It is said a successful life is based not on the amount of money ended up with, but the amount of people who called you friend.
By those standards, Jim Fowler was one of the richest people I’ll ever know.
Many called him “Fergie” or “Ferg” for reasons unknown to me, although I’ll always know him as Jimmy. But it wasn’t so much the name as it was the man behind the name that really mattered.
I first came to know Jimmy when I moved to Fort Frances for the first time in 2002. His booming baritone voice called out many a goal over the P.A. system for the Thunder/Sabres/Lakers franchise as well as the Muskies.
But Jimmy was just as at home and happy announcing the sharpshooter for any number of minor hockey teams from the ‘AA’ level to house league level. Many a young skater went home beaming from ear to ear upon hearing their name belted out in big-league fashion by the man who did the same job for their Junior ‘A’ and high school hockey heroes.
While he did love his hockey, Jimmy will first and foremost forever be remembered sports-wise as an unforgettable fixture of the district’s numerous fastball diamonds.
A decades-long coaching career saw him guide innumerable teams to immeasurable success at events on both sides of the border.
Among all his managerial accomplishments, Jimmy was most proud of two in particular.
He led the Sunset Merchants composed of players from all over this district) to the Manitoba/Northwestern Ontario regional championship and a berth in the 1996 Western Canadian Intermediate ‘A’ Championship in Whitehorse.
Then there was 2016, when Jimmy guided another local squad across the international border to a remarkable fifth-place finish at the North American Fastball Association Championships held in Mankato, Minn.
That’s not to mention the complete domination of the Rainy River District Fastball League by the Emo Bulldogs, whom Jimmy helmed to a record-tying six straight championships from 1996-2001 matching the mark set by the Bergland Cubs from 1967-72.
Teams from bigger Canadian and U.S. centres may have laughed before the start of tournaments upon noticing the team of unknowns hailing from a collection of dots spanning the upper reaches of northwestern Ontario on the tourney schedule.
Many of those teams weren’t laughing by the end of the tournament after getting handed their comeuppance from those unknowns.
To a man, the players on those teams would point to Jimmy as the reason why they pulled off the shockers they did.
He was a firm believer in teaching fundamentals, instilled mental toughness in his squads and made sure every single team member believed they were just as good and even better than the guys across the field from them.
But his brilliance didn’t end when his managerial days were mostly behind him.
He moved from the dugout to behind the plate and onto the basepaths to become a highly-proficient and much-respected member of the umpire fraternity.
Week after week, spring, summer and fall, men’s and women’s games, it didn’t matter. From May through September, on any given night, at some ballpark somewhere in the district, you could guarantee Jimmy would be behind the plate or between the bases, barking out his calls with passion in his heart, gravel in his voice and a glint in his eye.
Sometimes that glint would be of the gleeful variety that needs to come with the territory when there’s an undeniable certainty that almost every ball and strike and safe and out call in every game is going to please one side and displease the other.
And sometimes, that glint would be carved from steel and forged from fire.
I still remember Jimmy telling me about the long-ago tournament where he was working the plate and the catcher from one team, in a disagreeable mood with Jimmy’s interpretation of the strike zone that day, ‘missed’ a fastball from his pitcher that caught Jimmy flush in his facemask.
“I called time, gathered myself and then hunched right down behind the catcher and told him what was going to happen to him if that happened again,” recalled Jimmy with a devilish grin.
“He got the message. He didn’t miss any more pitches.”
That was one of a hundred stories I got to hear while riding shotgun with Jimmy to league games and tournaments around the district, first as a reporter and then as a fellow umpire.
It was Jimmy who encouraged me to don the umpire shirt again after 11 years removed from officiating women’s fastball games back in Manitoba.
It was Jimmy who gave me the confidence to overcome my fears and start doing men’s games a couple of years ago when I was fairly sure I was going to get killed in three innings or less by a Grade A fastball from the various flamethrowers unleashing rockets from less than 50 feet away.
It was Jimmy who would conference with me in between innings when I had blatantly blown a call the previous half-inning and was kicking myself for doing so and tell me, “Don’t worry about it. Just do your best and try and get the next one.”
And it was Jimmy who, when his health issues forced him off the field and into the bleachers, was a seemingly constant presence at almost every game I umpired – ready at a moment’s notice to offer sagely advice, a well-intentioned joking jab at my mistakes and continual encouragement.
I swear I was ready to quit a dozen times as an umpire because I thought I was doing such a poor job. Jimmy would always talk me off the ledge and give me the courage to keep pushing on and keep getting better.
I don’t know if I got any better. But I’ll keep pushing on because that’s what Jimmy would want me to do.
He was much more than a sports icon, though.
Jimmy was a straightforward type, never afraid to tell you his opinion and call you out on your own if he disagreed with it – but never disrespectfully.
And you could be certain when he said he had your back, it was 100 percent of the way.
It will be a strange feeling to know that I won’t be seeing him out walking around town on what seemed like his daily forays, still extremely energetic well into his 70s until illness over the last two years slowly squeezed him into submission.
If it hurts this much for me to lose him as a friend and father figure, I know it has to be infinitely worse for his actual family.
To them and to all his friends, my heart and prayers go out to you.
But knowing Jimmy, he’s up in Heaven walking a thousand miles a day and calling thousand-inning ball games from behind the plate and loving every single second of both.
We’ll see his smile in every ballpark sunset and feel his spirit every time the bat and ball connect or a cloud of dust rises, thanks to a sliding base runner.
You can rest, Jimmy. We’ve got the plate now.