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SPORTS: IBL Maple Leafs fall one win short of championship (Fall 2021)

November 11th, 2021 · No Comments

Baseball’s return to Christie Pits provided fans with thrills and great memories

On Sept. 30 at Domicio Field, Sean Reilly is mobbed by his teammates after hitting a walk-off home run that gave the Toronto Maple Leafs a 6-5 win over the London Majors to force a deciding game in the IBL Championship Series. R.S. KONJEK/GLEANER NEWS

By R.S. Konjek

Toronto Maple Leafs baseball returned to Christie Pits this summer after a year away because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For fans who weathered doldrums for 23 months, it was like the sun bursting through on an overcast day.  At a recent game, many were happy to express what Leafs baseball means to them.

Brent Ruttan has been a regular attendee of Leafs games for over 20 years.

“Oh terribly,” he replied when asked if he missed watching live baseball.  “There wasn’t anything to do.”

Like many, Ruttan was first drawn to the Pits out of curiosity, having heard that there was an Intercounty Baseball League team with the “Maple Leafs” moniker.  Like many, he was hooked right away.

“It’s free for one thing,” he said. “The baseball is good, and it’s a terrific league.”

Unlike most sports clubs, the Maple Leafs do not sell tickets to games.  This means that fans can sit, stand, or sprawl out anywhere around the diamond.

Craig Aikin loves the laissez-faire arrangement. Since attending his first game in 2010, Aikin has been bringing his camera kit to the Pits, where he can indulge his dual hobbies of both watching and photographing baseball.

“I like being this close to shoot baseball,” he said before aiming his camera over a fence planted mere metres away from third base.  “You can’t do it with the Jays, and there’s no other pro league near here that would let me get this close.”

For newer fans, the unique character of the below-ground ballpark resonates.

Ken McFadden’s first visit to Christie Pits was in 2019.  He tagged along to watch his friend – Leafs outfielder Marcus Knecht – take the field for the home team.  After a summer away, he and Knecht were both back.

“It feels like you’re in a bowl, an amphitheatre” he said as he gazed around from the seats behind home plate.  “It feels like you have sixty thousand people over you.”

The Leafs neither announce nor tally attendance, but when fans turn out in numbers as they did this summer, it can feel to some like being surrounded by multitudes.

Club owner Jack Dominico and general manager Damon Topolie treated their returning fans to a team that was big and brash.  The 2021 Leafs featured a lineup of sluggers the likes of which has not been seen at the Pits in some time.

They signed a couple of big-hitting players from other clubs: 2019 league MVP Jordan Castaldo from the Barrie Baycats, and the league’s all-time leader in hits, home runs, and runs-batted-in, Sean Reilly from the Guelph Royals.

Each Wednesday night and Sunday afternoon in July and August, the Christie faithful watched their Leafs blast more home runs than any other team in the league – 59 in total, almost twice as many as the next-closest team.

The Leafs finished second in the regular season standings, their best finish since 2011.

August gave way to September and the IBL postseason.  

In their opening round best-of-three series, Toronto faced the Hamilton Cardinals.  

On September 9 at Christie Pits, the Leafs got the series off to a booming start.  Sean Reilly did what he was signed to do, hitting two home runs en route to racking up five hits and five RBIs.  The Leafs recorded 21 hits in total and won a 21-6 blowout.

The following night, Game 2 was played in Hamilton and it was clear that the Cardinals had not recovered from being demolished in the previous encounter.  The Leafs took an early lead and cruised away to an 8-2 victory.  The win sealed a series sweep and the Leafs advanced to the semifinals.

The Leafs’ next opponent was the Barrie Baycats, who were looking to win an unprecedented seventh straight championship.

The series opener was September 15 at Christie Pits.  The Leafs hit three home runs and emerged with a 10-5 victory to wow the largest, noisiest home crowd of the year.

Wind at their backs, the Leafs travelled to Barrie three days later.  There, they won a 13-11 nail-biter to sweep away the defending champions and their biggest rivals. 

The Leafs advanced to the IBL Championship Series looking to with their first league title since 2007.

They faced the London Majors, who had finished the regular season in first place with a 22-8 record, six games better than the Leafs.

The best-of-five series was a back and forth battle. 

After dropping the opener in London, the Leafs returned to Christie Pits on September 26 for Game 2.  Powered by home runs by Justin Marra and Johnathan Solazzo, the Leafs won 6-4 to tie the series.

After losing again in London, the Leafs were back at the Pits on September 30 for Game 4.  Facing elimination and down 4-0 in the sixth inning, the home nine forged a memorable comeback to tie the game and send it to extra innings.

Ten, eleven, twelve innings went into the books and the score remained tied 5-5.  Finally, in the bottom of the thirteenth Sean Reilly hit an electrifying walk-off home run.  The Leafs won 6-5 and forced a final deciding game in London the following night.

On October 1 in London, the Leafs season ended in disappointment.  Despite taking an early 3-0 lead, the Leafs were unable to hold off the Majors and fell 8-4.

Even though the Leafs lost their final game and the championship, fans would be hard pressed to argue this season was unsuccessful. Baseball was back at Christie Pits.  

After a year of doldrums, it was a glorious return.  Hopefully next year will be even better.

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Tags: Annex · Sports