Some call it a hidden gem. Others say it’s the best-kept secret in Niagara.
Though it’s long past its ’80s and ’90s heyday, slo-pitch in Niagara-on-the-Lake is still going strong some 40 years on.
The Co-ed League kicked off last week with a full slate of Monday night games on the three diamonds in Virgil. The Masters (over 35) League is getting set for their own opening day, one week after the Virgil Stampede.
The NOTL Local had a chance to speak with various members of the current slo-pitch board, which has seen an infusion of youth this year. Jesse Callahan, a 2004 graduate of Laura Secord Secondary School, has taken on the role of president, following in the footsteps of Ken McKay, who held the position the last 19 years.
Callahan and his co-ed team were playing out of St. Catharines about 10 years ago. They didn’t like the direction that league was taking, and started looking for another place to play. That’s when they stumbled onto Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Callahan says it was the convenience of the three fields all in one central location that sold them on the move. As well, the cheap rate ($1,250 per team this year) was a bonus, as was the recreational focus on the field.
On opening night, Callahan moves from field to field, conversing with team captains and umpires, delivering a supply of yellow softballs, and generally acting as point-person for the eight teams in action that night.
There are 12 teams in the co-ed league this year, comprising about 180 players. Each team plays a schedule of 20 games. After all teams have played each other at least once, they are split into two pools for competitive purposes. Playoffs follow, with a champion declared for each pool.
Opening night’s first round saw two of three games decided by two points or less. In the third game, last year’s runners-up, the Blue Jays, took it to the newest team, the Mad Batters, 18-0.
The Mad Batters are led by 22-year-old Eden High School grad Breanne Keen, of St. Catharines. She had played in the NOTL league with another team two years ago. She loved it so much, she convinced her group of friends, mostly in their 20s, to form a team for the NOTL league. Many of those friends have never played the game before. That showed when the two runs the team scored were nullified because both runners stepped on the wooden mat at home plate (a long-standing slo-pitch rule).
The team was not fazed by the lop-sided loss. Gathered together after the game, they all had smiles on their faces, and couldn’t wait to play the second game of their double-header that night. Keen knows things will get better, and the newbies were excited to have their first game under their belts.
On the Masters side of things, six teams make up the current league. Forty-two year-old Masters president Trevor Legault has been involved in slo-pitch as long as he can remember, and carries with him a wealth of information about the history of the sport locally.
According to Legault, the league began in 1980. The next year, his father started the Raiders, an original Masters League team sponsored by Trevor’s grandfather, who owned Rolly’s Jewellers on Queen Street in the Old Town (where the Exchange Brewery currently sits).
Through the mid 1980s to early 1990s, NOTL Slo-Pitch boasted 12 Masters teams, eight to 10 teams each in the Co-Ed and Men’s League, and another 12 teams in the Ladies Division. Legault remembers NOTL hosting tournaments, the funds raised being used to pay for the lights on the three fields in Virgil.
Former president Ken McKay says back when it all started, it was mostly NOTL people making up the teams. In fact, McKay points to a rule that limited “imports” from outside of NOTL to two players per team.
But the league had to evolve over the years. That “import” rule has long since fallen by the wayside, as now, some entire teams, like the Mad Batters, are from outside the NOTL area.
Many locals are still involved, though. Callahan pointed to the “VDZ” team, made up of many members of the well-known, extended Vanderzalm clan, and the Peller Pirates, consisting almost entirely of people who work, or have worked, at Peller Estates Winery.
Then there’s the Spirits, whose average age skews a bit closer to 60 years old. The team is led by long-time board member Bill Cowie, who once ran a massive 160-team league in the Brampton area. Many of the Spirits, such as John Bishop, have been involved in NOTL Slo-Pitch going back to day one.
Legault can cite many current players who, like himself, have had the wonderful opportunity to share the diamond and their love of the game with their fathers here in their hometown.
He knows, however, that the sport will never return to the dizzying heights of those earlier days. But he does say things have been on the upswing the past few years, with a new generation of players being drawn to the sport. As Masters president, he would love to see two more teams join that league for the 2020 season.
Joe Lamothe is Legault’s counterpart for the Co-ed League. Lamothe, 41, plays in both the Co-ed and the Masters leagues. With 12 teams, the Co-ed League is quite healthy. But Lamothe would also love to see more teams in that division in the near future.
He points to the fewer number of kids playing minor softball in NOTL as one of the factors making it difficult to reach that goal. Lamothe has been trying to spread the word about this “hidden gem,” making Facebook and Kijiji appeals for new teams the last couple of years.
No matter the declining numbers over the years, it’s clear to those involved, there’s no better place to be for an hour-and-a-half on a week night, trying to knock the ball over the “wire monster” on Field C.
The schedule for both leagues is up on the NOTL Slo-Pitch Facebook page. The Co-Ed League plays Mondays and Wednesdays, with the Masters League going Tuesdays and Thursdays.