What makes Bob Elliott tick

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How warm is the love in my heart for you

As warm as the sun in the sky of blue

How long will it shine if you say you’re mine

Today, tomorrow and forever

Country singer Patsy Cline

A ball, a bat and Bob Elliott.

They go together like peanuts and cracker jacks; like Harry Caray and a seventh inning stretch; like life and breath.

When country chanteuse Patsy Cline was singing about love, it could have been the soundtrack to Elliott’s life in baseball. Next to wife Claire and family, the game is the dearest thing to the heart of the award-winning Toronto Sun baseball writer.

Born Sept. 10, 1949, he shares a birth date, appropriately, with Roger Maris and Joey Votto. At 62, Elliott is one of a vanishing breed — one of the original seamheads, a group of baseball writers and columnists that flourished in the ’80s and ’90s. They lived for one and only one purpose: Baseball. They covered it — and lived it — relentlessly 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Each February, they answer the siren call that beckons them to spring training.

“It’s not complicated,” says Claire, giggling. “I just think like he’s not going to be there again until the World Series is over. Anything more is a bonus.”

Such is life with The Boxer.

It is intriguing. It can be complicated. It is an adventure. It is midnight phone calls. And, if there is a ball player, or scout, of note anywhere between Havana, the Baja Peninsula and Fort McMurray, Elliott will know him and probably have met him.

The nickname? It got pinned on him after a night out with his baseball buddies, hollerin’ and hootin’ at a WWF card when that sport was at its frenzied heights.

Next to baseball, Bob always loved the wrasslin’.

He is a Wrangler jeans kind of guy. A moustache and chew, a little shy, a little stubborn, and a little Garth Brooks.

“He’s a loon … a walking time warp,” laughs his daughter Alicia. “He is a character … not everyone is lucky enough to grow up with this kind of individual for a father.”

And not everyone gets to grow up with a father who ends up getting cosy with the lords of baseball.

This week, Elliott goes to Cooperstown. The Sun baseball columnist, father to Bob Jr. and Alicia, and father figure to dozens of Canadian minor leaguers, becomes the first Canadian ever to receive the Taylor Spink Award.

It is awarded by the Baseball Writers Association of America for exceptional contributions to the game of baseball.

A writing career that started at his local Kingston daily has seen him move to Ottawa and, ultimately, to the Sun in 1987. It has seen him chronicle the Blue Jays’ World Series victories. He has been a champion of Canadian baseball and, while he has walked in the cathedrals of the sport, from Yankee Stadium to Fenway and Wrigley, he counts his two greatest moments in the sport as the World Baseball Classic in 2006.

Chase Field, Phoenix: Canada 8, Team U.S.A. 6. Team U.S.A. had four or five future Hall of Famers.

“But we took it to ’em. It was like being there for Paul Henderson’s goal,” Elliott once reminisced.

He was there when the Expos were young and when they vanished into history, he was there with his Mississauga minor baseball teams in victory and in defeat, he was there when son, Bobby, hit a home run and he was there when Joe Carter hit his. It has never mattered much to Bob where the baseball is being played, or who is playing it. It just matters that it is being played.

“I can remember we’d be sitting at the dinner table and he’d be worried about what was happening to one of the kids on the (minor league) team he was coaching, or something,” said Alicia, now accounts director with BrightRoll, an online marketing/advertising company.

“I can also remember when I was really little, he’d dance with me after dinner. And, in high school, it was a little different because boys would always want to talk to me about baseball and my dad instead of about going on dates.

“That,” she says, laughing, “was kind of awkward.”

Life with the Boxer.


Ah, yes.

As when, if he isn’t at a Blue Jays game (and I’m not sure it is legal for them to play without him), the phone will ring at the Sun seat in the press box. Now, this is an adventure in itself.

First, it’s difficult to hear because people insist on cheering into one ear, and I’m half-deaf in the other. So after his: “Aaaaaah … what’s up?” there is usually this long, awkward pause while I try to think of something to say that isn’t totally inane and meaningless.

Bob is the architect of the pregnant pause.

It doesn’t last nine months, but it sure can seem like it. And I dare anyone to out-wait him. There have been no-hitters thrown in less time than a Boxer Pause.

Conversations drift. He’d ask about a play, or whether he could help. Or if I was OK. Once, in my first year on the beat in the late ’80s, my first road trip sent me to Oakland, L.A. and Seattle. This, with insufferable East Coast newspaper deadlines, was baseball hell for a beat writer.

He called every night after the game to make sure I was OK. Considering it was past 2 a.m. back in Toronto, I figured he was staying up late just as a courtesy to me. It wasn’t until much later that I realized Bob does some of his best work after midnight. He works on Pacific time.

Sometimes phone conversations have so much dead air we’d forget our original topic or what city we were in. Eventually, one of us would figure it out, and the conversation could resume. There is never such a thing with Bob as a short phone call.

“Sometimes it’s like, ‘Are you going to say ANYTHING else? Have you had a heart attack? Should I call 911?” says Claire, laughing. “He is unique. Quirky … a bit of an absent-minded professor.”

How strong was my love from the very start

How long will it last in my happy heart

How much would I cry if we’d ever part

Today, tomorrow and forever

Patsy Cline

Life with the Boxer.

“Humbling,” said Elliott from Dallas, where he was covering major league baseball’s winter meetings when the announcement came last December that he was headed to Cooperstown, after being nominated for the Spink award by the Star’s Richard Griffin.

“They handed out the release with the names of past winners on it. You look at a guy like Jim Murray or Dick Young, you see Damon Runyon or Ring Lardner. Then you see my name and it’s like that Sesame Street thing — you know, where they ask: ‘Which one of these doesn’t belong?’ ”

For once, Elliott was wrong. He has always “belonged” anywhere there has been baseball.

As a kid on the sandlots of Kingston, Elliott grew up idolizing Braves third baseman Eddie Mathews. Another of his favourite players while covering major league baseball was George Brett.

Sports, in particular baseball, has been deeply rooted in the Elliott gene pool. His grandfather, Ed, played for the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball club and is in the Hockey Hall of Fame as a referee. His father, Robert Sr., was the head coach of the Queen’s University Golden Gaels, managed the local baseball nine to championships and curled his way into the Brier and is in the Kingston and District Sports Hall of Fame.

When Bob was in his final year of high school, he was offered a permanent job at the local Whig-Standard newspaper. His mother, aghast, burst into tears, imploring young Robert to go to Queen’s, like his father.

Ken Fidlin, Elliott’s longtime colleague and fellow baseball beat writer, recalled, “He got a more favourable hearing from Bob, Sr. ‘You can go to work, on two conditions,’ said his dad. ‘One, you have to finish Grade 12. The other … don’t you ever be one of those (expletives) like those writers in Boston who kept Ted Williams out of the Hall of Fame just because they didn’t like him.’ ”

Bob’s dad would die less than two years later, his mom six months after that. More than 40 years later, their son this week will join Williams, Mathews and Brett in Cooperstown.

As Fidlin noted: “How perfect is that?”

Or perfectly awkward.

As Elliott’s son, Bob Jr., a manager at Toronto accounting giant Grant Thornton, cheerfully counts off the achievements of his ancestors, he notes: “So, let’s see … father is (in Cooperstown); great grandfather is in the (hockey) Hall of Fame and grandfather is in two halls of fame. So what Hall of Fame does that leave me?

“Like, no pressure, eh?”

Life with the Boxer means that a sense of humour is essential. At a recent dinner in Kingston that turned into a mini-roast, nobody howled louder or had more fun than Bob.

It has been almost four decades since he and Claire met at a friend’s home in Kingston.

“He was kind of shy. We had our first date on New Year’s and that was kind of funny. We had a corner lot with two sidewalks. My dad cleared the one that went from the street to the side door.

“Bob, being the gentleman, decided to come up the sidewalk to the front door. It hadn’t been cleared, of course, and seeing as we were going to a party, we weren’t wearing boots. So out the door we go and, as we’re saying good-bye, I fell off the top step and down the stairs.

“He looked kind of surprised. I giggled. He kind of looked around to see if anyone else had seen.”

They were married in 1972. He was 23. She was 21 or, as she prefers to recall it, “I was a child bride.”

They’ve been falling for each other ever since.

This year, on Oct. 7, will mark the 40th anniversary of a tale of love; the tale of a man devoted to a wife, a son, a daughter … and baseball. Although Claire figured out a long time ago it might not always be quite in that order.

“We had to plan our wedding around the Kingston Ponies’ schedule. We had to pick a date that wouldn’t interfere with (Canadian championships) or the playoffs because a lot of those guys were going to be on the guest list.”

So she and Bob decided October would be a safe choice.

“He was working for a small paper then and he wasn’t covering major league baseball. Turns out we picked a date right in the middle of World Series time. We didn’t realize he’d end up being away. Now he’s never home on my anniversary but,” says Claire, laughing, “I do get lots of roses.”

And as long as the tides of the ocean flow

As long as the trees and the flowers grow

So long, oh my love, will I love you so

Today, tomorrow and forever

Patsy Cline

Cooperstown is the end point. Getting there took a decade of scribbling about harness racing, hockey and the local ball teams, before Elliott even got his first Major League game assignment. Once there, it would morph into 33 consecutive Opening Day assignments … and countless headlines.

“He has a memory. He never forgets. You do something stupid when you’re 12 and he still harps on it. There was never any sneaking anything past him like who I was dating,” says Alicia. “He’d ask questions in so many ways he always found out what you were up to.”

In home, as at work. Just ask Blue Jays’ management. Questions. Questions. Elliott drove them to distraction, particularly during the pennant runs of the 1990s when he’d break stories almost weekly — stories the team didn’t necessarily want broken quite yet.

Like the one in 1993. Despite the fact the Jays were about to play their second consecutive World Series thanks in part to the fact John Olerud, Roberto Alomar and Paul Molitor had finished 1-2-3 in the American League batting race, Elliott scored headlines across Canada and the U.S. when he reported hitting coach Larry Hisle would not be invited back the following season.

The story broke prior to Game 1 against the Phillies. Hisle, a media frenzy exploding around him, noted, “Evidently, the people making decisions are not happy.”

Asked about Boxer’s story, Hisle replied, “I’m assuming that it’s true.”

As gospel goes, there is Matthew, Mark, Luke and Bob. Elliott’s reputation preceded him. People knew that he knew.

The first major league game he covered was the Montreal Expos’ 1978 home opener. “The Mets won 3-2, Skip Lockwood got the win, Rudy May took the loss, and Tom Grieve homered,” Elliott recalled, reaching into his memory bank.

There have been thousands of games since, thousands of stories and a thousand heroes and villains, from Dave Winfield’s double down the line, to Robbie Alomar’s Great Expectorations. Still, it is his passion, his borderline obsession, with Canadian players for which he has become best known, and for which he is receiving the Spink award. The Canadian baseball family will remain forever grateful for his spotlighting of so many unsung accomplishments from the grass roots to the minor leagues.

“Writing is how he makes his living but I think what he really loves is coaching,” confesses his son. “He’s always said that baseball is the one sport that has a level playing field; it’s one on one. You can’t gang up on people … I believe he sees it as a microcosm for life.

“There are countless guys I know who he coached when we were kids who still come up to me and say he taught them as much about life as baseball. It’s always been about more than the game, how to throw a ball, or how to hit. I just remember him talking about how the game … teaches you about keeping your emotions in check, dealing with pressure and keeping a good head on your shoulders.”

Elliott has chronicled countless stories at the community, provincial, national and international level, and somehow keeps abreast of not only how many Canadians are playing in the U.S. on scholarships, but how they are doing.

He has a website, canadianbaseballnetwork.com, that tracks top Canadian candidates for the draft, Canadians in college, Canadians in the minor leagues, Team Canada updates, and everything in-between.

“In 1998, there were 66 Canadians in the minors — today there are well over 100, and another fifty-plus on independent professional teams. In 2000, there were 490 kids playing in U.S. colleges — today, there are more than 700,” Elliott says.

On a cross-country tour in February after winning the Spink award, he spoke in Oyen, Alta., at the second annual Baseball at Dusk fundraiser for the Badlands Baseball Academy.

Attended by approximately 200 people, the event raised money for the academy that opened a new facility last December that features three batting cages and two pitching mounds in a renovated hog barn.

“I don’t know if it took a few cocktails or a visionary to look at a hog barn and say, ‘Hmm, this looks like a perfect place for a baseball academy,’ ” Elliott wryly noted during his address. “But it works.”

He doesn’t much like public speaking. He jokes about his own proclivity for mumbling through TV and radio interviews. His wife recalls someone who had heard him on Bob McCown’s talk-radio show, once asking on Twitter if he was drunk. Which is kind of funny, because he rarely drinks anything stronger than his omnipresent Diet Coke. It goes with him everywhere. “

You know how some people bring a bottle of wine when they go to someone’s place for dinner? Well, we bring a case of Diet Coke,” jokes his wife. “It started in the ’70s with Diet Fresca and then he moved up to the Diet Coke. We just have an IV pole downstairs in his office. Hook him up, and he doesn’t even have to stand up and go to the fridge.”

’Cause if you weren’t there to share my love

Who cares if the sky should fall

For anyone can see how much you mean to me

You’re my life, my love, my very all

Today, tomorrow and forever

Patsy Cline

Life with The Boxer.

While Bob is good at a lot of things, being a handyman is not one of them. On the upside, Alicia points out he’s pretty adept at keeping up with the latest electronic gimmicks and social media. He’s hard-wired to a cellphone. Email is his friend. He’s on Twitter.

On the other hand, good intentions do sometimes get short-circuited. Claire recalls him buying a car once and “we’re all sitting in this thing while he signs the final papers. He came out and he’s so happy and proud and tells us, ‘You know this car has remoteless.’ Bobby thinks about this for a second and then asks, ‘Uhhm, Dad, haven’t we already always had a remoteless?”

And as for that handyman stuff?

Let’s just say we all need to work to our strengths. Carpentry? He’s a wordsmith. Gardening? The only thing in the dirt he’s interested in seeing is a really, really good sinker. Plumbing? Bob’s strength is finding leaks, not fixing them.

Claire does the painting, takes care of the house and, if necessary, finds someone else to come in and fix the appliances when they rebel. “I remember a guy coming to fix the furnace, or whatever, when we were first married. He says, ‘Oh, I forgot my Phillips at the last place, can I borrow your husband’s?’ I tell him Bob doesn’t have a toolbox.

“Fortunately, I do. So I gave him mine.”

What he was interested in is “dialogue,” says Alicia. There were long talks around the dinner table or he’d invent games on long car trips — such as telling him the three people in history they’d like most to have as friends. And behind that sometimes gruff exterior is a man with soul — in life, in musical taste. What many acquaintances don’t know is that his taste in rhythm and rhyme doesn’t stop at the nearest hoe-down. In fact, says Alicia, she can remember him liking soul and rhythm ’n’ blues so much that her mother finally refused to go “to one more James Brown concert.”

“As I hear it,” she says, laughing, “he even wanted to rent a cape.”

His wife recalls him enjoying the Beatles and the brass-inclined band, Chicago, back then. These days, it’s more Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson and Reba McIntyre playing in the background of his neatly disordered man-cave downstairs at the Mississauga home where he spends endless hours on the phone — when he isn’t jetting off to games, general managers’ pow wows or winter meetings.

If he isn’t working on his Canadian baseball website, he’s chatting with scouts and other reporters, kibitzing with a general manager or just talking baseball with the legion of minor league acquaintances he has made across the country.

His devotion to the job, to the lifestyle, is legend.

Editors coined the phrase “Mystery Sidebar” years ago after Elliott kept phoning in with unexpected stories late at night between editions. Somewhere, they would have to find space to run it. Invariably, it would be too good, too important, too pertinent, to ignore.

“People think of Bob and they can’t believe that we don’t sit around talking baseball ALL the time!” says Claire. “But my background is Northern Ontario, French-Canadian. Baseball to me was a social outing. I remember him once coming home and he was kind of excited, saying: ‘Look what I’ve got! Bert Blyleven sent me a postcard.’

“I said, ‘Who’s that?’ Even now, I still don’t know really who (Blyleven) was.”

For Bob, the job sometimes transcended even social niceties. Claire understands. She’s not sure everybody else does.

“One night, he invited a couple over for dinner. I didn’t really know them, but Bob does.

“So, anyway, they show up and, shortly after we sit down for dinner, the phone rings. Bob comes back from downstairs and says, ‘You’ll have to excuse me! I have to write.’ ”

She laughs at the memory. “It turned out somebody got traded and I guess there was nobody else to do the story. So there are these two people I know nothing about and we’re left talking for the next two hours while Bob writes his story. Fortunately, they had a baby, so that kind of kept us occupied. But I don’t think they had a very good time.”

Bob also holds the world record for most times locked INSIDE spring training stadiums. Once again, it’s Ma Bell that leads him astray, as Mike Rutsey, who has worked the baseball beat with Bob for close to a decade, points out.

“After tapping out his story, Bob would start to get calls, give them, and the minutes would pass to literally hours as his chats with various writers, agents and front-office personnel would start to mount. By the time he’d finally pack up and leave, he’d sometimes discover that everyone had left and the gates would be locked leaving him climbing fences to get to his car.”

Jokes Alicia: “He is a bit out in left field in more ways than one.”

’Cause if you weren’t there to share my love

Who cares if the sky should fall

For anyone can see how much you mean to me

You’re my life, my love, my very all

Today, tomorrow and forever

Patsy Cline

Living with The Boxer.

Bob rarely drinks. Maybe a couple times a year. Or special occasions. Every year he gathers the deskers who handle his copy and he buys them a few rounds. Everyone tells tales of nights gone awry, deadlines that fell victim to Francisco Cordero, or whomever the latest arsonist in the Toronto bullpen might be. Bob’s got the designated driver waiting, but considering he rarely cuddles up to anything stronger than those Diet Cokes, chances are he’s more lucid than the guy driving the cab. That’s because Boxer is just getting warmed up at the midnight hour.

The most quotable players he ever dealt with — at any time day or night — were Steve Rogers and Jack Morris.

“Neither one of them ever used a cliché,” Elliott once explained.

“I’ll never forget what Rogers said during the 1981 strike, when 21 of 26 teams were claiming to have lost money. Rogers said, ‘Who are you going to believe, a bunch of millionaires or 600 guys who started off making five hundred bucks a month? One owner owns a team because his father did. What did he work for?’ ”

Buck Rodgers was the best manager Elliott ever covered. Coaches Larry Bearnarth and Galen Cisco taught him more about the game than any others.

Elliott taught me more about the game — and a few other more important things — than anyone else. In the eight seasons we worked together on the baseball beat, there is one thing that set Bob apart. It wasn’t that he broke stories. It wasn’t his work ethic and loyalty. It wasn’t his vast knowledge of the game and human nature. It wasn’t even the pleasure of working with an honest pro.

It is difficult to describe.

Perhaps there is one word: Empathy.

He never forgot that the people he has, and is, writing about are human, not just quote machines. He sends roses to secretaries of club officials. He sits in press boxes agonizing over a sentence, then asks, “Do you think that’s going to bother (so-and-so)?” and “Is this fair?”

He lives by the old dictum to get the story first, but to first get it right. It is a principle that is often forgotten in the anything goes age of social media.

Then there was 1993, an autumn that lives in local lore as the moment Joe Carter made history — but is recalled in my private hell as the World Series I covered while watching my brother, at the age of 36, die of blood cancer in a London hospital.

On the morning of a nation’s joy, as we carried his casket to a hearse, I looked up and, slightly aside from the crowd, was Bob. Standing silently.

He’d driven all the way from Toronto to Chatham to attend the funeral of a man he had never met, simply because that man meant something to someone he did know.

I’m not sure I thanked him for that back then.

So thanks Bob.

For that.

For the memories.

For being Bob: A hall of famer, first in life and now in Cooperstown.

And as long as the tides of the ocean flow

As long as the trees and the flowers grow

So long, oh my love, will I love you so

Today, tomorrow and forever

Patsy Cline