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Six inducted, Martinez honoured during CBHFM induction weekend

By Spencer Seymour

The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum (CBHFM) inducted six new members to its hallowed halls June 15, the conclusion to their annual induction weekend.

Russell Martin, a native of East York, Ont., played 14 seasons in the MLB during which time he earned a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove in 2007, back-to-back Wilson Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2013 and 2014, and four All-Star appearances. Martin spent the first five years of his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers splitting the next four years with the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates. Martin then played four years with the Blue Jays before ending his career with a return to the Dodgers.

Ashley Stephenson was a member of the first Women’s National Team in 2004. The Mississauga, Ont. product helped lead the team to seven medals including silvers at the WBSC Women’s World Cups in 2008 and 2016 and at the 2015 Pan Am Games. She was also a force on four bronze-medal-winning teams at the World Cup and was named Women’s National Team MVP twice.

Jimmy Key served as a starter in the Jays’ first division-winning season in 1985 and continued to be a sturdy member of the rotation for Toronto for seven years, including in 1987 when Key’s

2.76 ERA led the American League. The Sporting News voted Key as the AL Pitcher of the Year in 1987.

Moose Jaw, Sask. was represented in 14 national competitions by Rod Heisler, who pitched for Canada in three Amateur World Series’. He was also selected for two Olympics, three Pan-Am Games and three Intercontinental Cups.

If not for the Toronto-born Paul Godfrey, there may be no Major League Baseball presence in Toronto. As Godfrey revealed in his induction speech, he stopped at nothing to bring an MLB team to Toronto and was instrumental in not only creating the Blue Jays, but also the retrofit of Exhibition Stadium and, later, the creation of Rogers Centre, then called SkyDome.

Howard Birnie has been involved in baseball in his hometown of Toronto in some capacity for seven decades. He’s been a multi-championship-winning coach with the Toronto Leaside

All-Stars, president of the Leaside Baseball Association and Ontario Baseball Associations, and is one of the most well-respected umpires in Canada.

Russell Martin’s heart on display in emotional speech

Martin began his speech by speaking about the impact of his parents, a heartfelt portion of his speech that made Martin extremely emotional to the point that he had to pause multiple times over the course of seven and a half minutes to regain his composure.

“I’m supposed to be up here at least five minutes so I’m just killing time,” joked Martin at one point while choking back tears. “Eleven post-seasons seems pretty easy compared to this. I don’t know how all the other inductees got through this without tears.”

For several minutes, Martin fought to get the words out as he thanked his parents, stopping several times to control his overwhelming emotions born from his affection for his mother and father. Then, out of nowhere, the little voice of one of Martin’s young children said, in a

call-to-action-like tone, “Daddy!” The interjection sent a wave of laughter over the crowd and Martin himself, who was able to use the moment to gain his composure.

“My kids are definitely not used to seeing daddy cry.”

Earlier in the day, Martin began to feel the weight of his induction when he stood deep in the museum for the induction-weekend press conference, surrounded by the plaques of his now-fellow Hall of Famers. Martin talked to the Independent about seeing the names and pictures of the legends he is now immortalized alongside.

“I don't think I'm ever going to get used to that,” Martin said as he looked at some of the plaques closest to him. “Like just right here, seeing names like Andre Dawson, Gary Carter and Steve Rogers. I honestly didn't realize how many impactful people there have been in Canadian baseball and this is a good reminder of the depth of baseball. You walk in here and you see the history of the game and to be a part of that is so cool.”

Many people have a single game, moment, or accolade in their career that were brought up more than any other, and for Martin, his was a night that, but for the bat-flipping actions of a fellow Blue Jays icon, could have been the most nightmare-inducing moment of the catcher’s MLB tenure.

Oct. 14, 2015. Game five of the ALDS between Texas and Toronto. Top of the seventh. Two outs, one ball, two strikes. Aaron Sanchez fires a ball into Martin’s glove.

That’s when things got strange.

Martin threw the ball back to his pitcher as he had done countless times before, only for it to hit off the hand of Shin Soo Choo, inadvertently putting the ball in play and allowing the Rangers to score a go-ahead run.

What could have been one of the worst moments of Martin’s career was salvaged in the second half of the inning when, after a mystifying series of defensive blunders by the Rangers, Jose Bautista hit a three-run homer to give the Jays a 6-3 lead. After Bautista returned to the dugout, cameras caught Martin with his hands together pointed up to the sky, seemingly thanking the baseball gods for arguably the most iconic moment in Jays history.

Martin described his feelings the moment Bautista sent the ball and his bat flying.

“The first feeling is ‘Yes, we're winning now!’ But it completely wiped the slate clean. I had almost a sickening feeling from when I hit Shin Soo Choo in the hand. I’ve never felt so small. It wasn’t a baseball play. I don't feel like I did anything wrong. It was just bad luck. But it was like a movie when the superhero comes in and saves the day. A building was falling on top of me but then ‘Super Jose’ comes in and sweeps me away. He tore that horrible page out of the book and put his stamp on it. That's what people remember and I'm forever grateful for that.”

At the moment Bautista hit his legendary home run, the Toronto crowd let out a deep, booming roar, which Martin remembered well.

“It felt like the whole stadium was trembling. It felt maybe like a little baby earthquake caused by the roar of the crowd. I’ve never felt anything quite that special. Pittsburgh was loud but because we're in a dome in Toronto, the vibrations were concentrated. I don't know how to explain it. It was just super cool.”

Finally recognized with legend’s status, Ashley Stephenson advocates for women’s game

Stephenson was not at a loss for words during the induction weekend press conference when she explained to the Independent what baseball has meant to her life.

“It’s meant a lot of things for me. It's been an avenue for me to be competitive and to do things that I love to do. Lots of people talk about the friendships they've made and the experiences they’ve had and I've had all those same things. I've been really lucky to play with some amazing people and have some amazing coaches and I'm forever grateful for that, but in the end, I'm an athlete and I love to compete and I've been able to do that at the highest level and that's something that I'm really proud of.”

Stephenson also described her feelings of joining the list of legends already enshrined in the hall of fame.

“That is a bit crazy for me, to be honest. I took a few pictures of Paul Quantrill, for example, who is on the board and I just flew in from Vancouver. I'm helping coach there with the Vancouver Canadians, and Paul actually is there right now taking over for me and helping out, so I took a picture of his block and sent it to him. To see people like him and other amazing players and ambassadors of baseball in Canada and then to have your name up there with them is really special and really surreal.”

Rightfully so, Stephenson was referred to multiple times over the weekend as a legend of women’s baseball in Canada. As true greats do, she used her hall-of-fame status to advocate for the further growth of the game she so dearly loves, telling the Independent what she hopes to see happen in women’s baseball.

“My first goal would be a women’s junior national team. Our men’s junior national team is very successful and that program breeds tons of athletes into our senior program and to Major League Baseball and creates lots of scholarship opportunities. I think the start of a junior national team would be huge for the women’s program because it would help us retain a lot of young players when they try to decide, ‘Should I go to softball because I’d have the opportunity to play collegiate softball and earn scholarships?’ If we have that junior national team, those young women could see a future for themselves at 25 years old.

“I would also love to have more international events for our game,” Stephenson continued. “I think that would be really key to help our sport grow not only nationally, but internationally. We want to be really good, we want to get better and we want to create more opportunities, but we also have to help other nations get better in order to create more opportunities as well because we need other teams to play.”

Jimmy Key sends gratitude-filled statement

Unfortunately, Key was unable to attend the induction, but he sent a speech that was read by the ceremony’s host, Rod Black.

“I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame for this incredible honour and I regret that I cannot be there in person to accept this prestigious award,” Black said on Key’s behalf. “When I first learned of the recognition, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. To be acknowledged this way by such a distinguished institution is truly humbling.”

Key further expressed appreciation for the people who selected him for the hall of fame and those who helped him become an all-time great.

“I want to thank the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame committee for selecting me for this honour. Your recognition means the world to me. I am immensely grateful. I also want to thank my coaches throughout my career. Their guidance, mentorship and belief in me have been invaluable and played a crucial role in shaping me as both a player and a person. To my family, friends, mentors and colleagues, thank you for your unwavering support and encouragement. I would not be here today without you.”

Per Key’s speech, the Blue Jays remain near and dear to the Huntsville, Ala. native’s heart.

“For 11 years, I had the privilege of representing this incredible organization, spending nine of those years in the big leagues. It was a dream come true wearing the Blue Jays’ uniform to compete in the highest level of the sport, and I’m particularly honoured to have been part of the first Canadian team to win a world championship in 1992. That moment will forever hold a special place in my heart.”

Rod Heisler honoured for incredible international resume

When looking at this year’s hall of fame inductees, words like genuine and humble come to mind, and perhaps no one embodied that more than Heisler, whose induction speech alternated between riotously funny and unyieldingly endearing.

“I’ve long wanted to win the lottery,” Heisler proclaimed. “But as I stand here at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in front of all of you, teammates, friends, and supported by my family, I realize that I already have won the lottery of life.”

Heisler also mentioned how he felt honoured to be part of the 2024 class considering who he was standing beside on the stage.

“This weekend has been very special. Thank you for accepting an amateur ball player who just loved playing the game into this wonderful hall of fame. Mr. Godfrey, Mr. Birnie, Ashley, Russell, Jimmy, I have the most respect for your accomplishments and it’s an honour to be inducted along with you all.”

Moreso than any of his accolades in baseball, Heisler described how his most prominent memories involve the bonds forged with his teammates.

“Baseball has blessed me with many friends for life. Many I don’t always see, but I know are always there. Over time, I don’t remember the scores of games – except for when we played the Americans and it’s always fun to beat them. But I will always remember the guys, their personalities and how they competed. I remember how they made me feel in both stressful and fun moments. And above all, I remember how we represented Canada. Baseball Canada brought together players from coast to coast to coast. The flag made us a team.”

Paul Godfrey relentless in pursuit of MLB expansion to Toronto

Godfrey recounted several stories over the weekend, including that it was Jack Graney Award winner Buck Martinez who first put forward the idea of the retractable roof that was later developed as part of the SkyDome construction, as well as his infamous encounter with then-Commissioner of the MLB Bowie Kuhn. Godfrey told Kuhn that if he gave Toronto a team, Godfrey would guarantee the league boss a stadium would follow. This was met with Kuhn placing a hand on Godfrey’s shoulder and explaining that Toronto would first need to build a stadium before the MLB would consider whether they wanted to give the city a franchise team.

However, perhaps the most unforeseen step in Godfrey’s endeavour to bring a team to Toronto was his interaction with the owner of one of the MLB’s premier organizations.

“It became my mission to get a Major League Baseball team for our city,” Godfrey declared. “I flew to Florida to attend the winter meetings. It was there that I did anything, and I mean anything, to speak with MLB owners. On one occasion, I even followed Los Angeles Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley into a public washroom.

“As he stood at the urinal, there I was standing beside him saying, ‘Mr. O’Malley, my name is Paul Godfrey and I would like to speak to you about bringing a baseball team to Toronto.’ And without breaking stream, Walter looked at me and said, ‘Do you mind if I finish peeing first?’ At that point, I realized that his bat was bigger than mine.”

Following Godfrey’s speech, the host of the ceremony summarized what few ever expected would be a takeaway from a hall-of-fame induction speech.

“As we’ve just learned,” began Black, “never miss a chance to meet someone in a bathroom.”

Howard Birnie holds crowd in palm of his hand

It didn’t take long for Birnie to naturally gain a hold over the audience. After the crowd gave Birnie a standing ovation upon his introduction, Birnie made a request.

“Could you all stand again for a moment?”

After a moment of Birnie taking in the audience standing and waiting for him to elaborate, Birnie continued.

“I always wanted to get two standing ovations.”

Birnie’s humourous arc didn’t end there.

“I had written a speech, but I got an email from Bob Elliott and he told me, ‘Make sure you keep your speech to less than 45 minutes.’ So, I had to throw mine out. Little did he know I couldn’t stand for 45 minutes.”

Birnie made a point to emphasize that his gratitude wasn’t just for the induction, but also for the museum and the hall-of-fame grounds those in charge have created.

“Obviously, I want to thank the hall of fame for recognizing me. It was a great surprise. I was not bothered, but bewildered, to receive such recognition. I want to say a thank-you to the hall, Jeremy (Diamond) and Scott (Crawford), firstly for honouring me, but also for what you’ve done here in St. Marys. I was on the hall-of-fame board in Toronto and I had a tour of some of the land here that I believe St. Marys Cement gave, and at that time it was brush, rocks and trees, and you see what they’ve done and turned it into. It’s marvelous and St. Marys Cement deserves a lot of thanks.”

Everyone loves Buck

The people of Kingsway Lodge clearly spoke for an entire nation when they said they love Buck Martinez.

For those who aren’t aware, a sign was put up in front of Kingsway Lodge leading up to the induction weekend with affectionate messages for the 2023 Jack Graney Award winner, which prompted Martinez to visit Kingsway on the evening of June 14.

“My friend, Dan Mathieson, the former mayor of Stratford, sent the picture to me first, so I was aware that it was up in St. Marys,” Martinez told the Independent. “I found out where it was and I thought, ‘We’ve got to stop by and say thank you.’ And we did that on Friday night when they happened to be watching the Blue Jays game and they had their jerseys on and everybody was sitting in the common room watching the big screen TV. Then I walked in and it was a pretty special moment. It reminds you of how much of an impact you have bringing the games to the fans. All they want to do is watch the game and they associate my voice with the game, and there were so many happy smiles in that room. It was pretty awesome.”

During the banquet following the induction-weekend golf tournament, Martinez said without the outpouring of support from Canadian baseball fans he may not have outlasted his cancer diagnosis in 2022, a sentiment he elaborated on during the press conference.

“The Canadian baseball fans are very special,” Martinez noted. “When you hear something like that, you may think, firstly, that it’s not going to happen to me, and secondly, I guess I'm going to die. Thankfully, that's the last thing that really happens nowadays, especially with the advancements in medicine.

“When I made the announcement that I was walking away from the Blue Jays for a time, I heard from so many different people from all over the world, literally, and they were so supportive and they said, ‘We're going to miss you. We'll think about you. We'll say prayers for you. We want to see you back.’ That gave me so much encouragement to look it in the eye, take it head on and do the best I could to overcome it. Without the supp


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