Bob Elliott: Canada's own
Bob Elliott took his place in major league baseball’s Hall of Fame on Saturday.
And, he took a little piece of Canada in with him.
On the dais were 45 Hall of Famers backing him up. But, perhaps even more momentous, was the feeling that there was an entire country behind him.
A small part of this moment belongs to dozens of kids on the sandlots of the GTA, on baseball scholarships across the U.S., and on minor league rosters from Visalia to Danville.
Among the crowd at a sun-splashed Doubleday Field were about 100 friends, colleagues and countrymen as Elliott becomes the first Canadian to win the Taylor Spink Award, presented by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America,
In her introduction, BBWAA vice-president, Susan Slusser, said Elliott has helped “steer a hockey-mad nation towards baseball.”
He won the award largely due to his promotion of the northern game and Canadian players.
“A lot was said about how I helped young Canadians get to the next level. Yes, I wrote about Canadians (but) they put in the work to be drafted or earn scholarships. They did it on their own.” said Elliott, in a speech filled with reflection and tinged with humour.
“I have given a lot less to baseball than it has given to me.”
The Toronto Sun baseball writer has, at times, looked a little embarrassed by all the attention. Before the presentation Saturday, he shared the dais at a morning press conference with Tim McCarver, who won the Ford Frick Award for excellence in broadcasting. On Sunday, it is the turn of Barry Larkin and Ron Santo for induction.
“It’s very humbling to be here,” said Elliott, who found out soon after it was announced he’d won this award at baseball’s off-season meetings in December, how big a deal this was going to be.
“I remember in Dallas my phone went off and (Tampa Bay Times baseball writer) Marc Topkin yelled: “It’s the Prime Minister. It’s the Prime Minister.’ Everyone laughed,” said Elliott.
“Months later, I get a phone call and the voice says: ‘It’s the Prime Minister’s office. Can you be at the Royal York at 4:20?’”
And, it really, really was Prime Minister Stephen Harper calling.
“I was there about 3:30,” said Elliott, laughing. “So, yeah, it is a big deal. Not just for me, but for other people (in the country).”
It was suggested by one reporter that there is a difference between the U.S. and Canada — how national passions seemed to flare with the World Series championships of the Jays, then wane. In the U.S., athletes seem to be born with a flag planted on their hearts if not their butts.
“I think as a nation, we’re as patriotic as you are, but we don’t show it,” Elliott told the press conference. “(Former prime minister) Lester Pearson used to say we have this inferiority complex. ‘You look at us too long, we get worried. And if you don’t look at us, we get even more worried.’ But in the Vancouver Olympics, a lot of that patriotism came out. We are a patriotic country.”
And, this weekend a small corner of Cooperstown, has been taken over by that passion, and by that northern game chronicled by Elliott.
On Friday night, there was a BBWAA-hosted a reception. As New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden strolled up the pathway to the opulent Otesaga Hotel, a bird came zipping past.
“Look,” he said to his wife, Lillian, “a blue jay. That (Jays’ president Paul) Beeston is really going all out for Bob’s big moment. I haven’t seen a blue jay down around here. Ever.”
And, while Madden isn’t famous for his bird-watching, he has been coming down here for 37 years. So, maybe he’s on to something.
Former Jays general managers Gord Ash and Pat Gillick stopped by. Lou Piniella was there. George Brett. Dozens of writers, including CBSSports.com’s Dan Knobler, the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Rogers and Bill Shaikin, Los Angeles Times sports writer and president of the BBWAA, shared stories.
Tracy Ringolsby, Elliott’s close friend, now with Foxsports.com and co-founder of Baseball America, said his buddy is filled with gratitude and that he has rarely seen him so discomfited yet happy at the same time.
What sets Elliott apart from most journalists is that he makes “a difference” in his community, said Shaikin.
“As a baseball writer, that can be a challenge,” he said in response to an e-mail. “We share the stories of your favourite team. We introduce you to the players. And we are thrilled and delighted to have that privilege. Bob does all of that, but he does so much more. For baseball in Canada, Bob is the keeper of the flame. Bob covers the Blue Jays and the rest of the major leagues, too. But he also covers the minors leagues, and ... any other league in which a Canadian might be found.
“If you know baseball in Canada you know Bob. And if you know Bob, you know baseball in Canada. He is an advocate for baseball, in a country that watched major league baseball shamefully abandon Montreal. The commissioner ought to thank Bob every day.”
There was, once, somebody who had doubts anything resembling this day could ever happen.
“Big-time surprised,” laughed Elliott, when asked what his teachers would think if they could see him now. “I remember my guidance teacher, Mr. Newman. He says: ‘What would you like to be?’ I said I’d like to work at the newspaper and he’s laughing, looking at my marks: A 60 in English composition and a 63 in English this, and he says: ‘You’ve got no chance.’
“I said: ‘Sir, I’ve been working (at the Kingston Whig-Standard) on weekends for three years.’
“He says: ‘You got no chance to work there full time. Maybe the Napanee Beaver.’
“He would be shocked. I went back for a reunion about 20 years later and couldn’t find him,” said Elliott, to laughter. “Not that I was looking for him.”
The Napanee Beaver’s loss, it turns out, has become Canada’s pride — and Cooperstown’s gain.