By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
Landon Leach had reflexes as quick a hungry cat past feeding time during his catching days.
He’d pounce on a bounced strike three in the dirt or a bunted ball in front of the plate and fire to first base.
Last June the Toronto Mets were at the Under Armour Classic in Bradenton. Fla.
They were playing on Field 3 at IMG Academy.
Flashing back to that day in June, Leach had pitched the day before and was watching as Mets infielder Leo Markotic stepped into the batter’s box in the second inning.
The Mets were playing the Louisiana Knights
It was sunny and warm on both benches, warmer and sunnier if you were in the field.
Both teams were a long way from home on a Saturday evening.
The right-handed hitting Markotic measured the Louisiana right-hander as he went into his wind up.
And then ... the most ugly sound one can hear on a ball field.
The fastball, some said was 86-to-88 MPH, hit Markotic in the ear flap of his helmet.
One of the first to jump off the bench in cat-like manner was Leach.
IMG medical staff was on the scene, began concussion protocol, helped Markotic off the field to the Mets bench. Concerned about a head injury, examinations continued on the bench. It was obvious Markotic needed stitches. His ear looked like “a dog had bit him,” according to an ear witness.
Ryan McBride, vice-president of baseball operations, said he would drive Markotic to the hospital and Leach “was the first to volunteer to come with.”
Markotic received 14 stitches at the Bradenton Urgent Care Center with Leach never leaving his time until the infielder was released.
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Moving from June forward eight months, McBride has the microphone in hand at the first annual MetBall Gala and Awards Ceremony at the Fontana Primavera in Vaughan.
McBride was listing off the best qualities of the Mets to the crowd of 403.
The VP of baseball ops mentioned the Out of the Park Sports indoor facility, paid tribute to Mets parents, coaches and players as the slides moved from one shot to another and then a video made for the event.
“What separates us from others is our people,” said McBride, who praised the ownership group of Aaron and Johnny Caputo, along with their father Tony Caputo.
And then the slide clicked to a hospital bed.
“That picture tells a lot about who we are,” McBride said.
The picture showed Markotic lying in the hospital bed and Leach by his side, holding his hand.
And on this night Markotic was presented with the Heart and Hustle award.
* * *
Leach is always there to help if the Mets have a special project going on, according to McBride.
“Coming off the bench or offering to stay with Leo, that’s him,” Martin said. “He offers to help at any camp or any clinic we run. And he was the first to help when we hosted a team from China last year.”
The Mets hosted 30 players from the Bejing Winners 9 club ages 8-to-14. They stayed at the Durham College and Geoff Wendt of Oshawa set up exhibition games. Players also attended a Jays game as Toronto president Mark Shapiro set up an early tour of the stadium and the clubhouse before the gates opened.
And this summer a group of 50 players are coming from Bejing and they’ll stay at the University of Toronto at Scarborough.
Besides being a converted catcher and a stand-by-me type of guy, Leach just happens to be the best high school pitcher in Canada this year.
* * *
McBride spoke of the Mets expansion. From four years ago when 40 players wore Mets uniforms to this season when 115 players are part of the program.
How the Mets were invited to the Under Armour Classic (“four or five years ago, that would have been a pipe dream,” McBride said).
The Mets beat the Ohio Elite 5-3 in the opener, lost 9-2 to the Elite Squad and then in the final round of pool play dropped a 6-0 decision to the Louisiana Knights, finishing third in the four-team group.
Next the Mets lost 5-3 to Titans Baseball (GA) and 7-2 to Dulins Dodgers.
The Louisiana Knights edged Bubba Baseball 1-0 in the championship final of the 12-team tourney.
* * *
McBride thanked the parents for their “dedication and sacrifice” and called his coaching staff the most diverse in the country. To mention a few ...
Former major leaguer Andy Stewart, 16U Blue manager, who appeared in five games with the 1997 Kansas City Royals. He started playing for the respected Brockville Bunnies and Oshawa, then playing nine seasons in the minors, competing for Canada at the 1988 World Juniors in Australia, the 1999 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg, where he earned MVP award, and the 2004 Athens Olympics which finished fourth. After two seasons as the Toronto Blue Jays bullpen catcher, he managed the Pittsburgh Pirates class-A affiliate in the New York Penn League and was catching instructor at the IMG Academy.
Former minor leaguers like Hyung Cho, director of player development and recruiting, who played two seasons in the minors reaching triple-A Tacoma in the Seattle Mariners system; Chris Kemlo, 18U manager, director of player development and recruiting, who pitched four seasons in the minors reaching class-A Tampa in the New York Yankees system, plus two in independent ball; John Mariotti, program pitching coordinator, who pitched at Coastal Carolina, then four years in the Baltimore Orioles system reaching double-A Bowie and then going 21-2 in two seasons at independent Quebec Capitales. Mariotti, whose mother Ang, used to work at Andy Lawrence’s Mini-Domes also pitched for Italy in the World Baseball Classic.
Former NCAA head coach Rich Leitch, college placement coordinator, who used to be run the Salem International University program.
Former international and college coach Darryl Reid, 17U manager, Great Britain WBC 2013 qualifier and Durham College (2010-14).
Former National Junior team player and college player Kyle Fillier, 16U Orange, who played at Connors State, Bossier Perish and Southern Arkansas.
Former college players like Johnny Caputo, 15U Blue manager, who played at Stony Brook; Greg Densem, 15U Orange manager, who played at UBC and was the Toronto Blue Jays bullpen catcher; Mark Dainty, 18U assistant, who attended LSU-Shreveport, Marty Roberts, 17U assistant, who attended Rend Lake and Missouri Valley College; Graham Tebbit, 16U Orange assistant, who played at Volunteer State, Macomb College and Hofstra; Duncan Watt 16U Blue, who played at Muscatine and Westminster.
A Hall of Fame coach in Peter Angelow, 17U assistant, former Ontario Terriers, Team Ontario, Team Toronto and Toronto Hawks coach. He was inducted into the Junior Sunbelt Classic Coaches Hall of Fame in 2012.
Sandlot legends Clare Osborne, 18U assistant, who played with Whitby, Oshawa, Kingston, Ottawa Nepean Canadians, Sudbury and Little Britain winning three OBA titles and coaching Whitby to six OBA titles and being named Ontario Grassroots Coach of the Year in 2008; Hugh Walters, 16U Orange assistant, who coached Team Ontario, Clarington Orioles, Ontario Youth, Oshawa, Ajax and East Toronto
* * *
TSN’s Hot Rod Black was the MC for the event, which had distinguished guests in Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar and Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada director of National Teams and Junior National head coach, along with Rob Jack of Alomarsports.
Video footage from Mets indoor workouts and interviews with players and coaches were shown before a Q and A session with former major leaguer and current Mets coach Andy (Mileage) Stewart, T.J, Burton, coordinator, amateur baseball with the Toronto Blue Jays and Hamilton. Black also interviewed Alomar.
Former national team Jim Eliopoulos introduced a $5,000 annual scholarship award to be given each year to a deserving Met in honour of Jim’s son and former Met RHP Jake Eliopoulos, who died in 2013.
Each player received an autographed bat signed by Alomar.
Heart and Hustle - Leo Markotic
Clemente Community award - Thomas Murphy
Coach of the Year - Honsing Leung, 15U Orange assistant.
Has been with the Mets since 2006 winning OBA titles in 2006, 2009, won silver with the TBA Summer Games in 2014 and gold at the 2012 Summer Games. Before that he coached at North York. A guest instructor with the Toronto Blue Jays Honda Super Camps, Leung is the senior manager in corporate partnerships department with the Blue Jays.
Gehrig Courage award - Sam Jones
Most Valuable Player - Andy Yerzy,
Top Canuck high school player selected in the second round by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Coached by Chris Kemlo, Ryan McBride, Honsing Leung and Greg Hamilton, DBacks scouts Doug Mathieson and Tim Wilken gave Yerzy a slot bonus of $1,214,100 US to give up a scholarship to Notre Dame.
Mets Person of the Year - Greg Hamilton
Director of national teams since 1999 when a sudden boom of first rounders began to be selected. Created a national team program where Canadian high schoolers could play the likes of instructional league, extended spring. It is so much easier for scouts to evaluate hitters using a wood bat and facing 90 MPH plus fastballs than say one high school stud pitcher facing the other school’s hitter ... with his coach saying don’t give him a strike we have to win.
First rounders since Hamilton took over include RHP Cal Quantrill (Port Hope, Ont.), LHP Adam Loewen (Surrey, BC), 1B Josh Naylor (Mississauga, Ont.), OF Gareth Morgan (North York, Ont.), RHP Michael Soroka (Calgary, Alta.), RHP Phillippe Aumont (Gatineau, Que.), Jeff Francis (North Delta, BC), Brett Lawrie (Langley, BC), Scott Thorman (Cambridge, Ont.), C Kellin Deglan (Langley, BC) and Yerzy. Last June 27 Canucks were selected, 18 are current or former members of the program.