By IAN WILSON
For Edmonton baseball fans, Reggie Jackson really was the straw that stirred the drink.
On May 16, 1983, the man known as Mr. October arrived in Edmonton for an exhibition game between the hometown Trappers of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League (PCL) and their parent club, the California Angels.
It was a nothing game for the Angels – a northerly stop wedged between an 8-6 loss to the Minnesota Twins and a 3-1 victory over the Seattle Mariners – but it was a statement game for fans in Alberta’s capital.
Triple-A baseball was still relatively new to the city. The Trappers played their first season in 1981, with the Chicago White Sox serving as the ultimate destination for the team’s players. That affiliation ended after two years and 1983 marked the first year of a decade-long relationship with the Angels.
But Edmonton was primarily a hockey city then. A young core of future Hall of Famers named Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson and Jari Kurri were playing in their first Stanley Cup Final against the New York Islanders.
The Oilers were down 3-0 in the best-of-seven series when Reggie and the Angels came to town. The Islanders would complete the sweep at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York the day after the exhibition baseball game.
Perhaps sports fans were looking for a distraction from the disappointment of that Oilers-Islanders clash. Or maybe they wanted to declare their love of baseball to the world.
Or, maybe it was just Reggie.
Bob Brown, who was 15 years old when he went to the game with his family, said there was only one reason he attended.
“The biggest single reason for going? Reggie Jackson!” Brown told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“He was on the downswing of his career at the time, but he was an actual baseball legend playing in our city. That was a huge opportunity and likely one that wouldn’t happen again. I just had to go.”
TAKE ME OUT TO THE … FOOTBALL STADIUM?
The Trappers played their home games at John Ducey Park, which could accommodate up to 6,500 fans, but the decision was made to move the game to Commonwealth Stadium, home of the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League. Despite being an odd fit for a ball diamond, Commonwealth could hold nearly ten times as many people.
From an attendance point of view, it was a wise move for the Trappers.
“As we entered the stadium, it became apparent why they had the game at Commonwealth Stadium versus John Ducey Park. There were way more people there than could be held in the cozy confines of Ducey,” said Brown, who narrowly missed catching a Rob Wilfong home run.
The final head count was 24,830, which was the largest crowd ever to attend a baseball game in Edmonton. It’s still believed to be the highest attendance ever for a baseball game in Alberta history.
“It seemed like almost all of them were there to see Reggie. Before the game, Reggie made his way to the Angels dugout via the running track and crowds of people lined the bottom rows trying to get a glimpse of this larger than life hero,” said Brown, who now lives just outside of Edmonton in Beaumont.
Grant Ainsley also went to catch a glimpse of the Angels’ star players.
“It was quite a treat to see Reggie Jackson and many other big league players. That was the attraction,” recalled Ainsley, who lived a couple blocks north of Commonwealth Stadium and walked to the game with his father and a friend.
“It just seemed strange to have the Angels playing in Edmonton … the mood was different. It was a little like going to the zoo to see the strange animals. By that I mean, the big names were the attraction and the baseball game was secondary,” said Ainsley.
“I don’t remember any plays, or who won the game – just remember seeing the stars.”
The odd layout of the ball diamond also stood out.
“I remember the configuration of the diamond. Home plate, as I remember it, was somewhere close to the east stands in the corner of the north end zone. We sat in the north end zone so we could see home plate well,” remembered Ainsley.
“It was as if we were sitting along the first base line, but because of the way the playing field was laid out it slanted away from us. The field was more or less in a diagonal shape across the football field. I also remember a portable outfield fence that was pretty flimsy.”
The unique layout created a ludicrously short porch in right field – just 260 feet from home plate – and an incredibly deep part of the park in left centre field that was 460 feet away from the batter.
Unfazed by the dimensions, Jackson told reporters he planned to hit a ball all the way to Spruce Grove.
Meanwhile, organizers also developed a few special ground rules for the game (pictured above) that included the awarding of a single for balls hit off the public address speaker above the field, and a maximum playing time of two-and-a-half hours.
In addition, the Angels were allowed to use an batting lineup that differed from the players that took the field, resulting in multiple designated hitter spots for star players like Jackson, Rod Carew and Bob Boone.
When the game got underway, the Trappers struck early, scoring two runs in the first inning. But the Angels responded with solo home runs from Boone, Wilfong and Juan Beniquez (who scored an inside the park home run) in the third, fourth and sixth innings to take a 3-2 lead.
The Trappers wasted no time tying things up. They scored one run in the bottom of the sixth inning, followed by another run in the seventh to regain the lead.
In the eighth inning, Trappers pitching coach Aurelio Monteagudo came out to pitch for the Angels. He surrendered a solo shot to shortstop Dick Schofield and that insurance run was all the Trappers needed to secure a 5-3 victory.
And, as it turned out, the fans weren’t the only ones who were eager to see Reggie Jackson (who went 1-for-3 with a double, but no home runs in the contest).
Trapper pitcher Bob Lacey had met Jackson before. Lacey was a rookie with the Oakland Athletics in 1977 and Jackson was playing his first season with the New York Yankees. In just his fourth major league appearance, Lacey was summoned from the bullpen to face the Yankees.
“That particular game against the Yankees, I struck Reggie out twice,” said Lacey, who had some choice words for Jackson after ringing him up.
“I wasn’t a very mature guy at the time.”
Despite the previous tension between the two, their Edmonton reunion was a peaceful one.
“Him being on the field that day was kind of interesting,” Lacey told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“I remember running into Reggie and we were fine.”
FOR THE WIN
Lacey also ended up picking up the win in the historic game. He pitched the seventh inning, struck out a batter, and allowed one hit but no runs.
The then 29-year-old was a good choice to pitch at Commonwealth Stadium.
“I wasn’t necessarily reading all the newspaper articles about what was going on and I’d played in front of large crowds before so that wouldn’t have phased me either,” said Lacey, who went on to be a sales representative for Pepsi Cola and later became a teacher in Arizona after he retired from baseball.
Lacey also had experience pitching in a stadium that was ill-suited to baseball. He pitched at Hughes Stadium – a football venue that was also used for baseball – in Sacramento in 1976. That diamond featured a left-field fence that was just 250 feet from home plate.
“What got me on that particular day in Edmonton was that it was very similar to my experience in Sacramento,” said Lacey, who ended up with a 7-3 record and 12 saves, while posting a 4.72 ERA for the Trappers in 1983.
“I had a blast when I played for Edmonton … Moose Stubing was a tremendous manager to play for. He was a lot of fun. And all my teammates, I respected them.”
One of Lacey’s Trapper teammates also had success that day against the Angels. First baseman Jerry Narron hit a solo home run, and even though he doesn’t remember doing it, he’s sure it was of the tape-measure variety.
“I don’t even know, I can’t remember … mine went 450 feet to centre I’m sure,” deadpanned Narron, who is now the bench coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“It was a lot of fun just seeing that many people come to a baseball game in Edmonton. I’ll tell you what, the fans always showed up in Edmonton and they were very supportive. I thought the fans there were outstanding.”
While he doesn’t recall too much about that exhibition game against the Angels, Narron has fond memories of seeing Edmonton Oiler and Eskimo players at the ballpark.
“We had a lot of Oiler hockey players coming to games. It was great to see those guys. They were great players at that time, even though they hadn’t put together their streak of championships,” Narron told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“They came out – Gretzky and Messier – and they’d take BP once in a while, not often, but it was a lot of fun meeting those guys.”
Narron, who hit 27 home runs and collected 102 RBI for the Trappers that season, also enjoyed seeing Oiler enforcer Dave Semenko at the ballpark.
“He was just a big guy and seemed like he had a good time at all the games. Where he was sitting was always a party up there … I wish the Oilers would’ve stayed together forever and won a lot more championships.”
The Oilers would get their turn as the straw that stirred the drink in Edmonton, but on May 16, 1983 that honour belonged to Reggie.