Chopper plays on.....and on
13 October 2017
Scheduled for north-west Tasmania in late October, the seventeenth Australian Masters Games has attracted ten teams to a baseball competition that will involve players aged thirty-five and above.
Vying for the distinction of being the most senior baseball entrant, 67 year-old John “Chopper” Pate will again suit up for the Golddiggers, who have been a regular fixture at Masters sporting events since succumbing to the allure of mature-aged baseball over two decades ago.
For a great-grandfather who admits to now “spending more time at baseball than I ever did”, Pate continues a remarkable personal baseball odyssey that spans well over half a century and that includes achievement and representation at the highest Australian levels of the sport.
His is an inspirational, fascinating story demonstrating that we are indeed never too old as long as the mind is willing and the body is even mildly accommodating.
Following his high-achieving baseball cousins into the sport back in 1959, the then nine year-old Japanese resident played the equivalent of our T-Ball and Little League before being selected in an Under 12 state competition – his first representative team.
He credits supportive family members and early recognition of his playing potential as being key factors sparking the genesis of a lifetime interest and involvement in baseball.
Chopper as a baseball youngster
After moving to Melbourne, John “Chopper” Pate began as a junior with Essendon Baseball Club in 1962 and he proceeded quickly through the ranks to play his first A Grade game in 1966 and kick-start a remarkable playing career – both with the club and at state level.
A Life Member and Hall-of-Famer with Essendon, classy catcher and ever-dangerous hitter Pate is estimated to have clocked over 1500 games for the club and well over another thousand at representative and Masters level – numbers that are eminently credible given that he has been playing up to fifty games a year from the mid-nineties onwards.
Club Coach at Essendon from 1976 to 1982, he was a Victorian Claxton Shield representative from 1975 to 1978 who achieved widespread exposure for an iconic baseball photograph that still graces many ballparks and clubs in Victoria and elsewhere.
Sliding into home at Straw Field during a Japanese company tour in 1975, Pate is pictured wearing a Nissan Motors uniform – causing some confusion even now, since at that stage he was playing for Australia.
The explanation is quite simple.
Straw Field 1975
“With my heritage I was able to get pretty close to the Japanese guys, including a night out at the Showgrounds trots,” Pate told Australian Baseball Alumni this week. “They were really hanging out for some authentic Japanese food and as it happened my mum was friends with a lady who ran a Japanese restaurant in Toorak.”
“So we organised a visit there and kicked on late with drinks, a meal and some karaoke. Fun times.”
“A day or two later I had a call from Nissan asking me to help with promotion of the company and their sponsorship by TAA,” he said.
“Of course I was happy to help out, even though they declined giving me a new car for the favour!”
Also playing winter baseball later in his career with the Watsonia and Buckley Park clubs – and representing the Victorian Winter League at Provincial Championships – Pate retained a close connection with the Essendon Bombers until his retirement from A Grade baseball in 1987.
“The body was still fine but I thought it best to step aside and create opportunities for up and coming catchers,” he said. “Tony Cornish moved from Newport to take over the catching duties and he is still involved with the club as President and a Masters player.”
After retiring as a 37 year-old, Pate had a seven year break from playing, although he still took an active interest in the Essendon Baseball Club and he coached Under 17 teams with old mate Russell Edwards, another stalwart of the Golddiggers Masters project.
“After I bought a property at Riddell’s Creek and got heavily involved with horses, I found that I was too busy anyhow to be playing,” Pate said. “Of course I still followed Essendon and I celebrated their successes – even though I found it hard to watch senior games without being involved as a player.”
“Then, in 1994, a couple of crazy baseball guys in Ballarat decided to assemble some sort of ratshit, motley Masters team – the Golddiggers – who were playing in Geelong Baseball Association winter in preparation for the World Masters Games in Brisbane that year.”
“They needed a catcher and four or five of the blokes on the team were old mates of mine from Essendon. So it was a no-brainer for me,” he said. “I was hooked.”
Indeed. For his first game with the Golddiggers that winter – on a lovely, clear July day at the bucolic Barrabool baseball field - Pate patrolled leftfield and celebrated his return to the fray with a booming home run into trees on his first trip to the plate.
While it was hardly a shot that was heard around the world, it was a blow that marked the playing return of one of Victorian baseball’s favourite sons – one that helped underscore the potential worth and the attraction of baseball as a legitimate activity for mature-aged persons wanting to stay actively involved in team sport.
Claxton Shield honours
Clearly invigorated and re-enthused after his sabbatical, John “Chopper” Pate has gone on to play that staggering number of over 1000 baseball games since – on top of the 1500 prior to taking a break after 1987.
From 1994 he played eighteen seasons in Geelong Baseball Association, another eighteen in Baseball Victoria Summer Masters and another several seasons helping out his beloved Essendon in its lower mainstream grades during summer competition.
He has caught most games for his team at four World Masters Games, eleven Australian Masters, five Alice Springs Masters, six Pan-Pacific Masters Games, at twenty-one Victorian Masters Games - and he played at the Arizona World Series some years ago.
“I was with Aussie Redbacks for the Arizona tournament,” he said, “but nearly all of my Masters baseball has been played with the Golddiggers – which started out as a Ballarat identity but is now pretty much known as the Essendon Diggers.”
While he has carded an extraordinary playing record since returning to his field of dreams twenty-three years ago, it has not always been plain sailing for John “Chopper” Pate, who was involved in a sickening on-field mishap six years ago – when he was catching an A Grade senior game for Bacchus Marsh during a winter fixture in Geelong.
Making a tag play at home plate, he was collected and knocked out – in a bone jarring collision - by a runner moving at full tilt. Although, like all catchers, he had incurred his fair of injuries over the years, including on contact plays, this one could potentially have been fatal given the significant damage to his spinal cord and nervous system.
“Probably lucky I am not dead,” Pate said. "When I woke up in hospital to the faces of Gary Hicks and Jim Kelly hovering over me, I knew that I had definitely not gone to heaven. Could only be the other place, we joked at the time."
“The injury was unpleasant and I could at least have been a quadriplegic if it was not for proper diagnosis and a really good surgeon who put me back together again. I had thirteen weeks in a collar and there are still some lingering effects with smell and taste.”
Although grudgingly cleared by his surgeon and his wife Sharon to play again, Pate was soon back on the diamond in his familiar catching role.
“I asked myself whether I should, or why I should keep playing after that incident,” he said.
“But I was never really in any doubt about wanting to keep playing. I grew up with baseball. It is in my blood.”
Catching for the Alleygators 2017
Relocating to Tweed Heads four years ago, the 67 year-old great-grandfather shows no sign of hanging up the cleats and donning the slippers.
No time soon, anyhow.
Playing alongside son Damian, Chopper is currently Head Coach of Alleygators Baseball Club, which competes in the eight-club Gold Coast Baseball League during the summer months.
“With managing, playing and giving some specialised coaching to kids, I am probably spending more time at baseball than I ever did,” he said. “And with the Masters trips as well, I am definitely still enjoying it.”
“The Alleygators club has only twenty-two senior members at present, but juniors are really thriving – with ten teams of T-Ball and Rookie Ball. Our facilities are first-class – thanks to the Tallebudgera Council.”
Starting the new season with a four from five hitting output a fortnight ago, Pate is already displaying characteristically ominous offensive form for his prospective opponents at the Australian Masters next week - and for those even further into the future. After a shoulder operation earlier this year, he is in remarkable nick for a person boasting such durability and playing achievement in the sport.
His positive attitude is an inspiration for sports people of all ages and disciplines.
“I had a rotator cuff attended to earlier this year, and a bone spur shaved, so I am back catching. The surgeon has guaranteed my arm for another 25 years,” he quipped, “but not the rest of the body.”
“The accident in Geelong knocked me around a bit, but my eyes are not bad, my knees are fine and my body is still basically OK apart from a bit of nerve damage.”
“Getting older doesn’t have to mean that you give up on doing things you enjoy,” he said. “If you are doing something you enjoy all the time – or at least regularly – and you are comfortable with it, then you will be OK.”
“Don’t stop. That’s when the rot might set in.”
Australian Baseball Alumni extends its appreciation to John “Chopper” Pate for his assistance in the preparation of this story. A wonderful ambassador at all levels of Australian baseball for over half a century, he embodies the true spirit of mature-aged sport and he continues to serve as a mentor and an inspiration for younger people aspiring to find their place in the sport.
Chopper and the Diggers at Pan Pacific Games