By IAN WILSON
Diamond debates and ballot battles are heating up ahead of the National Baseball Hall of Fame announcement about who will be enshrined at Cooperstown.
Many of the Steroid Era’s biggest stars – including Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens and Major League Baseball’s all-time home run leader Barry Bonds – are in their 10th and final year of eligibility via the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) selection process.
Will they finally make the cut or will that decision be left to the Today’s Game Era Committee?
Will anyone be voted in? There is a strong possibility that no one will reach the 75% mark, which is the threshold that must be reached for players to be immortalized.
There is also the matter of who will stay on the ballot. Players who are not in their last year on the ballot must receive at least 5% of the vote to stick around for consideration next year.
For our purposes, we typically scan the list of nominees for athletes with ties to Alberta.
This year’s group includes a couple of Calgary Cannons, and a former American League (AL) MVP who played briefly for the Edmonton Trappers.
Cannons fans had seen this movie before with Ken Griffey Jr. A can’t-miss prospect earmarked for a Triple-A assignment in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) in Calgary, but the player is so darn good that he makes the jump from Double-A to the major leagues, thus denying the Foothills Stadium faithful a glimpse of a future superstar.
Junior did it in 1989 and A-Rod followed suit five years later. The first overall pick played 17 games with the Seattle Mariners in July of 1994, but unlike Griffey Jr., the shortstop wasn’t quite ready for Major League Baseball (MLB). So, in August of that year, Rodriguez was sent down and Calgarians got the opportunity to see if he could live up to the hype.
“This kid has all the tools,” Cannons manager Steve Smith told Calgary Herald reporter Gyle Konotopetz prior to A-Rod’s arrival in Cowtown.
“He’s not like some No. 1 picks who are afraid of the pressure … Alex can handle the pressure. He’s a unique talent. He’s built like (Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal) Ripken, only he has more power than Ripken. He has the range of Ozzie Smith.”
Smith had scouted Rodriguez in high school and worked with him in the instructional league, so he looked forward to seeing him up close again.
“He makes some of the greatest plays you’ve ever seen,” noted Smith.
When he arrived in Calgary, Rodriguez dismissed any comparison to Ripken.
“Cal is one of my favourite players, so it’s an insult to Cal to be compared to me,” A-Rod told the Herald.
“He’s proven himself. I haven’t. It’s not a fair comparison.”
Rodriguez also revealed that one of the best experiences of his MLB time to that point was meeting Ripken at the Kingdome in Seattle. Ripken left a note asking to meet him by the batting cage and the two shortstops talked for an hour, with the veteran player offering some advice to the prodigy.
“Cal said, get your sleep, eat well and take care of your body. You can’t feed your body bad gas,” he shared with Konotopetz.
Rodriguez, who lived in the Dominican Republic until he was eight years old before going to live with his mother Lourdes in Miami, was forthcoming about his troubled relationship with his father, Victor, as well.
“I don’t want anything to do with my dad,” he told the Herald.
“I don’t know what he does. He wasn’t there when I needed him so it has made me realized what a good father I want to be one day. My mom raised me. I want to do whatever I can so she can have a happy and peaceful life. My mom taught me to respect my elders and be careful.”
He later made attempts to reconcile with his father.
In the wide-ranging newspaper interview, Rodriguez also mentioned how he used fear as a motivator to break through in the majors.
“I was always scared of not being good enough … sometimes, fear is good. It scares me not to be the best,” he said.
Rodriguez certainly looked at his best in Calgary. In 32 games with the Cannons, he batted .311 with six homers, 21 runs batted in (RBI), 22 runs and two stolen bases.
From there, he went on to have a remarkable MLB career that included a trio of Most Valuable Player awards, a World Series title in 2009, 14 All-Star nods, 10 Silver Slugger Awards and two Gold Glove Awards.
During his 22 years with the Mariners, Texas Rangers and New York Yankees, Rodriguez batted .295, belted 696 long balls, stole 329 bases and amassed 2,086 RBI.
This is his first year on the ballot, but his admission that he used steroids will hurt his case.
Another Gold Glove-winning, All-Star shortstop who put in time with the Cannons and is hoping to earn a plaque in Cooperstown is Omar Vizquel.
The Venezuelan is in his fifth year of eligibility before the BBWAA voters.
Renowned for his defensive abilities between second and third base, Vizquel claimed 11 Gold Gloves in 24 MLB seasons. At the plate, he punched through 2,877 hits and swiped 404 bases. The knock on him, however, is the power numbers. Vizquel only hit 80 career home runs and produced a .352 slugging percentage. His bat was respectable, but rarely considered lethal.
He spent much more time in Calgary than A-Rod did, logging 94 games for the Cannons between 1988 and 1992 as he split time between the PCL and the Mariners.
“He never had a real strong arm, like some shortstops did,” Cannons owner Russ Parker told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“He could make plays so effortless, a lot of it because he could read the ball coming off the bat so well. Everything was just so fluid … he’ll be remembered as one of the best defensive shortstops in the game.”
We’ll see if there’s enough love for Vizquel’s glove to punch his ticket this year.
The Canadian first baseman was here for a good time, not a long time.
With the Edmonton Trappers chasing down the PCL championship in 2002, their postseason pursuit took a hit when Michael Cuddyer was called up to the Minnesota Twins.
Enter Justin Morneau, who batted .298 with 16 bombs and 80 RBI in 126 Double-A games for the New Britain Rock Cats that season.
“I’m excited to be here,” Morneau told Edmonton Journal reporter Norm Cowley of joining the Trapper lineup for their PCL semi-final matchup against the Las Vegas 51s.
“It’s always fun to be playing in the playoffs. It’s a chance to get a ring, especially with this group of guys. We’ve got a good team.”
Morneau – who was the third-string goalie for the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League (WHL) as a 16-year-old – said it was “baseball in the summer and hockey in the winter” when he was growing up.
“I liked them both. It didn’t really matter, just one after the other,” he told the Journal of his journey, which conjured up memories of Kirk McCaskill, another Trapper alumni who played hockey at a high level.
“I found out I was a little better in baseball than I was in hockey. Hopefully, I picked the right one.”
The New Westminster, B.C. native also had success playing in Alberta before. Morneau won back-to-back midget baseball championship titles in Red Deer as a teenager.
Of course, the stakes were a bit higher in professional baseball.
After the Trappers dispatched Las Vegas, they faced the Salt Lake Stingers in the final and Morneau made an impact.
The 21-year-old smacked four hits – including a two-run double with two outs in the fifth inning – to lead the offensive attack in Game 3, which was a 6-4 Edmonton victory that gave them a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series.
Morneau went 0-for-4 and grounded into a double play late in the opening game of the championship series and was eager to make up for it.
“I wanted to do something tonight,” he told the Edmonton newspaper after Game 3, which was played in front of 7,198 fans at Franklin Covey Field in Salt Lake City.
The third-round draft pick said he was “over-anxious” and “trying to do too much” early in the series.
“In the first game, I was trying to hit a home run every time I was up there and I was just missing,” he said.
“I was hitting balls off the end of the bat. If I was more relaxed and just tried to stay with my approach, better things would’ve happened.”
Morneau conceded his performance in the third game was somewhat fortunate.
“I didn’t hit the ball off the good part of the bat all night but it fell in so I got a little bit lucky … it’s not always how hard you hit it but where you hit it.”
The Trappers closed out the series, and their fourth PCL championship title, with a 10-7 road win on Sept. 14th. Morneau had a .400 batting average in his five playoff contests.
From there, Morneau learned that he did indeed choose the right sport to focus his time and effort on. With the Minnesota Twins, he was a four-time All-Star, a two-time Silver Slugger Award winner and he was named the AL MVP in 2006. When he joined the Colorado Rockies in 2014, his .319 average added the title of National League (NL) batting champion to his resume.
Among the 30 names on this year’s ballot, a number of them stand out for their time in the visiting dugouts of Alberta.
Gary Sheffield came to Medicine Hat’s Athletic Park in 1986 to face the Blue Jays as a member of the Helena Gold Sox. He tormented Pioneer League pitchers that year. In 57 games, the first-rounder smashed 15 homers, contributed 71 RBI, batted .365 and stole 14 bases.
Prince Fielder also squared off against the Baby Jays in the team’s final season in the Pioneer League. The first baseman played 41 games for the Ogden Raptors in 2002, where he blasted 10 long balls, hit at a .390 clip, and registered 40 RBI before the Milwaukee Brewers promoted him to the Single-A level. A July matchup between Medicine Hat and the Raptors in Ogden saw Fielder go yard and later end up in the middle of a bench-clearing brawl between the two clubs.
The Pacific Coast League provided even more opportunities for Alberta baseball fans to scout future Hall of Fame candidates.
Bobby Abreu, Curt Schilling and Billy Wagner all suited up for the Tucson Toros in the 1990s.
Wagner was brilliant in a late-August 1995 start at Telus Field in Edmonton. In front of a capacity crowd of 9,200, the lefty pitched eight shutout innings, struck out nine batters and collected the win in a 2-0 triumph over the Trappers.
It was an emotional year for Wagner, who was coping with the murder of his father-in-law, Steve Quesenberry and Steve’s wife, Tina. Wagner made his MLB debut on Sept. 13th with the Houston Astros, but the family tragedy had placed a dark cloud over what is normally such a moment of unbridled excitement.
He discussed the situation with Journal reporter Robin Brownlee when he returned to Edmonton in 1996 as a starting pitcher with the Toros.
“I think I’ve always taken the game for what it is,” said Wagner.
“You go out and you work hard and you hope to make it some day. But, at the end of the day, you take off the uniform and there’s more to life.”
Added Wagner: “I guess everybody has things in their life to overcome … maybe I’ve had a little more than some … it’s been a lot of hard work, but you get through, you know.”
SALT LAKE STARS
There were other star players and other stories that made their way to Calgary and Edmonton via the PCL.
David Ortiz, A.J. Pierzynski, and Torii Hunter were teammates with the Salt Lake Buzz in the late 1990s.
Big Papi, who launched stitched balls far into the night sky in Alberta, came close to suiting up for both the Cannons and Trappers, had fate not intervened during the course of his career.
The Vancouver Canadians sent Sammy Sosa into Wild Rose Country in 1991. After being demoted by the Chicago White Sox that year, Sosa ventured into Foothills Stadium to take on Tino Martinez and the Cannons.
Tim Hudson, meanwhile, made eight starts for the Canadians in 1999. One of those outings was a 12-strikeout performance against the Trappers at Vancouver’s Nat Bailey Stadium. During his time with the Canadians, Hudson pitched 49 innings, K’ed 61 batters, and posted a 2.20 ERA while going 4-0.
Todd Helton played 120 games for the Colorado Spring Sky Sox in 1996 and 1997.
When he came to Telus Field in April of 1997, Sky Sox skipper Paul Zuvella heaped praise on the first baseman.
“He’s simply a manager’s dream,” Zuvella told Brownlee.
“Is he the whole package? I would say he is. He’s an athlete through and through.”
On the cusp of a 17-year MLB career with the Colorado Rockies, Helton was trying to remain patient about his path ahead.
“Sometimes it can be difficult being down here when I see people I played with or against at school in the big leagues now,” he told the Journal.
“I just have to prove myself and wait for my turn … it’s a matter of waiting and, hopefully, getting a chance.”
Joe Nathan, who closed out 377 MLB games, was a starting pitcher with the Fresno Grizzlies of the PCL between 1999 and 2002. His stops in Alberta and elsewhere on the PCL circuit ultimately helped Nathan hone his skills as an elite closer.
There was also that Barry Bonds guy. In just his second year of professional baseball, Bonds cracked the Pittsburgh Pirates lineup in 1986. But before he got there, the outfielder played 44 games for the Hawaii Islanders at Triple-A.
In 148 PCL at bats that season, Bonds hit seven homers, drove in 37 runs, scored 30 runs, stole 16 bases, and recorded a .311 batting average.
The Calgary Cannons were among the teams he victimized.
Bonds hit a ninth-inning, grand slam off of pitcher Vic Martin during an early May 18-8 Islanders beatdown of the Cannons at Foothills Stadium in front of 3,110 spectators.
“I’ve never seen it this cold before,” Bonds told Calgary Herald reporter Daryl Slade.
“We were just trying to get loose, because we’ve been playing in warm places until we got here.”
Bonds hit a bases-clearing triple the next game, a 9-6 win for Hawaii, to help boost his RBI total to 10 in two games against Calgary.
When he traveled up the road to Edmonton, Bonds was asked about his father, Bobby, who was a stellar outfielder with the San Francisco Giants.
“My father is my father. That’s never going to change,” he told Cowley of the Journal.
“It (comparisons) is going to happen, but there’s nothing I can do about it because I’m completely different. I do things from a different side.”
Bonds also expressed excitement about playing the game he loves.
“I wanted to do everything when I was little, but I wanted to play baseball more than anything else,” he said.
“I just want to play. I don’t try to get my hopes up too high. I just try and do good when I play.”
Trapper manager Winston Llenas was quick to spot the differences between Barry and Bobby Bonds.
“I know he’s going to be his own player … his own self,” Llenas told the newspaper.
“He’s got good enough tools that if he makes it to the big leagues it’ll be because of him – not his father.”
Frank Reberger, Edmonton’s pitching coach, played with the senior Bonds in San Francisco.
“It’s kind of exciting to see one of my old teammates’ sons with a chance to play in the big leagues for a long time,” said Reberger in the Journal.
“They are both very likeable people.”
Will the BBWAA find Bonds likeable enough to put him into the National Baseball Hall of Fame? We’ll find out on Tuesday, Jan. 25th when the voting results are announced.