Vancouver: There’s Nowhere Else Johnny Stewart Would Rather be.

 

In the spring of 2016, Johnny Stewart felt on top of the world.  And he had every right to be.

The Brighton, ON native had travelled a winding path before ending up in the Sports and Entertainment Marketing program, a post-degree course of study offered by Loyalist College in nearby Belleville.  After four months of study, Stewart had landed an internship with the NHL’s Ottawa Senators in corporate suite sales, and with his term coming to an end, Stewart – the self-described oldest Senators’ intern ever – had moved across the Ottawa River into nearby Gatineau, and was, in his own words, ready to kick some ass as a full time Sens’ sales rep.  He was on the cusp of fulfilling of his dream of working for a pro sports team.

A funny thing happened on the way to Stewart filling the Canadian Tire suites with corporate clients; the hoped-for position didn’t materialize as a result of a hiring freeze by the club, and Stewart found himself at a loss as to how he was going to tell his friends and family that at 31, his dream might be over.

While despairing over and considering his predicament, Stewart was distracted by his phone vibrating in his pocket.  Little did he know that his path was about to take another turn.

 

 

Johnny Stewart grew up in the agricultural community of Brighton, about ninety minutes east of Toronto off of Highway 401, on his parents’ dairy farm.  He picked up his love of baseball from his father, who built Stewart a pitching mound in the backyard.  The family would often travel several hours to Ottawa (stopping at a family cottage along the way) to take in games of the old International League Lynx, who were an Expos, Phillies, and Orioles  AAA affiliate during their fifteen years of existence.  During his time watching the Lynx, Stewart became infatuated with a fellow left handed pitcher who spent time with the Expos and Giants:

I thought it was the coolest thing ever my favourite baseball player from the Lynx was a left handed Pitcher named Kirk Rueter, who had some success with the Giants (after beginning his career with the Expos) later in his career, but I just thought he was the coolest thing ever.

Stewart played minor baseball in several other towns down the Lake Ontario shoreline from Brighton like Cobourg, Trenton, and Belleville.  He was good enough to catch on with a travelling team from the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill, a club that hit the showcase circuit to expose its players to opportunities south of the border:

….we would travel to various tournaments in the summer in the States hoping to get noticed by collegiate coaches, and I was fortunate enough to be able to go to two US schools. I went to Felician College in Rutherford, NJ.

Unfortunately, by his own admission, Stewart’s elbow was, “pretty banged up,” upon his arrival at Felician, and after a semester he transferred to Graceland (IA), where there were, “more Canadians than Americans on the team.”  The team may not have been terribly successful on the field, but the ex-pats bonded quickly, and Stewart says, “It was a bunch of Ontario kids who had spent high school playing against each other. It was really a great experience to play with those guys.”

Stewart didn’t attract interest from any pro teams, so he returned to Ontario, and caught on with the Intercounty Baseball League’s Barrie Baycats.  From there, he moved to the Kitchener-Waterloo area, and continued to keep his hand in the game, serving as pitching coach to the Kitchener Panthers of the IBL’s Junior loop, as well as filling the same role for the University of Waterloo’s fledgling baseball team.  Being young and carefree, Stewart admits to some wanderlust, and when a girl he’d met in the K-W area suggested they try their luck in the British Colombia ski resort town of Whistler, Stewart was game.

When they reached BC, Stewart started to look for employment.  It didn’t take him long before he found something:

I needed to find a job, and saw an ad in the newspaper for people to work at the Olympic Bobsled track. So, I gave it a shot, and wound up becoming the foreman of the Olympic ice-making crew for three years. Baseball kind of took a back seat at that point – I played slo pitch in Whistler, but the world of bobsled, luge, and skeleton took over my life.

It was easily both the most demanding and most satisfying job he’d had in his young career:

It was hands-down the most challenging work experience I’ve ever had, but still to this day the most rewarding one. It pushed me in ways I didn’t know I could be pushed or challenged, and we came out on the other side looking pretty good overall. That job taught me an awful lot about preparedness, about contingency plans, just about having a plan for everything and being as prepared as you can be prior to the event, and then when the event happens, you just react – you’re prepared for everything. You’ve got an answer for every question before it’s even asked, and when that question is asked, you just react, and that was something the Olympics really taught me. 

In short order, Stewart would be facing one of the biggest challenges of his life – the tragic death of Georgian luger Nordar Kumaratashvilli on a training run literally hours before the opening ceremonies of Vancouver 2010.  It was an experience that Stewart will never forget, and one that demanded all of his job and non-job related skills to get through:

The Olympics were a fantastic experience…..being there on February 12th, 2010…………….being the man on site that morning when it happened was a challenge that no one can prepare themselves for……that’s something that every February 12th comes up in my mind. That was a challenge unlike anything I’ve ever faced before, and will not likely face again, but as a team, we were able to come together and make good, level-headed decisions quickly and we were able to still put on a show – in any other walk of life, if someone dies, we don’t go to work the next day, we shut things down until we figure out what happened, but with the Olympics, we have to turn the page – the show must go on, we’re not stopping this train…..the preparation has been going on for five to ten years, so you have to put things in the back of your mind, and keep on working. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.

After the Olympics, Stewart returned to Brighton, where he worked construction, and eventually found a job working as a paint salesman, calling on Home Depots in the Kitchener-Waterloo-Guelph area.  Maybe it was a bit of a hangover after the Vancouver experience, maybe it was Stewart still longing for a job in baseball – a dream he’d never really completely let go of – but he found the sales job, “wholly unfulfilling.”

I would have been about 25 or 26 at the time, and thinking, “Man, there’s got to be more to it than this.”

Stewart told his family he was done with selling paint, and that he was going to follow his dream of landing a job in baseball:

Of course, he had no connections, no baseball experience, and few if any prospects.  But Stewart was committed, and completely undaunted:

    So,  I went by myself to the winter meetings in Nashville Tennessee in 2012, booked a flight and a hotel room, and I then printed out about seventy-five resumes and little business cards and everything like that, and I bought myself a new suit, and tried to shake as many hands as I could, and interview for as many jobs as I possibly could,  and get my foot in the door one way or the other with any kind of baseball team…..the Greenville Astros of the Appalachian League took a shot with me.

Armed with little more than his resumes, business cards, and outgoing personality,  Stewart landed the job as clubhouse manager with the Appy League Astros.  He recalls vividly an unusual question during his interview:

I remember asking the strangest question – what was my favourite movie, and it turned out later that was a loaded question….I learned later that if any candidates answered with a baseball movie, then that person wouldn’t be hired.  They wanted people who could think outside of the box.

It was not his dream job – Stewart was hopeful of getting into scouting – but it was that proverbial foot in the door that he wanted.  There was only one problem:  he had no clue what he was doing.  Not having done the job or played pro ball before, Stewart had no context, and no prior exposure to the many and varied duties of a clubby.  He was, by his own admission, not very good at the job at first, and a passing comment from a roving instructor all but crushed him:

I was terrible, and I can remember vividly an incident where the Astros minor league field co-ordinator was in town.  Now, he was an older guy, and he could be a little bit crotchety, and I wasn’t hanging uniform pants the right way – I was hanging them like slacks, and so they weren’t drying…….So he says, “Where the hell did we get this clubby?  Canada? We can’t find a damn clubby that can get pants dry, who doesn’t even know how to hang f—kin’ pants to dry?”  What he didn’t know was that I was within earshot of him, I was actually walking into the coaches room when he said all that, and tears formed in my eyes, and I almost cried right there – I thought, “this is it – I can’t even do this simple task – maybe this isn’t meant for me at all.”

While Stewart was picking his chin up off the floor, another visiting staffer, roving pitching instructor Craig Bjornson – now with the Red Sox – took pity on the inexperienced young Canadian.  It was a pivotal moment in his nascent clubhouse career:

I walked out of the room with my head hanging, and my hands in my pockets, and Craig came up behind me, and said, “You don’t know what you’re doing, do you?” And I said, “I have NO clue – but if you’ll teach me, wind me up and watch me go, I promise.” So, Craig Bjornson stayed with me that night, and we did laundry, and we hung pants, and folded towels, and cleaned the washrooms and did everything that a clubby at that level does, and he stayed with me til about 2:00 in the morning, and from then on I had a pretty good idea of how to do the job, and how I wanted to do it, but if it wasn’t for Criag helping me out in 2013, taking pity on a kid who clearly didn’t know what he’s doing, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

And it wasn’t like Stewart could leave the ballpark after a game and get away from his troubles at least temporarily – he lived in the Greenville clubhouse.  But with the help of Bjornson, he turned his season around, and finished out the year with the short season club on a high note.  The following year, after interviewing with several clubs at the Winter Meetings, Stewart planned to move up like his players to full season ball, and was hired by the Midwest League’s Quad City Bandits.  Visa issues prevented him from going south of the border to fill that role, however, and he found himself back in Brighton once again.

While waiting for a chance to try his hand at running a clubhouse once again, Stewart enrolled at Loyalist College in Belleville, and made the half hour commute down the 401 every day.  Hoping that his experience in Greenville wasn’t a one-and-done, Stewart focused on his studies, which involved a semester of classroom work, followed by an internship.  Stewart was lucky enough to land a position with the Sens, and had to fight the need to pinch himself every day to make sure what he was going through was real:

I couldn’t believe that an NHL team was going to bring me on…..how cool was that? With all due respect, nobody from Brighton goes to work for an NHL team.  I was a premium sales intern – so suites.  I was in charge of selling and renting out suites on a single game basis.

Stewart with his gift of the gab was a perfect fit for the position.  With an arena located beyond the outskirts of the city, selling the Sens is a challenge, but Stewart was more than up to the challenge, and he was determined to settle in for a long run in the nation’s capital.  After having found a place to live across the Ottawa River in Gatineau, QC, he was approaching the end of his internship, and eager to start full-time work with the team.  But it was not meant to be:

It was around this time – beginning of April – my Manager with the Senators called me into her office, and said, “Listen, John.  You’ve done a great job, and we love you, but we’re on a hiring freeze now – we’re not going to hire any interns this time around.”

Stewart, needless to say, was devastated:

I was making $25/day as an intern.  My dad was helping me out with my rent – as a 31 year old man.  It was tough to swallow, and I remember sitting at my desk, and I remember thinking, “What the hell am I going to tell my parents, and what am I going to tell my friends?” There had been a big going away party for me when I went away to Ottawa, and I didn’t get the job.

In the midst of his despair, Stewart felt his phone vibrate.  Almost by the time he had reached into his pocket to see what the notification was, his path had changed again:

The Vancouver Canadians had followed me.  I thought, “that’s random.” I followed them back, and no sooner had I done that, I got this four paragraph DM – which I still have – from a guy named Jeff Holloway, who now works for the Blue Jays, but was the Assistant GM in Vancouver.  He said, “listen, I read this blog about when you were in Greenville, and I know that you have clubhouse manager experience, and our current one is looking to retire.

The C’s emailed Stewart a one-way ticket to Vancouver, and he flew to the west coast the next day.   By the time Stewart’s return flight had landed back in Ottawa, he had a job offer by email – contingent on him being able to get back out to Vancouver in ten days.  Stewart was able to get out of his lease in Gatineau, and he and his father packed up his meagre belongings for the drive out west.  With the week and half he had to report to the C’s, they took a baseball trip on the way:

Dad and I drove from Brighton out to Vancouver – we went through the States, we stopped at Miller Park, did a tour, stopped at Target Field and saw a Twins game, then stopped in Seattle and saw a Mariners game then came up to Vancouver.

Unlike his previous clubby stint in Greenville, this time ’round Stewart had a handle on what he was doing.  And to help with the transition, the C’s kept legendary clubhouse manager Glenn “Magic” Hall on for one more season before he retired.  After caring for the visitors’ clubhouse during his maiden 2016 season, Stewart added the C’s clubhouse and the umpire’s room to his duties, which expanded when he was named the head of stadium operations at Nat Bailey as well:

In short season baseball, there’s not too many non-revenue jobs that are 12 months of the year, and I feel fortunate that the club believes in me.  We didn’t know what to do with me (after his first season ended)….I didn’t want to go back to Ontario, I didn’t want to look for another job, and they had a vacancy in stadium ops.  I wouldn’t call myself the handiest guy in the world by any stretch, but I did grow up on a dairy farm, and I can swing a hammer, and hold a paint brush, and use a cordless drill.  So, they gave me a shot at stadium ops, and I’ve managed this old stadium that was built in 1951 ever since.

There are many facets to the partnership between a major league club and their minor league affiliates, many of which go beyond the traditional supplying of decent players and the provision of adequate facilities.  For minor league players and coaches, the clubhouse is a sanctuary, a home-away-from-home, and there’s far more than cleanliness involved to make it a place they’re comfortable in.  And the responsibility for that falls squarely on the shoulders of the clubhouse manager, something Stewart is keenly aware of:

It makes a difference in our relationship with the Blue Jays.  I’ve seen – not necessarily with the Blue Jays – what happens to an organization’s relationship when they don’t have a good clubby…..it’s important to have someone you trust, and someone you know who will do a good job.  To the C’s credit, they leave me alone in the clubhouse. There’s no one looking over my shoulder – they know I’m going to do a good job, and they let me do the job as they see fit.

The Blue Jays and the Canadians have shown tremendous faith in Stewart and the role he plays.  For the third successive spring, he was invited to Dunedin for a couple of weeks worth of spring training clubhouse work, an experience he says is, “hands down the best two weeks of my year,” a chance to learn from others in the system:

 This year, I was down for the last week and a half, and the first half week of Extended.  The Blue Jays bring all their clubhouse managers down….just being able to commiserate and work alongside with other clubhouse managers is such a treat for me, because we’re on a bit of an island up here in Vancouver, and sometimes you wonder if the challenges and success and victories that you have are similar to other clubhouse managers…..it’s kind of a special language we speak, because its such a strange and unique job that no one else in this country does.  So to be able to go down there and work with the other guys for a couple of weeks, and see how they go about things, whether it’s how to treat a stain, or how to work with a certain coach or player. I come back better at my job just for being around these guys who’ve been doing the job for twenty years.

And coming back each spring allows him to catch up with players who passed through Vancouver:

And now that this is my third spring training, I know a lot of guys down there.  I get to know 30 more guys every year. I get to see guys like Cavan Biggio, who I had in 2016, who’s on the verge of going to the show, or TJ Zeuch, or Zach Jackson, or the special connection I have with all the 2017 guys, and seeing their progression.  The way the complex is set up, there’s a huge locker for Single A guys, it has about 100-115 lockers in it, and there’s the much smaller AA and AAA locker rooms in the complex. So to see my guys go from the A to AA to AAA to being in big league camp, just taking five minutes to catch up with guys – and they’re all curious to know how things are going at The Nat, how their host family is doing – it’s kind of a mix of catching up, learning from clubhouse managers who have been there before me, and meeting the coaching staff that I’ll be working with so that we’re not starting cold when they get to Vancouver.  I have their phone numbers, I already know their likes and dislikes, I know what kind of drinks they want, snacks they expect, if they like golf – how I can make their lives easier, and be like a personal concierge for them.

This year, as an added bonus, Stewart’s fiancee flew down, and her parents joined them from Vancouver, as well as his parents from Brighton, and they got to meet each other for the first time.

For minor league baseball players, there’s little to prepare them for the huge crowds and open air exuberance of playing in Nat Bailey Stadium.  Even for those who played for high profile college programs, the experience of playing in front of 6 200 enthusiastic fans is an eye opener, which Stewart says is a huge advantage:

The atmosphere is unbelievable, there’s nothing quite like it.  It’s such a good place for these young players to have their first pro experience.  It absolutely is. Some of these guys, they’ve never played in front of a crowd this big or this loud.  It’s such an advantage to us as a home team, especially when it comes playoff time. In 2017, when we won the championship, we had a huge home field advantage for all of our playoff games.  The crowds were 100% responsible for that.

But even though the C’s have been successful in helping sell the Blue Jays brand on the west coast, Stewart thinks the franchise would be doing well regardless of who they’re affiliated with:

It gives us the opportunity to be the western branch of the Blue Jays.  But having said that, yes that makes us popular, but we have a great atmosphere here.   I would argue that 75% – or more- of the people who come to the games don’t even know what inning it is. I honestly believe that we’re Vancouver’s largest patio, the drinks are reasonably priced, get yourself a hot dog, you’re hanging out with your friends, and if you get bored, there’s baseball on in the background.  There’s so much going on – there’s the dancing grounds crew, there’s the sushi race, there’s the chicken dance, there’s the dancing ushers, there’s all kinds of crazy stuff going on all the time, just looking around at how beautiful Queen Elizabeth Park is.

It’s a special place to come to work every day.

When asked which player(s) have stood out to him as he enters his fourth season with the Canadians, Stewart mentions the 2017 championship team, which brought the NWL title back to the lower mainland for the first time since 2014:

The 2017 team was easily the most special baseball team I’ve been a part of – I told people I knew from day one that there was something  very special about this team. Kacy Clemens, Nate Pearson, Brock Lundquist, Cullen Large – he’s one of the great people on his planet – they all stood out.  Kacy and Nate were the kind of guys who would look you in the eye, and say, “are you ready to be great today?- because that’s what it’s going to take to win tonight”  The 2017 guys held each other accountable in ways I’d never seen before. And Zach Logue, who has the most amazing baseball hat trick ever. I know it’s just a Northwest League title, but there have been people who worked in this game for 40 years and never even got a sniff of a title.

With the Northwest League season opener about six weeks away, Stewart is busy getting The Nat ready for their home debut on June 14th:

Right now, my main focus in the upcoming weeks is all the outfield signage needs changing, the outfield wall needs repainting, the grandstand needs pressure watching and repainting, so does the concourse…if I get all those things done by June 1st we’ll be in good shape.

Times change, and our goals often shift to reflect that.  Stewart was once an unhappy paint salesman travelling a circuit of big box home improvement stores in Southern Ontario, but he longed for a career in baseball.  He thought that he might like to get into scouting, and took initial steps in that direction, but now that he’s learned the ins and outs of managing a clubhouse, his sights in the future are squarely focused on the Rogers Centre, where he hopes to one day be an MLB clubhouse manager  For now, though, after a truly long and winding journey, Stewart is content with where he is in life, literally and figuratively:

The job has its menial aspects….you don’t do it for the glamour.  Painting and a bit of woodwork and screwing signs into a wall – normally, that’s kind of boring stuff, but when you’re doing it at Nat Bailey Stadium, it’s hard to do it without a smile on your face…..same as folding towels, or doing laundry, or cleaning toilets….if I was doing it at a hotel, I don’t know how inspired I’d be….but because I’m doing it here, say after a big Win, everybody’s all excited, then it’s so exciting, so fulfilling.  Just being in the is ballpark is heaven to me. There’s no where else I’d rather be.

 

 

For further reading/listening:

-Stewart talked to a fellow minor league baseball blogger about his time in Greenville, and gives some really good insight into the many and varied duties of a baseball clubby: https://whattheheckbobby.blogspot.com/2013/12/confessions-of-clubhouse-manager.html

-Stewart talks to CJBQ in Belleville from behind the LF fence during a spring training game at Clearwater (fast forward to the 1:13 mark):  https://soundcloud.com/quintebroadcasting/mar21-david-foot-hosts-gun-controljohnny-stewart-on-baseball/reposts

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.