the proposed union, their objections raised not for displeasure with the prospective groom’s character but rather for the perilous nature of his profession. In the end, the Hon. E.W.F. Gilman escorted the bride on his arm at a wedding at St. Mary’s Church in Kuala Lumpur in which the ceremony was officiated by the Bishop of Singapore.

The newlyweds moved to Calcutta where the groom worked for the Anglo-Indian Air Survey. The teeming city did not win the approval of the new Mrs. Trower, so the couple soon after resettled with the groom’s parents in England. A second son, Christopher, arrived early in 1933.

The pilot, who had retired from the Royal Navy, was commissioned as a flying officer in the Royal Air Force Reserve in 1934. He tested aircraft for the Fairey Aviation Co., a British firm. In 1935, he delivered one of the company’s military planes to Moscow. His grateful Soviet hosts took him to the opera and feted him at banquets, a remarkable honour at a time of famine. The pilot’s less-than-gracious response was to don blue overalls to join his minder, less loyal than his boss’s suspected, in sneaking into an automobile factory. Once inside, they saw workers putting together aircraft. The machine he had flown in was clearly going to be a model for knockoffs.

Later that summer, the pilot demonstrated a Fairey Fantôme, a state-of-the-art biplane, at a competition for flying machines at a military airbase in Belgium. While performing loops and other feats of derring-do from a great height, the sleek aircraft began a nosedive towards the ground from which it would not recover. It was thought the pilot had blacked out. He was 34.

The bereaved family retreated to an estate owned by the boys’ maternal grandparents near the village of Islip in Oxfordshire. Years later, Mr. Trower would remember being indulged, especially at Christmas, a mountain of wrapped gifts a replacement for the ache of the tragic loss of a father.
Peter was sent to a boys-only preparatory school in Oxford known for its “robust informality and relaxed rigor,” a training ground for England’s future elites, including at least two generations of Tolkiens.

The outbreak of war in 1939 heralded an end to young Trower’s pastoral childhood. Family lore has it that Lord Haw-Haw, the traitorous Nazi announcer William Joyce, had identified an oil depot at Islip as a worthy target for an air bombardment during the Battle of Britain. On July 18, 1940, Mrs. Trower and her boys boarded on tourist-class tickets the Canadian Pacific Line steamship Duchess of Bedford, bound for Montreal. They sailed across the dangerous Atlantic without event before joining relatives in Vancouver.

Less than two months later, the widow married Trygve Iversen, a roughhewn wood-pulp engineer, and the boys were once again on the move, this time to Port Mellon, a mill town northwest of Vancouver, where a one-room schoolhouse offered a more rustic education than that on offer in Oxford. The settlement was accessible only by boat or float plane, and had not yet been wired for telephone service. Later, the poet would remember the outpost as a “jerry-built, tarpaper town.” A half-brother, Martin, was born in 1942.

(While she was in hospital to give birth, her husband acceded to her wish to have the interior of the house painted. She returned to find floors of yellow ochre, except in the kitchen, where a battleship grey floor was contrasted by cupboards, walls and a ceiling painted green, all from leftover paint at the mill.)

Mr. Iversen, who was superintendent of the mill, disappeared while on a timber cruise to estimate a stand of forest at the head of Bute Inlet. He was presumed to have fallen into the water and drowned. Not yet 14, Peter Trower had lost a father and a stepfather.

The grieving family spent the next few years shuttling between Gibsons, near Port Mellon, and Vancouver, where Peter attended high school before dropping out to find work in 1948. Mr. Trower followed his younger brother to a logging camp in the Queen Charlotte Islands (now Haida Gwaii).
After three years, he returned to Port Mellon to homestead 60 acres his stepfather had purchased during the Depression. He lived in a stump-house while taking on odd jobs in logging and construction, all the while cutting shakes on the property. He worked in a pulp mill at Woodfibre and spent two years in the aluminum smelter at Kitimat. “Like working in hell,” he once said.

A modest inheritance allowed him to quit the smelter and enrol at the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University), where he dabbled as a cartoonist.

Chastened by the superior drafting skills of his younger, less worldly classmates, he dropped out, pursuing instead the dissolute life of a beatnik, “learning what the bottom of life was like.” He discovered after three years that it meant he had no money, so he returned to Gibsons and a life in the woods.

After a slipped choker smashed him in the mouth, knocking out his teeth, Mr. Trower again abandoned logging for work as a surveyor. A first collection, “Moving Through the Mystery,” was published by Talon Books in 1969, though the volume is now treasured more for the psychedelic mandalas drawn by Jack Wise. Even Mr. Trower later dismissed his writing as juvenilia, though he was nearly 40 on publication.

After a young university graduate named Howard White published the first of a proposed series of volumes titled Raincoast Chronicles about life on the West Coast, a chagrined Mr. Trower summoned the publisher to his home to demand to know why he had not been invited to contribute. Mr. White found him in a cabin on his mother’s property. “It had the whiff of the bunkhouse,” Mr. White recalled recently, “the unmistakeable stench of stale beer, old socks, mouldy skin mags.” The poet offered to share his beer, rubbing a thumb on the lip of a soiled glass in a modest swipe at domesticity. The two became friends and Mr. Trower was named associate editor of subsequent editions.

Mr. White’s Harbour Publishing would publish several of Mr. Trower’s dozen poetry collections, including “Between Sky and Splinters” (1974), “The Alders and Others” (1976), and “Bush Poems” (1978). The publisher also released Mr. Trower’s three novels — “Grogan’s Café” (1993), “Dead Man’s Ticket” (1996) and “The Judas Hills” (2000). Other poetry collections were released by such British Columbia publishers as Ekstasis and Reference West. Only two of his works were handled by Eastern houses — “The Slidingback Hills” (Oberon, 1986) and “Ragged Horizons” (McClelland and Stewart, 1978).

A regular habitué of such Vancouver drinking establishments as the Alcazar Hotel and the Railway Club, Mr. Trower was encouraged by such poets as John Newlove, Al Purdy and Patrick Lane. The editor Mac Parry at the lifestyle magazine Vancouver championed his work, introducing the hard-scrabble poet to readers otherwise indulging fantasies about new bathroom fixtures.

The poet was invited to join the magazine staff at post-publication parties. At one of these, the young writer Les Wiseman was introduced to Mr. Trower, who had just been featured on the cover of the Georgia Straight underground newspaper.

“You remind me of this guy, Bukowski, have you ever read him?” the writer asked the poet.

He replied, “I just wrote a poem called ‘Funky Bukowski.’ It’s here in my briefcase. Would you like to read it?”

The poet opened the battered valise unveiling a pair of Y-front, tighty-whitey briefs atop a stack of paper. He fished around beneath the underwear before retrieving a draft manuscript.

The poet was the subject of at least two documentaries — “Between Sky and Splinters” by Mike Poole, and “Peter Trower: The Men There Were Then” by Alan Twigg and Tom Shandel for CBC.
Over the years, Mr. Trower also made an occasional appearance on the police blotter. He forfeited a $100 peace bond and was fined an additional $20, plus his share of $252 in damage, after a handgun was fired during a party in a mill dormitory in 1953. In 1967, he spent a month in jail for marijuana possession after his house in Gibsons was raided by a police drug squad, whose members included the notorious Abe Snidanko (obituary, Aug. 13). He was also fined $1,000.

After the death of his mother from respiratory failure in 1979, Mr. Trower rekindled a romance with the writer Yvonne Klan, whom he had known in high school. She had a salutary effect on the poet, insisting he not visit when drunk. As it turned out, he preferred her company to that of the beer hall, most of the time. He dedicated a volume of tender, unsentimental, lyrical love poems, “A Ship Called Destiny,” to Ms. Klan.

A jazz and blues aficionado, who later became a fan of psychedelia, Mr. Trower maintained an unexpected but steadfast appreciation for the old-time, big-voiced singer Frankie Laine, whose talents were not acknowledged by the poet’s circle.

“I get somewhat put down by the hip purists for this little indulgence but I don’t care,” he wrote to a friend in the 1960s. “Laine keeps me in touch with the mad past which I must mine for all its worth.”

Mr. Trower released his own music and poetry compact disc, “Sidewalks and Sidehills” in 2003.

Honours were late coming to Mr. Trower. (His friend the writer Jim Christy once fashioned a fake trophy for him from typewriter keys and labels from Extra Old Stock beer bottles.) Mr. Trower received the B.C. Gas (now George Woodcock) Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002, and the Jack Chalmers Poetry Award from the Canadian Authors Association in 2005 for his collection, “Haunted Hills and Hanging Valleys.”

His writing earned Gibsons, a town on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast otherwise known as the setting for television’s “The Beachcombers,” an entry in John Robert Colombo’s encyclopedic “Canadian Literary Landmarks.” Gibsons council repaid the favour last year by voting to name a street in a new subdivision Trower Lane.

Mr. Trower died on Nov. 10 at Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver from complications following surgery for a broken hip. He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, granting power of attorney to his widowed sister-in-law four years ago. He spent his final years at the Inglewood Care Home in West Vancouver. He was predeceased by his brother in 2006 and his half-brother in 2013, as well as by his long-time companion Yvonne Klan in 2004.

A memorial and celebration is scheduled to be held today at 3 p.m. at his old Vancouver hangout, now known as the Railway Stage and Beer Café. It will not be teetotal.

Mr. Trower was a mentor to street poets, including Evelyn Lau, a drug-addicted, teenaged prostitute whose work deeply impressed the older writer. He put her in touch with the book agent Denise Bukowski, and Ms. Lau’s “Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid” launched a notable literary career.

In a 1994 made-for-television movie based on the memoir, Sandra Oh portrayed the lead role in “The Diary of Evelyn Lau.” Mr. Trower played himself, declaiming poetry while sitting at a table in a bar, a role for which he had a lifetime’s preparation.

Special to The Globe and Mail