Was 1997 Canada’s Greatest Baseball Season?

Canada had one of its finest seasons for representation in Major League Baseball in 1997 with the stellar performances of LARRY WALKER, ROGER CLEMENS, and PEDRO MARTINEZ who were joined by RICH BUTLER, ROB BUTLER, JASON DICKSON, ROB DUCEY, MIKE JOHNSON, PAUL QUANTRILL, PAUL SPOLJARIC and MATT STAIRS, all of whom had superior years of their own.

Congratulations are due LARRY WALKER, who may have had the most well-rounded season in modern MLB history in 1997, on becoming the first Canadian and just the ninth non-American to be recognized with the MVP Award. The 30-year-old Colorado Rockies outfielder batted .366, slugged 49 home runs, most in the NL, had 130 runs batted in, scoring 143 runs, on 208 hits, accounting for 29.5% of total team scoring and tallied 409 total bases, becoming just the 22nd player to surpass this level and the first since Jim Rice, with 406 in 1978, in the AL; the first in the NL since Hank Aaron ended the 1959 season with 400; and, the most since Stan Musial had a total of 429 in 1948. He came within just 4 hits and 10 RBI of winning the NL Triple Crown, which has not been accomplished in the last 60 years. He led the NL in homers, with 29 of his 49 being hit on the road and 62 of his RBI were also away from Coors Field, and batted .346 while travelling throughout the NL. His .720 slugging percentage ranks him fifth all-time in the NL. He had 99 extra base hits and a .452 on-base percentage making him the 1997 NL leader. As late as 7-17-1997 he was still hitting over .400 and his .366 average placed him second behind Tony Gwynn, who finished at .372. Was second in the NL in multihit games with 65, runs with 143, hits at 208 and finished third in the league with 46 doubles. He was the NL home run ratio leader at 11.6 at-bats per homer; was honored with his third consecutive Gold Glove Award and had 12 outfield assists, ranking him fifth in the league. His 33 stolen bases total enabled him to score from second on more than just a few routine singles. He played in a career high 153 games, ten more than any previous seasonal mark. In the MVP voting he received 22 of 28 first-place votes, 3 second-place votes, and 3 thirds for a total of 359 points in balloting by members of the BBWAA. One interesting point is that 32% of MVP winners did not play for a first place team, including 14 in the past 20 years. He was voted by his fellow players as the NL Player of the Year and at the Players Choice Awards, on ESPN in November, was chosen as the outstanding player in the NL in both the players’ and fans’ voting and was the fans’ pick as the NL Player of the Year. Was the runner-up for the LOU MARSH AWARD in 1997, given to the top athlete from Canada. Playing in Mexico during their Winter League season, between 1987-1988, he tore his right knee anterior cruciate ligament, missing the entire 1988 major league season, so at his MVP press conference he said, “Even though the knees bothered me all year, I was able to work around that. Deep down, I didn’t know if I was capable of having a year like this, but I knew I had the ability. I’ve done something good for me personally and I’ve done something good for my country. It’s a great honor and I really hope that a lot of kids in Canada are aware. Maybe kids will look up to me and it will push them to reach for their goals. I have to thank the EXPOS for giving me my major league start.” In the modern era no Canadian had batted higher than .343 or hit more than 36 home runs or driven in more than 123 runs or had more than 199 hits or had a slugging percentage better than .607. So, for LARRY WALKER, the 1997 season was truly one to remember and further enabled him to continued to become the finest hitter to ever come from Canada.

Congratulations are also due to ROGER CLEMENS who, in winning the 1997 CY YOUNG AWARD, has etched his name alongside those of Steve Carlton and Greg Maddux as the only pitchers in MLB history to win this award four times, having done so while with the Boston Red Sox in 1986, 1987, and 1991. Received 25 of 28 first-place votes plus 3 second place votes for a total of 134 points in balloting by members of the BBWAA. Topped the AL with a 21-7 record, 2.05 ERA, and a career high of 292 strikeouts, and as these three categories are considered the Triple Crown for pitchers he became the first AL hurler to accomplish this feat since Hal Newhouser did it for the Detroit Tigers in 1945. This gives the BLUE JAYS a very rare back-to-back CY YOUNG win with PAT HENTGEN achieving the honor in 1996. On the 1997 year Roger had a .750 win percentage, started 34 games, completing 9, pitching 264 innings, giving up only 60 earned runs, 65 runs, 9 homers, and 68 walks, while limiting opposition batters to a lowly .213 average. At the Players Choice Awards, sponsored by ESPN in November, he was named as the outstanding pitcher in the AL in both players’ and fans’ voting. Upon hearing of his MVP title he said, “My game hasn’t changed, my motivation and fire are still the same, my dedication is the same. I feel that these awards are all special.” Deemed expendable by the Red Sox after the 1996 season he stated, “It was a shock to me but we turned the page and realized we’d have to head to another city. Once I got to Spring Training with the BLUE JAYS, I was pretty much motivated with the things I always call on when I take the mound, the urgency to win and trying to get back to post season play.”

Thirdly, PEDRO MARTINEZ must be congratulated on becoming the first pitcher from the Dominican Republic to receive the CY YOUNG AWARD, and only the fourth non-US-born pitcher to be honored with this trophy. He promptly dedicated it to Juan Marichal, who was overlooked thirty years ago . . .“I’m dedicating this award to Juan Marichal, who deserved this honor but didn’t get it. We are all proud and happy to get this award. This is a country where baseball is the #1 sport. I wanted to win it so I could dedicate it to Juan Marichal. He has been my inspiration from the moment I began to play baseball,” he stated. He captured the NL honor, giving Canada a CY YOUNG double, a day after ROGER CLEMENS won the same award for the AL, by collecting 25 of 28 first place votes and had 134 points in total, the same amount as Clemens. Pedro led the NL with a 1.90 ERA, had 13 complete games, held opposing batters to a miniscule .184 batting average and became the first ERA leader with over 300 strikeouts, finishing with 305, since Steve Carlton in 1972 with 310. He was also named as the Player of the Year on the EXPOS and said it was particularly satisfying to beat the ever reliable Greg Maddux, despite battling a nagging finger injury late in the season . . . “I was the best this year but that’s only one year. I don’t consider myself a better pitcher than him yet,” Pedro stated. Despite failing to reach the 20 win plateau, he finished with a 17-8 mark. The slightly built Martinez, who is 5’ 10” and 170 lbs. blossomed into the dominant starter in the NL in 1997. He should be just as tough with his new team the Boston Red Sox, in 1998.

At 5’9”, weighing more than 210 pounds, and a thick goatee spread across his face, MATT STAIRS looks like he might be more at home on a couch than slamming home runs with great abandon. In 1997 he made the most of his opportunity in playing behind GERONIMO BERROA for much of the year, until his trade to the Orioles, then became the Oakland Athletics every day right fielder making American League pitchers pay for lost time in posting the best numbers of his young career. For the year he appeared in 133 games, as follows: LF 28, RF 63, 1B 7, DH 17, PH 18, and had only four errors. At season’s close he had finished with the third best average on the A’s, batting .298, was first in home runs with 27, second in RBI with 73, second in runs with 62, and totalled 105 hits in only 352 at bats. With the A’s attempting to make a big turnaround in 1998 he should have another great opportunity this coming season. In 1996 he had his best success as a pinch hitter as his .471 average (8-for-17) in the pinch was the best among all major leaguers with more than ten at bats. Also, he had two doubles, a triple and two homers as a pinch hitter for a slugging percentage of 1.059. He tied a MLB record on 4-16-1996, when he had two assists in the same inning, tying for the team lead in assists despite playing in only 44 games in the outfield. Later, on 7-5-1996, against California, he delivered his first career grand slam and a two run single in the same inning, en route to a MLB record for RBI (6) in an inning. He finished the season batting .277 with 10 homers and 23 RBI in just 137 at bats. JASON DICKSON looks like he will be a long term hurler in the bigs after his 1997 season which saw him post a 13-9 record, a 4.29 ERA in a team leading 203.2 innings pitched for the Angels for whom he made his major league debut just over a year earlier on 8-21-1996. Hopefully big things could be in store for RICH BUTLER now that he has been drafted by the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays who will be looking for some outfield power in their initial season in 1998. He had a really big year playing for the SYRACUSE SKY CHIEFS-AAA where he batted .300 and swatted 24 HR to go along with 87 RBI and upon being added to the BLUE JAYS roster, later on, hit for a .286 average in limited action but looked good at the plate and in the field. His brother, ROB BUTLER, had some time with the Phillies in 1997 and batted for a .292 mark with 13 RBI in only 89 at bats. Recently he signed for 1998 with the Houston Astros so possibly he may have an opportunity to hang on with them for the upcoming season. Finally, in 1997 PAUL QUANTRILL set the all-time record for appearances, with 77, by a Canadian pitcher to eclipse the previous record of 65 appearances held by JOHN HILLER since 1973. In becoming the top Canadian fireman he posted a 6-7 record with 5 saves, finished 29 games and had a truly fine ERA of just 1.94. Having recently signed a new two-year contract may afford him the opportunity to increase this appearances mark.

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