Back in May of 2016, the revelation of Gord Downie’s terminal brain cancer diagnosis hit Stubby Clapp hard. Since the 1999 Pan American Games, The Tragically Hip’s music has served as the Canadian national baseball team’s soundtrack on bus rides, during batting practice, and in the clubhouse and at hotels hanging out after games.
The mere mention of songs like “Blow at High Dough,” “New Orleans is Sinking” and “Courage” instantly triggers a flood of memories for Clapp and many, if not all, of his Baseball Canada teammates.
“It’s meant so much to us in that program and as the program developed and players moved on, the guys that were behind them have always continued that tradition—that’s how much the Hip’s music has meant to our program,” says Clapp, now manager of the triple-A Memphis Redbirds. “You just can’t describe how important it was.”
Tournament after tournament for nearly two decades, the national team has rallied around the Hip, looking for a place to happen, making stops along the way.
1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg
“They shot a movie once, in my hometown. Everybody was in it, from miles around.”
The Hip’s run as a national team staple started that summer in 1999 when a plucky group of underdogs endeared itself to Canadian fans by upsetting powerhouse teams from the United States and Cuba before settling for a bronze medal. In the lead-up to the tournament, someone (often identified as Clapp) popped in the band’s CD and a tradition was born.
“I can’t specifically remember myself being the one,” says Clapp. “We had Andy Stewart, Lee Delfino, Matt Stockman and Aaron Guiel—I’m somewhere in there. And it just became a thing, like, ‘Let’s rock out to some Canadian bands.’ And it was the Hip.”
Batting practice often started with “Blow at High Dough,” but the players were already well revved up before stepping into the cage.
“I can honestly tell you that every bus ride I ever took to a field to play with Team Canada started with the Hip,” says Clapp. “Everybody would get on the bus, everybody was excited to play and someone would have a CD, we’d commandeer the bus driver’s radio and put our CD in. Everything would go silent and then you’d hear the strum of the guitar and it was focus time, you could just feel the energy. We’d listen to the songs, it would lock us in and we were going to do work.”
2003 Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Panama
“Passion out of machine revving tension. Lashing out at machine revving tension. Rushing by the machine revving tension.”
The first thing that comes to mind for Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin and first base coach Tim Leiper when you mention The Tragically Hip is Panama. Both were in their first tournament with the senior squad in 2003 and “it was our music everywhere,” Leiper recalls with a smile. “‘Blow at High Dough’ was the first song on the CD and it always set the stage for the day, the rhythm for the day.”
Justin Morneau, a highly touted Minnesota Twins prospect at the time, hit five home runs with nine RBIs in five games to help Canada secure its first Olympic berth since 1988. Martin was a Los Angeles Dodgers prospect at the time, mostly with the squad as a development exercise.
“We had a good bond. Everyone knew each other because it’s a small brotherhood. I was in my second year catching and after every game, and before we got to the field, we’d blast the Hip on the bus and it just got us going, man,” says Martin. “That’s where I was introduced to The Tragically Hip. I knew a little bit about them, but I didn’t appreciate it until I got on that team and the guys were all about it and that’s all they played. It was cool.”
An 11-1 win over Mexico secured a place in Athens, and the Hip gave way to “O Canada” on the bus ride back to the hotel afterwards, the anthem sung over and over. Neither Morneau, who had graduated to the big leagues, nor Martin, who was working his way up the Dodgers system, made it to Athens. Like Martin, Adam Stern was a rookie on that team and served as “a professional cheerleader.”
“We spent every night together at the hotel and the Hip was one of those things that brought us together,” he says. “It was a terrific Canadian team, one that kept us close for a long time.”
That’s one of the reasons Martin remembers the tournament so fondly. “We’d hang out in the lobby, the whole team, drinking beers, rocking to the Hip. At all times.”
2004 Olympics in Athens
“It gets so sticky down here. Better butter your cue-finger up. It’s the start of another new year. Better call the newspaper up.”
The Olympics are pretty regimented and there’s little room for freelancing. Yet somehow, during every pre-game Canadian batting practice in the Greek capital, The Tragically Hip blared out from the stadium speakers. “We just took over the sound system,” says Stern. “No other team, I believe, ever did that. We somehow found a way to get to their CD player. It was unique to us.”
As was the case at most other tournaments, the Canadians were regularly asked about their choice of music. “Nobody knew [The Tragically Hip]. Your American buddies had never heard of them. We’re playing Japan, they’ve never heard of them, and they’re like, ‘Who is this team always playing the songs?’” says Stern. “I mean, it was over and over.”
Their antics weren’t limited to the field. The Canadian players blared the Hip while playing cards late into the night in the athletes’ village where Stern admits, “we beat our own drum a little bit.”
The memory of those times helps ease the lingering pain of a semifinal loss to Cuba in a game the Canadians led 3-2 in the sixth. They lost 8-5 after a Kevin Nicholson smash heading over the fence in left field was knocked down at the wall by a gust of wind for the final out. Two men were on at the time. Rather than playing Australia for gold, Canada lost to Japan in the bronze medal match.
2007 Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Taiwan
“I can guarantee, there’ll be no knock on the door. I’m total pro, that’s what I’m here for.”
Catcher Chris Robinson’s first experience with the senior national team came during the 2007 Olympic qualifier, and he didn’t really know The Tragically Hip beforehand. It didn’t take him long to get on board. “I don’t know at the time if I loved the music or just loved the culture, but the Hip was a major part of it,” he says. “I’ve grown to love the music now because I hear a song and it throws me back to Taiwan or Beijing or Italy. I’m sure everyone has that story.”
The qualifier was memorable for the Canadians for the way they earned their berth as much as the fact of the berth itself. A 4-3 win over South Korea to close out the tournament clinched a spot in Beijing, but it was a stirring 6-5 come-from-behind win in 10 innings over the host nation, Taiwan, in which the benches cleared that was the turning point.
“That game against Taiwan was absolutely absurd,” says Robinson. “We were a strike away from being eliminated, Stubby got a big hit, we won, and Stubby slides into home and does a flip on the way to the dugout and we all tackled him. We did a highlight video and it was to the Hip.”
Once again, the Hip was bumped on the ride back to the hotel in favour of “O Canada,” which the players sang over and over on the bus, on the street, and outside their rooms into the wee hours.
“I get goosebumps thinking about it,” says Robinson. “All throughout my career I’ve been patriotic, but because of the national team, I’ve felt super-patriotic. And because the Hip are Canadian, we rallied around that, like, ‘We’re these Canadian guys, no one has given us a chance. We’ve got our hockey player mentality, we’ve got our music group behind us, we’re going in and it doesn’t matter.’”
2008 Olympics in Beijing
“And yeah the human tragedy consists in the necessity of living with the consequences under pressure, under pressure.”
Before Canada’s first game at the 2008 Games, Robinson was shocked when “New Orleans is Sinking” came on during batting practice. “Stubby snuck up our Hip pre-game CD,” he says. “The Olympics are beyond strict with certain things and it was hilarious. We’d be hitting BP before a game and the Hip would come on.”
Right-hander T.J. Burton remembers being quickly indoctrinated into loving the Hip after debuting with the senior squad a couple of years earlier. He’d seen a show the previous the summer when he happened to be in Erie, Penn., with double-A Akron in the Cleveland Indians system, and the link with the national team made perfect sense. “They symbolize the way we play. We play hard, we went after people, we left everything out on the field, and that’s kind of like their music. And when they [did] concerts, that’s how they [were]—it just fit,” says Burton, now the amateur baseball co-ordinator for the Blue Jays. “We actually had a lot of comments when we’d go to different tournaments—‘What’s this CD you guys play all the time?’ It was pretty cool.”
Burton recalls the Hip signing a sheet of paper for the national team, which then was posted on the dugout wall along with other signatures of support. Others don’t remember such a precious set of autographs.
“Who stole that? Because I’ve never seen it,” says Stern.
Adds Robinson: “I mean, Tim lies, right? He’s probably lying. He’s a pitcher, too, so they have so much more time to deal with stuff like that, while the rest of us have to play.”
The Olympic tournament was a frustrating one for the Canadians, who finished 2-5, with all five losses coming by one run.
2011 IBAF World Cup in Panama and Pan American Games in Mexico
“He said, ‘Hey north, you’re south, shut your big mouth. You gotta do what you feel is real.’”
Clapp’s retirement after the Beijing Olympics led to a transition on the national team, with Stern stepping into the role of elder statesman. Starting at the 2009 IBAF World Cup in Italy, the roster got younger. The remaining veterans worked to ensure a continuity of culture. “When there was a changing of the guard, we threw on the Hip and it was like crickets. The younger guys were like, ‘What is this?’” Stern remembers. “It was like, ‘What do you mean, guys? This is what we enter to.’ We forced it down their throats. When we got to the senior team, that was the only thing ever played. It streamed down from Stubby, Jeremy Ware, the Guiel brothers—it was almost like you had no choice, that’s what was on the radio, and you don’t touch it. We tried to transition that in, and at first [the younger players] didn’t understand.”
By the time the 2011 World Cup rolled around, the Hip was again firmly entrenched, and a bronze medal—awarded both to Canada and the United States when the third-place game was rained out—heralded the arrival of bigger things.
At the Pan Am Games that followed, the national team won its first major tournament, beating the United States 2-1 in the gold medal game. Every bus ride to the park started with the Hip and ended with ‘O Canada.’ On the trip before the final, once they had finished singing ‘O Canada,’ someone shouted that they should sing it again after the game, too. They did, more than once.
2013 World Baseball Classic in Phoenix
“Don’t tell me what the poets are doing. Don’t tell me that they’re talking tough. Don’t tell me that they’re anti-social. Somehow not anti-social enough, all right.”
Canada’s frustrations at the World Baseball Classic continued in the third edition of Major League Baseball’s attempt at a best-on-best tournament, but the national team also provided a first at the event. A wild ninth-inning brawl during a 10-3 win over Mexico was triggered by Robinson’s leadoff bunt. Upset at what he perceived as an attempt to run up the score (something teams need to do for the tiebreaker at the event), Mexican third baseman Luis Cruz told pitcher Arnold Leon to plunk the next Canadian batter. He missed Rene Tosoni twice before getting him on the third attempt, and mayhem broke loose.
After the game, first base coach Larry Walker spoke with Don Cherry, who gave the Canadians a shout out on Coach’s Corner later that night.
“I was one of the last guys coming in making sure I didn’t get killed,” says Robinson. “It was like a party in the clubhouse and Morneau had the Hip going for sure.”
The Canadians were eliminated the next day by a 9-4 loss to the United States.
2015 Pan American Games in Toronto
“With illusions of someday cast in a golden light. No dress rehearsal, this is our life.”
In the summer of 2015, players on the national team figured out how long the bus ride from the athletes’ village in Toronto to the ballpark in nearby Ajax, Ont., would take, and they developed a playlist that left just enough time to finish with ‘O Canada.’
The musical tastes of a new generation are different. Some things, however, remain unchanged. “The Hip always started it. It was always the Hip for three or four songs,” says Robinson. “Jeff Francis went out and bought a portable Bose speaker so we could have our system going out to the field. It started with the Hip for a while and then we’d get into other stuff, and then whatever our entrance song was. It was some techno song—we had a lot of young guys that bought into that. But it would fire everybody up and we’d be banging the windows and everything.”
Another new wrinkle was that every day, a new first-time player was given the mic on the bus to start the national anthem before the rest of the group joined in. “One thing passed down is there’s never a rookie on the team,” says Robinson. “It’s like, ‘Hey, we’re not treating our rookies like rookies. Everyone is part of the team. We’re all part of this thing, pulling in the right direction. Pass the torch and pay it forward.’”
The Canadians all pulled to another gold medal, secured on Pete Orr’s wild dash around the bases after an errant pickoff attempt led to a 7-6, 10th-inning win over the United States.
Clapp was a coach on the team.
“People would ask, ‘What is that?’ when we played the Hip because it’s not mainstream America,” he says. “I’d be like, ‘It’s the Hip, man, one of the best Canadian bands to ever come through.’ Of course ,everyone refers to Rush, but Rush was mainstream America, too. The Hip is a special band. It brought a lot of people together, a lot of good memories, and I’m sure it will continue on for a lot of years with Baseball Canada.”