Showtime Shows No Slowing Down

jeffheadFeature Story: Kitchener Panthers Sean Reilly
by Jeffrey Reed, Editor, LondonOntarioSports.com

His Twitter page carries the motto, “Hitting jacks somewhere.” He’s known on social media as, “Showtime.” And without a doubt, Kitchener Panthers designated hitter Sean Reilly is the Intercounty Baseball League’s biggest star.

With the Panthers up 2-0 in their best-of-seven quarter-final series with the Hamilton Cardinals – the club Reilly played for as an IBL rookie in 1997 – Reilly has one thing on his mind: bringing the league title back to Kitchener for the first time since 2001.

But this IBL season – Reilly’s 20th – there were records to be set by the 39-year-old superstar.

Sean Reilly celebrates his record-breaking hit. Photo: Facebook.

Sean Reilly celebrates his record-breaking hit. Photo: Facebook.

On May 23, Reilly became the IBL’s career hits leader with a two-out double off a fastball from Guelph right-handed starter Evan DiMichelle in the first inning of the Panthers’ 10-1 win over the Royals. The hit was Reilly’s 791st, surpassing Kevin Hinton atop the all-time leaderboard. London Majors legend Arden Eddie (765) and Damon Topolie (709) are the only other players with more than 700 IBL hits.

Hinton collected his 790 hits in 27 seasons, again demonstrating the hitting prowess of Reilly.

The 2015 IBL MVP, Reilly then had his eye on the league’s all-time home run mark of 154, held by former Panther Randy Curran. Reilly entered the 2016 season with 145 home runs. They’re the only tandem with at least 100 IBL home runs.

On July 3, Reilly hit career home run No. 155, drilling his 10th round trip of the season off Royals right-handed starter Marc-Andre Major in Guelph’s 7-3 victory. Reilly had all three of Kitchener’s hit in that loss.

Indeed, things do get better with age when you’re Sean Reilly. This year, he finished .418 AVG (3rd), 13 HR (3rd), 51 RBI (1st). During his Triple Crown season in 2015 – the league’s first since St. Thomas Elgins’ Phil Turner in 1981 – he hit .444, 17 HR, 48 RBI. He finished one hit short of winning the Triple Crown in 2014.

“But I think 2013 was my best season ever in the IBL,” said Reilly, keenly in tune with his stats. He doesn’t brag – rather, he lets his bat do the talking. But he is fiercely proud of his accomplishments. In 2013, the slugger – starting with the Toronto Maple Leafs (23 games) before moving to the Royals (11 games) – hit .404 with 55 hits in 136 AB, 21 HR (a league record) and 60 RBI.

So Reilly is now the IBL’s all-time hits (835), RBI (663) and HR (158) leader. What’s next for the league’s biggest star?

Star In The Making

Reilly joined the 1997 Hamilton Cardinals as a much-heralded IBL rookie. I was operating the league media relations office, and received a call from then team owner Brian Hanson, who spoke highly of his new recruit.

“I’ve got this new kid, Sean Reilly, who’s going to be the talk of the league,” Hanson told me prior to the ’97 season.

Boy, was he right.

Yet that rookie campaign was not a memorable one. Fresh from two years of rookie ball as a pitcher with the Minnesota Twins, Reilly went 1-7 with a 6.52 ERA, collected 45 strikeouts but walked 29 batters in 48.1 innings. At the plate, he hit. 226 with no home runs in 71 at-bats. He was, though, player of the week on June 9 of that season, but minus Hanson’s accolades he flew under the radar.

Sean Reilly with IBL commissioner John Kastner after winning 2015 Triple Crown. Photo: Facebook.

Sean Reilly with IBL commissioner John Kastner after winning 2015 Triple Crown. Photo: Facebook.

Reilly, a 6’3”, 225-pound hitting machine batting in the No. 3 slot all season is also the Panthers’ hitting coach. He was selected by Minnesota in the 29th round (800th overall) of the 1995 entry draft. Reilly was drafted out of Aldershot Secondary School in Burlington.

“In ’97, I had just come back from the Twins organization,” said Reilly, born in Hamilton and living in Guelph. “Jim Ridley (a former scout, player and national team coach then with Hamilton) contacted me, and asked if I wanted to come out. I remember we were practicing beside the old Lakeport Brewery. I said to myself, what the heck did I get myself into? I signed for all the hotdogs I could eat and a pitcher of beer. But I had some great times there – made some lifetime buddies.”

As a Little Leaguer, Reilly could pitch and hit, but stepping up into pro ball took the bat out of his hands. He said, “I always had the itch to hit. So when I came back to Hamilton, and the team was struggling just to put nine guys on the field, I got to play a position and get the hang of hitting again. I got back into the groove, and knew I wanted to pursue hitting.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Reilly’s IBL journey has seen him play for the Guelph Royals, the Barrie Baycats in 2011, the Royals again in 2012 before the club dealt him to the Leafs that season after he requested a trade, and finally to Kitchener in 2014.

“Sean wanted to play in Kitchener for a while,” said Steve Scagnetti, Reilly’s teammate with the Guelph Royals during their 2004 championship season. “When it was announced (in 2014) I was taking over (as coach and GM), he got in touch and said his contract was up in Toronto, and he was interested in joining forces again.”

Family First

Playing in parts of three decades, Reilly still gets excited going to the ballpark. But it wasn’t always that way.

Sean Reilly with son, Aiden, after record-setting hit. Photo: Facebook.

Sean Reilly with son, Aiden, after record-setting hit. Photo: Facebook.

“I came really close to retiring in 2007,” Reilly said. “I hadn’t had a summer off in a very long time. But I didn’t retire, and since then I’ve trained really hard, got myself in great shape. And I have great support from the team and the fans. So it makes it fun to play.”

A Sleeman Breweries employee, Reilly has studied hard as of late to become a firefighter.

“The process can be a slow and frustrating one,” said Reilly. “Hopefully the way I swing a bat will be indicative of how I’ll swing an axe one day,” he said, holding court during batting practice, and speaking of Eddie’s many IBL records.

Don’t expect Reilly to play well into his 50s, though, as did Eddie. No doubt he’ll be in tip-top condition. But family time with his wife, Lauren, 4-year-old son, Aiden, and the newest addition to the family, four-month-old daughter, Ryenn, ranks at the top of his list.

But there are games to be played, too.

“It’s a great league. Look at the quality of ballplayers who continue to come through. There’s a lot of history here, too,” Reilly said. “I’m not getting any younger. I just want to win another championship. You take it for granted, thinking that chance is always going to be there.”

Reilly’s best friend and teammate, Panthers bench boss Dave teBoekhorst, said in addition to unbelievable hand-eye coordination, Reilly possesses a work ethic second to none.

Reilly at the 2016 IBL All-Star Game. Photo: Facebook.

Reilly at the 2016 IBL All-Star Game. Photo: Facebook.

“He’s very in tune with his body. He’s the best damn hitter I’ve ever seen, and he’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen. On top of that, he’s probably everybody’s favourite guy in the dressing room. He keeps everyone relaxed, especially when things get animated. He calms the ship,” said teBoekhorst.

“He doesn’t take an at-bat off,” said Panthers second baseman Mike Andrulis. “He’s an incredible hitter.”

According to Reilly, “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become a more patient hitter. In the past, I would take a lot of swings at wild pitches, pitches out of the zone, trying to do too much.”

But with the big 4-0 around the corner for No. 33, Reilly appears as comfortable in his own skin as he is in the batter’s box. As his fitness level remains extremely high, and his passion for the game remains intact, retirement isn’t written in stone.

“It’s been a crazy summer (setting two IBL records and with the birth of Ryenn). It started to wear on me, people asking about the records all the time. So it was good to get them both out of the way the same season,” said Reilly.

jeffreil“Having teBo around is a huge, huge part of me staying, but ultimately it won’t be the main factor. There are other factors – my job, family, my health,” Reilly explained. “I just don’t know if I could walk away from the game, especially with a competitive team and me still contributing.

“So yes, it would be very difficult to just walk away, but it is something I’ll discuss in the off-season.”

Reilly has been almost injury-free during his two decades of IBL ball. A few seasons ago, he missed a playoff series versus London after rolling his ankle. There have been minor nagging aches and pains over the years, but “nothing a little Advil doesn’t take care of,” he said.

Ask any retired ballplayer what he misses the most, and he’ll mention his teammates – his second family. Reilly is no different. In fact, he credits his Panthers teammates for helping him set the two IBL records this season.

“Tanner Nivens (leading IBL hitters during the 2016 post-season with a .625 BA) had an incredible season,” said Reilly. The outfielder scored 50 runs, collected 67 hits, finished with a .432 BA (2nd), 17 HR (1st) and 40 RBI (7th). Panthers catcher/first baseman Justin Interisano hit .376 AVG, 11 HR, 47 RBI.

Does Reilly think hitting in the friendly confines of Jack Couch Park inflate the Panthers’ stats? Not necessarily.

“We’re a bigger team, so we’re going to hit them out of any ballpark,” said Reilly. “We don’t hit many wall scrapers. Pitchers know they have to keep the ball down on us. But yes, a mistake can mean a pop fly can sometimes leave Jack Couch, easier than at Labatt Park in London or in Barrie. But we just play our game. We know the vast majority of the time, if we get decent pitching, then we’ll come out on top.”

Reilly said he could “play for another five years, if that’s something I really want to do. But right now, I’m just taking it year by year.”

Reed and Reilly shake hands after ceremonial first pitch May 8 in Hamilton. Photo: Glen Cuthbert.

Reed and Reilly shake hands after ceremonial first pitch May 8 in Hamilton. Photo: Glen Cuthbert.

The game of baseball evolves. There will always be superstars waiting in the wings, ready to step in and replace the old guard. But it’s going to be awfully hard to replace a guy who is a superstar between the white lines, and a gentleman off the field.

In 2001, when I tossed a scoreless inning against the Hamilton Cardinals to see my dream of pitching in the IBL come true (read my story here), I faced no other than Reilly to end my baseball career. When I returned to Bernie Arbour Stadium this May, with the Panthers visiting the Cards, Reilly got behind the plate to catch my ceremonial first pitch.

Little did I know, 15 years ago, that I was pitching to the player who would become the league’s biggest superstar. More important than my strikeout is the fact Reilly has become a friend. Superstars like these don’t come around very often.

But forget the records. Reilly has one things on his mind: the Jack and Lynn Dominico Trophy.

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Jeffrey Reed is London, Ontario’s senior sports reporter. In 1993, he founded the Intercounty Baseball League’s media relations office. For 33 years, he was a member of the London Majors, starting as scoreboard operator and finishing as relief pitcher and third base coach in 2001. Reed is author of London’s first baseball history book, EBBA 40 Years of Baseball. He lives in London with his wife, Beth.

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About jeffreyreed

A leading Canadian communications professional. Corporate office https://www.JeffreyReedReporting.com established 1989. Publisher/Editor of this website and https://londonontariogolf.com. Sports journalist since 1980.

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