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Steve Rogers, Larry Robinson feted at Cummings benefit

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Cookie Lazarus, left, congratulates Larry Robinson, as Bram Naimer and Mike Wagen, right, look on JOHN ZIMMERMAN PHOTO
Cookie Lazarus, left, congratulates Larry Robinson, as Bram Naimer and Mike Wagen, right, look on JOHN ZIMMERMAN PHOTO

Former Montreal Expos ace pitcher Steve Rogers had his tongue in his cheek when he declared his interest in the job of president of the city’s next Major League Baseball (MLB) team.

But the winningest pitcher in Expos history and five-time all-star was serious when he said at a Jewish community event in his honour that he senses a “groundswell” of public support for the return of professional baseball to Montreal.

Rogers was presented with the inaugural Expos Legend Award at the 12th annual Cummings Jewish Centre for Seniors Foundation Sports Celebrity Breakfast on April 10.

The honour came just after the third annual baseball week in Montreal, which saw over 100,000 people turn out for two exhibition games between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox.

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Rogers, who was an Expo from 1973 to 1985, said he believes those who were children when their parents took them to games during the glory days are now eager to give their kids the same experience.

“Everybody now understands that baseball here was about more than the games…it was a family experience,” said Rogers, who works for the Major League Baseball Players’ Association. Rogers, who retired from playing in 1985, still sports his trademark moustache, although it’s a little  trimmer from his days on the mound.

“I think the city is on the cusp of expansion or moving a franchise here,” Rogers said. “And I think it’s great.”

The return of MLB to Montreal also got a boost from the breakfast’s honorary chair Morden “Cookie” Lazarus, who has been legal counsel to many professional athletes. He hopes the new award will help “recreate the magic of the Expos here.”

Mitch Garber, whose name has been mentioned as a possible investor, said he is hopeful MLB will come back, thanks in no small measure to Mayor Denis Coderre’s enthusiasm. Garber, a lawyer and former radio sportscaster, is now CEO of a $2.5-billion online gaming empire.

Among those of all ages in the sold-out audience of 500 hoping for a baseball rebirth, none are likely more eager than Mel Yas, who attended every Expos home game from the first pitch in 1969 until the team left the city in 2004.

Chaired by Mike Wagen and Bram Naimer, the breakfast raised over $310,000, a new record, which will benefit seniors in crisis.

This includes a $100,000 donation by guest of honour David Baazov, the 35-year-old founder of Montreal-based Amaya Inc., the world’s biggest online gaming company.

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The event was MCed by Mike Cohen, who has been largely responsible for the organization of the breakfast since its inception, and Charles-André Marchand, former CKAC sportscaster.

Former Montreal Canadiens star defenceman Larry Robinson was presented with the Sports Personality of the Year award. The high-scoring Hall of Famer played 17 seasons with the Habs in the 1970s and ’80s, and won the Norris Trophy twice, as well as the Conn Smythe Trophy.

An ex-coach of the New Jersey Devils and the San Jose Sharks, Robinson today works for the latter team in player development.

Lazarus lauded Robinson as “one of the pillars of the sports community over the past 40 years.” He recalled how the young hockey player in the mid-’70s kept his commitment to take part in the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation Bike-a-Thon, of which Lazarus was chair, despite the team having won the Stanley Cup the evening before and been out all night celebrating.

Robinson disputed Lazarus’s memory that he was a little green around the gills when he showed up at 8 a.m.

“I want to correct that I was not inebriated; I just had a bad piece of fish the night before,” Robinson deadpanned.

Baazov, who recently stepped down as CEO of Amaya, said he has been generous in his philanthropy because he learned from his father the importance of giving back.

The Baazov family, which included five children, arrived in Montreal 30 years ago from Israel with very little, he related. His late father Joseph looked for a Jewish school that would accept his kids without charging tuition until he could get on his feet.

The only one that took them in was the Lubavitch community’s Rabbinical College of Canada. Years later, the elder Baazov repaid that kindness and gave $2 million to the school’s capital campaign.

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Today, the younger Baazov is subsidizing the fees of 58 needy students in Jewish schools.

Among the other sports celebrities attending were Robinson’s contemporaries Bob Gainey, Yvon Lambert and Réjean Houle, and more recent Canadiens alumnus Mathieu Darche.

The Montreal Alouettes were well represented by Kyries Hebert, Sam Giguère, and Tyrell Sutton.

Otis Grant, a former middleweight title holder now retired from the ring, came with outstanding boxers he trains: Erik Bazinyan, Flavius Biea and Ionut Dan Ion, who were joined by reigning IBF World Champion Francis Lafrenière.

Cohen noted with consternation that, once again, Montreal’s other professional sports team, soccer’s Montreal Impact, had declined to participate in the breakfast