Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/7/2018 (1180 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Fifty-one years ago, a late entry was accepted into the Canadian junior baseball championship in Saskatoon.
They wore ill-fitting vintage uniforms, managed themselves and were nobody’s favourite to do much, especially against a team out of Sarnia, Ont.
But the Brandon Parklane Juniors, a hastily assembled local team with some rural pickups, went 4-0, outscoring their opponents 35-8 to win the 1967 national title.
"We knew each other for many, many years so we were good friends to begin with," Roy McLachlan said. "We played ball and we played hockey together. It was just that connection that you get with people when you know what they’re going to do next."
On Wednesday, nine of the 10 surviving members of the 13 who went to Saskatoon met at the Glen Lea Golf Course to revisit some old memories and make some new ones.
The team won four junior provincial titles in a row from 1965 to 1968, but seldom played together as a team. Instead they were scattered across a handful of senior teams in the area.
Roy McLachlan, his brother Jim and Bill Fairbairn were at the McLachlan family home one day in 1967 when they learned — via either CKX-TV or the Brandon Sun, depending on who you ask — that Manitoba did not have an entry in the national tournament.
The team had won provincials the year before and they made some calls. They were quickly awarded the spot, just one month out from the event, and at their kitchen table, assembled a lineup.
That included some key rural pickups, pitchers Grant Everard and Mark Fisher, along with Dennis Wiebe and Mel Smith.
"They were all farm guys and very easygoing and loose, and they could play with anybody," Jim McLachlan said. "That’s just the way it was. All the guys we had were footloose and fancy free. Baseball was fun and it didn’t matter who you played with, you were having a good time. I think that’s why the team was so successful. We went, we were relaxed and just played and had fun and went on to win the national championship, which was very, very nice.
"And the thing is, we still see each other. A lot of the guys who were on that team are my best friends. Some of them are no longer here but lots of them I see on a very regular basis. I think that tells a lot about the guys on the team from then right up to the present day."
Even with a team now set — catcher Bill Gray, first basemen Randy Earl, second baseman Dave Bender, shortstop Jack Borotsik, third baseman Roy McLachlan, left fielder Jim McLachlan or Smith, centre fielder Fairbairn and right fielder Marv Robinson, along with pitchers Russ Reid, Everard and Fisher and utility player Wiebe — they still had a problem.
"When we got in, we didn’t have any money," Jim McLachlan said. "We contacted George Flay from the Legion. It was the Legion that actually sponsored our ball club. We had no funding from anybody and we contacted him and they thought about it and decided it might be a good thing to sponsor these guys and they did. They were great sponsors, they paid a lot of our expenses."
The team stayed in a dingy old motel, but quickly made its presence felt on the ball diamond.
In the opener, the left-handed Reid pitched well in a 6-3 victory over Saskatchewan.
"There’s a camaraderie that just comes together with this group of guys and we had it," said Wiebe, who now lives in Lac du Bonnet. "We just wanted it for each other. It didn’t matter if you were playing."
In their next game they faced Edmonton, a team that had beaten them a year earlier in the western Canadian championship in a best-of-three series.
The 17-year-old leftie Fisher was sensational, striking out 18 batters as Brandon pummelled the Albertans 17-3.
Gray had a unique perspective as catcher on what would prove to be four tremendous pitching performances.
"Mark struck out a lot of batters," Gray said. "He had very good control and changed speeds. A lot of times for a third strike I’d go letter high and they couldn’t catch up to a 92 mile per hour fastball.
"They all had pinpoint control. They hit the mitt most times. I watched batters, where they stood and how they swung and sometimes you could get guys out by jamming them. We’d throw inside. I used that a lot."
Fisher, who farms south of Brandon, had a tryout with the Twins in Minneapolis that week and his mother and brother drove him overnight to get home. He headed to Saskatoon the next morning to join Brandon for his start.
"The team was so tough," Fisher said. "The outfield that was behind me were all picked for the first all-star team, every one of them. You could pitch differently when you knew you had such great defence. The infielders would take it in the face rather than let it go by. They would knock it down some way."
Everard would get his chance on the mound next against Sarnia. At a banquet the night before the event, all the managers spoke and the Brandon players took the Sarnia manager’s words to mean that he thought the event was already over because Sarnia was a lock to win.
The right-handed Everard kept the Ontario batters contained and Smith hit a three-run homer in the fifth inning for a 5-1 win, vaulting Brandon into the final.
"Our team scored runs," Everard said. "We had an awful strong hitting team in that tournament."
In the final, Brandon faced Saskatchewan again after it went through the consolation side.
Fisher struck out 17 and was named the tournament’s most valuable player as Brandon won 7-1 to capture the national event.
Smith, Fairbairn and Robinson were named tournament all-stars, as was manager Gerry Robinson, who had tagged along to keep an eye on the group.
"It was a team that stuck together and had fun," Fairbairn said. "They were a great bunch of guys who got along, and when you get along, you usually win."
The title meant different things to different guys.
"For me and I think everybody, it was the ultimate," Earl said. "The goal we had in mind was to do something like that and I think it was very, very meaningful."
The McLachlans and Fairbairn headed down to Mexico the day after the tournament ended.
"We didn’t think much of winning the national championship," McLachlan said. "We kind of took it in stride and yet it was kind of a big deal."
It was a life changer for Fisher, who had struck out 35 batters in two games.
Detroit Tiger scouts saw him and he spent the next two years in Sarnia, Ont., working with the team. In fact, he went on to win three national titles in a row.
"They saw this gopher-hunting Manitoba greenhorn and wondered how I could do this," Fisher said. "They brought me down and thought if they could polish me a little bit I might be able to sign a pro contract. After two years I did sign with Detroit and played for a year and a half.
"They said ‘Son, you’re as good as you’ll ever be and it’s not Major League potential so go home and enjoy your life because you’re wasting your time here.’ And they were right. It hurt at the time but they were right. I came back."
He now farms south of Brandon.
The team was inducted into the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame in 2011 in the special group category, and some of the players were able to get together then.
Borotsik passed away a month ago, and was missed. Fairbairn said he was a Mr. Hustle player who was always on the go, was fast, didn’t make mistakes and could hit the ball.
"He was the guy you followed," said Fairbairn, who was the only 21-year-old on the team.
Bender and Smith are also deceased, and Robinson didn’t attend the reunion, which was set up by Reid.
"It’s wonderful to see the guys after all this time," Earl said. "We got together a few years ago I think it was and we reminisced but we didn’t have everybody. We have more guys tonight. It’s pretty wonderful, but as you grow older, it’s how fast we got here. It doesn’t seem like it was all that long ago."
Gray, who lives in Killarney, was missing his cousin Borotsik on Wednesday, but was happy the team got back together.
"I haven’t seen some of the guys in a while and this is a great evening," Gray said. "It really makes me feel good to do this."
Reid, the team’s unofficial historian, was thrilled he was able to reunite his former teammates. They enjoyed a meal together at a long table full of conversation and laughter.
"I like meeting again with the guys and I’m out in Lac du Bonnet so I don’t see them very often but they see each other from time to time," Reid said. "I’m a big believer in tradition. It’s just fun."
Manitoba has only won the national junior title one other time, so it remains an impressive feat.
"I hope we can celebrate this for a few more years," Jim McLachlan said. "It’s quite a thing to go back 50 years and you still know each other well and are having fun. Some of the guys aren’t here any longer who were terrific guys and great friends, but overall it was a great experience and we’ll have good memories for a long time to come."
Reid tried to arrange the event a year earlier but several players were unable to attend.
"It’s 51 years and it’s absolutely huge," Everard said of the evening. "It brings back memories of some of the things that were said and twigged other memories and good times. It’s huge. I’m so indebted to Russ for getting it together. It will be a day that I remember forever."
» Twitter: @PerryBergson