This article was in the Hamilton Spectator earlier this week. It is about a good friend of mine from Hamilton, Mel Oswald the founder of the Canadian Thunderbirds. Although my two coaching stints didn’t work out the way that I wanted them to when I was with the Thunderbirds, Mel became a good friend. I wish him well in his retirement:
Here is the article:
Mr. Thunderbird has left quite a legacy
April 12, 2011
It’s not that he’s somehow grown tired of the game. Not a bit. The priority list just seems to be changing a bit these days.
There’s his wife who’s seen him put in 80-hour weeks for years and years and deserves a larger slice of his life. There are his nine grandchildren who he wants to make more time for now. And there’s his health. The hours have admittedly worn him down, he needs a hernia repaired and his heart’s due for a rather scary-sounding procedure to fix some wonky valves.
“It’s open-heart surgery,” Mel Oswald says. “They kill you for a few seconds. You just hope that when they hit the start button, you come back.”
Put it all together and it’s not hard to understand why the 70-year-old is stepping down as head of the Hamilton Thunderbirds at the end of this month.
Thing is, when he walks away, he’ll take a big part of Hamilton baseball with him. Oswald has helped produce scores of players who won scholarships in the States and has helped propel a couple dozen young men to the pros. He’s been named Canadian coach of the year, Hamilton Sport Volunteer of the Year and has won more than 50 elite tournaments, including a World Sandlot title.
Not bad for a guy who came from anything but a sports background.
Oswald was introduced to baseball when he was five when his dad — who had nothing to do with the game — signed him up to play at Mahoney Park. Mel worked his way up the ladder until he was playing semi-pro in London.
When the baseball dream came to an end, he carved out a career in financial planning. He coached Little League and OBA, but money matters were his living. It was during a stint in Florida doing some real estate speculating that the course of his baseball life took a rather major turn.
While helping with baseball camps geared toward college scholarship hopefuls, he realized there wasn’t much in the way of similar development opportunities available up here for serious players. There were good players but he saw nowhere for them to get elite training. So, when the Toronto Blue Jays threw their support behind a high-end team in the mid-’90s and came looking for other teams to play against, Oswald helped get a league together and put together Hamilton’s entry. The Thunderbirds.
“This was the true start of elite baseball here,” he says.
Oswald has rarely gone by the book, though, and this was no exception. Rather than take his team down to Florida for March break so his guys could be seen by pro scouts, as most did, he decided to barnstorm the southern East Coast, taking his Thunderbirds to universities so college coaches could see them first-hand.
“We may get the (crap) kicked out of us, but we had some kids that would be seen,” he says.
Yeah, 11-day bus trips were costly, but he often returned home with a handful of scholarship offers. Seemed like a good trade-off to him. Still does as evidenced by the fact that every topic of discussion with him comes back to helping kids get opportunities to advance in the game and in life.
Yet when he walks away — Oswald will stay on with the Thunderbirds as an adviser and assistant coach at least until the end of the season, maybe longer depending on his health — he freely admits not everyone in baseball will be heartbroken.
“(I have) many critics,” he chuckles. “Many critics.”
Some folks have felt he’s driven up the cost of playing youth ball. Some organizations have been angry he’s lured top players away from them to play for his teams. Some players have become angry they didn’t get scholarships they thought were supposed to be theirs.
Oswald admits he can rock the boat a bit. Still, he says he’s never been paid a penny of salary for his work with the Thunderbirds — only his expenses have been covered — while the organization has brought in tutors for players, paid for SAT exams for scholarship hopefuls and directed cash to charities. He says his efforts and those of other elite teams have forced other leagues and organizations to be better.
“I know I’m in it for the right reasons,” he says.
Running the show is getting tougher, though. When he started, as many as 400 kids would come to tryouts. Today, that number is often closer to 40. There are so many more elite teams now. Plus the economy is having an impact. More than a few families are having to choose between paying a few thousand dollars for baseball or paying the hydro bill and their mortgage.
Still, he’s proud of what he’s done. Over the years, he proudly points out he’s helped put 23 men into professional baseball at various levels — that includes reigning National League MVP Joey Votto — and has more than 350 kids who’ve won scholarships. As a legacy, it’s pretty good.
“No,” he interjects. That’s not his legacy. Not as he sees it.
Hmm. OK. What is it then?
“One of the things we always prided ourselves in is we never turned a boy away because he couldn’t come up with the player’s fees.”
That’s pretty good, too.