“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
– Jackie Robinson
By IAN WILSON
The Lawsons are a baseball family.
It is those two components – baseball and family – that meant the most to Jim Lawson.
During his 52 years of life, Jim not only cultivated his own love of baseball in his children, he inspired a lasting fondness for the game in those who took the field with him.
Since passing away on Aug. 8th, following a bout with brain cancer, the founder of the Pro Baseball Force (PBF) Redbirds program leaves this world with a pioneering legacy that extends across Canada and all the way up to the Major League Baseball (MLB) level.
Jim grew up playing Little League ball in Langley, British Columbia. Provincial and Western Canadian titles soon followed for the right-handed pitcher, as did a spot representing Team Canada on the National Baseball Institute (NBI) roster in 1986.
The 6-foot tall hurler then took his passion for the game south of the border to Huntington University of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). In Indiana, Jim helped the Foresters become conference champions alongside his brother, Russ, a two-time, All-Conference athlete.
By 1988, Jim had drawn the attention of scouts. After watching the California Angels select Jim Abbott, the Seattle Mariners choose Tino Martinez and the Toronto Blue Jays pick Ed Sprague in the first round of that year’s draft, Jim was nabbed by the Oakland Athletics in the 12th round with the 307th overall selection.
He signed with the team right away and went about life as a professional baseball player.
“For him, it was a lifelong dream,” said Jim’s wife Trudy.
“The being drafted part was amazing. Of course, he didn’t finish university at that point.”
As a 21-year-old with the Southern Oregon A’s of the Single-A Northwest League, Jim’s first year of pro ball went well. He appeared in 24 games – including six starts – and pitched 53 innings while posting a 3.40 earned run average (ERA), a 2-3 record and 38 strikeouts.
A promotion to the Madison Muskies of the Midwest League saw Jim record a 5-3 record, 67 Ks and a 3.90 ERA during his 1989 campaign, which included 33 appearances, five starts and 83 innings on the mound.
The next season included a bump to a higher level of Single-A baseball when Jim joined the Modesto A’s in the California League. In 23 appearances and 52.2 frames with Modesto, he notched 39 strikeouts and a 4.61 ERA. His time in Madison that year, however, was less successful. In 11 innings of relief work, he yielded 25 earned runs and watched his ERA balloon to 19.85.
“It was an amazing experience but he wasn’t prepared to live his whole life in the baseball system, sitting on buses and getting paid five dollars a game for lunch. It was a pretty tough life, actually,” said Trudy.
“It’s a tough grind, but he came home and life carried on.”
Following his final year in the minor leagues, Jim was ready to pursue another love.
One of his teammates in university and in senior men’s play, Darren Tecklenburg, had a sister that Jim wanted to get to know a bit better. As luck would have it, she was also a pretty big baseball fan.
“I come from a baseball family … my brother was a high-performance baseball player, as well, and they played together and went to university together, so that’s how I met Jim. It just kind of went from there,” recalled Trudy.
“It wasn’t actually until after he came back from playing with Oakland that we started dating.”
Jim continued playing and coaching baseball in B.C. during his courtship of Trudy and the two got married in 1996. Their first child, Trent, was born two years later and at that point, the couple was considering a move to Alberta.
“Why we came out to Calgary was just for a better life. We wanted a house, a house in the cul-de-sac with the backyard and the dog,” said Trudy, who works for the Royal Bank of Canada.
The Lawsons packed up and headed to Cowtown, where they welcomed their second son, Cory, in 2001.
“I had my career and Jim was focused on raising the family,” Trudy told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“He loved every minute of it, because the kids went everywhere with him, including the baseball diamond.”
One of the ballparks the boys got to know well was Burns Stadium – home of the Triple-A Calgary Cannons of the Pacific Coast League – where Jim found work as a groundskeeper.
“He was on the grounds crew for the Cannons for many years when the kids were really young, so he was able to pick the kids up and they would ride the mower with him and all sorts of fun stuff, so they grew up on the ball field,” said Trudy.
GROWING THE GAME
As Trent and Cory grew, so did Jim’s interest in coaching baseball. Although he still played for and managed the Calgary Cardinals on the senior men’s circuit of the Sunburst Baseball League, Jim sought to grow the game in Alberta.
“He wanted to do more. The boys were getting a little bit older then and so he had wanted to get into a little bit more of the coaching side,” said Trudy. “From there, he was feeling a little bit structured with a lot of those programs, where there was a limited amount of flexibility.”
In addition to his work with the Dinos and the National Sport Academy, Jim served as a vice president with Baseball Alberta and as the president of Baseball Calgary. But none of those roles seemed to fulfill his vision for coaching and training young baseball players in the Calgary area.
After establishing the PBF Redbirds academy in 2001, Jim started putting more time and effort into his own venture.
“Kids were looking for teams and the parents wanted a bit more of a summer-winter program. That’s when he started an academy program that would travel in the winter and head down to Arizona and spring training and things like that. So, that’s how it started. Those parents asked Jim to grow the program into an actual fall ball and summer ball program that was year round,” remembered Trudy.
“There was really not a lot of competition in the Calgary area.”
Jim would occasionally recruit teammates from the Foothills Major Baseball Association (FMBA) to serve as coaches with the PBF Redbirds.
Brent Cooper, who moved from Halifax to Banff in 2005, ended up playing and coaching with Jim.
“Jimmy was always welcoming to any players who were willing to pay it forward and give back. We all truly treated each other like a family,” Cooper told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“Most, if not all, of my baseball experiences in Alberta can be traced back to Jim Lawson and the experiences I had with the PBF Redbirds. I have had some amazing life experiences through baseball and I can honestly say I wouldn’t have if I didn’t cross paths with Jim.”
Personal gains aside, Cooper also developed a healthy respect for the way Jim conducted himself at the diamond and in the dugout.
“As a baseball mentor, I absolutely loved the fact I was working alongside a man that put family first – he adored his family and I only hope I can provide my young family with a fraction of the same love and compassion,” observed Cooper.
“Playing the game the right way is something I will always recall Jim preaching. There’s a right way and a whole lot of wrong ways to play the game – choose wisely. Effort was another lesson. You will get a great return in life, not only in baseball, as long as you invest a solid work ethic and treat everyone with respect.”
Former MLB pitcher Chris Reitsma – who played seven seasons for the Cincinnati Reds, Atlanta Braves and Seattle Mariners – worked with Jim at National Sport Academy and at PBF.
The Calgarian was drawn to Jim’s enthusiasm for the game and his desire to watch young players progress.
“It’s such a blessing to work with someone who commits himself to the game for the right reasons,” said Reitsma.
“Jim’s passion for baseball in Alberta has deep roots that have influenced many players, coaches and families. He has been a great builder of baseball in Alberta.”
One of those players that Jim influenced can be found in the starting rotation of the Atlanta Braves. All-Star pitcher Mike Soroka played for the PBF Redbirds under the guidance of Jim and Reitsma between 2010 and 2015. The Calgary right-hander went from being a first-round draft pick of the Braves four years ago to a buzzworthy candidate for Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards in the National League this year.
“You look at Mike and they always say he seems so poised and mature. I know Jim, he had something to do with that,” noted Trudy, who also put in countless hours of work for the PBF Redbirds program as the organization’s manager.
Upon hearing of Jim’s passing, Soroka posted the following message on Twitter:
“Carrying a heavy heart for the Lawsons today. Jim was a catalyst in not only my baseball journey, but in my life as well. I would not be the person I am today without him. No matter the time, we could always count on Jim to share a laugh with. A great man gone far too soon.”
Added Soroka: “Few loved the game and the baseball life more than Jim. A man who always put others needs before his own, especially his two sons, Cory and Trent. Jim left a profound impact on so many in our baseball community, and will be missed greatly.”
Fortunately for Jim and his family, they were able to take a trip to Arizona to watch Soroka pitch when the Braves faced the Diamondbacks on May 9th.
“It meant the world to him, for sure,” said Trudy, who also made the trek.
“Who did it mean more to, whether it be Mike or Jim or my two kids or his brother or sister? Because we all went and that’s what made it really special. I don’t know who it meant more to. The kids were really taking in the moment, every moment, just watching Jim watch the ball game. When Mike was warming up we were just so happy for Jim to be there.”
The Lawsons also attended Soroka’s MLB debut in 2018, a 3-2 win over Noah Syndergaard and the New York Mets.
Such trips to watch Soroka – and perhaps other PBF alumni – pitch at major-league ballparks were not supposed to come to an end so soon for a man in his early 50s.
Indeed, Jim was likely looking forward to many more outings with family as he drove Trent to Arizona in 2017 to get his son set up for his college baseball career.
“He had a seizure while traveling and that’s when it was discovered … he had a baseball-sized tumor and he had to have it removed,” said Trudy.
After surgery that September, Jim underwent radiation treatment and he continued on with chemotherapy for another year. He suffered a stroke last year, which is common due to the damage to the brain caused by the tumor and the impact of the chemo, and more tumor growth was removed in November.
“Initially, we were as positive as we could be,” Trudy recalled.
“We were told at the time that it could come back and that it would grow back. The timing of when … it could be a year, it could be three, it could be five, it could be ten, but after the growth had come back after a year after the surgery – even with the chemo and radiation – it was obviously a little bit more concerning. At that time, we were aware that we didn’t have long.”
FAMILY & BASEBALL
Through it all, two things remained: family and baseball.
Even when he had to rely on a wheelchair to get around, Jim got out to watch the Redbirds play. And when he entered hospice care, his room was equipped with a big-screen TV that regularly showed MLB baseball, especially the Braves on days when Soroka was scheduled to toe the rubber.
“He was never away from the game, ever,” said Trudy. “His passion for the game and love of the game – he lived, breathed, ate baseball.”
Asked about his legacy, Trudy paused to think.
“I couldn’t even venture a guess as to how many kids, parents and umpires he impacted. I know that he takes pride when, they’re obviously all young men now, they still play ball. That’s the goal, that you play ball and you have fun playing ball and you get better.”