Monday, March 19, 2007


Jaff Leavitt-A Perfect Fit Wellington

The Belleville Bulls recently played their final regular season home game at the Quinte Sports Centre. They bested the Ottawa 67s six to one, thumping the nation’s capital for the seventh time in eight tries this season. With a Sudbury victory over the Ottawa squad on the weekend, the Bulls will now face the 67s in the first round of the playoffs.

Prior to the game, the Bulls recognized two of their players for a special award. Andrew Gibbons and Matt Beleskey received the Jake Gilmour Memorial Award, named after the former Bull who passed away in November last year. The award is a good citizen award, in a nutshell. They received the award from Gilmour’s mother, and from last year’s winner, Jeff Leavitt. As soon as Leavitt’s name was announced, and he walked on the red carpet at centre ice, the crowd rose to acknowledge him with a standing ovation.

Truly a fine tribute. Leavitt has paid his dues in the OHL. The Picton native left home several years ago to begin his career with the Windsor Spitfires in 2002. Always a defensive specialist, he began his fifth year of OHL hockey with the Bulls in September. Born in 1986, this was his “overage” season. (Each OHL team is entitled to carry three overage players.)

Selecting overage players is always a difficult task for OHL management. They have to “give a little of this to get that”---referring to offence, defence, special teams, goaltending---whatever the case may be. At the trading deadline in January, the Bulls decided to trade for firepower, and obtained overage sniper Tyler Doig from the Guelph Storm. As a result, Leavitt was released from the team on waivers.

Bulls GM and coach George Burnett summed up his dilemma: “It’s one of the hardest choices we’ve had to make. There will always be a place for Jeff with the Bulls organization---now or in the future.”

Within a matter of days, Leavitt elected to join the Wellington Dukes. The Dukes were smarting from the loss of Justin Taylor, one of the team’s premier goal scorers to his parent club---the OHL’s London Knights. The Dukes had also lost goaltender Edward Pasquale to the Bulls earlier in the season.

Leavitt has more than filled the gap left by Taylor and Pasquale. He has been a force on his regular shifts, and has excelled as a penalty killer. An excellent skater, he sweeps across the tiny pond in Wellington, thwarting opponent’s efforts to get into the Dukes’ zone. He can also snare off an errant pass, and has scored key short-handed goals for the Dukes. A character player, he adds an element of maturity to the Dukes.

It goes without saying that the Dukes were thrilled to get Jeff Leavitt. The Prince Edward County native was both exhausted and thrilled following the Dukes’ playoff win over Kingston last Friday night. “This is really fantastic,” he told me. “It was great to be honoured by the Bulls’ fans. I really couldn’t ask for much more than that.” Bulls’ fans realized that it was the perfect time to honour Leavitt---for his skill, his patience, his tremendous effort.

Coach Marty Abrams summed up the general feeling of all Dukes’ fans after the Kingston game. “Jeff Leavitt is a quality kid. He is a leader, but leads in an easy going manner. He has a great personality, and knows that it is important to speak his mind---at the right time.” Abrams also paid credit to Leavitt’s circumstances in the OHL. “There was an enormous amount of pressure on Jeff when he returned to his home town---the Quinte area---never an easy thing to do. He handled that so well.” Regarding his return to the DukeDome? “We could not have asked for any more out of Jeff Leavitt. He really is a Class “A” kid, and will be a success wherever he goes.”

The Bulls are now gearing up for their playoff run. They have captured the Eastern Division title. For the most part, they have met expectations this year. They have done that with significant changes throughout the year.

The Dukes will have their hands full with St. Mike’s. They have been there before. And with Jeff Leavitt buzzing the opposition zone, the Buzzers will find the frustration others have had to get near the Dukes’ net---and even get over centre ice! Drop the puck!

See you at the DukeDome Friday night!

James Hurst

Thursday, March 08, 2007


Spring Training-Always a Good Sign

Like the rest of you, I get my first look at the upcoming baseball season through the media. Snippets of video, articles in the local and national press, blurbs from the boom box.

There are patches of lawn sneaking through the snow. But not many. Most of us are combing our fields of snow for branches that fell during the latest storm. The one when it didn’t know whether or not it should snow, rain, sleet, hail, drizzle. The one when there was significant sparkly accumulation on all of the trees and we began to wonder how long it would be before power would be restored.

But they are soft tossing in the southern States, stretching, jogging, limbering up. And we are readying ourselves for another season of the great game of baseball.

In less than a month’s time, the boys of summer will be heading north to ply the trade until October. Fauna of all description---Blue Jays, Orioles, Cardinals, Cubs, Marlins, Tigers, Devil Rays. Gentlemen with a variety of occupations---Mariners, Rangers, Brewers, and even members of the cloth-the Padres. Yankees, Twins, Dodgers and all the others.

There is excitement at every camp in the south. There had better be. No team leaves spring training with the belief that they will be losers. Every team thinks positively. They all have a chance. Anything can happen---and sometimes does. It is a very long season, and the variables are almost limitless. The last couple of collective bargaining agreements---CBAs---have made the playing fields quite level.

Every manager has a few silent wishes: two or three young arms come out of Class “A” ball, throw smoke and record twenty wins; those ageing veterans that were picked up in the off season bat three hundred, smack 30 home runs, and are wonderful mentors for the kids in the clubhouse; pitchers field ground balls cleanly, without injury; the team solidifies in the middle, from the catcher out; all of his boys behave themselves off the field.

Bingo! Can’t you hear those World Series cheers?

Alas, just dreams.

The Toronto Blue Jays are no different from any other major league baseball team. They have worked hard in the off season to prepare for the grind. They have signed superstars, they have drafted kids who would like a chance to play in the big leagues. They have kept the team intact, for the most part. But it all takes place on the field. That is where the games are won and lost. It is up to the guys in uniform to make it happen.

Enter Frank Thomas. The “Big Hurt” has come to play in Toronto, and it will be a pleasure to watch him continue the marvellous comeback he had last year. Since 2000, he has not been a completely healthy puppy. But from 1991 to 2000, he was the most dynamic power hitter in the game.

In only one year did he hit less than .300. Several times he had more than 40 home runs. His name is etched on the lists of the greatest players in the game. He currently stands in ninth place on the All Time American League Home Run list. He is on the short lists for Runs Batted In, walks, and extra base hits.

He played ten seasons garnering 100 RBIs and 100 walks. Only three players have accomplished that feat more times: Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig. Pretty impressive company.

He is indeed an intimidating presence at the plate---he stands six feet five inches, and weighs in around 275. As an opposing pitcher, I would not look forward to his charging the mound. I can only think of a few pitchers who would brush him back: Don Newcombe of the Dodgers, Sal “The Barber” Maglie of the Giants, Nolan Ryan, and perhaps Dave Stewart.

Until last season, Thomas had played his entire career for the Chicago White Sox. Following a couple of disheartening years spent primarily on the disabled list, he elected to go the free agency route at the end of the 2005 season. Oakland took a shot a him for the 2006 season, and he rewarded them in spades.

He hit 39 home runs last year, batting .270. He played in 137 games, and had a relatively injury-free season. The brass in the tower on Blue Jays Way would like to see him strut to the plate about 500 times, in about 160 games this coming season.

Thomas should provide another very loud stick in an already noisy lineup. Overbay, Wells, Glaus, Rios, Johnson….It should be fun.

Several years ago, I watched an Old Timers Game prior to the regular Saturday afternoon game. An elderly batter, seventy-eight years old, ambled from the on deck circle for his turn at bat. He fouled off a couple of pitchers, then smacked the ball over the left field fence for a home run. His name was Luke “Old Aches and Pains” Appling. In 2005, Frank Thomas scored his 1320th run for the White Sox, establishing a new team record. It had been held by Luke Appling.

Get on line, and get your tickets. Call the box office. Plenty of good seats left. Take yourself out to the ball game. Think baseball. Forget the cold.

James Hurst


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