The St. John’s Molson Senior Baseball League kicks off its 65th season this weekend at St. Pat’s Ball Park, but for the first time since 1947, the Guards won’t be one of the teams competing for the league title.
“We’re slowly moving away from the days of the club system,” explains Bernie Davis, the Guards player coach for the past number of seasons.
“Most teams are getting sponsored now. The Guards didn’t want to move in that direction, and we thank them for their years of service.”
The group of players who made up the 2011 Guards senior team have stayed together, however, and opted to join the Feildians Athletic Association. It’s been over 20 years since the Double Blues, who won the title in 1991, have competed in the league.
“We’ve moved on from the second oldest athletic association in the province to the oldest,” says Davis, adding that deep down he’ll be a Guardsman for life.
Play begins Saturday at St. Pat’s, with the defending champion Shamrocks taking on the Storm in a rematch best-of-seven league final. The Shammies captured the crown in five games, outscoring the Mount Pearl club and 2010 champs 47-22 along the way.
Shamrocks player-coach Andrew Symonds has no illusions about winning back-to-back.
“It’s harder to defend than it is to win it,” he says. “Everyone’s gunning for you, but most people are gunning for the Shamrocks anyway.”
Here’s a look at how this year’s team stack up:
Gonzaga Roebothan McKay Marshall Vikings
2011 record: 8-17 (5th place)
Player-coaches: Troy Croft, Peter Madden, Blair Rogers
At the plate: After finishing third in team batting last season (.267), Gonzaga are poised to improve at the dish this summer with Jason English and Gerald Butt able to commit to more than the 16 combined games they hit the field for last season. The Vikings also welcome back the consistent sticks of Croft, Madden, Bernie Madden and Sean Ellis.
On the mound: Keith Spurrell will be the team’s ace, with Blair Rogers and Tyler Vincent — back from an injury that limited him to just one inning of work last season — will be the other starters. Also tossing a scattered ball will be John Nichols, intermediate graduate David Lahey, draft pick Dave Hoddinot and Matthew Peterson, who came over from Holy Cross.
On the field and in the dugout: John Blackmore, Fred Mills, Mike O’Neil, Dave Delaney.
Off the diamond: After over a decade in the blue and gold, 47-year-old Dick Collins has jumped ship to join the Shamrocks. Karl DeHart is unlikely to return, according to Croft, and Kenny O’Neil’s work schedule won’t allow him to play this season. Centre fielder Jonny Butler is also out of the picture, having moved out of province for work.
Coach’s call: After finishing 17-8 and tied for first place in 2010, Gonzaga missed the post-season with a 8-17 record in 2011. Croft says the poor showing was the result of not having a regular starting lineup due largely to injuries and work committents.
“We’re refocused this year,” insists Croft, “and if we can keep everyone injury free and get all of our guys out on a regular basis, we’ll do much better than we did last year.”
Metro Property Management Knights
2011 record: 12-13 (4th place)
Coach: Joe Wadden
Player coach: Brian Kielly
At the plate: Peter “Tootie” Curran, the league’s No. 2 hitter last season (.429), is back “to carry one of the best, if not the best bat in the league,” says Kielly. “With runners on base, we love seeing Tootie coming to the plate.” Adding extra pop is catcher Cory Ewart, an Ontario native picked up in the draft who Kielly says is accustom to a high level of pitching. The Knights also added Grand Falls-Windsor native Marc Inder by way of the draft.
On the mound: Corner Brook native Mike Tavenor will split his time between the St. John’s league and the senior circuit in his hometown this summer, but is expected to be around for the playoff push at St. Pat’s in August. The Knights also welcome back co-rookie of the year Peter Phillips, who led the team in wins (4) last year, with Curran and Chris Grimes also pitching.
On the field and in the dugout: Back for another season are Shawn Beson, A.J. Whiffen, Joel Fulford, Parsons, Frankie Brien, Steve Kelly, Erik French, Cory Baker and Jody Vey.
Off the diamond: The only player of consequence not returning to the club this season is Dave Penney, who has opted to join the Shamrocks, where he’ll play alongside fellow Pasadena native Scott Goosney.
Coach’s call: The weakest team from the 2010 season (6-19) made huge strides in 2011, earning its first playoff berth and coming within a run of advancing to the final before losing an 18-inning thriller in Game 5 of a first round series against the Storm.
“Last season, I believe the Knights gained some respect within this league,” says Kielly. “Our goal is to continue to build on last seasons’ success, make the playoffs and perhaps even win the league title. Why not?”
Holy Cross Trinity Pub Crusaders
2011 record: 17-8 (Tied for 1st place)
Player coaches: Mark Healy, Matt Smith, Ron French
At the plate: With 2011 MVP Dave Parsons (.491), French (.382), Steve Crouse (.362) back in the mix and slugger Gerry Stone recovered from an injury that cut his season in half, the league’s best hitting team (.300) should keep opposing pitchers on their toes again this season.
On the mound: The entire pitching staff of Justin Crawley, Matt Smith, and Sean and Mike Janes — all of whom posted winning records with more than 20 strikeouts apiece — return.
On the field and in the dugout: Also coming back for another season are Dean Hammond, Justin Kelly, Ryan Tapper, Blair Evans, Shawn Hedges and James Walsh, who missed all of last season with a broken hand suffered in the first game of the year.
Off the diamond: The Crusaders enter the 2012 season without long time third baseman and No. 3 hitter Dean Norman who has relocated for work. It’s also doubtful Willie Combden will play this year and Matthew Peterson has joined Gonzaga.
Coach’s call: After beating the Shamrocks in 10 straight games — from the 2010 league final through to the 2011 regular season — Cross was swept by a hot Green and Gold bunch in the first round of last year’s playoffs. Healy says the Crusaders need scores runs with more consistency in order to succeed.
“If we can get good numbers out of Parsons, Stone and French in the middle of the order we’ll be fine. We’ve got a pretty deep lineup from one to nine so as long as the rest of us carry our load we’ll be okay.”
Mount Pearl H.J. Bartlett Electric Storm
2011 record: 17-8 (Tied for 1st place)
Player coach: Grant Kenny
At the plate: Chris Sparkes, last season’s team leader (.379), is back to lead a capable offence, which also includes Terry Ryan, Kenny, and Steve Barrett. Brent and Jared Power, as well as Mike Dyke, will be in and out of the lineup due to other commitments.
On the mound: Jason Kearley “will be the go to guy” this summer, with Steve Lane throwing when available, and Steve Donahue making more appearances on the pitcher’s rubber. Making a return to the league is former Canada Games and Holy Cross pitcher Kevin Brennan.
On the field and in the dugout: In addition to Blair Connolly, Steve Brien, Steve Bailey and Adam Lawlor also returning, Kenny says the Knights will be “relying on some of the Conception Bay South Raiders intermediates” whom they affiliated with prior to last season. Kenny says he’s also working hard to convince Gary Dowden to come out of retirement… again.
Off the diamond: The Knights really only lost one player, but he was their best. Peter Fifield will be traveling throughout the entire summer. “He’s going to look at it late in the year and depending on if we’re in a good spot (in the standings), he’ll come back early enough to make sure he gets his five games in (players need to appear in at least five games to be playoff-eligible).”
Coach’s call: Kenny says with Fifield gone and the Powers and Lane missing for parts of the season, other teams might see this as an off-year for the 2010 champs.
But he says, “It’s just a matter of looking for different guys to step up every night and do the job. If we keep our bats up and our defence up behind our pitching, I think we should be fine.”
Trapper John’s Shamrocks
2011 record: 15-10 (3rd place, league champs)
Player-coaches: Sean Gulliver and Andrew Symonds
At the plate: Veterans Kirk Fleming and Symonds lead a batting order, which includes Scott and Andrew Stockley, last year’s playoff co-MVP Trevor Clarke, and Brent Power.
On the mound: Unlike most teams in the league, the Shamrocks’ pitchers are just pitchers. Joining ace Bob Kent, 2011 comeback player of the year Mario Tee and last season’s unsung hero award winner Scott Goosney, is Dick Collins, “a veteran arm who throws strikes,” explains Symonds.
On the field and in the dugout: The league’s best defensive team — the Shamrocks posted a .968 fielding percentage and committed a mere 29 errors on the season — retained the services of David Buckingham, Chris Whelan, Charlie Kelly, Andrew King and Stephen Ford.
Off the diamond: While most of the championship roster remains intact, the Shammies weren’t without a few loses, most notably Chad Gulliver, who shared the MVP award with Clarke, who moved out west following last year’s title run. Steve Barbour is also out West, having left midway through last year’s championship series, and Jon Rose, an RNC officer, isn’t able to commit for the season.
Coach’s call: While the Shamrocks have been able to adequately fill the holes left by departing players, Symonds says the team’s approach at the plate could be a little different than in years past.
“The offence won’t have as much in it this year with Chad gone. We still have a lot of guys who can string together a lot of hits and ultimately, our pitching and defence is our bread and butter.”
FEIldians Ellsworth Group
2011 record: 6-19 (6th place)
Coach: Bernie Davis
At the plate: The team’s top hitters — Jason Crocker (.432) and Jelmin Lopez (.373) — are back and should get some help courtesy of Jamie Downey, back on a full-time basis after missing most of last season, and Nova Scotia slugger Matt Sullivan. “He’s a real big stud who led the Nova Scotia intermediate league in RBIs the last two years and batted over .400,” says Davis. Also returning is co-rookie of the year Mike Delaney.
On the mound:Jon Walsh pitched a league record 86.1 innings last season, but he’ll get some help with provincial junior all-star pitchers Kieran Buckingham and Tyller Pittman pitching joining the staff. Dan Phillips, fresh off a winter’s worth off baseball with the Sullivan County Community College in New York State, and Greg Barry will also toss for the Feildians.
On the field and in the dugout: Senior players Steve White, Chan Wiseman, Ray Warren, Paul Crocker will be joined by intermediate call-ups such as Matt Kean, David Galutira and Brad and Justin Roche when necessary. Alex Walsh, yet another provincial junior all-star member, also joins the team.
Off the diamond: The only regular members of last year’s roster not returning are Matt Fitzpatrick and Nathan Hutchens.
Coach’s call: After finishing out of the playoffs again, Davis admits there’s room for improvement and feels his team made the right moves to get there.
“We think we’ve got solid defense and improved at the stick, so I think a lot of the issues we had last year will be rectified by a few of the players we picked up.”