MONTREAL — You almost never see tears at the always-festive annual Cummings Jewish Centre for Seniors Foundation Sports Celebrity Breakfast.
But there were more than a few on March 19 inside the Gelber Conference Centre as former Montreal Expo Warren Cromartie struggled to compose himself at the start of a poignant tribute to one of his closest friends, all-star catcher Gary Carter, who had died about a month earlier at age 57.
“I lost my best friend,” Cromartie, himself a fit 58, said to the 550 sports fans, many of them children, who had come to the eighth annual event to take pictures, get autographs and eat a bounty of lox and bagels.
The event’s actual honoree was Alan Maislin, a longtime booster of Israeli hockey who, as president of the Israeli Ice Hockey Federation, was credited with helping the Israeli national hockey team win gold at the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Division II Group B world championships in 2005.
Israeli Consul General Joel Lion praised Maislin for “putting the State of Israel on the map for hockey,” while Maislin praised Lion for being the first Israeli diplomat to the city “who can skate.”
But there seemed little question that the emotions of the morning revolved around Carter and his legacy, especially when Cromartie spoke after an evocative video tribute by baseball fan (and hip-hop artist) Annakin Slayd.
Carter and Cromartie began their years with the Expos at the same time, and they remained close friends from then on.
Cromartie also used the occasion to rue the fact that Montreal has no lasting monument to show that Montreal had a Major League Baseball (MLB) team for 35 years.
“It’s like we never existed,” Cromartie said. “That’s got to change.”
In the best of all possible worlds, Cromartie would like to see MLB return to the city. But if that doesn’t happen, “we need to have a place to recognize the Expos forever.”
He announced that his “Montreal Baseball Project,” which aims to fill that void (it can be found online at mbp2012.com), will be launched April 1.
Cromartie also spoke of plans to organize a reunion of the 1981 Expos, the only edition of the team to make it to post-season play. He noted that besides Carter, four other members of the ’81 team have died in the past year: pitchers Charlie Lea and Woody Fryman, as well as manager Dick Williams and coach Steve Boros.
As a tribute to Carter, Cote-St.-Luc mayor Anthony Housefather made it official that Pierre Elliott Trudeau Park will rename its main field and baseball diamond in the Kid’s honour. For years, Carter came to Cote-St.-Luc to help out at the baseball camp at Kirwin Park run by his old friend, Johnny Elias, who also spoke about Carter at the event.
The breakfast, chaired by Mike Wagen with Morden (Cookie) Lazarus as honorary chair, welcomed many active and veteran figures from the local sports and sports media scene, including Montreal Canadiens Max Pacioretty and Louis Leblanc, and a last-minute surprise, P.K. Subban.
Ably hosted by Mike Cohen, Charles-Andre Marchand and Larry Fredericks, the event raised more than $160,000 through the CJCS Foundation for CJCS’s Seniors in Crisis Program, which helps seniors in financial need. The breakfast also featured a sports auction and a live Montreal Hockey Talk Internet radio show from the Gelber hallway.
CJCS president Barbara Solomon also presented an award to former Cote St. Luc city councillor Harold Greenspon, who first had the idea for a sports celebrity breakfast.
“His passion brought the breakfast into the major leagues,” Solomon said.