Starting today (Aug. 17), some of the best young baseball players on the planet will be fighting for glory at the Little League World Series, and a group of North Vancouver natives in their 60s will be watching and wondering what might have been for them 50 years ago.
Nine players and two coaches from the 1972 North Van Jaycees Little League baseball team reunited last month to relive a bittersweet summer that saw them joining together in the chase for a near unattainable goal.
The Jaycees were a scrappy little team that succeeded not by strength or size but because they worked relentlessly at the skills and details of the game, spending nearly every waking hour on the diamond during their quest to become the first North Shore team to make the Little League World Series.
“We’d get to the park at about 9:30 in the morning and we wouldn’t leave until basically eight o’clock at night. We’d go away to have a bite to eat somewhere, but then we were right back at it,” said Ian McInnes, an outfielder who was the driving force, along with teammate Brian Smith, behind the team’s 50-year reunion.
The Jaycees put up lopsided victories to win the District 5 11/12 All-Stars championships, and then topped a powerful Coquitlam team in a tight three-game series in the sectionals to earn a spot in the provincial championships, hosted by Trout Lake Little League in Vancouver.
Things were a little different back then, said McInnes, recalling how the team travelled to their road games.
“We would ride in this old step van, and they crammed the kids in the back of this thing and bounced across the Second Narrows Bridge on the way to Trout Lake,” he said with laugh. “Fifteen kids crammed into this little step van, just bouncing off the floors.”
The road got even bumpier on the field as the Jaycees lost their second game at provincials, against South Vancouver, putting them on the brink of elimination. But they wouldn’t lose again in the tournament, ripping off three straight wins, including a victory over the perennial powerhouse team from Trail in the final to claim the B.C. title and a trip to the national championships. Their goal was within reach.
The national championships were held in Edmonton, and the Jaycees again lost their second game, this time against the Windsor South Canadians. But they again battled back to make the final, getting another crack at Windsor with a berth in the World Series on the line. They were on the way to victory too, leading 5-4, when a controversial play derailed their quest. A Windsor baserunner plowed over Jaycees catcher Randy Ruckman, which was no small feat considering what a tank Ruckman was, said McInnes. The collision allowed two runners to score in what would be a 6-5 win for the Ontario team.
“The disappointment still burns, hard,” said McInnes. “We just happened to have a couple of weird breaks, and that’s the way baseball can be sometimes. ... It still is very, very hard for any of us to talk about losing that final game. It’s vividly etched in everybody’s memory.”
There were, however, plenty of happier moments for the players to talk about when they reunited for a day in July.
“Even though 50 years had passed, we looked each other in the eye and all the memories came flooding back,” McInnes said. “It was really a moving moment.”
The day included a trip to Chris Zuehlke Memorial Park, a fitting location given that Zuehlke, an elite athlete who died after suffering a spinal injury in a rugby game in 1975, helped coach the Jaycees. Zuehlke was a fielding and batting coach on a staff that was led by head coach Derek Ward – who didn’t let multiple sclerosis stop him from attending the reunion – and assistant coach Bill Burnham, along with Chris’s brother Buzz Zuehlke, Dave Messmer, and North Shore Sports Hall of Famer Dave Empey
The loss against Windsor in the Canadian final still stings, but over the years, the Jaycees have come to appreciate the journey that took them so close to their goal.
“There were so many good things that came out of that,” said McInnes. “It was pretty much the highlight of most of our lives. ... When you look at who you are as a kid, as a teenager, that's a pretty significant thing.”
Fifty years later, a reunion brought all those memories back to life, McInnes said.
“Nobody wanted the day to end.”