By Matt Betts
Canadian Baseball Network
It’s fitting that the Kitchener Panthers are scheduled to play on the first day of the 2018 Intercounty Baseball League schedule.
It was 100 years ago that the Panthers became an original member of the historic league. Over the last 100 years the franchise has had a lot to be proud of. Many of the league’s best have passed through Victoria Park or Jack Couch Park, the current home of the Panthers. Whether they were members of the Kitchener McBrines (the original team named after a local luggage company), Kitchener Panthers, KW Dutchmen, Kitchener Legionnaires, Twin City Panthers or any of the other names the team has adopted over the years, many of the players did so with pride.
Kitchener has won 13 Intercounty Baseball League championships to date, second most in league history, with the most recent coming in 2001 when they outlasted the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games. That championship celebration capped four championships in six years as they also captured the league title in 1996, 1998 and 2000. They will look to end their sixteen year playoff drought when they kick off the 2018 season on May 6 in Barrie against the Baycats. The Baycats swept the Panthers 4-0 in the 2017 league final after the Panthers posted a 28-8 regular season record.
The Panthers, who have a 1458-1067 record since 1946 (the last year available on the league's website), were well represented when the league announced their top 100 players from the last 100 years. In total, 20 players who donned a Kitchener uniform at some point in their IBL careers were named to the list.
Headlining the list was standout catcher/pitcher Bob McKillop. McKillop, who was born in 1942 and was a member of the hot stove panel at the Top 100 banquet, has a vast baseball resume. He played four seasons in the Chicago White Sox system before embarking on an Intercounty career that spanned from 1966 to 1977. McKillop won the league MVP four times, collected eight All-Star selections and hammered his way to three home run titles.
McKillop also represented Canada at the 1967 Pan Am Games that were held in Winnipeg, Man. His tournament lasted only two games, however, as he was deemed ineligible based on his prior professional experience. Canada finished last in the tournament with a 1-7 record.
Tom McKenzie has left his mark on the Kitchener community in more ways than one. The retired Kitchener Collegiate Institute and Eastwood Collegiate Institute teacher was a force during his IBL career that lasted from 1960 to 1980. McKenzie spent the first six of his IBL seasons in London before making his way down the 401. McKenzie is one of the most decorated players in the league's history. He won a batting title in 1970 by hitting his way to a .446 average. A year later, he took home the distinction again, hitting .434. He was a 12-time All-Star as a player and was named to six more All-Star teams as a manager. The 18 selections is the most ever.
Like McKillop, McKenzie also wore the maple leaf in international competition. He was on Team Canada for the 1967, 1971 and 1979 Pan Am Games tournaments. After the disappointing last place finish in 1967, Team Canada went 4-4 but lost the bronze medal to Colombia on a tie-breaker. Canada finished 1-7 again in 1979. The former player/manager later became a coach with the Ontario Terriers elite baseball program. A program that has produced current Panthers Brian Burton, Mike Glinka, Tanner Nivins and Zarley Cina.
There weren't many hitters more feared from 1984-2003 than Randy Curran. When Curran’s career came to an end he was the all-time leader in home runs with 154 and RBIs at 485. Records that were later broken by then Panther Sean Reilly. Along with playing in Kitchener he also spent three seasons overseas in Italy.
Curran played for Canada at the 1987 Pan Am Games, which served as a qualifier for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. The Canadian team finished fourth at the Pan Am Games that year. Speaking of the 1988 Olympics, Curran was a member of that Canadian team, as well. The 1988 Olympic team also featured Top 100 IBL players Bill Byckowski, who played for Toronto and Kitchener in the IBL, and former Toronto Blue Jay Rob Butler. Byckowski was also a member of the 1987 Pan Am team. Canada finished seventh at the Olympics.
The current edition of the Panthers will be looking for the franchise's 14th championship in 2018. The team will feature four Cuban import players, three pitchers and a shortstop. Pitcher Noelvis Entenza and shortstop Yorbis Boroto return to the Tri-Cities and will be joined by pitchers Yonder Martinez and Miguel Lahera. Entenza and Martinez, who is famous for pitching with a toothpick in his mouth, pitched for the Cuban squad in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Lahera was a member of the 2008 Cuban Olympic team that took home silver.
The Panthers will be joining the league in celebrating their 100th anniversary in 2018.