Hentgen, Martinez pack the house for 2016 Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame Induction

Next to every great man… Saturday in St. Marys, 2016 Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Dennis Martinez thanks his wife of 43 years, Luz Marina, for her support during his professional baseball career.

IMG_9762RGBBy Dan Rankin

“It’s not the last time I’ll come to St. Marys, that’s for damn sure,” 2016 Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Pat Hentgen told the hundreds of people gathered under the tent at the Hall of Fame diamond complex Saturday. “It’s my first, but it won’t be my last.”

The World Series champ and Cy Young Award winner’s speech, and the traditional autograph signing session, capped off a very successful and enjoyable induction weekend for the Hall of Fame that also saw Expos great Dennis “El Presidente” Martinez inducted, alongside former Toronto Blue Jays analyst Tony Kubek, longtime Blue Jays executive Howard Starkman, longtime MLB scout and National Baseball Institute founder Wayne Norton and, posthumously, early baseball pioneer William Shuttleworth.

Saturday’s events followed a gorgeous Thursday night at Rotary Field that featured a Home Run Derby and Celebrity Slo-Pitch game, including members of the Canadian men’s softball and slo-pitch teams, members of the sports media from around the province, and inductees past and present. Team Hentgen beat Martinez in the Celebrity Slo-Pitch Game, but Martinez still got a charge out of the crowd when he hit a long home run over the fence in left-center field.

Friday, people flocked to St. Marys once more, for the Hall of Fame’s annual golf tournament, held at the St. Marys Golf and Country Club, and banquet.

IMG_9700RGBThings got underway Saturday just outside the Independent’s office on Water Street for the relocated Downtown Family Street Festival. The elegant limestone Opera House and other Water Street buildings provided a more-than-fitting part-time setting for the event. Up the hill at the Town Hall, this year’s class of inductees took questions at a pre-ceremony press conference.

There, Canadian baseball historian Bill Humber spoke to the Independent about the early days of baseball in Canada, when Hamilton’s William Shuttleworth was influencing the transition of the game from its folksy roots to the “New York” game, which paved the way for the rules we all know today.

“What distinguished the old-fashioned game was that you got the batter out by physically throwing the ball at them while he was running between bases,” Humber said, noting that players used a much lighter ball. “If you hit him, he was out.”

Shuttleworth was born in Brantford in 1834, and was an important organizer during some of the first international games between teams from the United States and Canada in the 1850s and ’60s, Humber said. It was in this era box scores for baseball games first turned up in newspapers and magazines and crowds attending games first started to grow – though it wouldn’t be until the 1930s (decades after Shuttleworth died in 1903) that night games started being played under stadium lighting. There was no such thing as a relief pitcher, there was no protective equipment for the catcher (which is the position Shuttleworth played), and teams traveled either by train or horse and buggy, Humber said.

Cutting ribbon“Sporting pioneers have the hardest time attaining the honours due to them,” he said. “They take games from an unsanctioned, unreported, informal and often unattended era to one in which accolades are paid to those whose careers encompass the mainstream popularity of what were really children’s recreations raised to adult enthusiasm.”

Hentgen told the Independent there isn’t a current member of the Blue Jays starting rotation that reminds him of himself during his career.

“There really isn’t a guy that’s the same model as me,” he said. “I was 91-92 mph with a cut fastball and a curveball. We don’t really have a guy in the rotation with those weapons. They have different weapons, and better weapons, but they’re not the same. Estrada is similar to me, but I think he throws a lot more changeups; I didn’t throw a lot of changeups. Sanchez throws so much harder than I did. If I had to pick one guy, it would be like a lesser Sanchez – or maybe a little more velocity Estrada.”

At the induction ceremony, added to the usual Ontario and Quebec plates for your local Jays fans and die-hard Expos fans, were plates from New Jersey, Michigan and Nebraska. There was also a marked increase in Spanish speaking attendees, many of whom supported Nicaraguan flags and Nicaraguan national team baseball jerseys in honour of Martinez, who was the first ever Nicaraguan-born player in the MLB.

“It’s a great honour for me to be here,” Martinez said. “This is a beautiful town. I love it. We’ve had a great time here.”

Martinez gave credit to the support of his wife of 43 years, Luz Marina, before telling a story from his career that pinpointed the moment he realized he needed to get serious about learning English. When he was in a bit of a jam during a game, a coach came out to ask him if he could go on. “He asked me, ‘are you tired, Dennis?’,” he said. Dennis, wanting to go on pitching, said “yes,” without understanding the question. The coach repeated the question several times with Dennis, anxious to keep pitching, answering ‘yes’ each time. Confused, the coach had taken the ball and called in a reliever.

Over the coming months and years, Martinez dedicated himself to learning English so he could better communicate with his team, he said, mainly by watching episodes of Family Feud and The Price is Right.

Today, when he visits children in Nicaragua, Martinez says he stresses to them, “If you dream high, it doesn’t matter how many times you fail – you’re going to fail a lot – you’ve got to always get up and fight for your dreams.”

Some of the dignitaries present for the ceremony included Perth-Wellington MPP Randy Pettapiece and MP John Nater, Stratford Mayor Dan Mathieson, Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic, St. Catharines and MPP Jim Bradley. Noticeably absent was Toronto Blue Jays radio broadcaster Mike Wilner, who had been scheduled to MC but came down with food poisoning Friday evening, as well as Kubek, who was also unable to attend due to illness. Montreal hip hop artist and Expos enthusiast Annakin Slayd filled in as MC, while Kubek’s old broadcast partner Fergie Oliver gave a speech on Kubek’s behalf.

Perhaps the most emotional moments of the ceremony came during Norton’s acceptance speech. Norton, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2015, was wheeled to the stage by his son, and his wife Trudy held up his speech for him to read aloud. As Norton thanked former Blue Jays GM Pat Gillick for the role he had played in his career as a scout, the 1997 Canadian Hall of Fame inductee and current Philadelphia Phillies president was visibly moved in the crowd. Addressing Blue Jays outfielder Michael Saunders, who Norton helped scout for the Mariners and who had hit three home runs versus Baltimore the night before, Norton said Saunders had “had a career year last night.”

Reflecting on his career, Hentgen said he is still “very proud to be a Blue Jay,” noting he signed his first contract with the organization at the age of 17, retired as a pitcher as a member of the team in 2004, and still works for the team.

“I’d also like a special thanks to Paul Beeston, Pat Gillick, Gord Ash, Don Welke, Bob Engle, Mel Queen, Bobby Mattick and Cito Gaston,” he said. “That’s a hall of fame staff. No wonder we won two World Series.”

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