By JOE McFARLAND & IAN WILSON
Love can take a toll on you.
Whether it’s a family bond, the intimacy of marriage, or even the fondness of sport, love can be exhausting.
It can leave you at a crossroads wondering whether or not the passion that was such a part of you exists at all anymore.
Blue Jays Central host Jamie Campbell was at such an intersection when he came to Alberta in the 1990s to work as a sports anchor for CBC Edmonton.
“It’s funny how we go through the different stages of our lives. I went through this stage in the late ’80s, early ’90s, where I had spent so much time focused on baseball in my high school years that I missed out on some of the more important aspects of high school life, and I started to regret it at a certain point in the late ’80s. Because of that, I temporarily shunned baseball in a weird kind of way,” Campbell confessed on Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast earlier this year.
“It’s hard to explain, but then coming to Edmonton in 1993 and then walking onto the field at John Ducey, the old ballpark – which was later renovated and is still there to this day – was a very important moment in my life because from a grassroots level I rediscovered my love of the game.”
As he covered the Trappers, a Triple-A affiliate of the Florida Marlins and Oakland Athletics in the Pacific Coast League (PCL), Campbell said it “reignited this passionate love for baseball that had escaped me for a few years.”
The Oakville, Ontario native was in the provincial capital long enough to witness slugger Jason Giambi’s 55-game stint with the Trappers in 1995, as well as the team’s 1996 PCL championship.
“I fondly remember nights where I didn’t have to work, just sitting up in right field, watching games,” said Campbell, who became an original member of the Sportsnet crew in 1998.
“But I think the greatest joy I took from my years there were the times where I would go from batting practice and just sit down and have conversations with guys who were coming through town, whether it was for the Trappers or whether it was for the other teams.”
Players like Steve Wojciechowski, Kirk Dressendorfer, Matt Stairs and Darryl Kile sprang to mind for Campbell, who also developed a friendship with Edmonton pitching coach Pete Richert.
“Richert was an all-star reliever in the big leagues in the ’60s and early ’70s,” recalled Campbell.
“In fact, he was on those Baltimore Oriole teams that went to the World Series three straight years in ’69, ’70 and ’71. A guy from upstate New York, just an absolute joy to talk to. Anytime I’d go to the ballpark, Pete and I would just collect and we would talk, normally about baseball. I met so many really interesting players who would come through town.”
Despite moving back to his home province of Ontario, Campbell has returned to Alberta on several occasions.
He was joined by Toronto outfielder Kevin Pillar and first baseman Chris Colabello for a fundraising banquet that was hosted by the Fort McMurray Giants in 2015, and the annual Blue Jays Winter Tour has also led to stops in Calgary and Edmonton.
The most recent tour in January gave Campbell and some Blue Jays an opportunity to witness a heated Battle of Alberta between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers.
“I don’t think any of the guys had been to an NHL game before,” he said.
“They scrapped it out. There was the famous Zack Kassian and Tkachuk scrap that night. That caught the boys attention.”
Years ago, during another Winter Tour stop in Calgary, Campbell also remembered a chance encounter with a future baseball star.
“We went to a shopping mall and did an autograph session. The lineup was over 1,000 easily. It had to be cut at about 600, if I’m not mistaken. I was wandering down to the back of the line, just to greet some of the fans and off to the side, standing up against a wall I got the attention of a gentleman and his son. It turned out to be Mike Soroka and his father,” said Campbell.
“Mike had expressed an interest to his father to come down and see how it all worked and see what the autograph session was like. They weren’t interested in lining up to meet the players. Mike was more interested in the process, if I recall correctly, and I was fascinated by this. I remember saying to him, ‘You know what, kid?’ And I pointed up to the podium, to where the players were up there signing autographs. I said, ‘That could be you one day.’ I think that’s honestly what he came down to see. He wanted to see, if he was planning on being a major league player, I think he honestly wanted to get an idea of what went into all the different aspects of being a major leaguer and he’s living that life right now.”
CONNECTING WITH FANS
While Campbell is happy to be back in the broadcast booth for an abbreviated Major League Baseball (MLB) season, the TV host remained active while COVID-19 put the brakes on baseball.
Shortly after the pandemic resulted in quarantine procedures, Campbell put out the call on social media, saying he would gladly phone people who were shut in and in need of a boost.
Hundreds of requests came in, prompting Campbell to enlist the help of play-by-play announcer Buck Martinez in making calls.
“What really got it started was a remembrance by me of every time I’m in a public place and somebody came up to me and said that their mother or father or grandmother or grandfather was a huge fan, and my instant reaction so often was, ‘Well, if you’ve got a phone let’s give them a call.’ Many times I’d stand there with complete strangers on the phone with complete strangers,” said Campbell, who was averaging 20 to 25 phone calls a day at one point.
“Our audience is made up extensively of people in their later years, because they’re retired, they’ve grown up with the game, they’ve followed the Blue Jays since their inception, and it’s such a reliable thing for them to be able to turn on the radio or turn on the TV every night. The game is almost like their best friend. These are the most vulnerable people at this time and I figured they’re the most likely to want to speak with somebody new and somebody they know based on their television experiences. It’s been tremendous.”
— Jamie Campbell (@SNETCampbell) July 2, 2020
While the discussions have included chats about baseball, the television personality notes that most of them delve into other topics, as well.
“Baseball is just the icebreaker … rarely do we get into extensive conversations about baseball,” said the 53-year-old.
“In some respects, I speak with people who’ve been through far worse things than a pandemic. Not long ago I spoke to a veteran of the Korean War. I speak to, it seems every single day, cancer survivors or people that are undergoing treatment for cancer right now. I have spoken to Second World War veterans,” he added.
“There are people right now waking up in every corner of this country and going off to work in seniors residences, retirement facilities, hospitals, health-care facilities, and putting on masks and gloves and gowns and are literally risking their lives. I get to stay home with my children and phone people. I’m not at risk here. I am speaking to people who are at risk, who have suffered. If they’re not suffering now, they have suffered in the past. These are pretty profound conversations. It’s less about connecting on baseball and more about just trying to get through this bizarre and unprecedented stage we’re going through.”
For Campbell, however, most roads lead him back to the ballpark.
“Baseball, since the day I knew the Blue Jays were coming to town in 1977, since the day my dad brought a program back from the opening game and showed me the layout of the stadium, explained to me that in two weeks we’d be going to our first game, to the day that I started collecting baseball cards – so I’d know exactly who the players were when we got there – that has been with me now 43 years. That passion has been burning inside of me for 43 years. It’s almost like a gift right?” Campbell told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“It’s something that I try to encourage in every young person, whatever you do in this lifetime, do it with zest. Find a passion that makes you want to get up and live a real vibrant life and baseball’s done that for me.”