Cherry on Donaldson: He reminds me of a hockey player


Don Cherry, pictured during the 2009 World Baseball Classic with Canadian Justin Morneau. (Darren Calabrese/CP

You call Don Cherry and ask to talk about baseball and he calls right back.

He starts at the beginning.

"When I was 17 years old I was at Dodgers rookie camp and I could have started in A-ball for them," he says. "I was a good runner, really a good fielder, an excellent [left-handed] hitter but I didn’t have the arm. They told me I might make triple-A, but you’ll never make the majors with your arm."

It was that close. A little more favourable scouting report and the most famous American Hockey League player of all time might have missed out on a career as a long-suffering minor league defenceman, coach, broadcaster and eventual cultural icon. He played baseball every summer at Cricket Field in downtown Kingston, Ont. His dad was a player of some note too, and there were some nights during his 18 years on the buses that he wondered if he’d made the wrong choice.

"Many times when I was with Eddie Shore I thought I’d made a big mistake," he says over the phone. "Eddie was the Darth Vader of hockey, and I was in Siberia – Three Rivers, Quebec in the middle of winter. I wished I’d done baseball."

He never stopped watching.

He was at Fenway Park on June 18, 1977 cheering on the hometown Red Sox when Yankees legends Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin had their famous dugout tussle after the New York manager pulled the controversial slugger in the bottom of the sixth inning. Cherry called it.

"I knew that Billy was going to pull him. Jackson was fooling around with the fans in right field [and eventually misplayed a bloop single] and I was at the game with my son Tim and said that ‘You’re going to see something you’ve never seen before.’ He said ‘What?’ I said ‘Billy Martin is going to pull Reggie Jackson out of right field,’ and sure enough, he sent Paul Blair out there and pulled him out during the game!

“And then they got in the dugout and I watched him and Billy Martin have a pushing match and a wrestling match in the dugout. So, I’m a real fan."

But not just any fan. He can move mountains. On June 13 Cherry used his pulpit on Coach’s Corner during Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals to stump for all-star votes on behalf of Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson. At the time Donaldson was trailing Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas by 1.7 million votes due to what was presumed to be a well-organized voting campaign by a dedicated Royals fanbase. At the time seven Royals position players were leading in all-star voting.

Cherry wouldn’t have it and ordered his fans to take up the cause, with remarkable – if perhaps predictable – results. On Monday Donaldson took over the lead in votes and now has the inside track on being named a starter at the all-star game on July 14 in Cincinnati.

"How do you like that? In one week we get two-million votes," Cherry said. "The day before I held up the sign on Coach’s Corner and I saw he was two million votes behind, all I could hear was that everyone knows he’s the best third baseman but he’s in Canada, that’s why he didn’t get the all-star [votes].

“But we showed everyone Canadians know baseball too."

Cherry certainly does. He rarely misses a Blue Jays game. He watches them at home in his basement, ideally alone. "I like to concentrate," he says. Sometimes he’ll listen to the later innings on the radio in bed. His favourite broadcasters are Blue Jays radio voice Jerry Howarth and former St. Louis Cardinals legend Dizzy Dean, who used to call the Game of the Week for years on CBS, and who shared Cherry’s penchant for homespun wisdom.

"How do you like that one? Dizzy was the funniest and the best. He really made baseball on TV, for me."

His support for Donaldson, then, is absolutely sincere. He pays the hard-charging infielder his highest compliment:

"He reminds me of a hockey player," Cherry says. "I like everything about his game. He could play for the Bruins. The way he fields barehanded. He might be the No. 1 in errors but that’s because he tries. Half the time the other guys don’t try. And that tremendous catch he made [on Wednesday]? I was watching it and I couldn’t believe it. He was like Superman sailing in there."

Cherry will be on hand on Canada Day at the Rogers Centre to throw out the first pitch to Donaldson, who has only recently become aware of the significance of the support he’s received.

Cherry will be the one wearing the bright blue blazer emblazoned with Canadian flags, in case you’re at the game or watching at home and wondering how to find him.

"It’s a good jacket," he says. "You’ll like it."

Still, Canada’s most famous baseball fan is a bit nervous. All these years later he’s worried his throwing arm may come back to haunt him in front of a full house.

“I hope I don’t embarrass myself,” says Cherry, 81. “I haven’t thrown a ball in a long time. It seems like I’m always under pressure. But I’m really honoured to throw a ball to a guy like Josh.”

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