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SPORTS (MAY 2017): Leafs return with sights on a title

May 26th, 2017 · No Comments

Local nine look to take next step to winning championship

PHOTO BY R.S. KONJEK/GLEANER NEWS: The Toronto Maple Leafs take batting practice during a spring training session at Christie Pits on April 26.

By R.S. Konjek

It’s a casual April evening at Christie Pits Park.

A handful of locals play a pickup soccer game on one of the fields. An occasional runner pounds up the slopes near the baseball diamonds. Walkers amble past, many of them joined by canine companions who lead the way. The bright afternoon sun has moved low in the sky.

Inside the fences of Dominico Field, young men in athletic gear perform stretches and sprints. There are familiar faces and some new ones.

“Each new season brings the promise of excitement to be had and memories to be made.”

The Toronto Maple Leafs are holding a spring training session in preparation for their 49th season in the Intercounty Baseball League, scheduled to begin in a few days. The Leafs are coming off a 2016 post-season run that saw them make it all the way to the league championship before falling short of the trophy.

The mood tonight is light. A coach’s instructions mingle with banter and laughter from the players. It doesn’t take long for the players to start up with some good-natured ribbing. It’s as if they never left this place.

They split into groups for some long tossing (pitchers) and infield practice (fielders).

Leafs owner Jack Dominico huddles with field manager Damon Topolie near the home bench. As they watch practice, they review the team roster and discuss a player who finds himself caught between baseball and work. The player wants to commit to the team, but only if his employer allows him enough time to be able to play regularly.

In this working man’s league, players come and go. Some leave for school. Some get married. Some start jobs in new cities. There are holes to fill at the start of every season. The owner and manager face these challenges every year. By opening day, they’ll have it figured out.

While the pitchers head to the bullpen, the crack of a bat heralds the start of batting practice for the other players. They take turns smashing baseballs over the fences, where team volunteers dutifully retrieve them.

A few curious passers-by have stopped to watch. Soon, these moonshots will be cheered by masses all around the park. For tonight, it’s only the players who howl after each blast.

Jonathan Solazzo is back for a third season with the Leafs. The third baseman says it’s always great to see his teammates again after the off-season.

“Everyone does their own off-season training, if it’s at the gym or baseball facilities,” he says. “Once we see everyone, it’s all family back again.”

A swashbuckling slugger and fan favourite, Solazzo is modest about his goals: “Stay healthy and be able to come and play every day.”

As far as team goals are concerned, the Leafs have lofty ambitions. Solazzo’s time with Toronto has seen the club progress deeper into the post-season each year.

“We were always one step closer to the prize,” he says. “[In 2015] we lose in the semi-finals in game seven to Barrie. [In 2016] we lose in the finals against Barrie. We’re hungry. We know what it takes to win the trophy, so hopefully this year we’ll take that next step.”

Based at one of the smallest ballparks in the league, the Leafs have always been a big-hitting team. On this night, it’s good to see that there are some new additions to the pitching staff, offering the hope that the Leafs will have all the pieces necessary to win it all this year.

The historic ballpark at Christie Pits has been the scene of baseball thrills for almost a half-century, and each new season brings the promise of excitement to be had and memories to be made.

Fans will be pleased to know that the park’s restrooms — located in the building behind centre field — have been upgraded. This follows on some revitalizations of the park that began in 2015. While the restroom facilities may have resembled something out of the Middle Ages before, they positively gleam now. Go with confidence.

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ 2017 schedule includes home games at Christie Pits every Sunday afternoon from May through July, plus a handful of Wednesday night games. Admission to Leafs games at the Pits is free.

 

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Tags: Annex · Sports