Playing in the Pearl while St. Pat’s diamond gets polished

First half of senior baseball season at Smallwood as primary ballpark gets facelift for nationals

Published on June 7, 2014

Renovation seems to be all the rage those days, and it’s not just limited to dwellings and office buildings.
Venerable St. Pat’s Ball Park in St. John’s is also getting a makeover in preparation for its role in hosting the 2014 Canadian senior baseball championship in August.
But that work means the St. John’s Molson Baseball senior and intermediate leagues, which begin their 2014 seasons this weekend, won’t be doing so at the 67-year-old ball field at the corner of Empire Avenue and Carpasian Road.

Instead, they will play all their games over the next number of weeks at the Smallwood Field at the Gushue Complex in Mount Pearl.

Mark Healy, president of the St. John’s Amateur Baseball Association (SJABA), which operates the two leagues, has no doubt the wait for St. Pat’s re-opening, not expected until late July at the earliest, will be well worth it.

The biggest change will see all the dirt in the infield replaced.

“It’s going from a sand-based surface got one that is clay-based, like most upper-end fields are, like they have in the majors,” said Healy, who will have a regular first-hand appreciation for the upgrades as coach and catcher for the Holy Cross senior team.

“You’ll get truer bounces on ground balls and there should be less injuries playing on this. Sliding will be a lot easier. for example.

“Plus, aesthetically, it just looks so much better. When you walk in, that infield will be the first thing you notice.”

Not all the improvements to the infield will be on the surface. With the sand removed, crushed gravel and lines to carry away water have been placed underneath to provide better drainage, especially important at low-lying St. Pat’s.

The work is being done by the City of St. John’s as the result of an application by the SJABA two years ago, made in conjunction with its bid for the national senior championships.

Other upgrades and changes that have been, or will be, made: A water line installed underneath the infield leading to a hose-head, allowing for watering of the grass without having to drag a hose over the field; repairs to the outfield grass; increasing the height of the outfield fence in left — where the wind tends to blow out — from eight to 16 feet; new bleachers; improved bullpen areas, dugouts expanded by 10 feet to accommodate the larger rosters of teams involved in the nationals; and a sprucing up of the clubhouse, including new windows and doors.

And even though Healy said it hadn’t been a top item on the SJABA’s wish list, it looks as if the lighting system will be replaced while using the existing poles. Apparently, it’s been deemed prudent to do it now, at the same time lights are installed at the new minor field being constructed adjacent to St. Pat’s on the site of what was a soccer pitch.

What’s more, the city has indicated it wants a longer-term concept plan for even more refurbishment of the facility, with an eye to St. John’s hosting the 2021 Canada Summer Games.

There is no firm date for St. Pat’s re-opening this summer. For one thing, infield sod has only recently been put down and can take four to six weeks to properly root itself.

“We had actually ended our seasons early last year so that the city could start the work then,” said Healy, “but from mid-October to the end of November was so miserable, little could be done.”

There is hope St. Pat’s can be ready for action by late July, when the Toronto Blue Jays will be in town for their Honda Super Camps instructional clinics for minor players, with the senior provincial championship the following weekend.

“But the main thing is to have everything right and in place and working for the national seniors” said Healy said of the Canadian championship, set for Aug. 20-24. “

After that, we’ll have a lot of time to take advantage of what has been done.”

The season opens 1 o'clock today at Smallwood in the traditional rematch between the previous season’s finalists, which means the Gonzaga Vikings will be taking on the Shamrocks, who claimed their 21st senior league title by winning a best-of-seven series 4-2.

The Storm and Holy Cross take to the field at Smallwood at 1 p.m. Sunday, while the Knights and Feildians wait until 7 p.m. Monday to swing into action.

Here’s a preview of the six senior teams:


Roebothan McKay Marshall Gonzaga Vikings

2013 record: 15-5 (first place, lost in final to Shamrocks)

Player/coach: Troy Croft

At the plate: The league’s top offensive team from 2013 (.308 collective batting average, 137 runs scored) brings back three .400-plus hitters in catcher Gerald Butt (league-leading .438 BA), second baseman Mike O’Neill (.410, plus a league-leading .629 slugging percentage) and outfielder Bernie Madden (.410). Add in first baseman/head coach Croft, who topped the league with five home runs and 22 RBIs last season, and shortstop Peter Madden (.328 BA), getting baserunners and scoring them shouldn’t be a problem.

On the mound: Keith Spurrell led the league with a 1.00 ERA last year, while rookie pitcher of the year Kieran Buckingham, a lefty who threw 37-plus innings, went 5-2 on a Vikings staff that saw eight different pitchers make at least one start. That includes fireballing Dan Connors, who attended the Prairie Baseball Academy in Lethbridge, Alta., last year, and expects to see a lot of action at the senior level after helping the Gonzaga to the St. John’s intermediate title in 2013, striking out a whopping 81 batters in 43 innings. He fanned another dozen in eight innings of work in senior games. Matt Peterson, John Nichols, Tyler Vincent and David Lahey also figure into the mix.

On the field and in the dugout: Peterson will see most of the work at third base, with Blair Rogers, 2013 intermediate all-stars Ryan Hodder and John Blackmore all part of the picture in outfield. Nichols is the Swiss army knife of the team, pitching, catching and playing third. Teenaged pitcher/infielder Tyler Boland is back for a second season, but it will be a shortened one, as he will return to Rimouski in August to play for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Oceanic. Boland and Hodder joined Connors on the Vikings’ intermediate championship team last season.

Coach’s call: Gonzaga lowered its ERA by almost a full run to 3.26 between 2012 and 2013, but after two straight losses in championship final series, Croft is looking for even more improvement from the Vikings’ hurlers, particularly when it comes to control.

“Our pitchers had a lot of walks last year,” said Croft about a staff that averaged nearly four bases-on-ball per game in 2013. “That’s something we need to focus on, keeping ahead in the counts and keeping guys off base, particularly lead-off hitters and other guys who can steal bases. You walk them and it’s like giving up a double.”

Note: The Vikings plan to wear a patch with the No. 22 to honour teammate Jason English, the league’s 2013 all-star DH, who died this spring.


Trapper John’s Shamrocks

2013 record: 13-7 (Second place in regular-season, won league championship)

Player/coach: Sean Gulliver

At the plate: The Shammies’ saw their team regular-season batting average drop considerably last year to .256, but the green and gold can still send the likes of Scott Stockley (.338, 16 RBIs) and Andrew Symonds (.333, 19 RBIs) to the plate. Shortstop Trevor Clarke, with a patient hitting eye, had a solid. 422 on-base percentage in 2013. He also stole 12 bases, most by any player in the league.

On the mound: Righthanders Scott Goosney (1.28 ERA, second-best in the league, Bob Kent (1.56, winner of league’s top pitcher award) and Mario Tee are back, but after three decades of senior play, Dick Collins has retired, meaning Gulliver has to find a way to cover the 40-plus innings Collins pitched last season. In that regard, he’s counting on Matt Murphy, who was with the Feildians intermediate team last year. Gulliver has Murphy, who struck out 55 batters in 39 innings of intermediate play, pegged as No. 3 in the rotation.

On the field and in the dugout: The biggest change is the loss of starting catcher Andrew Stockley, who is working in Labrador. As a result, his brother Scott is moving behind the plate, with Dave Penney going from left field to centre, replacing Scott Stockley. Andrew Symonds is back at first; Brent Power covers second along with Dave Buckingham; and Sean Gulliver and Jeff Gollop will work the hot corner; while Charlie Kelly and Chris Whelan help patrol the outfield. Veteran Kirk Fleming is back, mainly to DH.

Coach’s call: Gulliver is excited about a substantial number of arriving junior players, including Murphy and a number of players from the Shammies’ intermediate team, including outfielder Josh Taylor, infielder Ryan Dooley, intermediate all-star third baseman Zach Fitzpatrick and Patrick Gulliver, the coach’s son.

“The starting staff is strong, and we have a good-looking group of juniors,” said Gulliver. “Andrew Stockley is a big loss, but we’ll adjust. We should be fine.”


Holy Cross Trinity Pub Crusaders

2013 record: 12-8 (Third place)

Player/coach: Mark Healy

At the plate: When it comes to effective hitting, the usual suspects are back for Holy Cross, including centre fielder James Walsh (.364), slugging third baseman Gerry Stone (.346, 21 RBIs) and shortstop Steve Crouse (.346), who were all in the top 10 when it came to the league leaders in batting average in 2013.

On the mound: The four-man starting staff from 2013 is back in the Crusaders’ colours, including Sean Janes (6-2), who led all league pitchers with 46.1 innings of work last year. Rounding out the rotation are his brother Mike, Matt Smith and Justin Crawley, although work commitments might affect the latter’s availability at times throughout the season.

On the field and in the dugout: With a roster that also includes Healy at catcher, Smith at first when he’s not pitching, Blair Evans looking after second base and Ron French and Dean Hammond in the outfield, this is largely the same Holy Cross team that took to the field last year. But the bench has taken a bit of a hit with notable losses, including Matt Kay, who has moved to Cape Breton; Justin Kelly, who is Gander pursuing a career as an air traffic controller and veteran Dean Norman, who is working in Alberta, although like last season, may be back to get in some games. As well, utility infielder Shawn Hedges may be limited in the amount of games he can play.

Coach’s call: “Last year, we certainly could rely on our depth, but with the players we’ve lost or who might not be available full-time, you can see where that’s changed somewhat,” said Healy, adding he will be counting even more on third baseman/DH Ryan Tapper, while checking out some players from the junior ranks, including Kurt Vaters, Curtis Smallwood and Kevin Cashin, who led the Holy Cross intermediate entry in hitting with a .415 batting average last season.


H.J. Bartlett Electric Storm

2013 record: 10-10 (Fourth place)

Player/coach: Grant Kenny

At the plate: Outfielder Mike Dyke, who led the Mount Pearl-based Storm in hitting with a .429 batting average last season, is back as are catcher Brent Power (322, 15 RBIs) and infielders Steve Brien (.317) and Steve Bailey. Kenny, who plays the outfield, was second to Dyke in OBP and had 16 runs scored, most on the team.

On the mound: There was a time the Storm could turn to two legitimate aces in Peter Fifield and Jason Kearley, but neither will be with the team this year. That leaves a pitching staff of Kenny, Power and Steve Donahue, who each made four starts last season, along with Larry Grey, over from Feildians. Adam Lawlor and Steve Bailey can put in some innings if needed, as well.

On the field and in the dugout: Daniel Hearn, Blair Connolly, and Terry Ryan complete the outfield group, while Steve Donahue, Chris Sparkes, Jared Power, Justin Manuel, Grey, Mike Dymond, Bailey, Lawlor and 2014 draft pick Jared Tuton complete a long list of those who could occupy infield positions. Catcher Steve Barrett drove in a dozen runs last season,

Coach’s call: “The biggest change in our lineup is we have a lot of guys that are going to be shuffling in and out,” noted Kenny. (There are ) quite a few guys working away, so the consistency won't be there.

“However, that is something that we are getting used to and have adapted to well over the last few years. I feel we have a lot of very capable guys who can jump in on any given day and give us great games.

“Of course, not having our big arms in Jason Kearley and Peter Fifield around is tough, but we have battled hard without them before and expect to be right there in the playoffs again this year.”


Feildians Ellsworth Group

2013 record: 8-12 (Fifth place)

Coach: Bernard Davis

At the plate: In 2013, the Double Blues doubled their wins total from the previous season, but will be looking for even more as they look to add themselves to the playoff picture this summer. That means Feildians will be counting on repeat performances — or at least something close — from first baseman and senior comeback player of the year Jeff Sheehan (.383 BA), and a trio of .340 hitters from 2012, outfielder Alex Walsh, third baseman Jason Crocker and veteran second baseman Ray Warren. Count catcher Corey Ewart as one who will be looking for a bounce-back season at the plate. He hit .348 in the 2012 senior season, but just .263 last year, his first with Feildians.

On the mound: Between them, the Walshs — Alex and John — turned in almost 60 per cent of innings pitched for Feildians last year and both had ERA’s of 2.50 or less. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other capable arms to call on. Lefty Greg Barry and Dan Phillips, who has pitched college ball in the U.S., round out the main starting staff. In addition, Davis points out shortstop Adam Hickey has pitched superbly for his native Grand Falls-Windsor in provincial play, while Ewart was a mainstay On the mound staff for the Knights a couple of years ago.

On the field and in the dugout: Michael Delaney, looking for a full season after dealing with health issues last season, is being counted on in the outfield, along with the two Walshs, Barry, Phillips, David Galutira and Pasadena native Paul George, who will also see playing time at second base. Gary Dymond (catcher), Corey Comerford (third) and Lenny King (shortstop) provide depth. Davis said you might even expect catcher and ageless wonder Peter Cornick — who had 19 plate appearances for Feildians last season —  to “help out.”

Coach’s call: Pitcher-infielder Larry Grey has moved over to the Storm, while Matt Sullivan, who led Feildians with 55 at-bats last year, is now with the Knights, but Davis is still pleased with the options on his roster, especially with the return of King, the former Guards star whose work offshore had led to availability issues recently, but now has a schedule that’s more “firmed up.”

“A real blast from the past, a phenomenal player when he played full-time.” said Davis of King.

It’s just one reason Davis is happy about the Feildians’ prospects for 2014.

“There’s a lot of depth, especially with our pitching,” he said. “Plus, it’s a great bunch of players who really get along with each other, and that does make a difference.”


Metro Property Management Knights

2013 record: 2-18 (Sixth place)

Player/coach: Brian Kielly

At the plate: Of the 27 different players the Knights used last year, only two — catcher Doug Gosse and outfielder Joel Fulford — played in all 20 games. Both are back, but the team needs more players who can be regularly pencilled into a lineup card to develop the sort of stability need to rebound from the miserable season that was 2013. They’ll also need for whoever plays to deliver much more offence; with a team batting average of .218, the Knights managed to push across just 51 runs. Shortstop/outfielder Frankie Brien, who led the team with 10 RBIs in 16 games, is among the returnees, but he was just one of four players who suited up for more than half of the Knight’s games and hit above .220. Joey Connors, who led the intermediate league in hits (27), was an all-star in that circuit and had a .458 batting average in 2012, represents hope. But Andrew Mercer, who played on both the Knights senior and intermediate teams last years and who was the only intermediate player with a better average (.478) than Connors, won’t be playing in Newfoundland this summer. Mercer, who pitched for NCAA Division 2 champion Southern Indiana University this season, is instead with a team in a collegiate summer league in New York.

On the mound: Pitchers Peter Curran and A.J. Whiffen, neither of whom played in the league last season, are being welcomed back. Randy Reid and Brandon Jackson, the latter added from the Shamrocks, are being welcomed as newcomers. Tyler Howell and Shawn Beson, who each started five times last season, are other pitchers for the Knights.

On the field and in the dugout: Catcher Eric French played just two games last season but is ready for regular duty once more. Whiffen will catch or play third when not pitching. Bob Parsons and Robert Peddle are at first; Kielly looks after second; Curran will share short with Brien; and Matt Sullivan, also over from Feildians, is at third. Dave Flemming fills a utility role, while Shawn Beson, Alex Sulis, John Ryall, Tyler Holwell and Andrew Martin complete the outfield group. In a pull-out-all-the stops move, the team drafted St. John’s senior and Team Canada softballer Jason Hill with the first pick of the recent annual draft.

Coach’s call: “We were low on arms last season, but by adding two strong junior arms in Jackson and Reid, along with  A.J. and Curran coming back, our pitching depth is there,” said Kielly.

“I expect to compete more with key guys like Curran and Whiffen returning along with Eric French, and adding some new pieces and young arms.

“As a whole, we are a young team, (but) we’re excited for the season to start and plan to make the playoffs this season. That’s our goal.”