Greg Mercer, Record staff
TORONTO – The Kitchener Panthers are creating a traffic jam. Their bus is wedged sideways across Christie Street, blocking a long lineup of cars in either direction. Pedestrians stop and gawk. Drivers are laying on the horn.
After several attempts to cut a tight corner into the park, the bus turns around, gets unstuck and finally, slowly, backs down the hill into Christie Pits. The players, shaking off a two and a half hour crawl through heavy traffic, scramble into the change rooms.
They don’t have any more time to waste. There’s a baseball game to be played.
“One minute to BP!” shouts assistant coach Darryl Rutherford.
Moments later the Panthers remerge in their grey road uniforms, and trot toward the diamond. Another batting practice cut short, another rush to get warmed up before first pitch.
Welcome to life in the Intercounty Baseball League, a working man’s baseball circuit that lives off long bus rides, late nights and the collective love of young (and not so young) men for one thing – baseball.
“We call it show and go,” said second baseman Mike Andrulis, whose uncle Henry played for Canada at the 1984 Summer Olympics, and father Ed played at the Triple-A level. “You just show up and you go out and play baseball.”
Tonight, the Panthers – a club whose roots date back to 1919 – are playing against the Toronto Maple Leafs, that other Leafs team that has been playing at Christie Pits since 1969.
Their home at Christie Pits is a charming, pock-marked former gravel pit where fans plop down lawn chairs and blankets on the grass slopes that surround the diamond. It’s also widely despised by visiting teams as the worst ballpark to get to on time, with a constant battle through Toronto traffic gridlock.
“This is the absolutely worst part about the bus trips,” said Trevor Nyp, a rookie infielder who won an OUA Championship with the Laurier Golden Hawks last year.
Players in the Intercounty league aren’t paid, but some get their mileage and expenses covered, while out of town players are given room and board by their teams. But they certainly don’t do this for the money.
“It comes down to loving the game,” said Mike Glinka, the Panthers’ shortstop.
“When I was younger, I might have thought this was a chance to get somewhere else. But for most of us now, this the best ball we can play while still carrying on with our lives.”
Long hours on a bus come with the territory in an eight-team league that stretches from Barrie to Hamilton to London. On their way to games, players sleep, listen to music, watch sports epics – it was Rocky on the drive to Toronto – and read. Veteran Jeff Pietraszko keeps the mood light with jokes and movie trivia.
With about four games a week, summers can be a grind. Many players have day jobs, but travelling for away games often means getting home well after midnight.
“You’re always wiped out,” said Pietraszko, an electrician who works early the next morning.
He’s retiring at the end of this season, after 20 years with the Panthers. With two young kids at home, he says he wants to start spending more time with them. But he’ll miss his teammates, too.
“It’s just fun... That’s what I’ll probably miss most, is the guys. I probably won’t miss the bus trips,” he said.
Stuck in traffic, the bus can be awful, there’s no question – but no one can top first baseman Bryon Bell’s story about the time he was riding with a minor league team in North Carolina, and the bus caught fire, burning everyone’s gear.
“I looked out my window and saw smoke coming out the side of the bus. I thought, ‘that’s not good,’” he said. “By the time fire department got there, the entire back half of our bus was on fire.”
Pietraszko may not miss the opposing fans, either – one Toronto diehard once famously threw a shoe at Bell and challenged him to a fight. With small, cozy ball parks, it’s hard to miss the few leather lungs who hurl insults.
“Definitely, they’ll cross the line. But you just have to tune those people out. And you’ve got to remember they’re paying to watch you,” said Darnell Duckett, the team’s rightfielder.
One player who gets his share of abuse is the team’s 37-year-old slugger Sean Reilly, whose big bat is well known around the league. Reilly, who works at Sleeman Breweries in Guelph, is also one of the other fathers on the team.
“It’s tough, especially when you’ve got a family. It’s one thing when you’re younger and can sleep in the next day. But as you get older, it’s tough. It’s a grind,” he said.
There are some basic rules for the bus. Veterans sit toward the back, rookies toward the front. If Pietraszko, the longest-serving Panther, calls a team meeting, you gather around his seat.
The bus rides home help players blow off steam, whether they win or lose.
“We have a lot of fun on the bus. We can relax, talk, have a few beers. They build morale,” manager Steve Scagnetti. “Nobody’s making money at this. It’s recreation for these guys. It’s an escape.”
At this late stage in the season, the Panthers have clawed their way up to standings to sit in third place. But many aren’t worried about playoff races just yet.
“(This league) is a place to come and get your mind off things,” said Tanner Nivins, the team’s centerfielder, who works at a Waterloo sporting goods store. “It kind of makes you feel young again, just going out there and playing.”
Three years ago, Nivins’ Stonybrook Seawolves were the Cinderella story of the College World Series. Today, he’s back in his hometown, playing on a much smaller stage, and he’s fine with that.
“This is absolutely where I want to be,” said Nivins, who was the league’s Rookie of the Year in 2013. “I hit a point where I realized I was content with wherever baseball took me.”
Some players still hope the Intercounty league will be a launch pad to bigger things, and a few alumni have gone on play at baseball’s highest level, in the majors. But most seem content to play competitive baseball that still lets them sleep in their own beds every night.
“I don’t know anything else, really,” Andrulis said. “My summers have always been playing baseball. I’d rather be playing baseball than sitting at a cottage, on a dock, or fishing, at the beach.”
After playing together for years, the core of the team is a pretty tight group.
“This is like my other family,” said Bell, who sells meat for a network of local farms. “I’ve played on other teams, and we’ve had fun, but when I came back here, it was almost like I never left.”
On this night, the Panthers cough up the lead and suffer a walk-off 10-9 loss to the Maple Leafs, one of the most frustrating ways to lose a ball game.
Twenty minutes later, all the fans have headed for home. All, except for one – a man in a Toronto cap who’s standing in the grass and sarcastically waving goodbye as the Panthers pull away from the park.
Inside the bus, no one seems to notice. It feels a bit like a shuttle to a funeral. Everyone quietly stews over the loss. But after a players-only meeting at the back of the bus, the mood begins to lighten.
“Nice speech, Pie,” someone says, to Pietraszko, and calls for the music to be turned up.
As the bus gets further and further away from Christie Pits, the volume increases. By the time they’ve hit the highway, the loss seems to have faded from most players’ minds, the beers get passed around and the jokes return.
Pretty soon, someone declares it’s shirts off, hats backwards, and most players oblige. The bus won’t pull into the parking lot at Jack Couch Park until well after midnight. But no one seems to mind. The boys on the bus just keep on rolling down the road.
Game on Sunday
The Panthers last regular season home game before playoffs begin is this Sunday, 7 p.m. at Jack Couch Park against Brantford.