We're proud of you, Bob Elliott
It is the place of Babe Ruth and Stan Musial. The place of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. One word, one town, one magical Hall of Fame that represents baseball excellence.
Today, it becomes home to our Bob Elliott, and if he’s not crying tears of joy and emotion, we certainly are.
This is an historic time for a kid from Kingston, a quiet mumbling baseball writer, in love with the work, the game, the craft, the gathering of information, all the skills inherent for chronicling three decades of major league, minor league and sandlot baseball, not born or part of this look-at-me generation of journalists.
No Canadian has ever been awarded the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the Pulitzer for baseball writers: He doesn’t get an individual plaque on the wall, like George Brett or Carl Yastrzemski. But he will be forever recognized in this Hall of Fame way. Along with all the previous Spink winners, one each year. And understand this, no Canadian has been on this journalistic route before: It’s quite likely it will be decades before another is so enshrined, if it ever happens again.
Which is why today should matter, not just to those of us at the Toronto Sun, who have marvelled for 25 years at the work Elliott has produced. The volume. The quality. The diversity. The unwillingness to accept the status quo.
Those of us on the inside are so proud today. Those of you on the outside — readers, baseball fans, casual observers — should take a moment to understand how remarkable this honour is, how unlikely, how incredible this is.
Twenty-five years ago, the new sports editor of the Toronto Sun made two hires within days of each other. Elliott was hired first. I came a few weeks later. The first story I ever wrote as a staff member of the Toronto Sun was a double-byline story with Elliott. In truth, it wasn’t much of a story at all — something about why the Blue Jays couldn’t play on grass at the still-being-built SkyDome.
There was no indication from that day that a Hall of Fame career would follow for Elliott. But when he went solo and my name came off his stories, the Hall of Fame journey began.
It began for Whispering Bob the way it quietly and privately begins for most journalists of quality: On the telephone. He was always on the telephone. It didn’t matter the day, the time, the inning, the cellphone bill — Bob was on the phone. Listening, more than talking. Asking the right questions. The man at the other end of the line fully aware that the long pauses weren’t necessarily awkward, just part of his cadence of conversation.
Bob used to disappear in the early innings in Blue Jays games and leave his press box seat and then you couldn’t find him. A few innings later, when off to get some popcorn or a Diet Coke (mine, not his, his drink of choice, also), you would run into Bob in the hallway, or in a corridor, or presumably hiding, whispering into his phone.
At 10 o’clock at night he would tell you he didn’t know what he was going to write. “Steven,” he would say to me, “I’ve got nothing.”
The next morning, you’d pick up the newspaper and (1) realize he had more than nothing; (2) wonder who he might have been talking to on the phone; (3) ask yourself how in heck does he come up with such great stuff?
The business is a constant juggling act. You have to balance your relationship with your contacts, keep in touch with players, deal with the demands of editors and those with agendas, talk to everyone and anyone and then find a way to make sense of 700 words in about 20 minutes of writing time, if you have the luxury of that much time.
And then you do it all again the next day. And the next year. And the 29 years that come after that one.
In a business where credibility is not easy to earn or sustain and respect for media is, frankly, on the decline, Elliott stands out. Years ago, the Sun ran an advertising campaign: “If you don’t know Bob Elliott, you don’t know baseball.”
Most ad campaigns are part-cutesy, part-hyperbole. This one was dead-on true. In this market, in this country, no baseball writer has taken you to as many places, talked to as many insiders, come up with the story before it’s a story.
Before we knew Joey Votto, he did. And now that we know who Votto is and what he has accomplished, what we don’t necessary know is where he played as a kid, who coached him, who changed his swing, who wanted to draft him, what happened in his personal life: Elliott doesn’t tell you what happened in a baseball game. Hell, anybody can do that.
He tells you why it happened, how it happened, what led to it happening. And then he fills in all the background.
“You never see him in the scrums,” said Howard Starkman, the Jays vice-president and former PR director. “He gets his information on his own.”
The stories I look forward to the most come after major trades or major signings are made. When Roy Halladay is traded to Philadelphia, the story I want to read is the one written by Bob. Because I want to know how the deal came to be made, who else was offered up, how the negotiations came to be, who met with whom and often what they ate for breakfast.
And, yes, the story becomes all the more rich when you realize Alex Anthopoulos was sitting over his eggs at Cora’s on a weekday morning trying to figure out whether to make the deal or not. The eggs, the restaurant, the name of a mom or a dad, a scout or a high school coach — it’s always there in rich detail. Detail that doesn’t come from post-game scrums: It comes the old-fashioned way for the best of reporters. It comes from outworking and outsmarting and out-angling the opposition.
It comes over time from earning trust from those you work with, those you work against and all the people you write about. You know Bob Elliott is Hall of Fame when you see the way an opposing manager greets him, the respect with which Jose Bautista or Pat Gillick approach him, the way he has embraced baseball and it, in turn, has embraced him.
The Hall of Fame weekend in Cooperstown has begun with a parade and with an astounding discovery. Almost twice the number of reporters who regularly cover the Hall inductions are in Cooperstown this year. Yet many are leaving on Sunday morning flights before the inductions of Barry Larkin and Ron Santo.
They didn’t go for the baseball players. They went to support their friend, their colleague, the newest member of a most exclusive club.