Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Thanks to Lanier, Fish hooked a big Juan

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For 10 long years as the manager of the Winnipeg Goldeyes, Hal Lanier won everything there was to win in the Northern League -- except a Northern League championship.

Lanier is long gone now, of course, let go four seasons ago. But as the Goldeyes get set to open the 2009 Northern League playoffs in Fargo Wednesday, Lanier's presence is being felt.

Because should the Fish go on to win the Northern League title, they will owe a debt, at least in part, to a favour their former skipper did for them at the start of the season -- a favour that has paid dividends beyond the club's wildest expectations.

That favour was Goldeyes designated hitter Juan Diaz. Diaz, of course, is the oversized Cuban emigre who has torn up Northern League pitching this season, hitting a league-leading 29 home runs and driving in another 90, both Goldeyes club records.

Diaz was named on Sunday as the Goldeyes MVP this season and Fish manager Rick Forney says that honour underestimates Diaz's value. "He was the MVP," Forney said Monday, "of the entire league this year."

And, were it not for Lanier, it likely never would have happened at all. At least not in Winnipeg.

That's because it was Lanier who helped broker the deal for Diaz, doing a solid for his old team and, in particular, a close protege in Forney.

Lanier, the manager of the Sussex Skyhawks of the Can-Am League, had acquired Diaz last spring from the Joliet JackHammers.

But try as he did, Lanier was unable to close a deal for the big slugger. Diaz's monetary demands, as well as a demand for accommodations and a car, were out of reach for Lanier in Sussex.

But Lanier knew a team who could accommodate the player and he talked to Forney, setting in motion a chain of events that saw the Goldeyes buy the rights to Diaz from Sussex (a couple grand is believed to have been the bargain price) and then sign him in late April in what will go down as one of the best deals the club has ever done.

The rest, they say, is history. And it is one that has paid big dividends all year long for the Fish.

As Forney recalls it, he was the one who first contacted Lanier, sensing his former manager might have bitten off more than he could chew in acquiring Diaz. "I wondered if Sussex would be a place that could get him what he needed," Forney said. "And, obviously, it helped that I knew Hal."

Fish general manager Andrew Collier explained that under the Northern League salary cap rules, the club can provide a free car and accommodations to two players on its roster. This year, those players are Diaz and fellow slugger Kevin West.

Diaz, for his part, makes it clear that had a deal not gotten done in Winnipeg with the help of Lanier, he might never have played at all this year.

"The last few years," Diaz mused the other day, "I thought about retiring. But every year I come back and every year I keep getting the hits."

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Fish Hooks

The Winnipeg Goldeyes will head into the playoffs on a winning note. The Fish beat the Schaumburg Flyers 7-2 Monday night before a huge crowd of 8,212 at Canwest Park.

The win meant nothing in the standings -- Winnipeg already had second place clinched and Schaumburg was already eliminated -- but it did give the Goldeyes offence a chance to blow out the pipes before heading into Game 1 of their opening-round playoff series with the Fargo RedHawks on Wednesday.

Fish starter Ace Walker recorded his league-leading 12th win and club record sixth complete game. The Goldeyes defence rewarded the second largest crowd in the park's history, turning a franchise record five double plays.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 1, 2009 B6

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