Four Baseball Greats Inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame
It had been a long time, three years to be exact, but there was finally an in-person ceremony at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. On Saturday, June 18 in St. Mary’s, four former players were inducted and will have their names enshrined on a plaque in the Hall of Fame. Two of them were born and bred Canadians, while the other two played for one of the two Canadian teams in major league baseball and had made a significant contribution to their teams.
The Canadian born players were pitcher Jeff Francis, who currently lives in London, and who was inducted in the class of 2022, and catcher turned first baseman Justin Morneau , who was actually inducted in 2020, but was finally getting his recognition in 2022. The two other players were both pitchers. One of them was Duane Ward who spent 9 years with the Toronto Blue Jays as a reliever from 1986 to 1993. He was part of the 2020 induction class. The other pitcher was Pedro Martinez who spent four of his 18 years in the major leagues with the Montreal Expos. Martinez was actually inducted in 2018, but was only now able to attend the induction ceremony in person.
Two other inductees, who were planning on attending, ultimately were not able to. John Olerud, who played first base for the Toronto Blue Jays during their World Series winning years, was inducted in 2020 and is now planning on attending next year’s ceremony. Long-time French radio broadcast voice of the Montreal Expos, Jacques Doucet, could not attend due to an illness but is planning on attending next year. He was inducted in the builder/broadcast category and was one of 17 inductees in the 2021 class as the Hall of Fame went back in time to induct many of the pioneers of Canadian baseball.
On the morning of induction day, there was a media event at the Hall of Fame where members of the media were able to meet and interview three of the four inductees (Pedro Martinez was late to the media event, but did attend the induction ceremony in the afternoon). Here are some short bios of the four newest members of the Hall of Fame, along with the full interviews.
Duane Ward (class of 2020)
Duane Ward was born and raised in New Mexico. He was drafted out of high school by the Atlanta Braves in the first round, the ninth pick overall. After a few years in the minors, he made his major league debut with the Braves on April 12, 1986. The opposing team was the Houston Astros, with one of his idols, Nolan Ryan, on the mound.
“The neatest thing about it was that I got to see my hero pitch, Nolan Ryan, who started the game in Houston,” said Ward. “The icing on the cake was that my mom and dad were there to see my major league debut. That was probably one of the biggest highlights of my career.”
Ward’s tenure with the Braves did not last long. He was traded on July 6, 1986 to the Toronto Blue Jays for pitcher Doyle Alexander. But before he left Atlanta, he got his one and only at bat in the major leagues.
“It was in St. Louis. I pitched a couple of innings in relief and we were losing, so they said go ahead and hit,” laughed Ward as he remembered the at bat. “I always tell the story that I hit the ball 500 feet…250 feet straight up, 250 feet straight down, right to the catcher, (and it was) in fair territory so I had to run it out.”
Ward only got into two games with the Blue Jays for the rest of the 1986 season. His stat line was two innings pitched, one game started, an 0-1 record and a 13.50 ERA. But he slowly started to show off his pitching abilities over the next few years, getting into 12 games in 1987 and over 60 games in each of the next six seasons, with the peak being appearing in 81 games in the 1991 season. And in each of those seasons, 1987 to 1991, the Blue Jays were at or near the top of the American League Eastern Division. But each time, they failed to make it to the World Series.
“I think we found it a little bit difficult to get over that hump,” replied Ward when I asked him about the pressures the Blue Jays felt during those years. “We got into the 92 playoffs and Robbie (Alomar) hit that home run (against the Oakland A’s), it was almost like ‘we are getting over that hump today’. I think that is when it turned.”
And turn it did. Toronto would win the World Series in 1992 over the Atlanta Braves and in 1993 over the Philadelphia Phillies. In 1992 Ward appeared in 79 games during the regular season, went 7-4 with a 1.95 ERA, the lowest of his career. He was the set-up man to Tom Henke. Ward also made 7 appearances in the post season, going 3-0, including 2-0 in the World Series in 3.1 innings without giving up an earned run.
In 1993, Ward became Toronto’s main reliever, as Tom Henke left the team in free agency. Ward would go on to set a team record for saves with 45, a record he still holds today. He was also the closing pitcher in the all-star game that year (a 9-3 win for the American League). In the championship series versus the Chicago White Sox, Ward made four appearances with two saves. In the World Series against the Phillies, Ward saved game 1 (and 8-5 victory) and saved game 4, the wild 15-14 win by the Jays after they had trailed 14-9.
But what a lot of people do not know is that Ward was the winning pitcher in the deciding game 6 victory, having pitched a clean top of the ninth. That set the stage for Joe Carter’s home run heroics in the bottom of the ninth.
“I try to take all of Joe’s thunder, because everybody wants to remember that home run,” said Ward. “I always look at them when they talk about it, and say ‘who was the winning pitcher?’ They always go ‘gosh, who was the winning pitcher?’, and I go ‘you are looking at him’. But here we are, back-to-back champions. It was great.”
Strange as it may sound, that game 6 victory was basically the last game Duane Ward pitched in the major leagues. He had biceps tendinitis and missed all of the 1994 season. He tried a comeback in 1995, pitching 2.2 innings over four appearances, but the injury was just too much and Ward had to retire.
Ward has fond memories of his time with the Blue Jays and is absolutely honoured to recognized for his career with induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
“I was absolutely numb,” said Ward recounting the time when he got the call letting him know about his induction. “I went numb, going you got to be kidding me. It’s a dream, I’m still pinching myself. It’s unbelievable.”
Justin Morneau (class of 2020)
Justin Morneau was born in New Westminster, British Columbia. He was quite the athlete growing up. In school he played hockey, basketball, volleyball and ball hockey. In high school, he was approached to play football, but he declined.
His first love was hockey. He was a goaltender who wore number 33, the same number his idol Patrick Roy wore. In 1997, he was asked to try out for the Portland Winter Hawks of the Western Hockey League. He said no, but he still played in one pre-season game and was the back up goaltender on the bench for a few regular season games. The Winter Hawks would win the Memorial Cup that season, 1997-98, and Morneau is listed on the team roster as the third goalie. Although he did not actually play, he remains the only player to have played in Major League Baseball who was also a Memorial Cup champ.
Morneau also excelled in baseball as a catcher. Since the town he was in did not have a junior team, he joined the North Delta Blue Jays (the next community over). It was not a travelling team, but instead was just the local team. But that team won two national Canadian junior championships, one in 1997 (where fellow Hall of Famer Jeff Francis was a teammate) and one in 1998. It was at the 1998 championship that Morneau started to get noticed by major league baseball scouts.
“I was fortunate I played when I did, as I think there is a lot of pressure on kids now to pick when they are way too young to figure out what they want to do,” said Morneau. “I had the option to play baseball for six months and hockey for six months. I think when the scouts started to come around and watching our (baseball) games, it started to become a little bit more of a realistic possibility. I think I was always a little bit better at baseball. Baseball was the sport that stood out a little bit more and felt like I had a little more opportunity to get to where I wanted to go.”
Morneau was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in 1999 as a catcher. It was in the minors that he switched positions to first base. He would spend six years in the minors, starting out as an 18-year-old in rookie ball, working his way up though the Twins system, from rookie league, to A-ball, AA-ball and AAA-ball. He finally got the call up to the major leagues on June 10, 2003. He singled in his first at bat in Colorado against Jason Jennings. He ended the day getting two hits in his four plate appearances.
“It was always a constant working towards this goal (of making the major leagues)”, said Morneau when I asked him if he ever thought his career in the minor leagues was stalling or going nowhere. “It never felt like I was stuck, especially being in the Twins organization (which) promotes from within. So you knew if you were playing well, you were going to find a spot. And I think that motivation and that carrot at the end, I think that helped me stay motivated. If there was ever any doubt, my dad or mom at the other end of the (telephone) line would keep me going.”
In the second half of the 2004 season, Morneau became a full-time player, appearing in 74 games, helping the Twins make the playoffs. In those years, 2003 to 2005, he wore number 27. But when the number 33 became available, he quickly snapped it up. And it seemed to help. In 2006 his batting average was 0.321, he hit 34 home runs and had 130 runs batted in, again helping the Twins make the playoffs. This was good enough for Morneau to win the American League MVP award in a tight race over Derek Jeter. Morneau became the first Canadian born player to win the MVP award in the American League (Larry Walker won the NL MVP award in 1997). He also won the first of his two silver slugger awards.
Morneau followed up that magical season with all-star game appearances in 2007, 2008 and 2009, adding the home run derby championship to his resume at the 2008 game. He was having a great 2010 season when a concussion ended his season. It took a while to fully recover from that injury as he appeared in only 69 games in the 2011 season.
On August 31, 2013, after 11 seasons with Minnesota, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. He played in 25 regular season games, helping the Pirates make the playoffs where they won the wild card game before falling in five games in the divisional series.
In the off season, Morneau signed as a free agent with the Colorado Rockies, batting 0.319 in 2014 and 0.310 in 2015, albeit in only 49 games. He finished his major league career in 2016 playing 58 games after signing with the Chicago White Sox.
Morneau’s major league career totals: 14 seasons, 1545 games, 0.281 career batting average, 247 home runs, 985 RBI’s, 13 post season games and an appearance (for the first time) on the ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 2022.
Whether he will get into that Hall remains to be seen. But he was inducted into the Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame in 2020, with the ceremony held late last season. And now, his name and plaque will be forever enshrined in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Mary’s.
“It’s kind of starting to sink in,” said Morneau. “You walk in here and see your face on a plaque in a room that is going to stand for a long time. It’s a very humbling thing and it’s such a huge honour to look around and go I’m one of those names on the wall.”
Jeff Francis (class of 2022)
Jeff Francis was born in Vancouver and was a teammate of fellow inductee Justin Morneau in 1997 on a national championship junior team. He then attended the University of British Columbia and majored in physics. While at UBC, he played baseball for the Thunderbirds who participated in the NIAA (a US college league). It was while with the Thunderbirds that Francis was drafted in the first round, ninth overall, by the Colorado Rockies (fellow Canadian Adam Loewen was selected fourth overall in the same draft, the first time two Canadians had been picked in the first round).
After a couple of seasons in the minor leagues, Francis made his major league debut on August 24, 2004 against Atlanta. Although he only lasted five innings and the Rockies lost 8-1, it was a thrill for Francis to make it to the big leagues.
“It was electric”, said Francis when I asked him about his debut. “There’s a lot of things to get used to at the major league level. Not just the competition level, which is just a huge jump from any level in the minor leagues. That third level of seats, the brighter lights, the louder cheers. There’s lots to get used to. I certainly did not feel comfortable right away.”
Francis would spend seven consecutive seasons with Colorado, although he did miss the entire 2009 season due to having surgery on his shoulder. That injury caused him to miss the World Baseball Classic. Pitching in Denver, the mile high city, was a bit of challenge with the higher altitude and thinner air making it a hitter’s paradise.
“There are lots of challenges,” said Francis about pitching at Coors Field. “The balls fly farther, the ball might not move the same as you are used to, depending on where you were coming from. But as a staff of young pitchers, I don’t think we knew any better. We were young guys, it was all we knew. We came up (together) pitching in triple A in Colorado Springs, which altitude wise was even worse.”
The 2007 season was a magical one for both the Rockies and for Francis. He made 34 starts, went 17-9 with a 4.22 ERA to help Colorado make the playoffs for the first time in team history. Francis won his only start in the divisional series versus Philadelphia (a three game sweep), and won his only start in the National League championship series versus Arizona (a four game sweep). Unfortunately for the Rockies, then ran out of steam in the World Series, getting swept by the Boston Red Sox. Francis became the first Canadian born pitcher to start a World Series game, but was the losing pitcher in a 13-1 game one loss.
“It was massive. It felt like a baseball town,” said Francis about the 2007 playoff run. “Everywhere you went in town people knew who you were. I had my taste of fame. A career highlight, to be able to pitch in a World Series and be a part of a historic Rockies team.”
Francis spent the 2011 season in the American league with the Kansas City Royals, going 6-16 in 31 starts. He was back with Colorado in 2012, starting the year in the minors before joining the Rockies halfway through the season. After one more season with Colorado, Francis spent the 2014 season with three teams, Cincinnati, Oakland and the Yankees, before being released on August 5. He would finish off his major league career in 2015 signing a minor league contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. He would be called up on September 1 and make 14 relief appearances to help the Jays make the playoffs (although he was not on the playoff roster).
Before his stint with Toronto, Francis was part of Canada’s baseball team at the Pan-Am Games which were held in Toronto. That team would win the gold medal, defeating the United States in the gold medal game by a score of 7-6.
His career totals were 254 appearances, 72 wins, 82 losses and a 4.97 ERA. He also had 303 appearances at the plate, getting 35 hits for a career 0.116 batting average.
Since he retired, Francis moved to London where his wife is from. He is an assistant coach on a local pee wee baseball team (members of which attended the induction ceremony to cheer on their assistant coach). And being inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame is something very special, but it is more of a way to recognize all of the people who helped him along the way.
“It is a stamp, I guess, on a playing career,” said Francis. “But it really means a chance to thank a lot of people. I think that is important. I don’t think I did any of what I did myself. I could never have done it by myself. Sometimes you wish on your little plaque there was more room to list all those names.”
Pedro Martinez (2018 inductee)
Pedro Martinez spent 18 seasons in the major leagues, pitching with 5 different teams. But it was his four seasons with the Montreal Expos that got him inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. From 1994 to 1997, Martinez made 118 appearances for Montreal, winning 55 games and losing 33. His best season was 1997 when he won the National League Cy Young Award, going 17-8 with 305 strikeouts and a sparkling 1.90 ERA in an era where many hitters were using steroids.
Unfortunately, after that great season, Martinez headed to free agency and the Expos could not afford to sign him. He ended up signing with the Boston Red Sox. He would spend seven seasons in Boston, winning the World Series in 2004 and two more Cy Young Awards.
That was followed by four seasons with the New York Mets and one final season in 2009 with Philadelphia, where he helped the Phillies make the World Series (they would lose 4-2 to the Yankees).
Overall, Martinez would make 476 appearances, wining 219 of them and losing only 100. He is 13th on the all-time strikeout list with 3154, just behind another Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer, Fergie Jenkins. Martinez was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 2015.