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SPORTS: Cross-border reinforcement bolsters Leafs for playoff push (Aug. 2021)

September 8th, 2021 · No Comments

Long-time hurler overcomes travel restrictions to rejoin team

Justin Cicatello makes his first appearance on the mound for the Leafs on August 29. R.S. KONJEK/GLEANER NEWS

By R.S. Konjek

Summer is almost over, but the Toronto Maple Leafs are hoping to stretch it out a while longer.

It is a hot Sunday afternoon in late August.  At Christie Pits, the humidity is oppressive.  Fans cluster around the baseball diamond and welcome any slice of shade or cooling breeze.  

The Leafs are playing the Hamilton Cardinals in a game with postseason implications.  Both teams are bunched in the middle of the 2021 Intercounty Baseball League standings.  A win today could vault either club over several others.

It has been an unconventional season for the Leafs.  The most recent pandemic shutdown delayed the start of their season by two months. 

The pandemic impacted the schedule, but also the make up of this year’s team.  

They re-signed former Leaf Sean Reilly – the league’s all-time leader in hits, home runs and runs batted in – when his current club the Guelph Royals shut down operations for the second year in a row.  They also added former Leaf sluggers Jordan Castaldo and Garrett Takamatsu to an already potent lineup featuring returning stars Justin Marra, Johnathan Solazzo and Marcus Knecht.

The Leafs have been dynamite at the plate, leading the league in most offensive categories.

This afternoon they are off to a slow start, recording one measly hit in the first three innings while the Cardinals have already scored three runs.

Beyond the centerfield fence, a player emerges from the Leafs’ clubhouse.  He’s late arriving to the park, but it’s not a concern.  He’s a relief pitcher and won’t be called upon until later.  He also had to cross an international border to get here.  

Justin Cicatello, 37, is a native of Buffalo, New York.  He has been pitching for the Leafs since 2013, as both a starter and reliever.  

The Leafs have struggled on the mound this year, giving up an average of over eight runs a game.  The veteran’s return is welcome relief.

Pandemic travel restrictions kept Cicatello from joining the Leafs at the start of the season.  When the border re-opened on August 8, he let the team know he wanted to play.  Only a hamstring injury picked up while playing for a local men’s league prevented him from appearing before today.

After checking in with Leafs manager Damon Topolie and exchanging greetings with his old teammates on the bench, Cicatello joins the rest of the relievers in the bullpen.

“It’s awesome,” he says later, describing the experience of playing at Christie Pits.  “There’s a great atmosphere.  Damon Topolie [fan group], all the fans, it’s great.”

As unlikely as his return to the Leafs was this year, Cicatello traveled an unlikely path to join the club in the first place.

He began playing baseball as a youngster and the sport has always been part of his life.  He played in high school in New York state, at junior college in Florida and at the University of Pittsburgh.

It was in university that he transitioned from being an infielder to a pitcher, seeing greater opportunities to play a starting role on the mound rather than as a fielder.

His career took a unique turn after university.  Rather than progressing to the minor leagues in the States, he went to Europe and played Italian league baseball from 2009 to 2012.

He aspired to pitch for the Italian national team and earned a spot on the roster, but was devastated to be cut from the team just prior to the 2013 World Baseball Classic, the sport’s biggest international tournament.

“I could have had the chance to pitch to Derek Jeter,” he says.  “That’s a story you can tell the rest of your life.”

The Cardinals add two more runs while Cicatello begins stretching and warming up in the bullpen.  It’s now 5-0 through seven innings.

When he returned to the States, Cicatello began putting his life outside of baseball in order.  He prepared to go back to school and pursue a career in corporate finance.  

A friend in Buffalo mentioned to him that he knew Jack Dominico, owner of the Maple Leafs baseball club in Toronto, and made an introduction. 

Still feeling the competitive fire burning, Cicatello joined the Leafs and organized his summers around marathon round trips between Buffalo and Bloor Street.  On average, from the time he leaves his house to the time he returns, it can be an eight-hour journey.  Two hours of driving with a stop to cross the border, four hours at the ballpark, then another two hours back home.

In the eighth inning, Topolie signals for Cicatello.  He calmly trots to the mound and pitches a scoreless inning.  That is all that will be asked of him today.

The Leafs’ bats finally awaken late in the game.  They score seven runs in the final two innings, but the Cardinals pull away for an 11-7 win.  

The postseason picture remains unclear.  Toronto will be in the playoffs, but their first-round opponent is still not confirmed.  It may not be known until the final day of the season.

Despite there being IBL teams in Welland and Hamilton, a much shorter commute, Cicatello wouldn’t think of leaving the Leafs now.

“It’s a routine, it’s all I know,” he says of his time with the Leafs. “It was kind of random that I got to Toronto and it’s funny I’m still there.”  

He notes that the Leafs high-scoring offence gives them a strong chance at winning the championship this year. 

“It wouldn’t feel right to be on another team and see the Leafs win without me.”

The Maple Leafs’ complete 2021 season schedule can be found at www.mapleleafsbaseball.com.

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