YORKTON - With the major league baseball regular season about to begin, and Canadian sport fans eager to watch the Toronto Blue Jays, it’s a perfect time to touch base with a former Jays’ great.
When the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame holds its induction ceremony June 18, it will be the first live event since 2019.
As such it will see the actual induction of players announced in 2020 Duane Ward, Justin Morneau, John Olerud and broadcaster Jacques Doucet, before COVID-19 caused the cancellation of the ceremony, and the lone 2022 inductee Jeff Francis.
Ward, a former star with the Toronto Blue Jays said he was thrilled by the announcement in 2020.
“I think it’s such an honour even after time has gone by,” he said, adding it is gratifying “people recognize my contribution.”
As an aside the HoF’s 2021 induction was virtual and its slate of inductees truly historic.
The class of 2021 consisted of 16 individuals and one team that have made significant contributions to the history of baseball in Canada. The 16 individual inductees, all of whom are deceased, and one team were selected by a six-person Committee comprised of Canadian baseball historians from across the country.
“With the cancelation of the 2021 in-person induction ceremony due to the pandemic, we felt it was the right time to look back and honour some of the trailblazers and pioneers of Canadian baseball,” said Jeremy Diamond, the chair of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s board of directors in a release at the time. “I’m proud that we will be celebrating this diverse group of inductees, each of whom has had a profound impact on the sport in our country.”
Of interest in Saskatchewan James F. Cairns was among the 16.
“Born on March 23, 1870 in Lawrenceville, Que., Cairns travelled west to Saskatoon in 1902 and became president of the Saskatoon Ball Club. He soon developed it into one of the finest clubs in the Prairies. In 1912, the team, known as the Saskatoon Berry Pickers, toured throughout the Prairies and the northern United States and joined the Western Canada League, the only organized baseball league to operate in the province. At the same time, Cairns was also instrumental in building what was considered the finest ballpark in the Prairies, which was named after him (Cairns Field) and opened in 1913. The following year, his team captured the Western Canada League pennant,” noted the HoF website.
But, back to Ward who was drafted with the ninth pick in the 1st round of the 1982 amateur draft by the Atlanta Braves, making his major league debut April 12, 1986, but after limited play with the Braves he was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays on July 6 for pitcher Doyle Alexander.
Ward said the trade was huge for his career.
“The grass really was greener on the other side of the trade,” he said, adding once with the Jay’s he was given more opportunity “to pitch, to learn and get better.”
Ward would spend the rest of his MLB career as a Jay as a hard throwing relief pitcher, initially as a set-up man for closer Tom Henke.
“We fed off each other,” Ward said of Henke, who was inducted himself in 2011.
Ward said he has always understood as a pitcher “you’re only as good as the guy in front of you.” A middle reliever can’t succeed without a good effort of the starter, the closer needs a set-up man to allow him a chance at saves. “. . . It’s a sequence of pitchers going out there. You never get a chance to deliver if guys in front of you don’t do it.”
The Canadian HoF bio notes, “in his five seasons serving primarily in a set-up role, Ward never made less than 64 appearances or pitched less than 101 innings. In 1991, the workhorse righty topped American League pitchers with 81 appearances and struck out a career-best 132 batters in 107 1/3 innings.”
For most of Ward’s career he was the setup man, but that changed after the 1992 World Series winning season when Henke left the Jays, leaving the closer role to Ward.
It was a role he proved more than ready for.
Ward took over the closer's role in 1993. In the regular season, Ward set Toronto's single-season team record for saves with 45. He was tied with Jeff Montgomery of the Kansas City Royals for most saves in the American League.
Ward was the closing pitcher for the American League in its 9–3 victory at the 1993 Major League Baseball All-Star Game.
The 1993 World Series was also a stage for Ward to shine. He earned two saves over Philadelphia, and was the winning pitcher for the decisive Game 6 in which Joe Carter hit a walk-off home run after Ward pitched in relief.
Looking back Ward said he was simply in a zone all season long.
“It just seemed like everything was going so good . . . I felt I was pitching at my best,” he said.
And, a second World Series win was just as sweet as the first.
“Oh gosh yes. It’s just so hard to get in the post season, everything has to go right,” he said, adding that when it happens and you win it’s just so gratifying.
Ward appeared poised to be a star closer, but he would never be healthy enough to contribute after the 1993 season.
He would never save another Major League game after 1993.
After missing the entire 1994 season due to biceps tendinitis, he retired from the Toronto Blue Jays after pitching just four games during the 1995 season.
In total, in nine seasons with the Blue Jays, Ward appeared in 452 games, the second-most by a pitcher in franchise history. He is also second in saves (121) and games finished (266).
Ward now looks forward to the actual induction that has been on hold so long.
“I’ve had over two years to reflect on what I want to say,” he said, adding he has rewritten his notes several times, admitting when the day comes “I might just wing the thing.”
Ward said he wants to be able to thank “all the people that were there,” helping him in his career from minor baseball to summer leagues, the minors and of course in the majors.
For the World Series year, Ward pitched with 2002 inductee Cito Gaston as his manager.
Ward said Gaston and his coaching staff were great to work with.
“They were there when you were struggling a little bit,” he said, adding when things were going well “. . . they sort of stepped out of the way and let you work.”
One thing Ward does know for sure is that he is going to enjoy the experience in June.
“It’s just so nice to be recognized by your peers, that you were good, you did your job and you did it well,” he said.
“This puts the cap on ... everything I did in my baseball career.”