Josh Matlow says he’s never one to be at a loss for words.
But ask the Barrie Baycats general manager and field manager what will it mean to him and his team to finally be able to return to the diamond Thursday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and he admits it’s almost too difficult to put into words.
“I got to tell you, I don’t even know how to describe it,” he said.
There’s been so much lost, so much sacrificed dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, a return to some normalcy.
After a cancelled 2020 season and a delayed start to 2021’s regular season, Barrie’s boys of summer are back.
“I’ve played it in my head 100 times where the umpire is going to say, ‘play ball’ and it’s just going to be an emotional rollercoaster,” Matlow said of their Intercounty Baseball League opener at Coates Stadium. “The crowd is going to go nuts and I might cry if I’m being honest.
“I know a lot of the guys are really stoked to get out there and it’s going to be an emotional moment that a lot of people will remember for a very long time for many different reasons.”
Matlow broke the word of a return to play to a small group of his players and coaches at an outside workout. He could see the emotion in everyone’s faces.
“We were just hoping and when we got that official word and the fact that we were going to have fans, it made our day,” said Matlow, who replaces Angus Roy as manager after the long-time dugout leader left the organization to spend more time with family. “There’s nothing else that mattered at that moment. I told my coaches at the same time too, and you should have seen the smiles on their faces.
“These are the moments that we’re doing this for. It’s just so amplified because we’ve been waiting so long.”
Matlow knows there’s something bigger going on Thursday night than just the game. Everyone has been through so much with the pandemic and to finally have some sense of a return to normalcy will mean so much for everyone at the park that night.
“It represents just a lot more than baseball,” he said of the game. “It’s also the first event that is going to have actual fans in Ontario and you can’t explain it in words. It’s so surreal.”
“It’s been a long time coming. I’m just excited for everybody.”
The Baycats return to the field looking for a seventh-straight IBL title, but it will be an almost completely new roster that will be looking to extend the impressive run.
“It’s a new era. We have a ton of new faces,” Matlow said. “We only have about four guys returning from a 25-man roster. We built it from scratch. We brought in a lot of young guys for sure, we brought in a lot of seasoned, experienced guys to help balance that. We brought in some older Baycats that did play in the past.
“I just think it’s a really nice balance.”
Matlow believes there are several reasons to be excited about his young club, and one certainly being all the local talent that will be taking the field.
“I think the craziest part of all of this is in this new era we’re getting the kids that used to come to the park with their family growing up, and they’re now becoming Baycats,” he said. “I can’t explain to you how exciting that is for not only the Barrie Baycats but for baseball in Simcoe Region.”
While youth will be served this season, Matlow knows there is a winning culture that he’s determined to continue.
“We didn’t rebuild, we retooled,” he said. “We’re going for a seventh championship. We built a team that’s going to compete.”
“Yes, we’re younger, we’re faster, we’re hungrier and I really think we have the potential to not only bring home a seventh championship but to be good for many years to come.”
As for what kind of identity the Baycats will have when they step on the field, the manager says wants to see his players in a game atmosphere first.
One thing he knows, they will be competitive.
“I think being a younger faster team. We may run a little bit more than the average team,” Matlow said. “They’re going to be diving for balls and maybe put their bodies more on the line, and that’s what they’re used to and that’s what they want to do.
“I think there’s going to be a level of excitement for the fan base where you’re going to see guys layout and try to make that play because they want to do it for the rest of the team. These guys want to win for each other as not so much come in and do it on their own, so I’m excited.”
“Baseball is back,” Matlow said, the excitement in his voice growing. “Intercounty is back, competition is back, fans are back, summer is back, life is back!”
The team’s home opener will take place on July 15, after the scheduled July 8 match against the Leafs was called on account of rain. That matchup has been rescheduled until late august.
images via Brian Backland