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Time to say a fond farewell to Forney

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It truly is the end of an era. And Monday’s bittersweet farewell from long-time Winnipeg Goldeyes manager Rick Forney is going to leave a big-league void around here.

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Opinion

It truly is the end of an era. And Monday’s bittersweet farewell from long-time Winnipeg Goldeyes manager Rick Forney is going to leave a big-league void around here.

The 51-year-old Maryland product is one of a kind, a fixture in the community for more than a quarter-century which made him the most tenured member of any local professional sports organization. Forney will be sorely missed, not only for his competitive drive and championship-calibre teams he routinely put together, but the way he embraced Winnipeg as his home away from home.

I was saddened — but not at all surprised — by Forney’s announcement. When we sat down in his office last May, just before opening day, it was clear the future was weighing heavily on his mind and the clock was ticking. His love of the game and passion to win had not faded one bit. But the last few years, especially, had taken a heavy emotional toll.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Goldeyes manager Rick Forney will be sorely missed, not only for his competitive drive and championship-calibre teams he routinely put together, but the way he embraced Winnipeg as his home away from home.

His 22-year-old son, David, an offensive lineman on the football team at the U.S. Naval Academy, died suddenly in May 2020. One can only image the massive hole that leaves in the heart of a parent, especially one separated from the rest of his family for nearly half the year. It was touching that, in his open letter to fans, Forney mentioned arriving in Winnipeg in 1997 with three-month-old David in tow.

Life on the road can be extremely lonely, especially with Forney’s wife, Erika, and their three children, Chris, Rebekah, and Erik, back on the U.S. east coast. A few hours of baseball every night still provides far too much time to be alone with your thoughts, which no doubt had become a lot heavier.

Then COVID-19 threw another curveball, wiping out half the teams, and nearly half the season, in 2020. The Goldeyes were forced to play exclusively on the road out of a home base of Fargo. That was followed up in 2021 by another pandemic-impacted season which had the Winnipeg team operating out of Jackson, Tenn., until it final got the all-clear to come back to town and host games for the final month.

Even by independent baseball standards, this was a circus. Frankly, I was surprised Forney didn’t pack it in at that point, which I relayed to him during what would be our final spring training chat. But it was clear the skipper didn’t want a couple of tough, non-playoff seasons to be his swan song.

“I want to try to win here one more time,” the three-time American Association champion (2012, 2016, 2017) said.

The Fish gave it a good try in the season, qualifying for the post-season with a respectable 53-47 record and even taking a 1-0 lead in a best-of-three series against the favoured Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks, who rallied to win the next two meetings and, ultimately, claimed the league title a couple of weeks later.

With so much turnover year after year in independent baseball, trying to build a roster nearly from scratch on a shoestring budget every year (the league salary cap is approximately US$125,000) was becoming increasingly difficult for Forney.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / FREE PRESS FILES

Forney practising his pitches in September 1999.

The pandemic meant having to cross unvaccinated players off the list, owing to cross-border travel requirements which only recently got relaxed. And recruiting athletes to play for peanuts and come to the only Canadian team in the increasingly scattered 12-team loop, with the longest bus travel and nearly no off-days during a four-month grind, was hardly a walk in the park.

A lot of swings and misses, through no fault of of his own. But it was the challenge, the thrill of the chase, that kept Forney coming back for more.

That makes his accomplishments even more outstanding. Thirteen winning seasons in his 17 years as manager, and 10 playoff berths. Not bad for a former pitcher who set all kinds of Goldeyes records on the mound, then proceeded to do the same from the dugout. He’s helped shape the careers of hundreds of young men, including 43 who had their contracts purchased by Major League Baseball organizations. Three went on to played in the majors.

Forney is a baseball lifer, and the game is better for it when he’s involved in some way. Finding an Atlantic League managerial gig in Pennsylvania — that’s just an hour away from his own backyard — is a perfect landing spot. Winnipeg’s loss will be York’s gain in this case.

The next bench boss has huge cleats to fill, just as Forney did when he took over for Hal Lanier, and Lanier did when he succeeded Doug Simunic. Say this about the Goldeyes: They’ve hit a home run every time when it comes to the job search, hiring the kind of quality people that bring instant credibility and respectability, in addition to longevity.

For that reason alone, it feels like the Fish are in good hands with the likes of owner Sam Katz and general manager Andrew Collier still involved.

I firmly believe Forney could have left a long time ago, pursuing grass that might have been greener. (Or, at bare minimum, paycheques that would have been larger). Given his background and impressive resume, there’s no question a major-league organization could have used his services somewhere within their system, whether it was Double-A or Triple-A team.

MARC GALLANT / FREE PRESS FILES

Rick Forney was the pitching coach in 2004.

And yet, he kept coming back, spring after spring, to start anew and chase the dream. More than 2,400 kilomiles away from his loved ones. Because he loved what he did, and the people he did it for. It doesn’t get much more pure than that.

Forney might now be gone, but he will not be forgotten. We were lucky to have him, for as long as we did.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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