By IAN WILSON
It’s the best time of year for many baseball fans. The Fall Classic, pitting the Boston Red Sox against the Los Angeles Dodgers, is in full swing.
And while the Major League Baseball (MLB) postseason has already provided plenty of fun and intrigue (including the performance of catcher Erik Kratz, the last active alumni of the Medicine Hat Blue Jays), the playoffs still have more to offer.
One of the most compelling aspects of the World Series is witnessing players rise to the occasion and excel under pressure. Sometimes it’s an ace pitcher or a star slugger that achieves what’s expected of them – other times it’s the utility player or an unheralded roster addition that leads his team to baseball’s greatest prize: the Commissioner’s Trophy.
The Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the World Series has been recognized since 1955, when left-handed pitcher Johnny Podres received the award after celebrating a championship with Jackie Robinson and his Brooklyn Dodger teammates.
Since then, the honour – which has been renamed the Willie Mays World Series MVP – has included some names familiar to Alberta baseball fans. Some of those players made memorable, if not brief, visits to the province.
JUST PASSING THROUGH
In 1983, Reggie Jackson – a two-time World Series MVP in the 1970s – came to Edmonton for an exhibition game against the Trappers. The visit from Mr. October, as Jackson became known for his postseason heroics, was front-page news in Alberta’s capital and it brought out the largest baseball crowd in the province’s history, with nearly 25,000 fans showing up at Commonwealth Stadium for the May 16 event.
The MVP of the 2013 World Series, David Ortiz, didn’t have quite the same following when he made road trips through Alberta in the late 1990s as he does now. The Red Sox legend was playing Triple-A baseball for the Salt Lake Buzz of the Pacific Coast League (PCL) at the time. “Big Papi” turned in an all-star campaign in 1999, launching 30 home runs – including blasts out of Burns Stadium in Calgary and Telus Field in Edmonton – and leading the league in RBI with 110. It was the best season of Ortiz’s minor league career and it signaled the stellar major-league career that was in store for the famous designated hitter.
Orel “Bulldog” Hershiser, the MVP of the Dodgers last World Series championship team in 1988, also traveled north to Canada when he was on the cusp of an excellent MLB career. Hershiser was a bullpen force for the Albuquerque Dukes in 1982 and 1983 – collecting 20 saves and 19 wins over two seasons for the PCL squad. He had plenty of bite during those Triple-A campaigns and punched out 188 batters, including several Edmonton Trappers during that time.
BRINGING THE HEAT TO ALBERTA
Another pitcher who impressed Albertans at the Triple-A level before he was recognized as the best player in the battle for bragging rights between the American League (AL) and the National League (NL) was Jose Rijo. The right-hander from the Dominican Republic went 2-0 and allowed just one earned run over 15.1 innings during the 1990 World Series as the underdog Cincinnati Reds upset the Oakland Athletics.
Before he took the mound for the Reds, Rijo was in Oakland’s farm system, where – as a member of the Tacoma Tigers – he squared off against the Calgary Cannons and the Edmonton Trappers in 1985 and 1987. During one memorable performance in June of 1987 at John Ducey Park in Edmonton, Rijo and his 96 mile-per-hour fastball struck out nine batters during a 7-2 win over the Trappers in front of 4,626 fans.
John Wetteland, meanwhile, covered more ground and spent more time in Alberta than the other players we’ve mentioned up to this point. The second-round selection of the Los Angeles Dodgers began his professional career as an 18-year-old in the Pioneer League, where he first called Great Falls, Montana home. As a member of the rookie-level team, Wetteland worked as a starter and a reliever in the mid-1980s and he spent more than a few innings pitching against the Medicine Hat Blue Jays.
After he climbed the minor-league ranks, Wetteland ended up splitting time between the Albuquerque Dukes and the L.A. Dodgers from 1989 through 1991. During that time, he was being converted from a starting pitcher to a closer. And over the course several trips to Calgary and Edmonton, Wetteland would frustrate Cannons and Trappers hitters alike. During two early season starts against the Cannons in 1989 – one at Foothills Stadium, the other in Albuquerque – Wetteland fanned 22 batters over 15 innings and allowed just one run.
The right-handed pitcher’s 20 saves for the Dukes in 1991 showcased Wetteland’s ninth-inning abilities – he would go on to be a dominant MLB closer, picking up 330 saves in 12 seasons. That door-slamming proficiency was on full display during the 1996 World Series, when Wetteland earned four saves for the New York Yankees in a seven-game series victory over the Atlanta Braves. The clutch performance resulted in MVP honours for the product of San Mateo, California.
Third baseman Troy Glaus, the MVP of the 2002 World Series for the Anaheim Angels, also did battle against Alberta’s Triple-A talent when he was a member of the Vancouver Canadians of the PCL in 1998.
And while all-time MLB hits leader and 1975 World Series MVP Pete Rose never played competitive baseball in front of an Alberta audience, “Charlie Hustle” did come to the province in 2014 to speak at a responsible gambling symposium in Leduc about how gaming impacted his life.
BIRDS OF A FEATHER
Baseball fans in Wild Rose Country also got more extended looks at MLB’s legends of the fall.
Blue Jays fans living in Alberta had plenty of reason to root for Toronto in the 1992 World Series – Pat Borders, Jimmy Key and David Wells all played together at Athletic Park in Medicine Hat a decade before they faced the Atlanta Braves in an historic duel for the Commissioner’s Trophy. They were joined by fellow Baby Jays Mike Timlin and Mark Eichhorn, who pitched out of the bullpen alongside Wells. Other key contributors to Toronto’s success during that postseason run were outfielders Devon White (a longtime Edmonton Trapper) and Candy Maldonado, who played two seasons for the Lethbridge Dodgers in the late 1970s.
Key gathered two World Series wins over nine standout innings of work against Atlanta, during which time he struck out six hitters and surrendered only one earned run. But it was Borders work at the plate and behind it that landed him the MVP award. In 20 at bats, the catcher generated nine hits, three RBI and one home run. The solo shot came during Key’s 2-1 victory in Game 4.
Borders, who was also a member of Toronto’s 1993 championship team, returned to Alberta as a member of the Tacoma Rainiers 10 years after his playoff heroics, where he dug in against the Cannons and the Trappers before retiring from play after the 2006 season.
WHAT THE ECK?
One of the more unlikely World Series MVP winners was David Eckstein, the 5-foot-8 middle infielder who batted .364 and drove in four runs during the St. Louis Cardinals best-of-seven triumph over the Detroit Tigers in 2006.
Eckstein, who was waived by the Boston Red Sox in 2000 before the Anaheim Angels claimed him and assigned him to Edmonton, only played 15 games for the Trappers but his tenacity and strong play in the field made fans take notice in both Calgary and the City of Champions. The Sanford, Florida native hit three home runs – including one at Burns Stadium – while stealing five bases, scoring 17 runs and batting .346 during 52 at bats in a Trapper uniform.
“The way he carries himself on the field is a guy who lives and dies for baseball,” Trappers hitting coach Leon Durham told reporter Norm Cowley of the Edmonton Journal in late August of 2000.
RING TO REHAB
When Mike Lowell reported to Calgary to play for the Cannons, he already had a World Series ring. The third baseman was a September call-up for the Yankees in 1998 and even though he didn’t play during the postseason, the Bronx Bombers swept the San Diego Padres in the World Series and Lowell was presented with a ring.
The Puerto-Rican born infielder was traded to the Florida Marlins in the offseason and was diagnosed with testicular cancer in February of 1999.
“It came as such a shock because I hadn’t even had any pain,” Lowell told Calgary Herald scribe Gyle Konotopetz at Burns Stadium while he was in the middle of his 24-game rehab assignment with the Cannons. “For three days, it was a real trying time waiting for the tests … that put my life into perspective.”
Lowell returned to the MLB in late May and would eventually play a bigger role on World Series winning teams. In 2003, he faced several familiar faces when the Marlins upset the Yankees in a 4-2 series victory. Lowell played all six World Series games, posting a batting average of .217. He scored one run and produced two RBI in helping bring a championship to his home state of Florida.
The 20th-round draft pick saved his best performance for an even bigger stage. Lowell was traded to the Red Sox in 2006 and when Boston faced the Colorado Rockies in the 2007 World Series, he batted .400, crossed the plate six times and drove in four runs during the four-game sweep. Lowell received the MVP award for his play.
2018 WORLD SERIES MVP
Sadly, the winner of this year’s World Series MVP award will not have logged any playing time in Alberta. That’s primarily because the days of the Pacific Coast League and the Pioneer League playing here have long since passed.
But there are some talented players coming out of the province every year, so there is hope that the next World Series MVP with Alberta ties will be a homegrown talent. Until that happens, enjoy the Fall Classic!