Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Wayne Gretzky, Baseball Star

Now batting for your Toronto Blue Jays, number 99, Wayne Gretzky. This phrase was never actually uttered, but it could have been if things played out differently in the summer of 1980.

In the July 1980 issue of The Hockey News there is a quick blurb that mentions Gretzky was playing in the Inter-County Baseball League and batting .500 over the first few games. The Inter-County circuit plays senior baseball in larger cities of Southern Ontario and in 1980 a 19 year old Wayne would have been one of the younger players.

On June 12 of that year the AP reported that the Toronto Blue Jays had offered Gretzky a tryout, and if he showed major league potential, a contract offer could follow. Bob Prentice, the Blue Jays director of Canadian scouting believed the hockey star also could be a baseball star. "It's a serious offer on our part. I've seen him play in the last couple of years and he has some talent. But it was only recently he indicated that he loves the game. We had thought it had just been a recreation for him."

The plan was, if Gretzky was serious, for the Jays to give him a serious workout and "then see what he wants to do". Gretzky is quoted,"I like baseball so much, but I can't throw hockey away. Can you play both? If I could, I'd do it." Prentice added, "There is nothing to prevent us from talking to him, he is of the age we recruit players for the team." Gretzky's boss may have had other thoughts though. Oilers GM, Glen Sather said Gretzky has never asked for permission to play ball. Asked if it would be granted he said,"I don't know. You're asking me a hypothetical question."

In a story from the Canadian Press on July 8, 1980, a Brantford baseball official named Bill Moffat tells of one of the first times that Gretzky filled in at shortstop for the Senior level Brantford Red Sox. "We go to Waterloo for a tournament and it comes to the final game. We need a pitcher to face Leaside Leafs and Wayne volunteers. Well, you should have seen him. He's throwing his slow curve and keeping it low, and they're just going crazy trying to hit it. The more they go after it, the bigger the grin on his face gets. We wind up beating them, 15-5." Not only was Gretzky a fine hitter, but he had a heck of an off-speed pitch too. Whether or not any of these skills were of major league calibre, we'll never know.

Apparently by early July of 1980 Gretzky had declined the invitation to work out with the Jays. He stated,"Is it true they only make $600 a month in Medecine Hat," he asked, referring to the Jay's rookie league team in Alberta. "That's right," he was told, "And they pay their own rent. They also get about $7.50 a day to eat." Gretzky asked,"How do they survive?" and is told "on chewing tobacco." The Kid says, "Yuck. I tried it once when I was with the senior team. They had a guy from Pepperdine College on the team and he gave me some. I think it was really snuff. I stuck it in there and spit it right out. Yuck."

The innocent, neophyte ball player certainly made the correct career choice, but he may very well have had a serviceable career in baseball if he had decided to give it a shot.

Below is the photo of Gretzky that was printed with the AP article of June 12, 1980.

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