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(Photo: Jon Blaker/CP)

This is very much a personal story. It’s also a difficult story for me to just tell complete strangers. Especially since it’s a story about how members of my family dealt with a tragedy and in so doing, came together with a prominent Toronto Blue Jays’ player and members of his family.

Sometimes things happen and the entire timeline is trackable and predictable and is entirely easy to explain. And then there are those rare occasions when things just happen, and they aren’t easily explainable, and one probably shouldn’t even bother to try. I’m not going to try either. I’m going to do my best to just try to lay out all the things that happened and just gaze in wonder at the final placement of the pieces of this little tale.

It all starts with my sister Kelly and her husband Kevin. Kelly and Kevin met almost forty years ago and married in 1990. They celebrated their 33rd wedding anniversary earlier in 2023. Kelly was pretty picky, but she chose well with Kevin. Especially in our family. My brother and I were heavily involved in sports, both playing and later, in sports media in Ottawa. Danny was the quarterback of the family. I was a goalie in the winter, and I played baseball and later softball in the summer.

Kevin played football when he went to high school and was a huge baseball fan. When they existed, he loved the Montreal Expos and he and Kelly also both loved the Toronto Blue Jays. Kev had family out on the west coast and his lifelong football allegiance always lied with the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League.

Most importantly, Kevin was a great guy. One of the things that struck all of us when we first met him was what a consummate gentleman he was. His manners were impeccable, and he was always sure to consider everyone else before himself. Whenever anyone visited Kelly and Kevin’s place, there were always the requisite hugs and good wishes and after everyone had removed their shoes and hung up their coats or jackets, before they had sat down, someone, Kelly or Kevin, would ask, “What would you like to drink?”

And they would always make sure their guests were looked after. Always.

He would be the one making dinner for everyone as well. A great cook and a guy who always looked after the details. He’d be in the living room with everyone, then he’d be in the kitchen making sure every item was cooking perfectly and having everything timed with precision. And he always did it with such aplomb. He was calm. He was cool. He was relaxed. And he made us feel the same way.

He also had a wonderful, almost sly sense of humour. He was never a guy who spoke loudly, but he’d throw his cracks out with just enough volume for those sitting near him to hear. As time would go by, I’d know how to listen for them. And they would be sharp, incisive, quick and so funny. I, as well, used to love when I could toss out a remark that would make him laugh.

Kevin had a son, Paul, with his first wife, and then he and Kelly had a daughter, Mackenzie. Mackenzie’s boyfriend, Brett, played on the offensive line for the Ottawa University Gee-Gees, and in his fifth and final season with the team, was playing a playoff game in Toronto against the University of Toronto Blues back in the fall of 2021. I live outside of Hogtown, but when they invited me to come watch Brett play, I jumped at the opportunity.

It was a perfect day for football – sunny but not too hot – and the Gee-Gees won and moved on to play Queens’ University the following weekend. (I went to Carleton University, but Brett is a good man, so I didn’t feel guilty cheering for Ottawa U. while he was playing for them.) Kevin was sitting to my right and he and I were talking back and forth throughout the game and every so often, he wouldn’t answer right away because he’d be laughing quietly to himself. That always made me happy.

It hit all of us hard when he was first diagnosed with cancer back in May of 2020. It hit Kelly hardest, of course. Kevin fought it though, but in the process, he lost part of his tongue. He always felt self-conscious about the way he spoke afterward and didn’t go out much as a result. It affected his ability to enunciate and to imply tone, but I always got what he was saying and there were times when that sly sense of humour would find it’s way out.

I was in Ottawa for my Mom’s birthday in July of 2023 when I got to experience that once again. Mom’s big day was July 14, which was a Friday, and a whole bunch of us all assembled in a south end restaurant to celebrate her. Kevin had family in from the west coast so our plan was to have dinner and then all get together at Kelly and Kevin’s place in the east end for a nice party.

Kev’s comfy chair was in one corner of the living room, adjacent to the dining room wall. There were dining room chairs placed all about the living room for people to get together and sit and talk. Our places would change as the evening would unfold, and eventually, I found myself sitting in a chair next to Kevin. He and I were talking a bit, but on the other side of the room, there was another conversation going on. We stopped talking to listen in on the other chat. Kev made a quiet remark just loud enough for me to hear and he got me right in the funny bone. I started laughing and he said, “I’m glad someone still gets my sarcasm!”

In 2022, cancer had returned, and it took its toll on him. When I saw him in July of 2023, he had lost a lot of weight, but he still had that old twinkle in his eye and his wit was still the old incisive Kevin! That was my last conversation with him. A week after I returned home, I got a message from my Mom that Kev was back in Ottawa’s General Hospital. Three words from her told me a lot.

“Doesn’t look good.”

I told Mom to keep me informed. The next day, they were going to move him to the Civic Hospital for surgery. They didn’t complete the surgery. “News is not good,” my Mom texted me. My sister Patti told me that Kevin would have to go into palliative care. And so, he did. He was eventually taken to the Elisabeth Bruyere Hospital for palliative care. That was August 9.

The doctors and nurses at each of the facilities were wonderful. When one of the doctors at the Civic learned that Kevin was a huge Toronto Blue Jays fan, she messaged a friend in the JaysCare Foundation to see if one of the players could make a recording for him. I’m told that the team’s star outfielder George Springer immediately recorded a message for Kevin. Kev loved it. When he saw it, he cried. Everyone loved it. It was one of those wonderful and memorable moments in a very tough time.

(Blue Jays George Springer message to Kevin)

Less than two weeks after he entered the doors at Bruyere, Kevin was gone. I learned of his passing in a text from my Mom.

Kev’s celebration of life occurred on September 2, a Saturday. The turnout was wonderful. Kevin wanted people to be happy. George’s message was in a loop with photographs of Kev and they rolled on a couple of TV’s in the reception hall at Ottawa’s oldest cemetery, Beechwood. Everyone made mention of the right fielder’s heartfelt remarks. There were speeches from a few family members, and some nice conversations. It was almost like a little reunion.

I’m sure Kelly, Mackenzie, Brett, Paul and his family were all exhausted. Kelly told me that day that she had bought tickets for the Blue Jays’ upcoming home stand the following Friday and Saturday. I was thrilled for her, and Kevin would have loved that too. I hoped that it would provide her with an opportunity to just relax and maybe recharge her emotional batteries. Patti was going to go with her as were Mackenzie and Brett, Paul and Chantal and their kids, Phillipe and Genevieve.

The Kansas City Royals were in town and the Blue Jays were in need of some wins to enhance their chances of making it into the postseason. The Jays had just taken two of three in Oakland against the Athletics and two of three against the Cleveland Guardians. They pretty much needed a sweep against the miserable Royals to stay in the hunt.

On the Friday night, Kelly, Patti and the kids got to see the Jays jump out to a 5-2 lead and then hold on for a 5-4 win. But it was the rest of the weekend that was special.

On Saturday, Kevin Gausman would be the starter for the Blue Jays. The opener for Kansas City would be James McArthur. He would last two innings. The game would be scoreless for the first three and a half innings. George Springer would lead off the bottom of the fourth for the home side. He would give his team the lead with a solo home run off Zack Greinke. The Royals would tie it up in the top of the fifth inning on a solo homer from Edward Olivares.

In the bottom of the fifth, though, the Jays would jump back into the lead courtesy of Mr. Springer. His single through the middle of the infield scored Alejandro Kirk and Daulton Varsho. It also gave the Blue Jays a 3-1 lead. It was a lead they would never relinquish. After a Cavan Biggio double scored Vladdy Guerrero, Jr. the next inning, there was still a little magic in the air.

In the bottom of the seventh, Springer came to the plate with two outs and he delivered another solo shot, his second of the game to make the score 5-1 for Toronto. That was how the game would end and the Jays had secured another victory. It was Springer’s first two-homer game of the season and it happened to occur with Kelly and family there in the stands to see it!

After I posted about it on social media, Kelly replied to my post, “Love this!! Yes, he had an amazing day and we all felt Kevin here with us! Thank you, George!!”

Just in case you weren’t aware, inside the Rogers Centre is a hotel. Its actual name is the Toronto Marriott City Centre Hotel and there are rooms that actually face the field so you can watch the game from your room. Kelly, Patti and their crew were staying in the Toronto Marriott for the weekend. The restaurant in the hotel is the SportsNet Grill. Fitting, given that the SportsNet network is owned by Rogers, which also owns the Blue Jays and the stadium.

On the Friday, Patti and Kelly went into the SportsNet Grill for a drink and a snack. Their waiter, Bobby, was a good man and he and the girls were getting more familiar with each other as time went by. Patti was informing Bobby about the reason for this trip, and the more that Bobby learned about Kevin’s story, the more emotional he was getting. It got to the point that he asked them not to tell him anymore because he was getting overcome by the story.

They had told their waiter about the video recording from George Springer and he began formulating a little plan. He told Kelly and Patti to come back to the SportsNet on Saturday afternoon about 1:45. On Saturdays, the first pitch usually is tossed at about 3:07. He was planning to surprise them, but he didn’t want to tell them his plan yet.

When the girls showed up on Saturday afternoon, Bobby was there, but he could not get his plan fully realized and he felt badly. He apologized to them. But they kind of had an idea of what he was ginning up for them. They asked their waiter if he was going to introduce them to George’s parents and he kind of understood that they had him dead to rights. Sadly, the Springers couldn’t make it on that Saturday afternoon.

Sunday was departure day for the gang. Kelly, Patti, Mackenzie and Brett, Paul and Phillipe were all going to be returning to Ottawa. But before they left Toronto, they went back to the SportsNet Grill for breakfast. Bobby wasn’t there that day, but another surprise awaited them. Kelly and Patti sat side by side on one side of the table and Mackenzie and Brett sat side by side on the other side. Patti spotted the Springers at the table immediately behind the kids.

Patti expressed the desire to approach the elder Springers. Mackenzie was vehemently against that. She reasoned that the couple were enjoying their breakfast and to interrupt them at that moment would be rude. Patti relented. Alas, the Springers left the restaurant and the chance to meet and talk with them was gone forever. Perhaps.

As the group were checking out of their hotel, Patti noticed that the Springers were in the lobby. This time, she would not take ‘no’ for an answer. She approached the couple and, with her omnipresent charm, immediately won them over. “You’re the family from Ottawa??!!” was Mrs. Springer’s first question. Right away, the connection was there. Kelly made her way over to join the conversation.

Within minutes, both Kelly and Mrs. Springer were in tears and were also in full embrace as if they had known each other for years. And when Kelly told Mrs. Springer about George’s message to Kevin, they all cried and shared hugs. “I told her that she raised an amazing son, and she should be very proud,” Kelly told me after. “She hugged me, and we both cried. It was a moment and we totally felt Kevin’s presence…”

It was a wonderful meeting, thanks to an understanding waiter and my terribly shy (NOT!) sister, Patti!

(The Springers with Kelly)

Sometimes, we feel we need to understand why certain things happen. And sometimes, we have to just let them happen and enjoy the consequences of chance.

Thank you, George. Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Springer. Kevin was there on that Toronto weekend. Kelly mentioned that she figured she knew it when she heard the music upon entering the hotel. “Kevin was all over us this weekend! We totally felt him, even with the ELO music they were playing in the lobby!!”

Kelly, I have no doubt about that!!

I have to mention that when Mackenzie and Brett were checking into the hotel, they were served by a gentleman named Kevin. Have a great sports day, everybody.

* * *

Get Howie’s great book, Crazy Days & Wild Nights on Amazon. And keep your eyes open for Howie’s upcoming book, MORE Crazy Days & Wild Nights!

You can listen to Howie and his co-host Shawn Lavigne on The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast. Find them on Spotify or check out for a ton of sports history content!

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