Dave Perkins: Mentor and Friend

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Aug. 3) – I can still remember how the shock registered. It was during a long, Air Canada flight from Toronto to San Francisco in August 1987 (typically, a six-hour ride). I was aboard for an impelling magazine assignment: Covering the Toronto Blue Jays on a west coast trip through Oakland, Anaheim and Seattle.

Unlike today, most professional sports teams flew commercially back then – primarily on cross-continent treks. Toronto’s wildly popular baseball team was no exception. As such, I was booked on the same westward aircraft as the Blue Jays – all of whom, except management, were sprinkled about me in cattle class. I wouldn’t begin my radio career at CJCL AM-1430 (later The FAN-590) for another nine months, so anything out of the ordinary, as it pertained to media, caught my attention.

And this was strikingly out of the ordinary.

At some point in the immediate past, Blue Jays temperamental slugger, George Bell, had pulled another of his off-field stunts. Bell was a terrific bats-man – en route, that season, to being named the American League’s most valuable player – but he routinely tripped over his own words and action. Details, I don’t remember. But, I do recall how Toronto Star baseball writer Dave Perkins pilloried Bell for his latest indiscretion. I can also tell you the Blue Jays left-fielder was less than fond of criticism. As long as I live, I’ll remember Bell wailing at Jim Hunt – the late Toronto Sun columnist – “Hunt, I keeeel you!” as the two gathered around the batting cage prior to games. I therefore sat with my mouth open while Bell and Perkins engaged in a long and friendly poker competition during that flight to San Francisco.

“Wow, this guy must have respect,” I thought to myself, watching the Star writer deal cards with the hot-head he had recently blistered.

Rarely, have I contemplated with such accuracy.

Today, more than 40 years after beginning a Hall of Fame career, Dave Perkins wrote his final column for our country’s largest newspaper. Sadly, those entrusted with arranging the Sports section committed a biblical gaffe. Instead of lining with Perkins’ historic farewell – splashing it across the top of the section – editors plunked it beneath a Page 1 story about Leafs new goalie, Jonathan Bernier, hoping to wrench the starting assignment from James Reimer. In all due respect to Bernier; the Leafs, and the writer (Kevin McGran), this was akin to suggesting a child would rather eat at McDonald’s than chomp on a plate of liver.

TODAY’S TORONTO STAR FRONT (ABOVE) AND ITS NOTEWORTHY SUBMISSION (BELOW) – POORLY RECOGNIZED BY SPORTS EDITORS.

As someone that perfectly understands the inordinate attraction – in this city – of anything Blue and White, I can ask: “Why feature a hockey story in early August ahead of a final submission from one of Canada’s most respected litterateurs?” Not that Perkins would a) be surprised, or b) speak out on his behalf. Though always a straight-shooter in print, I never heard Dave say a word about himself – while exclusively in his company, or among others. Accordingly, Perky’s last column must have proven awkward.

Confession here: I idolized Dave as a writer and a human being. Still do. Among the best moments of my career were baseball playoff and World Series dinners with Dave and our mutual pal – the late and legendary columnist, Jim Proudfoot – whom we both idolized. Perky and I did, however, get off to a rocky start. I spent the summer of 1986 freelancing at the Star – writing golf and tennis. After covering an event, I would drive to the newspaper office at One Yonge St. and tap out a story on my Radio Shack computer. One day, within earshot of Dave, I made a proprietary comment about my article – suggesting, as I recall, an image that would best accompany it.

“Hah, get a load of Mr. Photo Editor here,” Dave chided across a row of desks. “Maybe you’d like to put the entire section together.”

Though I’d been thoroughly deferential in front of all Star employees, this was an indignity I could not accept. I waited a few moments before approaching Dave and requesting a moment of his time. We went around a corner, toward a coffee and FAX machine. “Yeah, what is it?” he asked. “Very simple,” I replied. “To you, I may be a nothing – just another hopeful kid trying to break into the business. But, to me, I’m as important as anyone else around here. And, if you ever again choose to humiliate me in front of others, I’ll be back in your face so fast, you won’t know what hit you. Okay?”

To his everlasting credit, Dave held up both hands and said, “Alright, Howard, take it easy. I was just horsing around with you.”

Whether or not I earned respect – or Dave was, in fact, yanking my chain – is immaterial. From that moment on, I had the privilege of befriending, and learning from, one of our country’s top media professionals. Though it was purely choice to cover the Leafs in a journalistic mode throughout my radio career – waving the flag, as one must today in the era of team ownership, would have been much easier – I gained confidence while observing Dave. He knew how – and when – to ask a tough question. More importantly, he could elicit a response. Even in a strained environment, Perky’s subjects understood he would conduct himself fairly. Which he did, on all but one occasion: when his vehement opposition to the government funding of private sports facilities (i.e. BMO Field, home of Toronto FC) led to over-zealous criticism of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

Otherwise, Dave showed the way – for me, and countless others that followed him into the world of sports media. Few columnists could string together a paragraph combining wit, bite and information. Why the Star chose to offer him a buy-out half-a-decade ago – reducing his load to one column per week – is beyond comprehension. Why the paper now believes it is better off with no Dave Perkins boggles the mind.

But, don’t bother asking Perky. He’ll just shrug and say “Ah, that’s the way it is.” For many of us, we’ll prefer to remember the way it was.

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