It remains the game of their lives.
On Aug. 30, 1987, a group of Richmond teens—collectively known as the Richmond Colts—took the field for a game in Sherbrooke, Quebec. With an 11-1 victory over the host side, they became the first B.C. team to win a medal (bronze) at a national baseball championship.
Thirty years later, these boys of summer still get together to reminisce and relive the road to bronze. Front and centre, as always, is Mike Kelly.
“I coached for over 40 years and was fortunate to coach the likes of (future Major Leaguers) Justin Morneau, Jeff Francis and James Paxton, but this team was special,” says Kelly, head coach of the 1987 provincial champions.
Assembled mere weeks before the start of the 1987 BC all-star season, the team represented the best of Colt Divison baseball in Richmond. The players were selected, Kelly explains, because of the chemistry he believed they would achieve.
But while Richmond’s journey to the inaugural nationals was memorable and, in the long run, successful it wasn’t without its challenges. In fact, the 1987 team was on the verge of being eliminated in the provincial championships at the hands of a longtime nemesis.
Though Richmond started round-robin play with a victory over Kelowna, arch-rival North Delta overwhelmed the locals 14-1 in just the second game of the season-ending tournament. In the double knockout, another loss would have meant going home.
PSYCHOLOGY PAYS OFF
Kelly, however, remained optimistic.
“What are you going to say to the kids?” assistant coach Gregg Antonyk asked Kelly following the loss to North Delta.
“I have no idea yet, but I’ll figure something out,” answered the quick-thinking manager, who throughout his coaching career always seemed to have a proverbial ace up his sleeve.
After overhearing one of the players anticipate that he’d be upset, Kelly delivered his speech.
“OK guys, it doesn’t matter if we lost 14-1 or 1-0, we lost a ball game and so now we’ve got one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. If we lose any more we’re done,” Kelly implored. “We’re going to play tonight at six and so we need to go home, get something good to eat, and come ready to play.”
Just as Kelly hoped, the boys responded positively, handily defeating Ridge Meadows. But the coach still wasn’t convinced the players were as focused as winning a provincial championship would require. So, he played the reverse psychology card.
“We’ve got two games to play tomorrow, and if you play like this tomorrow we’ll be done in 4 1/2 innings,” he said, playing the reverse-psychology card.
His strategy worked, as Richmond responded with back-to-back victories over previously-undefeated North Delta. Richmond’s Colts were now able to book their tickets to the nationals.
Richmond, sporting the colours of Team BC at nationals, added future Toronto Blue Jay Paul Spoljaric of Kelowna and North Delta’s Brian Callaghan to bolster the pitching staff. Their presence, coupled with a boost of confidence by winning the provincials, seemed to have the locals feeling good about their chances of winning it all. Kelly maintains today that, if not for an ankle injury to starting catcher Steve Hepburn against Ontario, they may have done just that.
But looking back, there are only fond memories.
We didn’t know what to expect really, but after a couple of games we gained more confidence. We wanted gold, but we were pretty happy winning bronze,” says Cory Carpenter, who stepped in to catch when Hepburn was forced to the sidelines.
“It was a good experience for everybody.”
LOVE OF THE GAME
Kelly’s love for baseball came suddenly, and by happenstance.
Fresh out of high school in 1972, he started a 42-year career with CP Rail in Princeton. During his first day on the job his new bosses, Janet and Ted Hardin, asked if he’d ever umpired baseball. When he answered no, Janet replied: “You’ll do just fine. Just them you don’t know the rules and they won’t bother you.”
That spurred Kelly into action, and over the coming months, and subsequent years, he became a zealous student of baseball—consuming as much about the game as possible, routinely attending clinics throughout North America.
He also intently studied coaches in other sports, people like legendary Richmond high school basketball coach Bill Disbrow, and football coach Joe Goodlad.
“I just really enjoyed sports,” says Kelly, who played and officiated hockey before falling in love with baseball.
He still looks back at those few halcyon months in 1987 as the pinnacle time of his career.
“All those kids had different attributes, but they could all play on any team. They made me look good.”