In The Cards: 2001 Calgary Cannons

By IAN WILSON

It was the 100th anniversary of minor-league baseball and the Cannons were close to the end of their run in Calgary.

The Triple-A affiliate of the Florida Marlins was competitive enough to win a few games in front of the 246,991 fans who went to Burns Stadium that 2001 season, but their 72-71 record was nowhere close to good enough for a postseason appearance.

Regardless, there were plenty of MLB-calibre players on the field that year, including Jason Grilli, who holds the distinction of being the last Calgary Cannon to pitch in the majors.

The set of Pacific Coast League (PCL) cards is quite nice, featuring sharp photography and plenty of action shots. The back of each card, meanwhile, features statistical data and interesting biographical information about the players and staff.

Let’s take a closer look at our latest installment of In The Cards

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The coaching staff of the Cannons had some impressive resumes by the time they ended up in Calgary. Field manager Chris Chambliss (top right) was a six-time World Series champion and the 1971 American League (AL) Rookie of the Year award winner. The first baseman hit a memorable walk-off home run in the 1976 AL Championship Series, which resulted in such a chaotic scene that a new rule had to be implemented regarding touching home plate when the field is swamped with fans. Following his time with the Cannons, Chambliss worked as a hitting coach for several MLB clubs. Speaking of hitting coaches, Sal Rende (middle) worked with the Cannons for three seasons. Before coming to Cowtown, Rende was named the Sporting News Minor League Manager of the Year in 1990. The Illinois product managed the Edmonton Trappers for two seasons in the early ’90s, and he went on to win a World Series ring with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008, serving as the team’s minor-league hitting instructor at the time.
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After looking at that bold “100 Years Minor League Baseball” logo in the previous picture, it was such a let down to flip it over and find it blank (top left). It was a missed opportunity to shed some light on the origins of minor-league baseball, or some of the highlights of the game over the century.  Moving on, pitching coach Britt Burns (middle left) was a solid major leaguer who posted a record of 70-60, with a 3.66 ERA and 734 strikeouts over 193 games with the Chicago White Sox between 1978 and 1985. Burns was discovered by Chicago Tribune book critic Bob Cromie. The former sportswriter sent White Sox owner Bill Veeck a newspaper article about Burns, who was breaking high school pitching records in Birmingham, Alabama. Burns, an AL All-Star in 1981, was not on the team’s radar until Veeck read over the recommendation from Cromie. The 6-foot-5 lefty was a third-round draft pick of the White Sox in 1978. Before he arrived in the Stampede City for the 2001 campaign, Burns had worked as the minor-league pitching coordinator for the Florida Marlins, a role he would later fill with the Houston Astros.
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Jason Grilli (bottom centre) was a popular journeyman reliever who played 20 seasons for nine MLB teams, including the Toronto Blue Jays. A first-round draft pick of the San Francisco Giants in 1997, Grilli became a member of the Florida Marlins organization when he was traded with Nate Bump for pitcher Livan Hernandez in late July of 1999.  As a starting pitcher, he made 16 starts for the Cannons in 1999 and 2000, posting less-than-stellar results. “Grilled Cheese” – as the righthander became known – pitched in every level of baseball in 2001, rising from rookie to Single-A to Double-A to the Cannons before taking the mound for the Marlins. In Calgary, he pitched 47 innings in 2001, going 1-2 with a 4.02 ERA over eight starts. He suited up for the Cannons again in 2002, but his season was lost to Tommy John surgery after only one start. Grilli persevered and he became an effective weapon out of the bullpen, racking up 33 saves for the Pittsburgh Pirates during the 2013 season. He was a National League (NL) All-Star and graced the cover of Sports Illustrated that year.
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Catcher Ramon Castro (top right) became the first Puerto Rican to be drafted in the first round of the MLB draft when the Houston Astros took him with the 17th overall pick in 1994. He split time with the Marlins and the Cannons in 1999, playing 97 games for Calgary. At the Triple-A level, he smacked 15 long balls while driving in 61 runs that year. He went back-and-forth between the PCL and the big leagues again the following season, crushing 14 homers and batting .335 in 67 contests for Cowtown. Castro’s best season of professional baseball occurred in 2001, when he led the Cannons in home runs (27), batting average (.336), on-base percentage (.393), and runs (81). Tack on 90 RBI and it’s obvious why the backstop was selected as the team MVP in 2001. Castro appeared in 567 MLB games, spanning 14 years, with the Marlins, New York Mets and Chicago White Sox.
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Johnny Ruffin (bottom right) was the primary closer for the Cannons in 2001, collecting 22 saves through 33 innings. That was the highest single-season save total of his pro career. The Alabama product pitched 196 innings in the majors for the Cincinnati Reds, Arizona Diamondbacks and the Marlins. At that level, he posted a 10-6 record with a 4.13 ERA and three saves. He also sat down 163 MLB batters via strikeout.
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Outfielder Chad Mottola (middle) was a fifth-overall selection of the Cincinnati Reds in the 1992 MLB draft, chosen one pick ahead of some shortstop named Derek Jeter. In his first pro season, the Georgia-born slugger won a Pioneer League title with the Billings Mustangs. He continued to climb the minor-league ranks after that, but he was eventually blocked by a strong contingent of outfielders in Cincinnati. In 2000, Mottola blossomed as a member of the Syracuse SkyChiefs – the Triple-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays – batting .309 with 102 RBI, 33 homers and 30 stolen bases in 134 games. The outburst earned him the International League MVP Award, and he was also named Toronto’s minor-league player of the year. Despite the stellar season, Mottola was dealt to the Marlins, who sent him to Calgary in 2001. As a member of the Cannons, he played 119 games, scored 66 runs, produced 66 RBI, launched 15 long balls and batted .295. Mottola ultimately played only 59 MLB games, but he found success as a hitting coach with the Blue Jays and the Tampa Bay Rays.
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Joining Mottola in the outfield was Ryan Thompson, who played his first season of pro ball in 1987 with the Medicine Hat Blue Jays. The Maryland native was traded by Toronto, along with Jeff Kent, for ace pitcher David Cone in 1992. Thompson played exceptionally for the Cannons in 2001, hitting .310 with 69 RBI and 19 home runs during 78 games. He ended up playing 416 MLB games for six teams, and he ventured to Japan and Mexico during his playing days. Thompson also worked as a scout in the Milwaukee Brewers organization.
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Alright, you likely noticed the big orange beast in the last picture. But how much do you know about the beloved mascot of the Calgary Cannons, the one and only Wabash? Here are a few details. Wabash was born in the Canadian Rockies on Aug. 22, 1985. Height is 6-foot-2 and the name comes from the song “Wabash Cannonball,” which was recorded by Roy Acuff in 1936. Career highlights include eating 50 dugout dogs in one sitting in 1994, and delivering 11,257 hugs to Cannons fans in 1995. The hefty blonde also wore a question mark on the back of the jersey instead of a number.

That’s it for this segment of In The Cards. We encourage you to leave a comment about the players and cards below.

We are hoping to create an online digital archive of Alberta baseball card sets with our In The Cards series. If you have baseball cards you’d like to donate – or lend – to our cause, please email us at AlbertaDugoutStories@gmail.com with more information and to make arrangements.

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