There were Richmond baserunners at second and third and none out — the jam of all jams for a Little League pitcher.
It was the top of the fifth in a scheduled six-inning game. At stake was the 1965 Western Canadian Little League Baseball championship, the biggest prize the boys from the Canadian Polish Athletic Club could hope to win. Incredibly, the ragtag collection of 12-year-olds from working class and welfare families in Winnipeg’s North End were a game up in the best-of-three final on the boys from the affluent Vancouver suburb. But coach Rick McGill had warned them not to rely on Game 3.
On the mound was little left-handed Neil Avery. His task was to retire three Richmond batters in order. For an undersized 12-year-old with not much of a fastball, it was a tall order. But the CPAC boys had a couple of secret weapons.
Avery and Grant Buckoski, the team’s top two pitchers, had gone to Lord Nelson elementary school, where the Grade 6 teacher, a Mr. Johansson, was a baseball fanatic. All the winter before, he had Avery and Buckoski throwing "junk" with big, fat softballs. Not many Little Leaguers had seen a curveball or a slider, but by spring these two little guys could make the much smaller "hard ball" win a So You Think You Can Dance competition.
Even more secret was the fact coach McGill called every pitch. He had worked out a system of signals he passed to his pitchers nobody could decipher, let alone detect. McGill’s knowledge and ability to size up players immediately was impeccable and he always seemed to know each opposing batter’s weakness.
With McGill calling the pitches, Avery got three straight infield pop-ups, freezing frustrated runners with every out. Avery and his infield had managed to keep CPAC in the game.
First baseman Dickie Ruggles, who had already doubled home outfielder Alan Geisbrecht for CPAC’s only run, got a single in the bottom of the fifth. So did Doug West, the catcher, and Allan Harmacy, in the outfield, but CPAC couldn’t score. And in the top of the sixth, it took two long, perfect strikes from the outfield, one by Harmacy and the other by Tony Biegun, to nail Richmond runners at the plate and keep the game alive.
And so it was tied one-all heading into the sixth and final inning of regulation play. The hopes of CPAC’s large contingent of fans from Winnipeg’s North End were buoyed by the fact their top power hitter, shortstop Pat Wozny, would come to bat, but as North Enders are prone to do, the fans couldn’t help but offer a little incentive.
"Hit a home run and I’ll buy you a hotdog, Patty!"
"Knock one over the fence and I’ll shoot you a buck!"
"There’s a Pepsi in it for you, Patty, if you end one over the fence!"
Now, normally, Pat used a 32-ounce bat, like most Little Leaguers, but something in his previous times at the plate had told him he wasn’t getting the power he needed out of his regular weapon. Fortunately for CPAC, Ed ‘Bimbo’ Parisien, the big kid who either hit the ball over the fence (and across the street) or struck out, used a 36-ounce bat. Despite the fact everything was on the line and this would be his final at bat for the day, Pat switched to a borrowed bat.
As he warmed up in the on-deck circle, Pat’s older brother Gerald whispered:
"So what are you gonna do, Patty?"
Pat Wozny just smiled every so slightly and looked up:
"It’s going outta here, my brother."
And he sent a fastball some 60 metres over the fence for what proved to be the winning run. Avery and his infield shut down the boys from Richmond in the bottom half of the sixth, and the scrappy lads from CPAC were champions.
Nearly 50 years later, the team got together again. Outfielders Neil MacLean and Alan Giesbrecht (see accompanying story) were dead, but the other 12 held a reunion in late July when coach Rick McGill paid a visit from Victoria, where he moved in 1985 to pursue a successful career in sales and continued coaching, now with teams that included his children.
In the summer of 2011, the north end was a violent place, rife with stabbings and drive-by shootings almost every week. The north end has always been a tough place to grow up. But of the 12 old ballplayers at the reunion, and their two deceased teammates, none "graduated to Stony Mountain" or anything even nearly resembling a negative life. All of them obtained a level of education or training that was sufficient to pursue fulfilling and productive careers and became productive, law-abiding citizens; most of them have raised families and are enjoying their grandchildren.
Somehow, the boys from that ragtag baseball team had all become winners in the game of life, too, and against similar odds.
But how? Maybe the answer is back there, 45 years ago, on the community club ball diamonds.
Nobody had expected the Canadian Polish Athletic Club (CPAC) little league baseball team to advance very far along the Little Canadian Western Baseball Championship trail, coach Rick McGill recalled.
"The provincials were a single loss elimination tournament and mostly featured teams drawn from large population areas like ‘Brandon’ and ‘ManDak’ (Manitoba/North Dakota) or ‘St. Vital’.
"We were considered a ‘club team’ drawn from a much smaller group so we always felt like we were Belarus playing Russia.
"But our groups of kids were an ‘all-star’ team chosen from CPAC’s house league so each player had the confidence that comes from being told he was the best in the only world of baseball he really knew.
"Of course, this meant diddly squat to the ‘experts’ who ran baseball in Winnipeg and we weren’t given much chance of even winning a single game.
"Even us coaches were thinking, ‘One or two games and we’re out’.
"But our kids didn’t know about things like citywide ratings and provincial rankings."
Said Tony Biegun, an outfielder who doubled as a fastball-throwing pitcher:
"We never ever thought we were underdogs. We thought we could beat any team we faced and win every game we played."
The CPAC squad opened the competition against another north end team; "wealthy West Kildonan," a neighbourhood of well-maintained bungalows with weed-free lawns where CPAC kids would go to raid crab apples.
To everyone’s surprise, CPAC jumped into an early 5-0 lead and diminutive pitcher Grant Buckoski was a half inning away from a no-hitter when it started to rain; an early evening prairie August deluge that happens when hot, humid air from a 95 degree day meets the cool of the evening. Not one more swing or step could be had on the flooded fields and the CPAC players had to pedal their bicycles home through streets that had quickly turned into streams.
"Since games were only six innings long and we were leading by five after five, we thought we’d be given a win like most of the other teams in the tournament, but it was decided that we had to come back and start all over again, zero-zero," said second baseman Donnie Boreski,.
"Then our starting pitcher had an off day and West Kay grabbed a three-nothing lead before reliever Pat Wozny shut them down. We were lucky to scramble back into a tie before the end of the regulation six innings.
"Then we had to go through an extra three innings before finally our flies started to fall in and our grounders stopped finding their gloves.
"We ended up winning 9-3, but that opening game, or games, taught us that in a sudden death tournament, there’s always a chance we could be eliminated by a team we were better than."
McGill was proud of the way the boys handled the disappointment of having that five-run lead taken away. "Despite having the baseball gods turn against them for that one game, the CPAC players didn’t get down on themselves. None of them ever got mad or yelled at a teammate who made a mistake or an error. It was always, ‘Bad hop, buddy! Anybody could have missed that!’ or ‘No problem! We’ll get him with the double play.’
"Everyone played to their potential so there was no negativity. And besides, we coaches just wouldn’t allow it."
The camaraderie of the CPAC team might be considered even more remarkable because the players were from very diverse backgrounds, which was simply a reflection of the diverse makeup of the north end. Whenever CPAC teams played, you could witness an Indian or Metis kid trying to buck up the spirits of a white teammate who made an error, or WASP, black and Polish or Ukrainian youngsters teaming up to turn a double play with harmonious precision.
"At 11 or 12 years old you don’t see colour, race or religion," McGill said. "I would never tolerate any reference to it from our players and we certainly wouldn’t allow it from the stands or from the other teams."
Some people claim that racism shows up in sports at every level. In actual fact, the field of play and locker rooms are a refuge from the ignorance and hatred which fuels racism. Sports overcomes racial differences because competing athletes must depend on their teammates to pull together to win.
If there is fear and hatred, or prejudice and discrimination, it will trace back to the attitude and behavior displayed by some adults — coaches, managers, spectators
There were some minor differences in the household incomes and social class the players were drawn from, but nothing major that couldn’t be overcome. The half of the team that came from west of McPhillips wore corduroys to school and packed their lunches in metal boxes adorned with their favorite cartoon heroes. The kids from east of McPhillips wore blue jeans and packed their baloney sandwiches in brown paper bags. At this age, it’s more about smarts, athletic ability and whether or not the girls thought you were cute, and all the boys on the CPAC team had a sufficient supply of all that.
"I was captain of the soccer and baseball teams in Grade 5, and the two best looking girls in school had a crush on me," Boreski recalled. "It’s been all downhill since then."
Pulling together, this diverse group of kids from the heart of the north end handled the more affluent north end kids from West Kildonan in their opening test rather easily.
The tournament was structured so that teams worked their way out of their home areas geographically, so the next opponent for CPAC was the west end, represented by the Orioles Community Centre. This would be two small, inner city recreation programs going head to head.
CPAC stole out of the Orioles playground with a 5-4 win. Neil Avery was the winning pitcher with offensive support from Doug West, Brian Taylor and Bernie Dolski who each got a pair of hits. Alan Harmacy drove in the winning run when Ed "Bimbo" Parisien lumbered home.
The north end boys couldn’t get cocky or even the least bit more confident however, because everybody who knew anything about little league baseball in Winnipeg had picked CPAC’s next opponent to "go all the way".
"We had to go up against Riverview," said McGill, "and most of the really knowledgeable people who were involved in organizing little league baseball in Winnipeg had picked this talented and well-coached, well-equipped team from the south end to win it all."
And, sure enough, Riverview came into the third round game having scored 37 runs in their first two games. You could just imagine how confident they got when 4-foot-6, 78-pound Buckoski climbed up on to the pitching mound (almost literally).
Buckoski not only baffled the Riverview lineup throughout the game, he would add insult to injury by delivering the killing blow from the other side of the plate. Buckoski’s single drove in fellow pint-sized pitcher Avery.
CPAC followed up their 1-0 squeaker over Riverview with a 4-2 win over Mandak North to maintain their perfect record. Avery got the win and helped his own cause with a home run. Bernie Dolski, the third baseman; outfielder Brian Taylor and Boreski chipped in with singles.
CPAC then went on to record their only easy win of the competition, an oddity because the competition would logically get stronger in the later rounds, dispatching St. Vital 7-0. Were the boys from CPAC just getting better the more they played as a unit?
In any case, fastballer Tony Biegun went the distance and drove in the winning run with a hit that scored Joey Lambert — the third game in a row that CPAC pitchers supported their prowess on the mound with power at the plate.
It was becoming obvious the basic values which sports can instill in a young child were paying dividends with these boys from the hardest part of the baddest part of town. The benefits provided by teamwork, discipline and physical fitness were allowing this tiny group to overcome socioeconomic factors which have kept many a north ender down, or at least "in their place".
They also played aggressive baseball.
"Co-coach Don Butt and I knew what these kids were capable of doing so we surprised other teams. We stole bases when least expected.. and we got pitching that was unbelievable," said McGill.
"This team was unbelievable," said Buckoski. "I don’t think we ever had an argument or a fight…I never saw any of that. Maybe sometimes that’s got to do with the coaching because if the coaches feel that way it melts down to the players. Rick and Don Butt treated everybody fairly and equally, and so everybody got along well."
Those three wins — all in one day, and after having their first five-run lead erased — catapulted CPAC into the Free Press Trophy provincial final against Brandon in the A division of the 10th annual Little Canadian Baseball tournament.
Suddenly the underdogs found themselves competing outside of the city, and many of the boys hadn’t even been out of their neighbourhood. And now, representing all of Winnipeg, their coaches were talking about the "Western Canadian championship" if they could beat Brandon.
The players had more immediate and practical concerns.
"All I remember about heading into that game against Brandon," Boreski remembered years later, "was that our coaches promised us a cooler filled with ice cold soft drinks would be waiting for us in our dugout. Heck, we didn’t even know what a dugout was and half of us almost got sick wolfing down a bunch of bottles of Pepsi before the game in case they didn’t refill the cooler!"
In the third inning, hard-hitting outfielder/pitcher Tony Biegun had an opportunity to score what could have been the winning run when he cracked a solo home run. But as he rounded the bases and headed for home, his young teammates could not contain their enthusiasm and rushed out to greet Tony at home plate in a huge celebration. To this day, Biegun swears he touched a corner of home plate but the umpire ruled against him and the run was not counted.
"I know it sounds unbelievable for 12-year-olds," said Buckoski, "but our coaches had ingrained an attitude in us not to dwell on the past, but to learn from our mistakes and move on. We managed to build another one-run lead, which we lost fair and square in the sixth inning. We certainly didn’t blame Tony. We had been taught that we win as a team and we lose as a team."
So when Brandon scored in the bottom of the sixth, it was extra innings.
Nobody scored in the seventh or eighth. In the top of the ninth, Buckoski led off with a single. McGill looked down his bench and sent in pinch-hitter Neil McLean to sacrifice "Bucky" to second. And Dickie Ruggles drove him in with a single.
But in the bottom of the ninth, Brandon quickly loaded the bases.
And that is when Avery dug down deep inside his tiny 5 foot 2 frame, retiring the next three batters in order to clinch the Winnipeg Free Press trophy and win the Manitoba Little League Baseball championship.
And what if he hadn’t?
"When we went into the city championships," Buckoski said, "it was competitive and everything here was business, but I think we still had fun while we were doing it. You’re playing a game, so you’re still having fun. If we lost a game I don’t think we would be the type of team that would be so upset and be destructive; we weren’t like that.
"But that said, we never had the opportunity because we never lost a game, so we never had to face that kind of adversity, a loss. But just knowing the characters of the guys on the team, it wouldn’t have been a bad thing. We may have been a little down, but I think we would have been able to handle it,"
Buckoski provides a hint at the key to success for the CPAC team. They just seemed to carry themselves so well that nobody bothered or had the nerve to try and hurt them with racist comments or put them down because they were from the wrong side of town. It was assumed, or it was a given, they would be able to handle it, so what was the use in trying? They overcame the obstacles of poverty and racism by not allowing it to enter their lives in any way, shape or form; from within, or from the outside.
Now the tightly knit little league team was off to try to become the best team in Western Canada; which previously had always come from the Canadian hotbed for baseball, the country’s west coast, where you can play (or at least practice) baseball pretty much year-round.
And so it was that the team from Richmond, B.C. was the opponent in a best-of-three championship played at Weston Community Club. Weston was used because it was one of the rare community club facilities in Winnipeg which had a large grandstand for spectators. The problem with Weston, however, was that it featured a sandlot field; an unpredictable surface that neither team had ever stepped foot on. Overcoming change as well as adversity would play a large role in this match-up.
The crowd of over 1,000 were barely seated for the first game when the B.C champions grabbed a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first. But close games and shaky starts were something that CPAC had overcome before,
Sure enough, CPAC came back with a run in the second inning, and added three more in the third. Shortstop Pat Wozny led the charge with a double and two singles while Buckoski settled down to restrict the Richmond bats to four hits with four strikeouts and no walks. CPAC won the first game 5-2 .
Les Shubrook, the Richmond manager, said his lads were tired from an afternoon tramp around the city (both teams were treated to a tour of Winnipeg’s tourist attractions and a meal in the pavilion at Assiniboine Park). The B.C skipper confidently predicted that CPAC could be taken in two straight games. He blamed his team’s five errors) on the dirt surface.
"All infields in B.C are grass," Shubrook explained to one of the B.C. newspapers after the loss.
Buckoski, for one, didn’t understand the complaining. "We didn’t have any advantages because it was our first time playing on gravel, too, so it was a little strange to us. It was more difficult to handle than usual because we were also just used to grass."
The CPAC coaches meanwhile, didn’t say anything to anybody but their players. And they simply said exactly what they had been saying all along.
"Our coaches made us practice hard to make us better as individual players and as a team and believe in each other," said Boreski.
And to treat the game like every other one they’d played in the tournament — as a single-game showdown. They were not to win one of the next two games; they were to win game two.
And they did.
None of the players live in their old north end neighbourhood any more. The area has changed dramatically and besides stressing the return of some old-time values like good parenting, increased access to sports and recreation programs for the kids, and more discipline, the players emphasized that today’s children and youth have to make better choices and be more responsible for their actions themselves.
As for the answers to the social and economic problems which plague Winnipeg’s north end in the present, most of the players, like most jock-types, don’t profess to have the answers to such complex concerns.
But they talked about self-reliance:
"We did not need our parents to push us, or even attend our games. And most of us made our own way to practice and games most of the time," said Tony Biegun.
And a private-industry economy:
"I used to sweep the sidewalks along Selkirk Avenue for a nickel apiece to make money for admission to the old Pritchard Pool," said Boreski. "Most of the businesses were owned by Jewish or Ukrainian people and they employed the older kids who worked stocking shelves or delivering prescriptions, sales people, clerks and so on.
"Those people moved on and the area is mostly populated by First Nations people now. And the way Selkirk Avenue has changed tells you a lot about what’s gone wrong in the north end. It’s all mostly social services along Selkirk Avenue because First Nations people didn’t have the money to develop their own businesses which would create employment and wealth and self-sufficiency."
And media gone mad:
"Kids are influenced by so many different things now," said Buckoski. "We couldn’t see movies with a lot of sex and violence because they were restricted completely. But also, there wasn’t the kind of graphic violence and sex they have in movies and magazines and even comic books now. And face it, kids can go on the internet and access pretty much anything they want. They seem to be de-sensitized to it all, like it’s not for real. It even seems to be accepted nowadays.
"Otherwise, how do you explain beating another kid to death like the gangs do? The victim must be pleading for his life and there has to be a lots of blood yet these animals keep right on going."
And fair play:
"When two kids squared off, we would all yell "Fair fight! Fair fight!," said Avery. "That meant one on one and everybody else had to stand back. And when one of the kids was losing and called out ‘I give!’, the fight was over."
"I heard my parents call other people "Bullhunk" and "garlicsnapper" or "that cheap Jew" but us kids didn’t care or even know what nationality another kid was," said Boreski. "Sure, the native or "negro" kid had different colour skin but they were still just another kid. If they were willing to give you half of their popsicle or Pepsi and didn’t cheat at "blows" (for sports cards), they were OK."
McGill added: "One time a team I played on was beating this other team, a traditional rival, and the parents started calling us racist names but none of the players really knew what they meant. But I know that later on when I had some success at coaching and they asked me to coach their team, I politely refused."
"The sports teams we played on discouraged racism because there was no way we could win if we didn’t get along and support each other," Boreski said. "These gangs, which are just a substitute for kids who are just looking for a group to belong to like we all do, promote racism and rivalries.
"There certainly weren’t as many First Nations people in the north end in the 1960s as there are now and the ones we met were just kids like everybody else. Joey Lambert ended up in graphic arts and business administration while Ed ‘Bimbo’ Parisien drove his own cartage truck. They did just as well as the other players.
"I know we all love sports, and sports are popular and accepted by both white people and native people for the benefits they provide to our youth. But I sometimes see kids who have excelled at sports fall off the righteous path and end up in trouble with drinking and the law and such. But I have never met anybody who went on what First Nations call the "red road" — with its spirituality of the sweat lodge and songs and dances and ceremonies, ever go wrong. I think those teachings provide youth with a sense of identity and a spirituality and a lifestyle to follow and I think maybe we could put more support behind some of the cultural programs instead of just sports."
The 1965 CPAC team and its accomplishments have been brought to the attention of the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame; and a decision whether or not to induct CPAC into the Hall will be made later this summer.
If the team is inducted, it will be a rare celebration. There have been 46 years pass with nary a mention of CPAC’s accomplishment, not even in the homes of the players. It was as if the world held out this big prize one time one year and it was devoured never to be savored again.
But Donnie Boreski, whose family name changed to Marks a couple of years after the 1965 championship, is Don Marks the writer now, and it was he who knew there would be a good story if he could find his former teammates and find out how they felt about things then and now.
The players all hope readers have enjoyed this story. For their part, it was good, as well as eerie, to get together with people they haven’t seen hide nor horsehair of in 45 years.
Some of the players have vowed to stay more closely in touch from now on. All of them bought a treasured, red CPAC champion jacket Buckoski resurrected and organized through a local sportswear manufacturer. They plan to wear them when they gather again in four years for the 50th anniversary of their big victory.