Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame

Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame Inducts 2019 Class

Steve Kopp

The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame welcomed four new members on Saturday during the 2019 induction ceremony held in St. Mary’s. The four, former major leaguers Jason Bay and Ryan Dempster, along with current coach Rob Thomson and current Milwaukee Brewer executive Gord Ash, became the first group of inductees in 21-years to all be born and raised in Canada. The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame was founded in 1982 and has been inducting former players, coaches, managers and those associated with baseball in Canada since 1983. In many of those years, the inductees include non-Canadians who displayed their baseball skills either with the Montreal Expos or Toronto Blue Jays. But this year, it was an all-Canadian induction class.

On Saturday morning, a press conference was held at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame building in St. Mary’s where the inductees were introduced to the media. The introductions were held in the brand new visitor’s lounge at the newly renovated, refurbished and expanded hall of fame building at 386 Church Street. The hall of fame was just reopened to the public on April 27 with over 2500 extra square feet of space, including an archive and resource library that will house the hall’s historic documents and serve as the new home of the Centre for Canadian Baseball Research.

But back to the 2019 inductees. I had a chance to do one-on-one interviews with all four.

Jason Bay

Bay was born in 1978 in Trail, BC, which is a town with a long and very storied hockey history. That meant that Bay played hockey growing up, but he also skied and played baseball. When he was 11, he got a chance to play in the Little League World series and from that point on, baseball was his true love.

He went on to play at North Idaho College in Coeur-D’Alene, Idaho and later transferred to Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. It was there he was noticed by major league scouts, which led to him being drafted by the Montreal Expos in the 22nd round in the 2000 draft.

Bay never ended up playing for the Expos as he was traded to the San Diego Padres before reaching the major leagues. He would only play 3 games for the Padres, but one of them was his major league debut on May 23, 2003 against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Phoenix. He went 1-4 on the day, but the one was a home run.

“It was kind of surreal, kind of like I wasn’t really there,” said Bay when I asked him about his first game in the major leagues. “I remember that I was 0 for 3, and I think we were down 4-1 at the time in the 9th inning. And I hit a ball that landed in the pool in Arizona, my first major league hit was a home run. And there were maybe 15-20,000 people there and the place was silent, except for my mom, my dad and my wife in the stands, you could hear (them) screaming. That was kind of cool. Getting the home run was one thing, but having it land in the pool in Arizona and then having that little thing as your first major league hit, probably did not happen very often.”

Bay was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates where he played 27 games during the 2003 season. From there, the Pirates made him their everyday outfielder and he did not let them down. He won the National League Rookie of the Year award in 2004, the only Canadian born player ever to do so. He put together back-to-back years (2005-2006) with over 30 home runs and over 100 RBIs. In 5 seasons with the Pirates, he clubbed 136 home runs (he would hit 222 in his career) and 440 RBIs (he ended up with 754 in his career).

But those Pirate teams never made the playoffs and never had a winning season. Just past the half-way point of the 2008 season, he was traded to the Boston Red Sox where he made the playoffs that season. The Red Sox won the divisional series over the Los Angeles Angels, 3 games to 1, with Bay having a batting average of over 400. Boston would lose in the American League championship, losing game 7 to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays after coming back from a 3-1 deficit. In 2009, the Red Sox once again made the playoffs, with Bay hitting a career high 36 home runs and 119 RBI’s during the regular season. But in the playoffs, the Angels got their revenge on Boston, winning the divisional playoffs in three-straight.

After that season, Bay was back in the National League as he signed with the New York Mets. After three less-than stellar seasons with the Mets, Bay asked his agent to see if the Seattle Mariners were interested in him, as Seattle had become home to him and his family. He played 68 games for the Mariners in 2013, hitting 11 homeruns and playing his 1278th and final game on July 23, 2013 versus the Minnesota Twins.

Bay played a total of 11 major league seasons, with a career batting average of 0.266 in 4,505 at bats. He played for Canada’s national baseball team at the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classic, and was also named the top Canadian baseball player (winning the Tip O’Neill award) three times in his career: 2004, 2005 and 2009.

Ryan Dempster

Dempster was born in 1977 in Sechelt, BC. Growing up he only played a little bit of hockey. Soccer, basketball and, of course baseball were the sports that he became more fond of. He was pitching and playing baseball at Gibsons High School when he was drafted in the 3rd round of the 1995 major league draft by the Texas Rangers.

“It was really special,” recalled Dempster when I asked him about the day he was drafted. “My folks let me stay home from school that day and wait for the call. It was really, really exciting.”

And the best part of the day? “My parents let me stay home the rest of the day and I went golfing with a couple of buddies,” said Dempster. “It was really, really special and something that I worked my whole high school life towards getting drafted, and getting that opportunity, so to see it kind of come to fruition was really great.”

He was ultimately traded to the Florida Marlins where he would spend the first four and a half of his 16 major league seasons. He threw for over 200 innings in 3 of those seasons, including his career best of 226.1 innings in 2000, a season where he went 14-10 and was named a National League all-star.

His major league debut came at age 21 on May 23, 1998 versus the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was a good start, but not a good finish to his first time pitching at the major league level.

“It was kind of funny. I went out there, my first inning, and went 1-2-3,” remembered Dempster, meaning that he got the first three batters that he faced in his career out. “But then I went back out for a 2nd inning and I didn’t get anybody out. Then the reliever came in and gave up a triple and all three of my runs scored! My girlfriend at the time, her mom talked to me on the phone and said ‘Ryan, congratulations, you have the best ERA (earned run average) on the team’. And I said, no that’s not how it works, I actually have the highest ERA (it would have been 27.00 for his one inning), it’s not a good thing when you are a pitcher. But it was a great experience. Tons of nerves. I still remember getting up a few times in the bullpen (before he entered the game). It was pretty crazy.”

In the 2002 season, he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds where he stayed for the 2003 season. Next up in Dempster’s career was the Chicago Cubs, where he would ultimately spend 9 seasons. In his second season with the Cubs, he was switched from being a starting pitcher to being a reliever coming out of the bullpen, mainly to close out games. In his three seasons as a closer (2005 to 2007), Dempster would have seasons of 33, 24 and 28 saves.

In 2008, the Cubs put him back in the main rotation as a starting pitcher and he responded with the best season of his career. He went 17-6 in 33 starts, with a 2.96 ERA, being named a National League all star (for the second time in his career) and finishing 6th in the Cy Young award voting. And it should also be pointed out that the Cubs made the playoffs in both 2007 and 2008. The 2008 team was pretty good, winning 97 games. However, as Dempster points out, “We picked the wrong time of the year to have a three game losing streak” as the Cubs lost in three-straight games to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the division playoff series (they also lost 3-0 in 2007 to the Arizona Diamondbacks).

In 2012, Dempster finally got to play with the team that had drafted him 17-years earlier. He was traded by the Cubs to the Texas Rangers. He went 7-3 for the Rangers in 12 starts, helping Texas to a wild card playoff berth (Texas would lose to Baltimore in the one game playoff).

His 16th and final year in the majors came in 2013 with the Boston Red Sox. And it turned out to be a decent year, with a fairy tale ending. Dempster went 8-9 in 32 appearances as a starting pitcher and the Red Sox would go on to win the World Series that year. Dempster was on the roster for all three playoff series. Although he was not a key cog for the team’s playoff run, he did make an appearance in each series, pitching one inning. The highlight for him was game 1 of the World Series in Boston against the St. Louis Cardinals. Dempster, in his only appearance of the series (which went 6-games), pitched the 9th inning of an 8-1 victory.

Dempster, who was named the top Canadian player in the major leagues in 2000, is now an assistant to the Chicago Cubs general manager Theo Epstein and also does part time work as an analyst with the MLB network.

Gord Ash

Ash was born in Toronto in 1951. In 1977 a friend of his was working in the ticket office for the expansion Toronto Blue Jays. He mentioned to Ash that they were looking for help. Ash joined the ticket office and has never looked back. He worked his way up through the Blue Jays organization, putting his hand up anytime the Jays were looking for someone to do something that was needed. That included carrying blue wooden boxes out onto the field at Exhibition Stadium in 1978 during team picture day (a painting of that picture day is hanging in the new visitors lounge at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys).

Ash ultimately worked his way up to assistant director of operations (1980-83), player personnel administrator (1984-88) and assistant to general manager Pat Gillick (1989-94) during the years the Blue Jays won their back-to-back World Series. Ash became general manager of the Blue Jays in 1995 when Gillick retired. He remained in that position until 2001 when he was fired.

After a trip to Italy, he spent time working as a baseball analyst for TSN in 2002 where he correctly predicted, before the season started, that the Los Angeles Angels would win the world series that year (which they did!).

In 2003 Ash found himself back in the executive suite, this time for the Milwaukee Brewers, as an assistant general manager to Doug Melvin (a Canadian from Chatham, and a hall of fame inductee in 2012). During this time, Ash helped the Brewers to playoff appearances in 2008 (for the first time in 26-years) and 2011.

Ash is now the vice-president of baseball projects for the Brewers.

“This is very, very significant,” said Ash when I asked him what being inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame meant to him. “When I got the call, I was actually quite surprised. I didn’t think this would be an opportunity that would present itself to me. When I look through the roster of individuals that have entered the hall, I think I’ve worked directly with about 30 of them, and have had at least a passing relationship with about 20 more. It’s quite an honour to be here and it’s been a tremendous weekend here so far.”

Rob Thomson

Thomson was born in Sarnia in 1963 and grew up in Corunna where he started playing baseball. He played three seasons in the Intercounty Baseball League with the Stratford Hillers. In between seasons with the Hillers, he played for St. Clair Community College in Sarnia and the University of Kansas as a third baseman and catcher.

In 1984, he played for Canada in the Summer Olympics games in Los Angeles where baseball was a demonstration sport.

“It was an unbelievable experience,” said Thomson at the media conference when I asked him what his Olympic experience was like. “We were billeted at USC, on USC’s campus and the US basketball team was staying in the same building. That was the year they had Michael Jordan (basketball did not have professionals playing at that point, just mainly college stars). All those experiences, seeing all those other athletes, being able to play in Dodger stadium in front of 50,000 people. For a kid that comes from (a town of) 2,000 people, to be able to do something like that is just amazing.”

After the Olympics, Thomson was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 32nd round of the 1985 draft. He was only able to make it to the class A level over his two seasons in the minor leagues. After his second season, the Tigers basically told him that his playing days with their organization were over. And his life in baseball might have also been over, except for the fact that the Tigers asked Thomson if he would consider a career in coaching. He decided to take them up on their offer and in 1988 Thomson began what has turned out to be a 31-year coaching career so far, as he began coaching in the minor leagues for the Detroit Tigers organization.

In 1990, the New York Yankees came calling. Thomson left the Tigers and joined the Yankees organization (one reason for the switch was that the Yankees had more money and could pay more). From 1990 to 2003, Thomson did almost everything in the minor leagues for New York, from coaching, to managing, to field coordinator, to director of player development. In 2004 he finally joined the big-league Yankees as a special assignment instructor. At one point in his career, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner appointed Thomson as a vice-president!

In 2008 he was given the job as the bench coach for the Yankees and at one point in the season he became the manager of the team for three games while Joe Girardi, their regular manager, was away. In doing so, Thomson became the first Canadian to manage in the major leagues since George Gibson way back in 1934 for the Pittsburgh Pirates (Thomson went 1-2 in his three-game stint as manager).

From 2009 to 2014 he was the third base coach for the Yankees, and was part of their 2009 World Series championship team. For 2015 to 2017, Thomson was back to being the bench coach for New York. During his 28-year career with the Yankees, he was part of the organization during their 5 World Series victories (1996, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2009).

Thomson moved to Philadelphia in 2018 and is currently in his second year as bench coach with the Phillies.

“It is an honour and it’s very humbling,” said Thomson when I asked him what being inducted to the Hall of Fame meant to him. “And I am very proud to be a part of this establishment. It means the world to me and it will be the greatest honour that I will every receive personally.”