Marty Grant comes from a very proud pitching production line in New Zealand. He hurled 90 career games for the Nelson-based Black Sox, helping them win the 1996 world championships in the U.S. and then pitched a no-hitter in the final to win a second world title in South Africa in 2000.
Vernon’s Darren Fidler has spent much of his life playing fastpitch in local leagues and has never heard of Grant or any of the famous Kiwi throwers like Chubb Tangaroa, Owen Walford and Mike White, who earns $1.4 million a year coaching softball at the University of Oregon.
So Fidler, a left fielder with the High Road Construction/Rossinis, was hardly in awe facing Grant and the Whakatu Rebels of New Zealand in the bottom of the sixth inning in last Sunday’s 45+ Competitive gold-medal game in Auckland.
Fidler led off the inning by crushing a flat riseball 275 feet to the left field seats tying the game 1-1 and sending the game into extra innings and international rules where High Road prevailed for a 3-2 victory at the Barfoot &Thompson World Masters Games.
“It was a slow riser, a spinner,” said Fidler, recovering from jet-lag Monday afternoon. “I haven’t hit a ball like that ever. At first, I thought I broke the bat because I broke a carbon-fibre bat playing for these guys last August. I ran because I thought it might go off the wall. I realized it went over when I was rounding second and it was pretty cool.”
Fidler, shortstop Keith Green, third baseman Murray Caton, pitcher Dale Ortman, centre fielder Jason Eckert and second baseman Jim Kelly, along with assistant coach Barry Lachuk, all represented Vernon with High Road. They shut out Ladner Masters 3-0 in the rain-shortened semifinal after losing 12-4 to Ladner in preliminary play of the seven-team division.
Upon arriving at the tournament, Eckert said they were told: “You’re in way over your head and you should be in the rec side” and “Only 12 guys on your roster? You have no chance..”
The Canucks didn’t listen to their critics and got better every day. The Rebels, who lost 5-2 to High Road in the round-robin, enjoyed a quick start in the final, loading the bases in the first inning with only one out before 2,000 fans.
“Scotty Austin (of Kamloops) stepped up like he had been doing all tournament and struck out the next two batters to escape with zero runs scored,” said Eckert, who now lives in East Vancouver.
Both teams battled hard until the fourth inning when the Rebels hit a long ball to straight away centre field for a lead-off triple which later scored.
The sixth inning was announced the last inning due to time limit. Fidler’s home run had the High Road dugout rocking. Fidler dedicated the dinger and his gold medal to his late father, Larry, who succumbed to cancer last August at age 69.
“I think he had something to do with that hit,” said Darren. “It was like I knew that pitch was coming.”
Both teams traded runs in the seventh after starting a runner on second base through the international rule. In the top of eight and runners on first and second, Eckert hit a slow roller to first base to score Ortman with the go-ahead run.
The Rebels bunted their base runner on second over to third in their half of the eighth.
“Scott Austin had met Marty Grant pitch for pitch all game but this was his moment,” said Eckert. “He proceeded to strike out the next two batters in dramatic fashion sealing the win. Dale Ortman, after 15-plus years of retirement, backed up Scott on the mound and then stepped into play second base for the first time ever after Jim Kelly had to leave due to work.”
Eckert said the tournament turned a tight-knit group of friends into an even stronger family
“This trip was something you plan and think about for close to a year and a half,” said Green. “Then all of a sudden you are there competing with some amazing ball players, including some great friends I’ve had the privilege of wearing the same uniform with over the many years. Then the New Zealand people (met them at a local tavern) enter the scene and adopt us as their own, attend most of our games holding the Canadian flag and cheering us on. They put on a big BBQ for us, sang to us in their Maori language and offered their support throughout the games. Call it fate, destiny or pixie dust but it was a sharing of spirits that we or they will never forget. When we won the gold, we ran out to centre field and high-fived them over the fence and many of them were in tears. Priceless… Priceless.”
Added Fidler: “Having a culture take you in like that was like having family over there. We went to the bar once and that’s where 25 to 30 of them hung out. They were fantastic people. The bar had just got new owners so their menu was french fries, french fries and more french fries.”
Vernon’s Rich Haldane and Team Canada Diamond Kings of Ontario lost 3-1 to the Rebels in the semifinals and then grounded Ladner for the bronze medal.