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SPORTS: Many hats, one goal for Topolie (July 2018)

July 18th, 2018 · No Comments

Player-manager Damon Topolie hits one out during a game in Burlington May 2018.
R.S. KONJEK/GLEANER NEWS

An interview with Toronto Maple Leafs’ player-manager

A recent ESPN column declared that “parts of baseball are disappearing before our very eyes”.

Any grump would happily tell you that every play of the game is becoming dominated — ruined even! — by analytics and probabilities, guiding Major League Baseball (MLB) managers towards risk-averse decision-making. Aggression on the basepaths is declining in favour of waiting for the home run. As a result, stolen bases and pitchouts are trending downwards, same with sacrifice bunts and the hit and run.

All of these features of the game we grew up with are becoming rarities.

Another rarity is the player-manager.

The Miami Marlins made Martin Prado their player-manager as a one-off for their final game of the 2016 season. The last full-time MLB player-manager was Pete Rose from 1984 to 1986.

Player-managers have appeared throughout the game’s history, a list that includes names such as Connie Mack, John McGraw, Ty Cobb, Joe Torre, and Frank Robinson. An interesting combination of mind and muscle, this dual role has vanished from the major league game.

With players reduced to data, the modern manager can sit back and let a ballgame play itself out like computer chess. The only on-field participation expected of managers these days is delivering lineup cards and changing pitchers.

In the Intercounty Baseball League, the Toronto Maple Leafs have been bucking this trend for years.

Damon Topolie is a bona fide player-manager of the old school, and he relishes the role. He stepped into the position in 2015, after the Leafs parted ways with manager Perry Mader.

The 42-year-old wears many hats. He works for a tech company based out of Vaughan, but baseball is very much a part of his daily life. He began his Intercounty Baseball League (IBL) playing career with the Stratford Hillers in 1995, and joined the Leafs in 1998. When he is not running the show at Christie Pits, Topolie is the catching coordinator for the Ontario Blue Jays baseball development organization. He also provides a lot of private lessons.

“Most of our current players have been coached by me at one time or another,” he says, and immediately rattles off half of the Leafs’ current roster.

Asked if he still feels like “one of the guys”, he doesn’t agree. He prefers to see himself as a manager who is lucky enough to still be able to play.

“I have some baseball equipment that is older than some of the players on the team.”

While his playing time has been reduced, his output remains solid. Batting .263 in 38 plate appearances, he has 10 RBIs, including a home run.

Topolie no longer sees himself as the kind of alpha dog team leader that can rally a club, but believes that the Leafs have found those types of players. A look at the league standings would indicate that this is the case. The Leafs have been off to one of their best starts in years with a 12-8 record to start the month of July, just two games behind the Kitchener Panthers.

“The team chemistry has changed,” Topolie says. “Some of the new players have really helped the team bond quickly.”

The ballclub that has been put together for 2018 reflects the long time partnership that Topolie has forged with Jack Dominico, who is marking his 15th year as the Maple Leafs’ owner.

“It’s a combined effort. Jack has been around for 50 years so I count on his opinion, but we both have a solid network of people that we know in the game.” In that sense, you could add a general manager’s hat to Topolie’s collection.

Despite all the responsibilities of running the team, from building the roster, to coaching, to literally hauling equipment around, Topolie still has the greatest zest for the game itself.

“I love being on the field, especially when I hear the camaraderie in the dugout — guys talking the game and making in-game adjustments. That has become a lost art in the analytics age,” he says, noting that he likes to see the ex-pros helping the younger college guys understand the game.

He wants to see more of that.

“I had some awesome veterans who really helped mentor me when I started in this league.”

Topolie is currently fourth all-time in hits in the IBL. He began the season with 750 and would like to break the record of 769 held by Arden Eddie.

At the end of the season, however, it’s all about bringing the Jack and Lynne Dominico Trophy back to its ancestral home, Christie Pits. Topolie is a veteran of three championship-winning Leafs teams (1999, 2002, and 2007), but winning again would mean the world to him, and stand as the culmination of one man’s unique effort as a player, manager, and team-builder in Toronto sports.

 

READ MORE BY R.S. KONJEK:

SPORTS: Maple Leafs back at the Pits (Election Special 2018)

NEWS: Celebrating a legendary Leaf (Jan. 2018)

ON OUR COVER: Cycling the Pits (Fall 2017)

SPORTS: Leafs fall early this summer (AUGUST 2017)

Tags: General