Frequently Asked Questions: By Maxwell Kates

Maxwell Kates

About a year ago, I attended a fundraising meeting at my alma mater, the University of Toronto. One of the women at the meeting seemed perplexed. She asked, “I was doing some research and found two different people named Maxwell Kates, an accountant from Toronto and a baseball writer from Houston. Why did the Houston one show up to the meeting?” And so I replied “I got news for you! There are in fact two Maxwell Kates but only one of them is human. The other is a property management firm in New York. The accountant and the Houston one are both me!”

But seriously, since I began writing for the Pecan Park Eagle, I am asked a number of questions relating to how I got here in the first place. I will now attempt to answer them all. And here we go.

Q: You’re Canadian. In a country that lives and breathes hockey, lacrosse, and even Canadian football, how did you get to be so interested in baseball?

Ottawa vs. Houston
January 15, 1976

A: While it’s true, hockey and lacrosse are our national sports, but when I was growing up, baseball was popular throughout Canada – at least once the Stanley Cup finals were over. In Ottawa, where I grew up, it was divided 50/50 between the Blue Jays and the Expos. Where I really developed my interest in baseball was on family trips to Florida. We had one aunt and uncle in the Ft. Lauderdale area and another aunt and uncle up the Turnpike in West Palm Beach. We used to visit them all during spring break which coincided with spring training. In Ft. Lauderdale, we had the Yankees and in West Palm Beach it was the Expos and the Atlanta Braves. Plus there was the time we ran into Cal Abrams at a strip mall, which I’ve written about in an earlier column.That was baseball immersion!

People are often surprised when I tell them the team I grew up with was the New York Yankees. My father would drop me off at the ballpark first thing in the morning and I’d stay all day. Tommy John was my first spring training autograph. I used to read all the New York journalists and sportswriters. Besides which, Ottawa was so close to upstate New York that it was easy to find old Yankees yearbooks at shows. At one time, I probably knew the Yankees better than I knew the Blue Jays.

Fort Lauderdale Stadium

Q: But it was in Toronto that you got involved with SABR?

A: Yes, albeit by way of Ottawa and south Florida. Allow me to explain. The year the SABR convention went to West Palm Beach, a sports journalist named David McDonald wrote about it in the Ottawa Citizen. That was 2000. My father read the article and told me I should join SABR. What’s that? An undergraduate student living away from home who listens to their parents? Right. This was one time I did. The year I joined, the convention went to Milwaukee and the following year, I started to get involved with the local chapter in Toronto.

Q: But that still doesn’t explain Houston, does it?

Joe Sambito and Alan Ashby, 1979

A: Hold on, it’s 2019 and we’re only at 2007 in the story. That was the year the Blue Jays announced that Alan Ashby would be their new colour commentator, joining Jerry Howarth in the broadcast booth. A light bulb went off. “We should get this guy for a SABR meeting!” I approached the Blue Jays’ flagship radio station and sure enough, Ashby agreed to do the SABR meeting. We had a question and answer session at the Rogers Centre following the last Saturday home game of the season.

Q: And you got involved with Houston when Alan Ashby returned to the Astros?

A: You’re on the right track. Alan Ashby returned to the Astros in 2012, the same year that SABR announced that the 2014 convention was going to Houston. I had all this interview footage we did on a VHS cassette. I had it converted to a DVD, transcribed it, and the final product formed the basis of an essay I wrote for a publication called “Baseball in the Space City.”

Alan Ashby on Star Wars Night in Houston, 2016

Q: Catching Rainbows and Calling Stars?

A: You got it. I called it that to emphasize Ashby’s dual role with the Astros, catching when they wore rainbow uniforms and calling the game when the players wore the updated shooting star look. I was able to get in touch with Tal Smith, Bill Brown, and Larry Dierker for interviews. The day I spoke to Tal there was a polar vortex; he said “I should be used to this – I’m from Massachusetts!” Another person I interviewed was a fan from Houston, a psychologist with an impressive collection of baseball books and Colt .45s memorabilia. His name was Mark Wernick and he and I had corresponded for years. I showed Alan the final product, he gave it the green light, and that was the name of that tune.

Q: But how did you go from Alan Ashby to the Pecan Park Eagle?

A: Again, it goes back to Mark Wernick. When I went to the 2016 SABR convention in Miami, Mark asked me to prepare “a full report,” in his words. After he had read it, he asked if he could forward it to a fellow psychologist named Bill McCurdy. I didn’t see why not. I had remembered meeting Bill at the Houston convention because he had co-authored “The Toy Cannon” with Jim Wynn. Bill published the Miami report in the Pecan Park Eagle and that was my first column. A year later, I wrote a similar synopsis of the SABR convention in New York, and as they say in show business, the rest is history.

Tony and Eduardo Perez at SABR 46

Q: So you didn’t want to write a column for a baseball newspaper in Toronto?

A: Are you kidding? I would have loved to have done that. There just wasn’t the opportunity. I wrote a couple of guest columns for a Blue Jays fan club magazine but that periodical no longer exists. I have sent a few things to the Jays over the years but there has never been a vacancy; that’s understandable. This has been a great experience, writing for the Pecan Park Eagle. I’m able to learn about the baseball history and culture in southeast Texas and formulate those facts and arguments into stories and articles. Before I went to the SABR convention in 2014 I read anything I could get my hands on about Houston, baseball or otherwise. There was Dan Rather’s “The Camera Never Blinks,” and then there was also a book called “Murder and Mayhem in Houston.” And I also watched “Deli Man,” a documentary which focused on Kenny and Ziggy’s.

Q: So now that people know you in Texas, has that opened opportunities closer to home?

A: As a matter of fact, yes. The week before I spoke in Houston last November, I also spoke at the Canadian Baseball History Conference in London, Ontario. I presented a paper called “Birth of the Blue Jays,” which also appears as an essay in “Time for Expansion Baseball.” In 2019 I’ll be repeating the paper at the University of Toronto and at Seneca College. My Wayne and Shuster paper, which appeared in the Pecan Park Eagle last year, they have asked me to present at next year’s Canadian Baseball History Conference.

Q: Are there any plans for a return trip to Houston?

A: I get asked that one a lot. You know, when Joaquin Andujar pitched for the Astros, he had this great word to answer questions and it was “youneverknow.” Hopefully I’ll leave the snow at home next time, thank you very much.

Joaquin Andujar
Senor You-Never-Know

Q: You never did answer the question in your last column. Who was the pitcher with the most strikeouts who never played for the Houston Astros?

A: It was actually Steve Carlton. He’s #4 on the list with 4,136. Nolan Ryan is first with 5,714 strikeouts, followed by Randy Johnson with 4,875 and Roger Clemens with 4,672.

Still, on the subject of that particular article, I belong to a group on Facebook that is all about the World Series Champion 1968 Detroit Tigers. One of the members is John Adam Smoltz, father of Hall of Fame pitcher John Andrew Smoltz. Anyways, he told me that not only did Hal Newhouser scout Derek Jeter for the Astros, he also scouted Smoltzie. Imagine for a minute an Astros rotation with Darryl Kile, Mike Hampton, Shane Reynolds that was fronted by John Smoltz!

Smoltz had a few relatives employed by the Tigers. The Atlanta pitcher’s grandfather, the late John Frank Smoltz was an usher and clubhouse assistant. And then there was another relative of John’s grandmother who used to play 2nd base for the Tigers. Did I mention that her maiden name was Gehringer?

The Smoltz-Gehringer Family

Q: One last question. What is the phonetic pronunciation of p-e-c-a-n?

A: You mean “puck-on”? As in “Gordie Howe put the puck on the ice”? You can take the boy out of Canada…though in fairness, Gordie did play for Houston, as did two of his sons.

 

 

Now Pitching for Detroit, Gordie Howe!

 

******************************

Bill McCurdy

Principal Writer, Editor, Publisher

The Pecan Park Eagle

 

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