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15 March, 2009

YOUNG BILL HAS COME A LONG WAY

Mr. Fastball personified
Bill was a robust 12-year-old, just a little on the heavy side and big for his age. He lived with his parents across the street from us on nondescript old-town Weldon Avenue in St. Thomas. He loved baseball. So did I. It was only natural that we became chums in spite of our 15-year age differential.

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.Photo: Bill's boys celebrate a Canadian Championship victory.
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Bill was always there, appearing out of nowhere the minute I came out of the front door or drove in the driveway. His baseball glove would generally be close at hand. I never had to ask, "Do you want to toss a few?" It was a foregone conclusion.
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I was a year removed from playing in the Senior Intercounty Baseball League and was coaching the St. Thomas Tom Cats in the Junior I-C at the time. I was also sports editor at the St. Thomas Times-Journal, so I was an easy and convenient mark for a kid like Bill. An attentive listener, he was a sponge for my sports trivia.
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He had a quick analytical mind for his age and at times you could almost hear the wheels turning. He was starting to show promise as a peewee pitcher in the St. Thomas Minor Baseball Association, but in playing catch with me he would often mix a softball underhand delivery with his baseball overhand pitches -- a precursor of things to come.
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It did not take long for me to invite Bill to become bat boy for the Junior Tom Cats and he readily accepted, even joining me on road trips. I looked for ways to highlight his name in minor baseball writeups and even took a photo of him for insertion in the newspaper when the occasion called for it. For some reason, I just felt that he needed the encouragement.
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As unbelievable as it seems, the foregoing took place in the mid 1960s. Now, turn the clock ahead some 40 years.
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Bill Horne is one of the most successful and celebrated fastball pitchers and team managers in Canada.
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As a teenager "the kid across the street" turned exclusively to fastball and quickly became a top pitcher in Ontario senior men's competition. He also swung a potent bat, winning the Memorial League batting championship one season. In all, his playing career encompassed an amazing four decades. But it is as a coach and manager that Bill is truly leaving his mark on fastball in Canada.
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He officially moved to coaching in the St. Thomas and District City League in 1985 and his teams promptly carried off five league championships. Since then he has coached at the junior, intermediate and senior levels of fastball in Ontario. Between 1997 and '99, Bill's Fingal Juniors twice won the Ontario Amateur Softball Association Eliminations and advanced to the Canadian Junior Championships three times, winning gold in 1998. Advancing to senior competition in 1999, Bill took his Fingal team all the way to the Canadian Senior Championships and a bronze medal finish.
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He coached the Waterloo Twins for the next three years, placing second in the Canadian Senior Men's Championship in 2000 and 2003, winning Senior Eliminations in 2002. In 2004 Bill took the Union Storm (St. Thomas district) to the Ontario Senior Elimination Championship and another berth in the Canadian Senior Men's Championship tournament.
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The highlight of his coaching career came in 2005 when he put together the St. Thomas Evergreen Centennials from scratch and won the Canadian senior men's championship on home grounds. The team repeated as Canadian champs the following year in Prince George, B.C. Last year the Centennials came away from the championship tourney in Saskatoon with a third-place bronze medal finish.
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He has also coached at five world championship tournaments and has had four Top Ten finishes. Add that to his two gold, two silver and two bronze medals at the Canadians and you have an impressive, unequalled record. He was inducted into the OASA Coaches Honor Roll after his Canadian championship season in 2005.
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Constructively critical and controversial at times, Bill is well respected in the fastball community. "His players love to play for him as indicated by those from across the province who return to play for him each year," commented one supporter. "He just does a remarkable job of putting successful teams together."
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Life has not been all a bed of Roses for Bill and his wife Donna. He dedicated the 2005 Canadian Championship to his 19-year-old daughter Katie who was suffering from aggressive brain cancer. Katie was well enough to work as a volunteer in the tournament and she was at her father's side when he accepted the gold medal symbolic of Canadian fastball supremacy. She passed away several months later after a year-long struggle with the insatiable disease.
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With a piece of his heart missing, Bill has not relinquished interest in the game he loves. Ever the promoter and organizer and in the role of tournament chairman and general manager, Bill has again been instrumental in bringing the Canadian Men's Championship back to St. Thomas this summer, August 30 to September 6. He previously led a large group of St. Thomas volunteers in 1999 and 2005 in obtaining the rights to host the tournament.
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Icing on the cake would be another gold medal for Bill and his Centennials on home ground this summer. Don't discount it!
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Hey Bill, your old chum is dammed proud of you! You no longer need the encouragement, but I'm doing this one last writeup for you anyway!
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Give me a call some time and we'll toss a few.
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*My next post: "No Talent Kid Saved the Day"

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