From Disabled? Hell no! I’m a Sit-down Comic with my co-author Jim Taylor
“Send him,” Brian said. “Send him to second.”
On a warm Edmonton evening in late June 1973, Brian Wilkes leaned over to whisper in my ear.
Very slowly I moved my right hand over and touched my left elbow. The runner on first base touched the top of his batting helmet.
“Good. He got it,” said Brian.
So let me fill in the blanks: top of the fifth inning, 2–2 tie, third game of the best of three for the Little League senior baseball league championship, ages thirteen to fifteen. And me? I’m sitting in my chair at the end of the players’ bench on the third base- line—giving signals to baserunners.
It was Brian’s brainwave as coach of the Village Esso team I had followed all season long. We were pretty good, finishing in first place, but we were in tough in the final against a team spon- sored by Safeway. Heading into that deciding game, Brian felt that the Safeway club had figured out our signals, which could be a major problem. But he had an idea. He sat the team down in left field before the game and gave them his marching orders.
“Cam is giving the signals today,” Brian said in his raspy coach’s voice. “He’ll be sitting right beside me at the end of the bench. I want you guys to look at me and I’ll be giving you nothing but garbage signals. Pay no attention. Watch Cam. He will be giving you the bunt sign and the steal sign. Look at me, but keep your eyes on Cam.”
Then, as the rest of the team did their stretches, Brian and I huddled. He said we were going to keep things really simple— bunt was hitting the left brow of my cap; steal, hit my left elbow twice.
“Screw this up, Tait,” Brian said with his mischievous grin, “and we’ll send you to the minors for the rest of your career.”
What a wonderful feeling of being a part of the team, with something important to do, not just sitting at the end of the bench, cheering and swatting away mosquitoes. I was giving signals.
It always was important to me that if I was wearing a uniform—and I was—I wanted to contribute. I am forever grateful that Brian gave me the opportunity. I sent four runners to steal second base. All were safe. Brian just looked over at me and smiled.
In the end we won the game 5–3. We had just finished shaking hands when I saw Ed Tanner, Safeway’s coach, waving his hands at Brian. Then he raised his voice. Then he called the umpire over.
Brian told us to go back and pack up the equipment while he took care of things. We did. A few minutes later he came back to the bench, trying like hell not to laugh.
“The other coach said we cheated,” he told us. “He said we changed our signals. I said we didn’t. Then he asked who was giving them. I just smiled.
“And then he said: ‘It was the crippled kid. You had the crip- pled kid giving your base signals. You cheated. This game is under protest.’”
Fat chance. The protest went absolutely nowhere. We were league champions.
Baseball swung into my life when I was seven. Dad bought me a brown plastic bat and white plastic ball and he pitched to me. Underhand, of course. I was sitting on my haunches and managed to cut not a bad swing with my arms. Dad threw nice and slow, encouraging me to work on my timing for the hit, which I quickly figured out. Within a few days I had my first hit—and then hopped around the living room like a rabbit, aiming for the ches- terfield, which was, in my mind, first base.
“The material is very thin,” Mom said. “You will wear holes right through the knees if you crawl on the grass with them.”
I didn’t like the idea. But then, one summer afternoon, Mom had to go out for an hour and we had a babysitter. I had three of my friends over to play with me. There was my chance.
I convinced the babysitter to change me into my baseball pajamas and then went out to take the first pitch. I connected a hot grounder between second and third base and hopped on my hands and knees to first base. Of course, I was safe.
I looked down at my white uniform. Sure enough, there was a huge grass stain just below the knee. But I figured I would get the babysitter to wash the uniform right after the game. Mom would never know. Perfect.
I made it all the way from third base to home. Just as I placed my right hand on the bag that served as home plate I heard a rip. I looked down at my right pant leg. It was torn. Post-game paja- ma-washing wasn’t going to work.
That wasn’t the only time Mom was left shaking her head about my baseball antics. I really liked seeing white lines down the first and third base lines. We needed them in the backyard on our diamond. Darn right, we did.
Poor babysitters. Mom had another afternoon appointment so we had a babysitter, and a baseball game. Right before the game I asked the babysitter to reach in the cupboard above the stove for Mom’s cornstarch.
“Take it outside and pour it on the grass,” I said. “We have to make white lines on the baseball diamond.”
For some reason, he did as I’d asked. But, be damned if we didn’t run out of cornstarch a foot before we reached first base. The babysitter, bless his soul, put the empty box back in the cupboard. A few days later Mom wanted to make biscuits and was dumbfounded as to where the cornstarch went.
I confessed. And was sent to my room—with a new pair of pajamas.
I knew my future in baseball—if I wanted one—wouldn’t be as a player. I was just too damn hard on uniforms. But little did I know the sport would teach me some of life’s most important lessons.
Maybe our neighbour George McAvoy saw something in me. He helped with patterns in the evenings and coached a Little League team sponsored by Inland Cement. He suggested I become the team mascot, and threw in a bonus. My own uniform—a red and white uniform, just like the one worn by the St. Louis Cardinals major league team I loved watching on televi- sion. A top, pants, socks and, of course, a cap. I was in! It rained on the evening I got it, but I was so excited I asked my mother if she would change me into it and, maybe, drive around the neigh- bourhood, visiting people to show off my new duds. Mom agreed, and off we went—in the rain.
What was the big deal for me to have a uniform? It was being
Okay, I couldn’t play the game I loved, but I had a great career as mascot, starting in 1968 with a team sponsored by Inland Cement.
I was accepted and being a part of the team. I was no longer the kid in the wheelchair who sat behind the backstop with the players’ parents. Dammit, I was on the team. I sat on the end of the team bench and was included in the pep talks. Then, after one game, McAvoy pushed me across the diamond to shake hands with the other team.
Forgive me if I sound like a broken record, but being one of the boys meant the world to me. After all, I had the uniform to prove it.
Our team wasn’t exactly setting Little League on fire in Edmonton but we had fun. The team to beat was Overpass Equipment, who went on to win the league champion- ship. Overpass was coached by Hugh Berry, who, just by chance, went to the same church our family attended, Trinity United. His wife, Marg, helped once a week with patterns. Coach Berry and I started a friendly rivalry after the baseball season whenever we saw each other at church. I don’t think God minded too much.
Shortly before the next baseball season—the summer of 1969—George McAvoy said he would not be returning as coach. I mentioned this to Hugh Berry one Sunday at church. He leaned back on his heels, put his hands in his pockets and then made a pretty tempting offer: would I like to be the Overpass mascot?
I had one condition before I agreed to the transaction. “Do I get a uniform?” I asked
He roared with laughter. “I think we can work something out,” he said.
Hugh Berry’s son, Bill, was in high school and was a hell of a pitcher. He helped his father as an assistant coach. Bill and I really connected, and he shared some of his baseball strategy during games. Overpass had a great team—pitching, hitting and defence. Berry, a seasoned baseball and hockey player, was a fierce competitor; yet, he could harness his strong will to win to teach 11- and 12-year-old boys the basics of baseball. He quietly stirred my own competitive spirit—something, I think, that served me well throughout my life. When I think back it’s amazing what I was learning at the age of 10.
Mr. Berry was very good to me. We had a game one Sunday afternoon during two scheduled patterns. Mom and Dad broke the rules very few times to miss one pattern because of special circumstances. But two? Nope, they said. Couldn’t do that. I was so disappointed—okay, pouting—that I would miss a few innings, I decided I wasn’t going to go at all. All or nothing, man.
Just as I was finishing my crawling exercises after the second pattern, Mom said a green Ford station wagon pulled up in our driveway.
“It’s Mr. Berry,” she said. “And it looks like he brought the whole team with him.”
I hopped up onto the chesterfield that was snug against the wall and looked out the window. Mom was right. The coach got out of the car and so did two players who were sitting in the front seat. Another five came out of the back seat. And another four climbed out of the very back of the station wagon—all in their uniforms and gloves.
“We brought the team bus,” Berry said of his green wagon, a term that stuck for years later. “We missed you at the game so I thought we would come say hi.”
And it was a happy group because the team had won 6–2 that afternoon. So, what would anyone do if their baseball team came over to their house? Take everyone to the backyard and have an impromptu baseball game, right? Yup, that’s exactly what we did. The team stayed only fifteen minutes, but it meant so much to me that they’d come to see me.
We won the league championship, and it was the first time I felt the wonderful sense of success—and victory. I won a first-place ribbon in a church picnic three-legged race with my mother. But, uh, we kind of cheated. See, all Mom did was push me in my chair and—be damned—we crossed the finish line before anyone else.
But winning with Overpass was so special because it was a team effort. I remember the excitement on the bench late in June 1969 when the last out was made. We started slapping each other on the back, hugging each other and throwing our caps in the air. Winning may be great. But perhaps even greater is sharing it with the people who got you there. We had a team party at the community hall—hot dogs, pop and ice cream. What struck me was the closeness of the players and realizing that we had won a
championship. And we did it together.
In the middle of the hall sat the championship trophy—a little golden baseball bat and ball sitting on a piece of dark wood. A few months after we won the championship, Hugh Berry phoned one evening. Every player on the team was getting the trophy for a day, including me.
“I’m putting together a schedule and I wanted to know what day you would like it,” he said over the phone.
I couldn’t wait for the day to come when I had the trophy. I called as many friends as I could to come over and see it. Damn right, I was proud. Sure I never got a hit or made an out, but still, I was a part of the team. Hell, I had the uniform to prove it. And speaking of my uniform, Mom dressed me in it and took a few pictures of me in the backyard with the trophy.
I felt like a champion. I knew the feeling at a very young age, but I was also learning, very slowly, what it took to have an impact in what I wanted to do.
Hugh Berry gave me a great foundation for what lay ahead.
I was thirteen for the 1972 baseball season and that meant I was old enough for the senior division of Little League. Mr. Berry had quit coaching that year, but he introduced me to Jack Bottrell, whose son Randy, also my age, played for a team called Village Esso. Mr. Berry suggested I be the mascot for Village Esso. And yes, it came with a uniform. Done deal.
He had kind of a nasal voice when he yelled instructions to his players that slowly turned into a fierce battle cry. I didn’t know him well but knew he was a winning coach. And win he did: Oil Patch ended up winning the league championship.
Oil Patch was presented the trophy at the end of June. If you celebrated the league championship that meant you got to pick an all-star team that would compete against other areas of the city, and, if you were really, really lucky, you had a shot at competing in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. I liked the sound of that challenge.
Mom called Coach Papke to see if I could be the team’s mascot. Even though I couldn’t hear his response over the phone, I could tell he wasn’t jumping with joy. But still he said I could be part of the team. He was a taskmaster and wanted his team to be ready. Papke had two weeks before our first game and scheduled two practices a day: 9:15 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. Mom said she would drive me to Jubilee Park—a five-minute ride from our house.
Coach Papke shook everybody’s hand the first morning, had all the players grab a seat in the bleachers, and then set the bar. “You guys are good. You might be the best group of young players I have worked with,” he said. “In fact, you’re so good, you’re going to Thunder Bay, Ontario, to represent western Canada.”
Okay. We hadn’t even taken the field for practice, but dammit, we were going to Thunder Bay. I liked the way he thought.
And one more thing, he said. The team would travel by plane to Thunder Bay. “All of you guys have to wear a tie on the plane,” he ordered. “Because when you look good, you feel good—and you do good. So I want all of you guys to tie your own ties.”
Challenge accepted. I couldn’t wait for Dad to come through the back door after work that day. When he did, I hit him with my question: “Dad, can you teach me how to tie a tie?”
He muttered something under his breath. “Are you crazy?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “Our baseball coach said we have such a good team that we’re going to the national championships in Thunder Bay. On the airplane. And we all have to tie our own tie, and since I am part of the team…”
Dad looked skyward. “This may be the craziest thing I have ever heard, you tying a tie with your hands,” he said. “Tell you what. I’ll show you three times and three times only. Then, you’re on your own.”
Dad undid the tie he was wearing and slowly showed me how to tie a double Windsor knot. Single? No way. Had to be a double. And then it was up to me.
Every day after our afternoon practice I went to Dad’s tie rack, selected a tie, and started tying. And tying. And tying. I spent an hour a day trying to figure this damn thing out.
The days turned into a week. I came up with more knot config- urations than the Royal Canadian Navy and Boy Scouts had in both of their manuals. But was there a knot I could proudly wear with a crisp starched shirt? Not a chance.
Then, on the twelfth day, I don’t know what I did, but every- thing seemed to go where it was supposed to, and my knot was just perfect. But was it a fluke? So I grabbed another one of Dad’s ties and attempted to produce another knot. I did. I had an hour before Dad came home from work. I untied all of his forty-seven ties hanging from the rack and re-tied them before he walked through the door.
Mission accomplished. More importantly, I was ready to travel with the team.
I tied my first tie two days before our first game. I really wasn’t looking forward to the start of tournament play because I was learning so much from Papke’s two-a-day workouts. I paid special attention to how he had three, sometimes four, drills going on at once so every player was involved. Papke had three assistants— Gordie Murray, Dean Coquette and Willie Nielsen—run drills, and he circled around to everyone. And what really struck me was how he always stopped to teach something new in the drill and walked away to the next one, clapping his hands and leaving words of encouragement.
I thought I knew baseball fairly well as a 13-year-old kid. But Coach Papke taught me so much about the fundamentals of hitting, fielding and pitching. I sat and soaked in as much as I could when he had the team practise baserunning, bunting, double steals and squeeze plays. He demanded perfection, and if the players didn’t do it right, dammit, he made them do it over until they did. I was taught that during the patterning treatment, but hearing it from someone outside of the treatment was very enlightening.
Coach Papke was friendly to me, shook my hand and said hello every time he saw me. But he never wheeled me up to the bench for a fireside chat. I often wondered if he really understood I was learning a great deal from him.
He did have my back, though. The team met before every game. One day, just as we were finishing up, the biggest swarm of bees I have ever seen circled around the bench. Everyone ran like hell, including Papke, and jumped the wire fence. Me? I was left there, trying to pedal backwards to get away from the bees.
“Holy shit. We forgot Cam,” Papke said after the mayhem settled down. “I’ll go get him.”
He came running and then pushed me to safety.
He had a line for everything—too many to repeat. But there’s one I’ll never forget. Brian Grandfield was one of our starting pitchers, but he had a rough day at a practice. Papke walked out to the mound to settle Grandfield down. We could hear him as clear as day.
“Brian, if you are a pitcher then my asshole is a machine gun,” he barked.
The night before our first game of the double knockout we had a team meeting and hot dogs at Mr. Papke’s. I had to go because that was the night he was handing out uniforms. They were beau- tiful—white, red and black. We were the Edmonton Falcons. And we were all pretty impressed at the price tag—$44 per uniform. Back in 1972 we thought that was a hell of a price for uniforms. But we looked good, and we’d earned them.
The double knockout tournament began July 15 and we breezed through our first three games. We lost our fourth, and it gave me a lesson I’ll always remember. The team was pretty confident going into the game, even cocky. Coach Papke stressed how important it was to have a really good infield warm-up. Get a good feel for the ball. Snap it around the bases. Feel good about yourself before the first pitch.
But that night the pre-game warm-up was a disaster. Throws were wild. Balls were dropped. The guys did not look ready at all. Papke looked angry and concerned as he quickly came back to the dugout and summoned the team to the left-field fence. Nobody pushed me over to the impromptu meeting but I could hear his displeasure from where I sat.
We lost that game, and maybe some of our confidence. To this day I think of that game and the importance of getting ready for everything. We did bounce back in the final, and had a 5–3 lead late in the game. We started talking about winning and repre- senting Edmonton in Calgary, and then we’d be off to Thunder Bay.
We lost 7–5, and we never got to fly to Thunder Bay. But, damn, I still can tie a tie.