It was a great day in Thunder Bay last Tuesday when Robert Bortuzzo spent his day with the Stanley Cup celebrating with his hometown fans, family and friends.
I had the good fortune to help out with the public celebration held at the Da Vinci Centre and saw firsthand the level of excitement amongst the crowd when our most recent hometown hero walked into the room carrying Lord Stanley’s mug high atop his head.
I also saw Susan and Oscar Bortuzzo beaming with pride as they watched their son enjoy his day. It reminded me of the fact that in order for an athlete to attain such a level of success it takes a lot of commitment on the part of a lot of people, especially the parents.
This fact was not lost on Robert as not only did he thank the people and hockey community of Thunder Bay he also thanked his parents. It is in that spirit that I thought I would take this opportunity to step back in time to 45 years ago when it was Oscar Bortuzzo who was making headlines for his outstanding athletic abilities.
In his case it was not on the ice, but on the baseball diamond that Oscar would leave his mark in our local sports history books. According to the local Little League records from the summer of 1974 Oscar played his senior division regular season with the Twins before being added to the roster of the Fort William National-Internationals for the District 3 championship series.
The four-team, double knock-out event took place from July 29-Aug. 3, 1974 with the winners earning the right to advance to the Canadian championships, which were slated to take place in Thunder Bay that year.
In their first game against the Port Arthur Continentals the Fort William Nats, as they were commonly called, shutout their opponents 5-0.
Bortuzzo figured prominently in that win with a two-run double in the second inning which saw him go on to advance to third base on a single by Bill Oleksuk and cross the plate on a bunt by Doug Henry.
In the next game it was the Port Arthur Nationals who went down to defeat in a 4-0 game with Bortuzzo once again playing an important role as the top hitter with three singles in four times at bat. Next up were the Fort William Americans, who dashed the Nats hope of sweeping the series with a 5-1 final forcing an extra game between the two Fort William representatives. This time it was the Nats who emerged victorious with a decisive 11-1 final with Bortuzzo being selected as the tournament’s MVP.
Donning the name the Thunder Bay South Nationals, the team took to the field as the hometown favourites for the Canadian Senior Little League championships, a three-team double knock-out format which included the Windsor South Canadians and Calgary Centennials.
Their first match-up was against the Windsor squad with a 5-2 victory for the Nats with what was described as flawless defensive play with the team taking advantage of five costly Windsor errors.
Thunder Bay was first on the board with Rob Sawicki and Gord Pearce putting up two unanswered runs in the second inning. Bortuzzo, who was described as the Nats nifty second baseman, added another run in the third, dropping a bunt with the throw sailing past first base allowing him to advance to second and going on to third on an infield out and coming home on a wild throw to third base.
Windsor finally made it onto the scoreboard with two runs in the fourth only to see the Nats add two more of their own in the sixth on some alert base-running by Henry and a home run by David Bazaluk.
With Calgary eliminated from the action, the final game came down to another Thunder Bay-Windsor match-up. Once again the Nationals proved supreme going on to shut-out their opponents 4-0.
Rob Sawicki and Bazaluk shared the pitching duties with Rick Vescio driving in three runs with a single and a double and scoring the fourth run on Bortuzzo’s single to claim the Canadian crown.
Earning the right to represent their country at the Little League World Series, the team travelled to Gary, Ind., for the round robin tournament that featured teams from Europe, the Far East, Latin America and the United States.
Blanked in their first game of the series 12-0 by the eventual tourney winners, the Far East team from Taiwan, they faced the European representative in their second game. Leading 1-0 after two innings, and adding for more in the fourth inning to move ahead 5-3 the West Germans answered with four of their own in the fifth to take a 7-5 lead and eventual win.
Although eliminated from the double knock-out event this team from Westfort could take pride in knowing that they represented their country and hometown with distinction during the summer of 1974 going all the way from the local to the world level.
The members of this national championship team included: David Bazaluk, Oscar Bortuzzo, Dave Dunn, Doug Henry, Allan Legros, Bill Oleksuk, David Osipenko, Gordon Pearce, Mike Pecchia, Rob Sawicki, John Sliskovic, Mike Trisch, Rick Vescio, Wayne Wilson, Larry Deswiage (coach) and Don Yurick (manager).
As it turned out Oscar passed along his skills on the baseball diamond to Robert, who played first base for the Westfort Internationals when they won the 2005 Canadian Senior Little League title.
They also did so in style, going 5-0 in round robin action and shutting out the East Nepean Eagles 8-0 to claim the national title to advance to the Senior Little League World Series held in Bangor, Maine.
Just like his dad, Robert was a standout on the field and at the plate during his baseball career. To make the circle even more complete, Robert’s coach in 2005 was Bill Oleksuk, a teammate of Oscar’s on that 1974 squad.
Until next time keep that sports history alive.
Diane Imrie is the executive director of the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame.