It’s been nearly two decades since this province has hosted the Canadian senior men’s baseball championship and the fact its been that long since most local fans have been able to see the St. John’s Winmar Capitals in action at the nationals is not lost on the team’s coach, Mark Healy.
Healy admits the team, collectively, is feeling a bit of pressure about performing well in front of a hometown crowd at this week’s nationals being held at St. Pat’s Ball Park in St. John’s and Smallwood Field in Mount Pearl.
Games in the tournament begin today.
“No one has seen us. They’ve seen our record (at previous nationals) has been 2-2 — we had a couple of 0-for-4s — but for the last 10 years, we’ve been competitive and we want to show that we can do that here at home,” says Healy, who helped lead the squad to a best-ever fourth place finish in 2009, losing to Ontario in the bronze-medal game.
With that in mind, during the team’s final meeting on Tuesday night, the message to the 21 players on the roster was simple: Be ready to play. H
Healy also says players were reminded that, unlike previous nationals where they haven’t had to deal with day-to-day distractions of home life, they will this time and they need to strike a balance.
“You need to come to the park, clear your head and realize you’re at home and whether you feel right now or not, there is an added pressure,” he says.
“And from a financial perspective, the better the Caps play, the better the gate does.”
Gerald Butt, one of the team’s elder statesmen at 38, says fan attendance at home will play a big part in how the team performs, so it’s up to the team to give them games worth watching.
“When I was playing away professionally, that’s one of the things they stress. That people are paying to come watch you play, they’re not doing you a favour, they’re paying for your services,” says Butt, a two-time Major League Baseball draftee (New York Yankees, 61st round in 1994 and Cincinnati Reds, 48th round in 1998) who went on to play minor league ball for three seasons from 1999 to 2002.
“It’s no different right here.”
St. John’s opens the tournament this evening, 7 o’clock, against Saskatchewan’s Saskatoon Smokin Guns. With a first-game win so crucial in setting a tone for the remaining three round robin games, Healy is going with right-handed ace Scott Goosney as the starter.
“Winning that first game puts everyone else back on their heels. If you can win that... you’re in the driver’s seat. If I have to use Bobby (Kent) or Kieran (Buckingham) to win that game, I might do that to,” Healy explains.
“The other thing with (Goosney), is if he throws Thursday night and we’re in a medal hunt on Sunday, he’ll be able to come back again,” said Healy
As for Friday’s games — a 1 p.m. match against the Chatham, N.B., Meicon Ironmen, then a 7 p.m. game vs. the Tecumseh, Ont., Thunder — Healy says he’ll be scouting those teams today to get an idea whether he goes with “a righty or a heavy lefty.
“The veteran guys are there. It may depends on what kind of lineup they have.”
St. John’s plays its final round-robin game against the Red Deer, Alta., Riggers at noon on Saturday
With no worries about his team’s defence, it will be pitching, Healy insists, that will make or break the Caps’ chances at these nationals. The team is loaded with nine arms on the roster — including a pair of young guns in 19-year-olds righties Dan Connors and Mattie Murphy.
“Hitting, I’m a little concerned about because we’re a very streaky team — we can light it up or we can stink it out,” he says, adding he has stressed the importance of tough at-bats, and putting the ball in play to pressure other teams’ defence.
Butt says the Capitals have always been a small-ball team and that won’t change this time around.
“We’ve always been that team to finish 2-2, fighting for runs for and against. If we play good defence and we pitch well, I think we’ll have a shot at not only playing in the cross-over, but getting into the medal round pretty easily.”
The Corner Brook Barons, the provincial representatives by virtue of winning last year’s provincial senior A final, also get underway today, starting with a 4 p.m. game against the Sydney, N.S., Sooners at St. Pat’s.