Following the 2023 Toronto Maple Leafs baseball season.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Treats and Surprises at Leafs' December Fan Fest

On a drizzly December 23rd, joint-Santas Rob Butler and Rod Black greeted Leafs fans at Christie Pits.

'Twas two nights before Christmas,
And down at the Pits:
A spontaneous fan fest,
A treat for the kids.

On Friday, December 22, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced an impromptu meet and greet would take place the following afternoon at Christie Pits.  It was a chance for fans to take a break from the countdown to Christmas and grab some free swag.

The gathering was hosted by Rod Black, a member of the club's new ownership group, and Rob Butler, the Leafs' field manager.

Butler will be back for a second season as skipper, having guided the team to the IBL semi-finals this past summer.

Black is a legendary Canadian sports announcer who appeared on TV screens for over 30 years before he retired from TSN in 2021.

Together, Black and Butler played joint-Santas, welcoming fans to the Pits and handing out baseball bats and Leafs paraphernalia.  

About 20 fans made the trek to Christie despite the drizzly day.  Plenty of smiles, stories and good cheer abounded.  Everyone gawked at an unexpected sight: Dominico Field's right field fence has been raised to double its previous height.  One of the smallest ballparks in the IBL will present a new challenge for sluggers come 2024.

At yesterday's gathering, no actual kids were present, something that Black took note of.  As part of the Leafs' new ownership, he envisions the club having a bigger presence and bigger draw in Toronto's sporting landscape.  This could include more game-day activities around home ballgames, more promotions and celebrity guests, more excitement and definitely more kids.

"Parents don't drive kids to games, kids drive parents to games," Black said.

While yesterday's fan fest was spontaneous, plans are being formulated for more pre-season activities.  This includes a news conference in February and a town hall a month before the start of next season.  

Monday, September 11, 2023

One Last Dance With the Core: 2023 Toronto Maple Leafs Season Recap

No more slogans, no more hashtags.

For the Toronto Maple Leafs to lose two consecutive IBL championship series, and three of the last six, that did not sit well with anyone.

Years of just-missed titles left a bad taste in the mouths of players, fans and management.

"Do it for Jack," yes.  "Unfinished Business," sure.  Above all else, everyone's focus for 2023 was winning the Dominico Cup and ending a 15-year championship drought.

How to get there?  Changes at the top, continuity from the core, and depth on the bench.

“Keeping the core together was paramount,” new general manager Jeff Lounsbury said in May.  "These guys are very experienced.  I'm just trying to complement them, to add depth to the core to make another run again."

The new GM was joined by new field manager Rob Butler.  Together they oversaw a roster that included most of the club's returning veterans, some promising imports, and fresh faces to add spark and that elusive depth.

Players echoed the front office's sentiments.

"Somehow we managed to get the band back together," said Garrett Takamatsu.

Johnathan Solazzo agreed.

"One of my lasting memories of the season has got to be playing with these guys day in and night out and just grinding out the season like we always do," said Solazzo.  "I'm going to cherish the last dance with the core for the rest of my life."


The Leafs kicked off the season fielding literally a team of MVPs.  Jordan Castaldo, Justin Marra and Takamatsu were there to power the offence.  Solazzo joined them and the club peeled away from the starting line like a drag racer.  

The first month of the season was off the chain.  In their first eight games, the Leafs scored double-digits five times and scored nine runs in two other games.  

Solazzo put up MVP-type numbers and was the centre of a season-long lovefest between the team and its fanatic supporters at Christie Pits.  Each of Solazzo's home runs sparked moments of interactive joy.  Johnny Cash's "Orange Blossom Special" escorted The Conductor to the plate.  When he hit one out, he hit it far.  As he rounded second during his home run trot, he saluted the Bushmen by mimicking a train engineer sounding the horn.  Fans around the ballpark shouted "Choo choo!" in response.  Total lovefest.

A favourite memory of mine is from the game on May 28th against the Welland Jackfish.  Solazzo homered in his fourth straight game and Gregory Carrington blasted a grand slam.

May 28: Carrington's Grand Slam reception.

The month ended with a May 31st Wednesday nighter at Christie Pits, where the Leafs battled the Kitchener Panthers for first place.  Toronto won 14-6 and starter Julian Valdez claimed his first victory of the season.  The Leafs closed out the month with a 6-2 record.


Christie Pits is one of Toronto's many baseball shrines.  Baseball has been played there for over a century.  

One of the ballpark's darker chapters is the Christie Pits riot, which took place in 1933.  Attacked and assaulted by Nazi sympathizers, local Jewish and Italian neighbours banded together and kicked some Nazi ass.

The event was commemorated during a pregame ceremony on June 4th, with descendants of people who were there throwing out ceremonial first pitches.

The first week of June saw two missing pieces of the core return, as Grant Tamane and Connor Lewis made their season debuts.  Like many IBL players, when the previous season ended, Tamane and Lewis both expressed uncertainty if they would return.  Fans were pleased to see them back in uniform as they have been an essential part of the core for the better part of a decade.

Castaldo was back for the third season of his second go-around with the Leafs.  He spent the better part of the past decade playing for the Barrie Baycats, but since returning to Toronto he has been one of the club's undisputed leaders on and off the field.

"A lasting memory would be being along for the ride in Jordan's final season," said Carrington.  When he announced his return prior to the start of the season, Castaldo made it clear that he would be hanging them up when it was over.  Leaf fans will be left to wonder what might have been had he played his entire career at the Pits.  His 2013 trade to Barrie was quite possibly Jack Dominico's biggest mistake, as it altered the trajectory of both franchises for years.

June 4: Castaldo connects.

The Leafs chugged along in June, winning four and losing six en route to a 10-8 record.

Daniel Procopio solidified his place as the club's Sunday Starter.  He would go on to lead the team with five wins.  

"My lasting memory was the looking forward to every Sunday," said Procopio.  "Work all week and count down the days when I would be able to see the boys and hang out with them on the field.  I honestly had the most fun in my baseball career this past season."

Procopio made his first Sunday start on June 11th against the Guelph Royals.  The game tuned out to be a slugfest, with Toronto coming out on top of a 14-10 final score.


At the midpoint of the season, the Leafs left behind their early season scoring rampages and reverted to their almost-traditional place in the middle of the standings.

“We had a great start offensively, but some struggles with the bullpen,” said Lounsbury.  “Rob [Butler] is a new manager and trying to learn which kids fit into which role.  Sometimes you lose a game trying new things out.”

Canada Day weekend saw the Leafs try a couple of new things out on the mound.  On July 1st in Guelph, Wilgenis Alvarado debuted as a starter.  The following day, Jesse Hodges was the starting pitcher at the Pits.

Both starts would leave an impact.  

The Leafs lost 5-4 in Guelph but Alvarado cemented his place in the starting rotation.  By season's end, he would be the club's number one starter and he led the league with a regular season ERA of 2.36.

Hodges proved himself on the mound and gained instant status as a two-way player.  The Bushmen dubbed him "Shohei O-Hodgy."

"My lasting memory of the season is finally getting a chance to share the field with my brothers-in-law, Justin, Daniel and Adam," said Hodges.  "I have played with Justin before but playing with all of them was very special to me."

July 1: the dawning of "Shohei O-Hodgy"

Hodges made just one more start, but Alvarado was just getting started.  On July 8th in Welland, the Venzuelan import delivered a statement performance.

"Welland were in first as usual, and they always found a way to put runs up," said Adam Marra.  "But Willy kept them to one hit and no runs for eight innings, which solidified him in my mind as one of the greatest pitchers the league has seen.  He proceeded to do it again and again, even in the playoffs."

The youngest of the Marra brothers solidified his place as the bullpen's chief fireman.  Manager Butler liked to play the percentages and sometimes throw Marra in to face one batter.  More often than not, he doused opposing rallies that might have become infernos.

Unique to the IBL, the Marra siblings have been a key part of the team's core for years and were once again in 2023.

"For me it's being out there battling with the boys and my brothers all summer," said Justin Marra.  "A lot of us have been playing together for a while now and getting to the yard and lacing 'em up with those guys is the reason I still play the game."

The Leafs went 5-6 in July.


August saw the Leafs hold off a late-season surge by the Guelph Royals to clinch fourth place in the IBL standings.

Their 6-6 record that month was classic Leafs, something that new players came to realize was not a cause for concern. 

"My favourite moment of the season was the game on August 6th against the London Majors," said J.J. Dutton.  "Our team came together and put up 21 runs on the scoreboard just two days after losing to the Majors.  It was also the game I hit my very first IBL home run, which I will remember for the rest of my life."

The 21-run beatdown of London on August 6th was the Leafs' highest-scoring performance of the season.

"This being my first year with the Leafs, I really felt the magic of the Pits," said Julian Tymochko.  "The fans are second to none."

The Leafs' most vocal fans were once again The Bushmen.  From their small village on the eastern slopes of the Pits, The Bushmen rained good-spirited abuse on opposing players all season.  Some of their best moments where when they settled on a visiting target and worked their way into his mind with heckles that were equal parts Don Rickles put downs and James Joyce stream-of-consciousness.

The Bushmen get into some poor fool's head space.

As the regular season wound down, the Leafs began to crank it up.  Jose Vinicio best exemplified this by producing a power surge at the plate.  After hitting just one home run all season, Vinicio blasted four more in the first two weeks of August.

After going 2-1 on the final weekend of the season, the Leafs finished with a 21-20 record, good for 4th place and a first round postseason matchup with the Guelph Royals.


The Leafs' quest for the Dominico Cup kicked off on August 24.

The first game of their quarterfinal series against Guelph was suspended in the bottom of the fifth by a thunderstorm, and would resume back at Christie Pits the following Sunday.

Meanwhile, Game 2 of the series was played out in its entirety on August 26.  It should go down in history as The Tak Game.

Takamatsu's in-game story arc was perfect.  After striking out four times to earn a golden sombrero -- baseball's equivalent of the dunce cap -- he just went and won the damn game with a tenth inning home run.

"When Tak hit that go-ahead home run in the tenth, a massive home run to centre, it gave the boys a sense that this playoff run could be something special," said Marek Deska.

The Game 2 win seemed to take the wind out of Guelph's sails.  Heavily reliant on Claudio Custodio to carry the team, the Royals faltered when he finally did.  Game 4 was also suspended by rain, causing it to be played out over two nights, but the Leafs won it and took the series 3-1.

To be the best, you've got to beat the best.  Toronto's semifinal matchup was against the Welland Jackfish, winners of the 2023 IBL pennant with a 31-11 record, 9 1/2 games better than the Leafs.

A twelve-inning effort by pitchers Alvarado, Chris Nagorski, Dustin Richardson and Sam Greene held the Jackfish to just three runs.  Toronto scored their fourth run in the 12th, courtesy of a fielding error.  Greene did the rest, shutting down Welland with his second high-energy inning on the mound.

"Top moment had to be winning Game 1 in Welland," said Robin Fox-Pappas.  "Extra innings, in front of a packed stadium.  Definitely a lasting baseball memory."

"Having struggled against Welland and in extra innings all year, it showed the resiliency and what the team could really do going toe-to-toe with the league," said Nagorski.  "In my opinion this was the finals."

After dropping Game 2 at the Pits, it was back to Welland for Game 3.  The Leafs jumped ahead thanks to Justin Marra and Solazzo hitting their first home runs of the postseason.

"My favourite memory was the Solazzo home run," said Zach Sloan.  

The double blasts put Toronto ahead 3-1, but the bullpen could not hold off multiple rallies by Welland, who took the series lead with a 15-3 blowout.

September 6: Alvarado approaches legend status with a complete game victory.

In Game 4 at the Pits, another legend was born.  You can call this one The Alvarado Game.

Backs to the wall, the Leafs turned to their Venezuelan import, converted midseason from closer to starter.  

The Leafs jumped out to an early lead thanks to a laser double by Ryan Santos that cashed in a pair.  He was followed by Solazzo, who launched a two-run bomb.

"The lasting memory will be hitting that double in Game 4 to spark the game," said Santos.

Alvarado took that lead and delivered his best performance of the season.  Three runs off eight hits with nine strikeouts for a complete game victory.

"It was the first time I pitched a full game and I felt very proud," said Alvarado.

"Game 4 at Welland was a lot of fun," said Dan Marra.  "A must win game and the boys all brought it that night, great pitching performance, great defence and timely hitting up and down the order.  Got contributions from everyone, which makes the vibe in the room afterwards even better."

And so the series, and season, came down to a final battle in Welland.  No surprise, Game 5 was not brought up by anyone as a favourite memory of 2023.

The Leafs took an early lead, but the Jackfish clawed their way back.  A series that featured blowouts by both teams came down to a nailbiter.  Welland took Game 5 with a 7-5 score, and the Leafs' season ended in defeat.  

There would be no championship celebration, not even a final home game for the fans and players to salute one another.  Just the thudding finality of another season ending before it should have.


The dance is over.  Everyone has packed up and dispersed.  

The sudden end of a baseball season always feels bleak.  You spend the first few days processing the memories, taking stock of everything that happened.

Normally it would be easy to say "Wait til next year," but the future of the Maple Leafs franchise is wrapped in uncertainty.  The club is up for sale and bids have been presented from multiple parties.  It remains to be seen if one of them will meet the seller's criteria.  A decision is expected by month's end.  The Leafs could be weeks or even days away from being sold to a new owner.  Who knows what changes may be coming.

Whatever the outcome, it should be safe to say that Maple Leafs baseball will return to Christie Pits in 2024.  The IBL wants a team in Toronto, that much is known.  A continuation of play at the Pits would make the most sense, at least for another year.  

What happens after that... too many "what ifs" begin to cloud the horizon.

For now, the 2023 season is in the books.  It was one that was enjoyed by everyone involved with the organization.

"Every season is memorable because I get to play with by brothers and my good friends," said Dan Marra.  "Any level of success is just a bonus, so I'm grateful this year as I am every year to get another healthy summer on the field."

Final word to Sam Greene: "My lasting memory of this season will be how enjoyable and fun taking the field with my teammates was, each and every game, along with being able to do it in front of such passionate and supportive fans in an environment like the Pits.  Oh, Wilgenis' semifinal Game 4 CG was pretty cool too."

Lastly, with the IBL Championship Series getting under way, I asked the Toronto Maple Leafs players for their pick to win it all.  The results:

NOTE: Massive thanks to all the Toronto Maple Leafs who took a moment to share their thoughts with me in preparing this season recap.  You guys are the best, you guys!

Friday, September 8, 2023

Cold Bats Cost Leafs, Season Ends

IBL Semifinals - Game 5 - September 7, 2023

Toronto Maple Leafs at Welland Jackfish

Welland 7
Toronto 5

Welland wins series 3-2

Some of the Toronto Maple Leafs look reluctant to form the handshake line that marks the end of their season, after dropping the deciding game of their series against Welland.

The 2023 IBL Championship Series has lost some measure of lustre following the elimination of the Toronto Maple Leafs from postseason play.

Last night at Welland Stadium, the Leafs -- Sensational! Irresistible! -- lost the deciding game of their semifinal series against the Jackfish.

In a series that featured some back and forth blowouts, Game 5 turned out to be a nailbiter.  Welland overcame an early deficit and won 7-5.

As night settled over a bustling ballpark, the visitors had reason to feel optimistic since the Jackfish were gifting them Jake Harford.

When it comes to postseason play, the Leafs have had Harford's number.  In three previous postseason starts against Toronto in 2022 and 2023, Harford pitched a total of 14 innings, made two early exits after getting lit up, and his ERA was 10.93.  Welland lost all three of his starts.

Early on, it looked as if history would repeat itself.

Welland grabbed an early run off Toronto starter Daniel Procopio in the first, but Toronto bats went to town on Harford in the second.  DH Garrett Takamatsu walked to start the inning, then moved to third on a hard-hit double by third baseman Johnathan Solazzo.  A single by centerfielder Connor Lewis drove in TakamatsuSolazzo scored when second baseman Dan Marra grounded into a fielder's choice that erased Lewis at second.  Right fielder Ryan Santos walked, bringing shortstop Jose Vinicio to the plate.  A wild pitch by Harford advanced both runners, and they both scored when Vinicio hit a single to right field.  Catcher Justin Marra kept the rally going with a single.  That prompted a quick hook for Harford, gone after just 1 and 2/3 innings.  New pitcher James Bradwell faced first baseman Jordan Castaldo.  A single by Castaldo drove Vinicio home and the IBL's most exciting team jumped out to a 5-1 lead.

Procopio got into a jam in the bottom of the second and the Jackfish jumped back into it.  They scored three runs off a hit and three walks to make it a 5-4 ballgame after two innings.

It looked like a high-scoring hullaballoo was in the offing, but the game tightened up after that.  The early pitching change saved Welland's season, as Bradwell turned out to be the anti-Harford.  Toronto's offence experienced a severe drop in temperature.

The Leafs didn't score again.  Over the final seven innings of the game, they recorded just one hit and two walks and that spelled their doom.  Bradwell and closer Deivy Mandez combined to strike out 10.

The door opened just wide enough for the Jackfish to wriggle through.  

In the bottom of the fifth, a double by Ethan Hunt scored two runs and moved his side ahead 6-5.  Dustin Richardson took over on the mound in the bottom of the fifth, tasked with carrying the Leafs the rest of the way.

In the bottom of the eighth, a bases-loaded sacrifice fly by Steven Moretto brought another run home for Welland.  It turned out the insurance run would not make a difference.  Procopio and Richardson both pitched their guts out, but Toronto's bats had gone fatally cold.

In the ninth inning, facing elimination, the Leafs went down in order.  Dan Marra struck out looking, Santos flied out to right, and Vinicio went down swinging.  Ballgame.  A 7-5 win for Welland, and a 3-2 series victory.

Toronto 5 6 1
Welland 7 5 1

W - Bradwell (3-0, 1.77)
L - Procopio (0-1, 4.58)
S - Mendez (1)

Cheers to the Welland Jackfish, who earned a well-deserved trip to the IBL Championship Series.  This is the nomadic franchise's first trip to the finals.  They will face the Barrie Baycats to determine this year's winner of the Jack and Lynne Dominico Cup.

For the Maple Leafs, the pursuit of the cup continues to be a Sisyphean task.  Someday the ordeal must end!  

The action on the field has concluded, but the story of the 2023 Leafs is not over.  The club's sale is expected to be announced by month's end, bringing with it new ownership and a new era of Leafs baseball.  

I'm pulling for the Leafs to get a new sugar daddy owner who will not think twice about funding the club's hard working collective of writers, photographers and social media stars.  Gas ain't getting any cheaper.  A team jersey would also be acceptable remuneration.

Stay tuned for updates as the story continues to unfold.

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Leafs Ride Alvarado's Bravado to Tie Series

IBL Semifinals - Game 4 - September 6, 2023

Welland Jackfish at Toronto Maple Leafs

Toronto 9
Welland 3

The series is tied 2-2

Wilgenis Alvarado is welcomed by his Leafs teammates after pitching a 1-2-3 eighth inning en route to a complete game victory.

The vibe at an elimination game is always different, especially when the home team's season is on the line.

People act relaxed, but no one is relaxed.  Conversation is quiet and laughter sounds forced.  No one knows if they are about to witness a celebration or an execution.

For fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Game 4 of the semifinal series against the Welland Jackfish was cause for celebration.  The Leafs won 9-3 and forced a deciding match Thursday night in Welland.

The Leafs' approach to this game could be summed up with the words "You have one job."  Each member of the home nine did his job, up and down the batting order, all around the diamond, and especially on the mound.

Bottom of the second, game scoreless, everyone watching with lips pressed tight.  Left fielder Jesse Hodges singled, stole second, and moved to third on a single by second baseman Dan Marra.  Next man up was right fielder Ryan Santos, who connected on a pitch from starter Ben Abram.  The ball soared to the deepest part of the outfield and landed safely, cashing in two runs.  Around the park, jaws unclenched.

Top of the third, Welland threatened to immediately come back.  Gianfranco Morello singled, then attempted to steal second.  Catcher Justin Marra fired to the bag.  Morello was gunned down, and the Jackfish rally was snuffed out.

Bottom of the third, the Leafs doubled their lead when third baseman Johnathan Solazzo crushed a two-run home run.  It was a no-doubter that sailed into the night beyond the outfield fence.  The Leafs led 4-0 through three.  The tightly-pressed lips curved into smiles.

On the mound for Toronto was Wilgenis Alvarado.  The Venezuelan put goose eggs on the scoreboard through five innings.  His only wobble of the night came in the sixth, when he gave up home runs to Steven Moretto and James Smibert.  That made the score 4-3 and momentum swung to the Jackfish.


In the bottom of the sixth, Dan Marra walked and Santos reached on an error.  Shortstop Jose Vinicio drove them both in with a single.  DH Garrett Takamatsu singled later in the inning to plate Vinicio.  That gave the Leafs a 7-3 lead and some room to breathe.

A similar scenario played out in the bottom of the seventh.  Centerfielder Connor Lewis and Dan Marra both singled.  Vinicio returned to the plate and ripped another single to bring both runners in.  It was a four-RBI night for Vinicio.  The Pits went into party mode as the Mapes extended their advantage 9-3.

All night, the Jackfish nibbled at Alvarado.  He kept his head throughout, giving up eight hits and four walks on the night while striking out nine.  The two home runs he gave up in the sixth were the only scoring done by the visitors.  

After recording three straight outs in the seventh inning, Alvarado left the mound with a shout.  He pitched another 1-2-3 eighth, then returned to finish the ninth.  The Jackfish did not go down without a fight.  A walk and two singles loaded the bases.  With two outs, Alvarado threw his 140th pitch of the night.  Sam Cawker hit a liner straight to Vinicio and the game was over.

Alvarado and company celebrated the complete game victory.  The 9-3 final prompted happy scenes at Christie Pits, and an opportunity for the Leafs to win the series the following night.

Welland 3 8 3
Toronto 9 12 1

W - Alvarado (2-1, 3.07)
L - Abram (1-1, 7.94)

This series will be decided in Game 5, Thursday night at Welland Stadium.  First pitch will be a 7:35 pm.  The winner will face the Barrie Baycats in the IBL Championship Series.