It’s not all Greek to him — but it is all baseball, with a few flags mixed in.
The machinery that is the game of baseball runs because of people who largely operate out of the spotlight, popping out when needed, but doing work that is behind the curtain, and Rye Pothakos may just be the best example of that when it comes to the impact Canadians have on the game.
“It means the world to me, pardon the pun, and the opportunity to help players live out their dreams, it’s a dream for me,” said Pothakos, who was involved with the Regina Cyclones of the old Prairie League — and is now Director of Recruiting for the Regina Red Sox of the Western Canadian Baseball League.
Among many, many other things.
Pothakos broke into baseball’s influential levels in 1992, when he helped the Thunder Bay Whiskey Jacks land an expansion franchise in the Northern League, considered by many as the most notable independent startup league — led by the St. Paul Saints as the flagship operation.
“I’ve been on the diamond since I was six, and the one thing I always say is to not have any regrets. I have no regrets — take the good with the bad, but you relish your experiences and you learn a lot of things and meet a lot of people. The friendships and the relationships probably mean the most, in the end.”
Because he apparently doesn’t have enough to do, Pothakos is helping the United Short Professional Baseball League, based in Utica, MI, as a scout, working with the independent loop that is now even more important for filling gaps left when Minor League Baseball contracted significantly this last year, leaving aspiring pro baseball players scrambling for opportunities.
Pothakos was born in Thunder Bay (to date himself, he reminds that it was called Fort William back then), and largely worked in sales — and that sales skillset helped him find the best opportunities for people, to develop those relationships, to foster those opportunities. He’s an associate scout for Western Canada for the Kansas City Royals, and isn’t unusual for Pothakos to help a player from high school through college and onto the pro ranks, all the steps — the successes, the setbacks, that are part of the game — along the way.
The international role with the Greek National Team started in 2018, and that developed from his efforts working with moving players from the college level to various pro spots, including European pro opportunities. Pothakos took a place on the Greek team coaching staff with Jim Essian — a 14-year MLB player who took Fergie Jenkins deep in his career, then managed the Chicago Cubs in 1991 — and then was named manager of the top team from Greece. Fielding a competitive team and putting a scare into the other top European teams is not just on the horizon, it’s already starting to happen.
An announcement will come soon on Greece adding a U23 team, and the men’s national team is intent on using its growth to foster the further development of youth teams — right now, there are three Little League teams, playing in Athens. There’s an Athens training group, involving late teens and adults, that is seeing slow but steady growth.
Pothakos points to the improvement at the national team level as a key driver in helping Greek baseball interests in the most tangible way — field space. Softball fields exist, and those are used by teams like the Little League-level Alimos Lions.
“I spoke Greek as a kid, a little bit, and I’m working on that more and more now,” he laughed. “We have college and indy-pro guys making up what’s become a really nice club. The Greek team is close to being in that top-16 in Europe now, and that’s a major improvement in the world rankings. We’re scheduled to play in Lithuania this summer for the B-pool European championship, but we’ll see if the pandemic allows that to happen.
“The baseball stadium from the 2004 Olympics is still up, and the game has held on and grown a bit since the Athens games. I’m in Greece for six or eight weeks at a time each year, spending time with people as we keep working on growing the game.”
Hawkins takes big first step in chasing big league dreams
Garrett Hawkins was ready to jump into the next level of work when he was drafted into the MLB.
On the second day the 2021 MLB Draft this past July 12, the hard-throwing right-handed pitcher from Biggar, Sask., was selected in the ninth round and 280th overall by the San Diego Padres. The draft selection was a huge highlight for the 21-year-old, but he knew the long journey to try and become an everyday MLB player continued.
“It was pretty exciting just knowing that all the hard work had paid off,” said Hawkins, who towers on the mound at 6-foot-5 and weighs 230 pounds. “You kind of got to a point that you’re just proud of yourself and proud of everyone that kind of contributed to it.
“Not to say that the work isn’t done. There is still a lot more to do, but it is a good first step for sure.”
Hawkins, who trains in the off-season at the Gordie Howe Sports Complex, had been playing for the New Jersey state capital-based Trenton Thunder of the MLB Draft league at the time he was selected by the Padres.
With the Thunder, Hawkins started six games posting a 1-0 record, a 2.63 ERA, 32 strikeouts while giving up two walks in 24 innings of work.
Shortly after being drafted, Hawkins traveled to Peoria, Arizona, to join the Padres rookie team that plays in the 18-club Arizona Complex League.
With the ACL Padres, Hawkins put up solid numbers. The graduate of the Saskatoon Giants under-18 AAA program appeared in seven games with the ACL Padres posting a 3-1 record, a 2.35 ERA, 27 strikeouts while giving up two walks in 15.1 innings.
“I enjoyed it,” said Hawkins, whose main pitches are the fastball, slider and change up. “I just kind of got my toes wet in how it all works going forward.
“I got to meet a lot of people, see lots of like different cultures like lots of Latin players that I haven’t had a chance to be around a ton and kind of just meeting all the new draftees that got picked in my year also. It was pretty good, and I am excited to kind of get going again and move my way up.”
Hawkins said he benefitted from the fact he got some real good coaching with the ACL Padres, which he thought helped his performance on the field.
“I think I just kind of maybe took another step once I got there,” said Hawkins, who can throw his fastball at 93 to 95 miles per hour. “Eventually, something stuck, and I kind of just used it to my advantage.
“I think just the increased input from the coaching staff and all that helped a lot.”
Throughout his life, Hawkins said baseball was the sport he was always the most passionate about. That passion took root from simple beginnings.
“I kind of just started playing baseball at a young age playing catch with my dad (Ian Hawkins) at home,” said Hawkins. “Eventually, I was just playing minor baseball.
“All my friends were kind of doing it at the time.”
When he started playing minor baseball, Hawkins said he started to experience success on the mound early on.
“I’d say it happened right away,” said Hawkins. “Obviously, I hit and pitched at a younger age, but I kind of had a knack for pitching when I was younger.”
Hawkins ultimately caught the eyes of the high-performance coaches with Baseball Sask. He helped Saskatchewan win gold at the 2016 Baseball Canada Cup in Fort McMurray, Alta., and at the 2017 Canada Summer Games in Winnipeg.
The standout hurler credited Greg Brons, who is the High Performance Director for Baseball Sask, with getting a core group of players playing together or against each other on younger teams and training together in the years heading into those gold medal wins. Hawkins said the players became good friends and a realization grew that they might be able to accomplish big goals together.
“We had a core group of guys that (Greg) Brons kind of brought up together and kind of knew we had the potential to do something like that,” said Hawkins. “That group had been together for maybe three years before that, so when it came time to put it all together, I just kind of remember all the guys that we had and just how good we were and how ready we were to kind of be on that stage.
“It was exciting.”
Besides those gold medal wins on a national stage, Hawkins enjoyed playing against and with a number of his provincial team teammates in the provincial under-18 AAA league. He has lots of good memories throwing for the Saskatoon Giants at Cairns Field and Leakos Field.
“I enjoyed it just because most of the time it is like Saskatoon team versus a Saskatoon team, so you kind of want to beat the other one,” said Hawkins. “I enjoyed my time playing here for sure.”
After his season wrapped up with the ACL Padres, Hawkins elected to live in Saskatoon during the off-season in order to train at the Gordie Howe Sports Complex. On top of doing his own training, Hawkins will help out the crew at the Going Yard Training Centre coach young pitchers.
Jordan Draeger, who is one of Going Yard’s top instructors, was one of Hawkins past coaches.
“It is pretty cool just seeing (the young pitchers), because I was in those guys shoes kind of when I was in high school,” said Hawkins. “It is kind of cool seeing those guys build up and be around them as much as I can trying to help out, if they need it.
“I like going in there and doing my work and getting to watch some other guys do theirs, so it is pretty cool.”
Hawkins, who will turn 22-years-old in February, said all the coaches he had through the years have had a big impact in allowing him to have the success he has had.
Going into his second season as a professional, Hawkins said his main focus is improving his consistency.
“I kind of like where my pitches are at now,” said Hawkins. “I think just continuing to learn about hitters and stuff like that and just trust myself.
“I just have to continue to get better each day and try and move up.”
Murdoch named Baseball Sask Player of the Year
Swift Current’s Ethan Murdoch wrapped up his minor baseball career with a huge honour, being named Baseball Saskatchewan’s Player of the Year for 2021.
“I was obviously really excited to hear it.” Murdoch said. “I like putting in a good effort as much as I can, and statistics and awards don’t mean everything, but it’s always nice to know that the people around the league saw what I did and nominated me for the award, and thought I was deserving of it.
“I’ve always been pretty lucky to have people around me who really cared about my development as a baseball player, but also as a person,” he added. “There are the guys that have been around for a while like Neil Hogg, Harv Martinez and Joe Carnahan do a pretty good job of showing people the right way to play baseball, but also to be a good person, and then I’ve been pretty lucky with the coaches I’ve had year to year. My dad (Derek Murdoch) coached and other guys along the way have done a good job making sure that we represent the city the right way.”
Murdoch is heading into his second semester at McCook Community College in McCook, Nebraska, where he is furthering his baseball career.
Indian Head Museum telling story of all Black baseball team The Rockets
The Indian Head Rockets are being inducted into the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame and the town’s museum is creating an exhibit in 2022.
In the 1950s Indian Head was the scene of a 30,000-strong event that saw some of the best players from America’s all Black baseball leagues playing for glory and a weighty cash prize.
The Indian Head Rockets — a team composed of members from the Negro League’s Jacksonville Eagles — would play in baseball tournaments held in town and around Western Canada. In 2022 the team will be inducted into Saskatchewan’s Baseball Hall of Fame.
In anticipation, and amid renovations undertaken during COVID, the Indian Head Museum has started construction on a new exhibit to honour the team and the tournament hosted in their community more than a half a century ago.
“It was sort of a dream of our mayor at the time, Jimmy Robison,” Robyn Jensen, president of the Indian Head Museum, said in a recent interview.
“He wanted to bring high-quality baseball to the small town and he did.”
Robison ran two tournaments in ’48, and ’49, which were billed as “Western Canada’s greatest baseball tournament” by one of the six radio stations that covered the event.
Teams were brought in from all over North America, with 22 teams converging on Indian Head for the tournament, many of the players coming from America to play in Canada during the summer. The Eagles, then called the Rockets would come in the ’50s to play in Indian Head.
“It was a really fascinating special time for our town,” said Jensen.
In town, many of the roads were not paved. In her research, for the exhibit, Jensen said she came across articles and mention of people getting stuck en route to the tournament and ending up in the ditch. As the town exploded with tourists, military cots and billets were used to help with lodging the spectators.
After the colour barrier was broken in Major League Baseball, two of the Rockets alums went on to play MLB teams, becoming the first Black players for the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals, respectively. Tom Alston played with the Rockets in 1950 and 1951 and would go on to play for the Cardinals.
Elijah Jerry “Pumpsie” Greene played ball in Indian Head in 1952 and would go on to play for the Boston Red Sox on July 21, 1959. In 1952 there were 20 African-American players in the MLB and Greene’s debut for the Sox would mark the last team’s adoption of Black players.
“We were kind of like the stepping stone between, from the Negro Leagues. And then for them going up into play in the Major Leagues,” said Jensen.
When fans came to see the teams play in Indian Head they saw world-class talent on display.
The word “Rocket” was stitched in red on the white uniforms, a decision made by the mayor to use the singular word on the uniform while the whole team were the “Rockets,” each player was a Rocket.
At that time the western baseball leagues were played in the summer, comprising of an almost mercenary coterie of baseball players from around America. Some were still in high school, others played in racially segregated leagues like the Negro League or the Cuban League.
The exhibit is still looking to tie up some loose ends, most critically, how the players were treated in the province.
Museum vice-president Janine Moses-Randle said that is an important part of the story. From her work at the museum she said they “could go into a restaurant, you know, go to dances, they were given opportunities up here that they didn’t have back home.”
In an interview with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix in 2012, former Rockets player Nat Bates, then 80-years-old, spoke about how they were treated.
“The most offensive thing to us was when people there called us darkies. That hurt. It was nothing disrespectful, they just didn’t know. After we were there for a while, when we could relate to the community and they understood us, we started to laugh about it.”
Moses-Randle said they don’t want to paper over the experiences of the players but by and large there seemed to be an acceptance and openness from the community. In that same interview from 2012, Bates said as much.
“Families invited us into their home … Girls asked us to dance.”
At the time, schools were still segregated in America. Brown v. Board of Education happened in 1954, and Jim Crow laws were in force until 1965.
“This was a chance to kind of come up here and do what they love,” said Moses-Randle.
The exhibit is set to open in the summer of 2022 and the team is set to be inducted into the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame in the new year.