Fans in Canada know Bob Elliott as the most important writer ever to cover baseball in this country.
Photo by Heather Ainsworth/Associated Press
I just spent half an hour reading emails that Bob Elliott and I exchanged over the past several months. As we have in person over the years, we talked in those notes about everything—about baseball, about the sorry state of our beloved newspaper industry, and about matters personal and private, having nothing to do with baseball or journalism and more to do with the backdoor sliders that buckle your knees now and then in the real world.
Fans in Canada know Bob Elliott as the most important writer ever to cover baseball in this country. So do countless players, coaches and front-office folks in the baseball industry, many of whom have been sources for the innumerable stories he has broken over his four decades as a beat writer and columnist. Many of them are his friends.
Bob has made a great many friends. I am grateful to be one of them. Since his retirement became news this week, I have thought a lot about the importance of that friendship. I know many others are doing the same thing. And a lot of us are feeling a bit melancholy as we ponder a future without Bob's inimitable stories in the Toronto Sun and without his presence on the beat.
I started covering baseball late in my career after working in news for a while and then teaching journalism for more than 20 years. When I arrived on the Blue Jays beat, I felt like Bob must have felt at 17 as he started writing sports for his hometown Kingston Whig-Standard—intimidated and unsure whether I could pull this off. It was the dean, Bob Elliott, who was first to welcome me, point me in the right direction and answer my questions.
He still does that. And for reasons I have never been able to understand, he always calls me Mr. Lott. The other day I mentioned that to TSN's Scott MacArthur, a friend and colleague, and he said it's probably because Bob learned early to respect his elders. I may be a few years older, but I still feel like an acolyte around Bob.
That's probably because his reporting is wonderfully unique. He is a lone wolf. He stalks and talks softly—players used to call him Whispering Bob—and he is constantly on his cell phone to sources, not at all interested in running with the crowd to scrums where beat writers are fed daily doses of pablum.
"You didn't see him following the pack," former Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos told the Sun's Steve Simmons, who wrote a wonderful tribute to Elliott. "Sometimes you didn't see him at all. And there he was, late at night, when everybody would be walking out of the Blue Jays clubhouse and he'd be walking in. He never followed the pack."
My enduring image of Bob is of a mop-topped, grey-haired, moustachioed man in black cowboy boots, sidling slowly up to a player or coach, his notebook clutched against his chest, waiting quietly for just the right moment to interpose, asking a terse question, then listening intently with his pen stuck in the corner of his mouth before starting to take notes.
The conversation often started and ended in off-the-record mode. Sources trusted him because he never betrayed them. Neither did he acquiesce when he was hot on the trail of a story. And he had so many sources—more than the rest of us combined, many times over—that if he couldn't get what he wanted from one, there were always a dozen more he could try.
As a result, he harvested information and fascinating details that no one else could. He was a columnist who was a reporter first. He often told me he never fancied himself a writer. He was a storyteller.
And many of the stories he picked up along the way never appeared in print until years later, if ever. But they poured out of him in rambling conversations, each one reminding him of another—time-traveling back to his childhood in Kingston, his beloved father's inspiration, his days as a teenage second baseman, his first year covering the Expos for the Ottawa Citizen in 1978 and those 28 years following the Blue Jays for the Sun.
Last Sunday, the Blue Jays brought back 10 former players to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the franchise. As they came up the steps to the dugout 90 minutes before the game, every one spoke to Bob like an old friend. He had a long chat with Tony Fernandez. John Mayberry played before Bob's time in Toronto, but they came to know each other later when Mayberry was a coach in the farm system, and the two sat in the dugout Sunday and reminisced.
That same day, Dave Hollins, a former player turned scout, entered the press box, spotted Bob and gave him a hug. Bob probably knows more scouts than anyone in our business. He has always regarded them as underappreciated soldiers, and scores of them became his sources, friends and confidantes.
Deservedly, Bob is in two halls of fame—the only Canadian in the writers' wing in Cooperstown and a proud member of the Canadian hall in St. Marys, Ontario. He was honoured twice in St. Marys, first with an award for his work as a journalist and then, last year, he was inducted as a full-fledged member for his contributions to Canadian baseball.
Bob has long been the most devoted public advocate for amateur baseball in this country. He knows the name of every Canadian playing on a university team here and in the U.S., and he has known many of them personally since they were teenagers. He has promoted them in his writing for the Sun and for his own website, Canadian Baseball Network, and he has encouraged them and their families in many a private conversation.
In 2010, on the day of his first award at St. Marys, Bob peppered his speech with stories. He talked about huddling the night before with Pat Gillick and a couple of former Blue Jays' coaches, John Sullivan and Galen Cisco, and former closer Tom Henke.
"It was just like it was 1989 or 1992 again," he said. "It was just the stories. It was a wonderful flashback moment."
He told a story about the film Field of Dreams becoming a box-office hit in Sweden.
"So," he said, "the guy from the New York Times goes to the people coming out of the theatre and says, 'You guys don't even have a team. Why is this so good?' They said, 'That's not a movie about baseball. It's a movie about fathers and sons.'"
And he told a story about visiting Henke during spring training in 1995, after Henke left the Jays to sign with the Cardinals. Elliott wanted to pursue that angle in a story. The two ended up going to dinner at a Denny's on Easter Sunday and quickly settled into a long conversation about their kids.
Finally, with his deadline looming, Elliott began to get edgy. He had a story to write. "Hey, big man," he said, "do you think I can ask you a question about playing for the Cardinals?'"
The moral of the story? Baseball brings people close and makes them feel good, and then they pass it on.
"It's all about the fathers, and it's all about the children," he said in his speech. And the mothers, too, he would add, with special thanks to his wife Claire, and recognition of his daughter Alicia and son Bob.
Bob Elliott played baseball as a kid, and coached it as an adult, and has spent most of his life writing about it and championing its growth across Canada.
"People have asked me what I'm most proud of in my career," he said during his second induction speech at St. Marys last year. "I tell them I'm proudest of the fact that when I started there were not a lot of people that were writing about Canadian baseball, and that has changed."
Each year, Bob published a list of the top 100 most influential Canadians in the sport. Afterward, he would always hear from a few folks on the list, complaining—usually in good humour—about why so-and-so wasn't ranked higher or lower.
The list always omitted one person, of course, the man who should have been No. 1—a baseball writer with a gravelly voice and a heart of gold whose generosity knows no bounds.
He helped me, and became a friend. He has helped many others in the same way. And when he decided to retire, he did it in typical Bob Elliott fashion, dropping the news on us out of the blue, like one of his scoops.
We're still waiting for his farewell column. The Sun wanted him to do it Thursday, but he had a more important engagement: presenting awards at a Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame event on the weekend.
There will be fathers and sons there. Grassroots and friendships have always been Bob's priorities.
In our most recent email exchange, I told Bob I was writing about him and asked him, on the record, why he decided to retire. His reply listed five reasons, and I quote:
- Xander the grandson, who will be baptized next month in the social event of the Maritime calendar.
- I was not having as much fun with the new deadlines since the paper was sold (to Postmedia).
- Am not as good as I once was.
- Am too slow.
- I miss Mike Rutsey (a longtime Sun colleague and friend on the baseball beat who retired last year).
In that farewell column to come, Bob may expand on those reasons. Or maybe not. He never has been comfortable writing about himself.
Many who read him, however, will aver that he's as good as ever. But at 66, he has found that family and the decline of the newspaper industry have pulled him in a new direction.
"I will be writing, for the Canadian Baseball Network or someone," he wrote.
Have fun in your retirement, Bob. Thanks for all you've done for baseball in Canada. And thanks, most of all, for being a friend.