THE INTERVIEW: John Kastner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE INTERVIEW
Early Winter 2017-18
Intercounty Baseball League Commissioner John Kastner

The Intercounty Baseball League (est. 1919) has an identity crisis: is it an amateur or semi-professional league? Or is it, as IBL Commissioner John Kastner asked, simply a “slo-pitch league?” Of course when you’re about to enter your 100th season, there’s a proven track record for success. But baseball is not without its challenges. When the IBL formed, that same season the Chicago Black Sox Scandal threatened to ruin the game for good. But baseball endures. It always has. Yet with so many outside influences, including the power of social media, there are just as many off-field challenges are there are between the white lines. Kastner, 60, was named league commissioner in October 2013. With successful franchises in Barrie, Kitchener, London and Toronto, the former Stratford Beacon-Herald sports editor has had a rock-solid base from which to build the league into a more professional model. Yet Kastner insists, the IBL is an amateur league – perhaps Canada’s top amateur baseball league – but nothing more.

John Kastner. Photo: IBL.

Kastner, who once suited up for the Stratford Hillers of the IBL, is not only a huge baseball fan, but also fiercely proud of the league he represents. And it’s not the only one. He also wears the hat of Ontario Hockey Federation VP. This year, he was awarded the OHF President’s Award for valuable contributions made to amateur hockey through service and leadership. Kastner is also GM of the Stratford-Perth Museum. He has two boys: Alex, 32; and Adam, 29, a former professional UFC fighter and Eastern Canada Muay Thai Champion. There’s still plenty of fight left in John Kastner, always sharp with a quip and a comeback. He spoke recently with LondonOntarioSports.com editor Jeffrey Reed about the state of the Intercounty Baseball League as it prepares for its 100th season.

Jeffrey Reed, Editor, LondonOntarioSports.com: As the founder of the IBL media relations office in 1994, and having had a long association with the league and the London Majors, I’m thrilled that the league is pulling no stops in its celebration of its 100th season. Run down some of the events planned for 2018.
John Kastner, Commissoner, Intercounty Baseball League:  We’re working on some significant projects. We’re in the process of compiling the ‘ideal’ Top 100 players of all time, similar to what the National Hockey League compiled. We struck a committee to put that together. We’re pretty close to coming up with our final Top 100. We’ve solicited names from not only the eight current teams, but also from a number of defunct teams. (Ed. Note: Details about the anniversary banquet are available here).
Reed: Those defunct teams would include Cambridge, Mississauga, Niagara Falls, Oakville, Oshawa, Preston, St. Thomas, Stratford, Waterloo and Windsor – certainly important to league history.
Kastner: True. So, we’ve identified people in different communities who we felt could provide us the names of some of their better players. From that, we’ve done our own research. So we are about two weeks away from arriving at a solid draft of the Top 100 players.

John Kastner. Photo: OHA.

Reed: As you know, the beauty of a Top 100 list rests in the fact there will be many debates amongst league and team personnel, and amongst fans, in regards to the rankings, and in regards to who made the list and who didn’t.
Kastner: Yes, and it’s a tough process. One of the things that we did very early on is we set what we considered to be good criteria. And then, in the event that we wanted to waiver from that criteria, for whatever reason, the entire committee had to agree. For example, we talked about imports: is a guy who came in and went 10-0 (with a 1.36 ERA) – Jeff Jens (with Stratford in 1978) eligible? Or how about a guy like Marshall Gates (11-0, 1.51 ERA with Toronto in 1973): is he eligible? The answer is, no.
Reed: I made this exact argument when I ranked the London Majors top players at each position: there must be a certain amount of longevity with the ballclub.
Kastner:  Yes. And, I’ll give you the best example of someone who made significant contributions after baseball. He’s an IBL alumnus. Should he be considered?  (Committee member) Steve Rice is going through the records, and came across notes from a championship series in the 1930s. The MVP for Guelph in a final series against Stratford was Lester B. Pearson who, of course, went on to become Prime Minister of Canada, won a Nobel Peace Prize and invented the idea of United Nations peacekeeping forces. So, you ask yourself, should he be part of the Top 100? Well, that’s a good debate.

Reed: Getting back to my top London Majors, the name Bobby Deakin came up, but he was not part of my list. He is one of the best position players to ever compete in the IBL. But he only played parts of four seasons before he signed with the New York Yankees. He didn’t make my list. Either did Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Fergie Jenkins, who was only with the London Majors in 1984 and part of 1985. Yet long-time IBL third baseman and all-star, local product Dan Mendham, made my list.
Kastner: On that note, in our 100th book, which will be available in February, each team is listing their top all-time players. And we have an anniversary banquet February 24 in Kitchener. We’ll then reveal our Top 100.
Reed: And there will be a special 100th baseball.
Kastner: Yes, with our anniversary logo. We’ll use special balls for two years, for our 100th season and our 100th anniversary, 1919-2019.
Reed: There was no all-star game in 2017. (Read about its 2017 demise here). With the 2018 season being your 100th, is it not a good idea to revive the mid-season classic?

Kitchener Panthers superstar slugger Sean Reilly with Kastner. Photo: IBL.

Kastner: There won’t be an all-star game in 2018. We looked at a number of opportunities – the Canadian National Team, the Canadian Junior Team – and we also talked about playing a team out of the Can-Am League. But the timing wouldn’t be right. And it would be cost prohibitive. The Can-Am League wanted to play at least two games, but we’re talking somewhere around $10,000 to $12,000 for busing and accommodations and meals. And with everything else that’s going on in 2018, we thought, this is maybe one year we can miss an all-star game.
Reed: You’re right, there is a lot going on for the league, which still has to schedule a regular season and post-season in 2018, and concurrently deal with all of the issues which arise from those games – issues on and off the field. Before we discuss those, tell me, as someone who has been involved with the IBL for many years, and as current commissioner, where do you see the IBL’s place in Canadian baseball history and importance? Because it is heavily imbedded in numerous Ontario communities.
Kastner:  The one overriding principle for me is, we all worry about the league from time to time – as we should. I think that’s healthy. I don’t think you should become complacent. But by the same token, I think it’s a model that has worked, and I would argue it still works today, despite some suggestions that say otherwise. Some would say that the league is in real trouble, or that we should structure it differently. But in all honesty, I think the league model still works. Kids have an opportunity to play in this league. Kids who are away at college have an opportunity to play in this league. Guys who work until 5 p.m., wear a hardhat, are able to play in this league. Guys who come back after pro ball, settle in their hometowns, have a chance to play in the league.

“Some would say that the league is in real trouble, or that we should structure it differently. But in all honesty, I think the league model still works.”IBL Commissioner John Kastner

Reed: That speaks volumes about the league’s mosaic: it really is a melting pot of talent.
Kastner: Precisely. And that brings me to an overriding talk about, what sort of league this is. Is it a college league? A semi-pro league? A glorified slo-pitch league? I don’t think the IBL is any of those things.
Reed: I would argue that it’s a semi-pro league, meaning some players are receiving some sort of remuneration, while others are not. So by definition, the league is a semi-pro league.

1995 IBL alumni gathering at National Stadium, Stratford. John Kastner (front row, third from left). Photo: Jeffrey Reed/LondonOntarioSports.com.

Kastner: I don’t think it is. One change that’s been really positive is that, real or imagined, the idea there was all sorts of compensation for players. I think we’ve addressed that. You would be hard pressed to find somebody who is a person with any authority or knowledge or intimate knowledge of the league who would say, yes, there are all sorts of people being paid. I’m really comfortable saying this publicly, and privately at league meetings, that it is not the reality. I think the league has changed for the better. But what I’m going to tell you next is not revolutionary, yet it’s something I haven’t said before. If we look at the problems that took place in Guelph or in Hamilton last year, those weren’t problems that were created by London, Barrie or Kitchener. The people solely responsible for those problems were the people in Guelph and Hamilton.
Reed: On June 21, the Royals ceased operations while sitting in the basement at 1-15. Former owners, the Rooney family, called it a ‘leave of absence.’ But now we have new owners – Shawn Fuller and Guelph Mayor Cam Guthrie (read more about Guelph’s return to the league here). The Hamilton Cardinals were in hot water after comments made to IBL beat writer Greg Mercer at the Kitchener-Waterloo Record (read that story here). Cards manager Dean Castelli was quoted as saying, ‘Look at London. Half their team doesn’t speak English.” He was also quoted as inequality in the league is ‘out of control. I’ve lost so many games to a Dominican or a Cuban on the hill.’ Now, not only does the IBL have a social media policy (read about it here) which stems from online postings which the league deemed inappropriate, but also the IBL has a new policy in regards to what team officials, players and personnel say to the media. And there are new rules which apply to altercations (read about them here).

(L-R) New Guelph Royals owners Cam Guthrie and Shawn Fuller with Kastner. Photo: Facebook.

Kastner: I would say for the most part, the social media policy has been effective. We still have the odd time, Jeffrey, and I’ll be really honest with you, it’s a grey area. And I’m not even certain how I feel about it. I will give you the classic example. If you’re in a Facebook group and you’ve been invited to join that group, and someone who administers that group has said OK (to joining and posting), are those really public comments? Or, are those comments among a group of like-minded people who have chosen to go to an electronic dinner party, as it were.
Reed: I would argue that freedom of speech applies to every forum, online or off-line, but that common sense must apply. Defamation is defamation.

Kastner: In the case of my Facebook example, they’ve chosen to meet at an electronic pub and have a conversation. Are those public comments? That’s one of the overriding questions, and I don’t have an answer. But the idea of having comments that are disseminated in public and are widely viewed, we’ve addressed that. And 2017 was much better than 2016. It was largely without incident.

“If you’re in a Facebook group and you’ve been invited to join that group, and someone who administers that group has said OK (to joining and posting), are those really public comments? Or, are those comments among a group of like-minded people who have chosen to go to an electronic dinner party?”John Kastner, on the IBL’s social media policy

Reed: What about your new ruling on making public comments, in particular comments made to members of the media?
Kastner: I think that’s much clearer. You can’t be overtly critical of the league, other players, umpires, etc. To me, that’s an easier explanation. This past year, we had a couple articles where people questioned people’s ethnicity, where people challenged – questioned – whether or not certain people from certain countries should be allowed in the league. I find that problematic. They talked about not where they were from, and what their citizenship was, but what languages they spoke (Ed. note: see notes and link above). Again, I find it problematic when people talk about other teams circumventing the rules when it’s being presented without any evidence to support that.

“I’ll be really honest with you, it’s a grey area. And I’m not even certain how I feel about it.” – John Kastner, on social media and its dangers

Reed: It’s always fashionable to question the league’s umpires. As long as you have decisions made about balls and strikes, and safe or out calls, tempers will rise, comments will be made. But is it fair to mute those comments if they are made to the media?
Kastner: I think being super critical of the umpires of the league without any sort of evidence to support that is also a problem. I find that to be a real problem. The league and the umpires from time to time are criticized, and I’m sure that has always been the case. Conversely, in regards to people who have criticized the league, it would be unimaginable if the league criticized them. If the league – if I – went publicly, or the umpires went publicly, and said that people were terrible managers, or this guy can’t catch, it would be unimaginable.
Reed: But John, neither managers nor players are calling the shots. The IBL and the umpires are ultimately making the decisions. To borrow a phrase, the IBL is ‘The man.’ And ‘The Man’ will always be criticized.
Kastner: I think we want a standard that’s, first of all, tasteful, and doesn’t really mute free speech, but is fair. And I think sometimes with the IBL, we are more critical of ourselves than the general public is.
Reed: Again, I don’t believe in a policy of what can and cannot be said to the media. But also, common sense must prevail. I do, however, applaud you and the league for implementing a policy which will bring more professionalism to the IBL. Yet as a member of the media, I can tell you that the best – and only – quote post-game should be obtained immediately after a game. And that’s when emotions sometimes get the best of a player or coach. But again, I do applaud you for being proactive and bringing more professionalism to the league, something that has been missing for decades, to be honest.

IBL Commissioner John Kastner. Photo: Facebook.

Kastner: And with our initiative concerning bench clearing brawls, we had 14 in 2016, but zero in 2017.
Reed: What about further expansion? Stratford has been on the radar, but those interested parties said the then league-set new franchise fee of $40,000 was unfair. (Read that story here).
Kastner: Expansion is on the radar, all the time. But I don’t foresee it in the next couple of years, just based on the amount of interest that’s out there. I just don’t see it.
Reed: John, I really believe the IBL has been better off for having you in the commissioner’s seat. As we’ve outlined during this interview, the league is not without challenges, but it has been proactive under your watch. And, I wish to add, how cool is it that you have perhaps the best team to ever play in the IBL – the Barrie Baycats, with four straight IBL Championships – and Kitchener Panthers Triple Crown winner and league MVP Sean Reilly, arguably the best to ever play in the league, both active during your centennial celebrations? And let’s not forget Jack Dominico – 50 years with the Toronto Maple Leafs and a guiding force for this league.

“With our initiative concerning bench clearing brawls, we had 14 in 2016, but zero in 2017.”IBL Commissioner John Kastner

Kastner: Certainly, this league has changed for the better. And if you talk to somebody in Barrie, or London or Kitchener, they’ll tell you (operating a team) is a 12-month job. They’re selling program ads, website ads, outfield banners, holding fundraisers, running baseball camps in the summer. These types of organizations are more robust than they’ve been in the past.
Reed: As much as I will continue to criticize London co-owner/GM/manager Roop Chanderdat for his handling of the Majors’ pitching staff, he has been a successful winner, on and off the field. It never ceases to bring a smile to my face when, as a Majors alumnus, I continually spot Londoners wearing Majors caps out on the streets. That was unthinkable during the Arden Eddie era of the 1970s through the early-2000s.
Kastner: And you would have never imagined that a brewer would be making beer with a London Major on the can? (Ed. note: Railway City Brewing Co. released a 2017 limited-edition lager with the Majors logo and roster on its can). They’ve done a great job.
Reed: John, thanks for this candid conversation. All the best during the league’s 100th season in 2018. Can’t wait to see the Top 100 list.
Kastner: My pleasure, Jeffrey.
Ed. Note: Click here for a short 2015 YouTube interview with John Kastner.

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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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