The voice on the other end of the telephone line sounds the same and is just as enthusiastic as it was 35 years ago, particularly when the sport of baseball is brought up.
For Mike Lebel, baseball has always been his passion, but the veteran organizer and former player and coach has never faced a curve ball as challenging and destructive as COVID-19.
But in true Lebel fashion, he knows it will get resolved and the day will come when the kids of this community will be back on the diamonds at Strathclair Field, hitting curve balls and fastballs of a less-threatening nature.
“I keep telling my executive through virtual meetings, which is something new, that we need to offer some form of hope to the players and parents,” said Lebel, who is president of the Soo Minor Baseball Association. “It may not be a full schedule but maybe we can get a month or two in. We are one of the cheapest sports to play so our hope is that maybe we can offer something. Of course, we are going to follow what Baseball Ontario says and if we get the word, then we want to put something together and have some sort of a season.
“We’re just asking for people to even register – don’t give us money, just register to give us an idea of how many people are interested this year because we have equipment and uniforms to order.”
Now 70 and retired from the city of Sault Ste. Marie, Lebel has not lost his zest for the game and while he no longer manages a team, he remains a lightning rod for baseball locally, serving as president of SMBA.
He will do whatever it takes to keep the sport alive-and-kicking locally, even though he’s up against obstacles that did not exist 20 years ago.
“I still enjoy it and I get up every morning thinking of what we can do to get better,” said Lebel, who has made baseball a part of his life for the last 57 years. “For me, life might be a little bit boring without being involved in baseball somehow. I’d still watch it and enjoy it, but I like being a part of it and seeing this develop and seeing the satisfaction on the faces of the players and coaches.
“That’s one of the most rewarding things. It’s so nice to see some of the players you’ve coached in the past and to me it means a lot to give back. I remember when I was young there were people out there that coached me and drove me around and things like that so I feel like I’d love to give back and I get enjoyment out of that.”
Lebel has done more than just give back.
His love for the game began back in 1960 when, at the age of 10, he got hooked on the sport after watching Bill Mazeroski’s dramatic walk-off ninth inning home run catapult the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 10-9 World Series title win over the New York Yankees. He fell in love with the game after that and, three years later won the Korah Little League championship as a youth.
He spent much of his youth playing before coaching his son Greg’s teams in the 1980s and later managed the Sault Black Sox rep team of 16-18 year olds for several seasons. Throughout his managerial career, Lebel has helped skipper his teams to seven gold medals and six silvers at various provincial championships.
He also spent a number of years playing fastball in the now defunct International Fastball League at North Street Field and, in 2017, was inducted into the Sault Ste. Marie Sports Hall of Fame.
“I owe that to a lot of people over the years,” Lebel said. “You don’t do things by yourself or get that kind of recognition without help.”
And probably the biggest help came in the form of Strathclair Fields and Sinclair Yards, where the SMBA plays its games. Lebel said he remains grateful today to Dr. Sinclair, who donated the land to the city for recreational purposes, leading the way for Soo Minor to approach the city and eventually work out a lease agreement for $1 a year, with Soo Minor paying all the costs to keep the fields up and running.
Lebel has been president of Soo Minor Baseball since 1989.
“We were playing at parks all over the city and most of those places didn’t even have a bathroom for the kids so I had a group of people who had the same vision as me, Graham Newman being one of the big ones.
“We worked with the city because they had 24 acres that Dr. Sinclair donated and we turned (some of that) into a seven-diamond facility dedicated to youth. To me, that’s one of the greatest things I’m most proud of.”
In recognition of his unyielding volunteer work in the sport of baseball, Lebel was one of two minor-league coaches in the country in 2001 invited to be a participant at the Toronto Blue Jays minor league spring training camp in Dunedin, Fla.
“That was a great experience,” he said. “It was an all expenses paid trip and we got to go every morning to the complex and sit with the coaches and help run drills.
“It was just a super experience.”
That endeavour turned out to be a $1.2 million project in which the association got half the money from a Wintario Grant and came up with the other half through fundraisers, donations and lenders.
“People think that big complex is city run but we operate independently and there’s no financial burden to the city,” Lebel said.
And that’s due to the volunteer hours put in by Lebel and many others on the executive, who work tirelessly ensuring the fields are in good condition and the facility is something to be proud of. They offset costs via registration fees but Lebel says those fees are not excessive and says baseball, unlike many other sports, does not require expensive equipment.
He said the league has produced a number of quality players and still marvels at the reality that at least three players during his tenure – Aaron Fera, Tyler Binkley and Kai Tuomi – were selected in the Major League Baseball draft.
“We’ve had a lot of good players so I wouldn’t want to rate one over the other, but the fact you got drafted into major league baseball says a lot,” he said.
For Lebel, producing players for the next level, whether it’s community college, university or the pros, is one of the most satisfying feelings he’s had. There was a time in the late 1990s when Soo Minor had five graduates – Greg Arbour, Ryan Johns, Mike Caruso, Creston Rudolph and Dan Pino - all playing at the same time for Brock University, which went on to win the national championship.
“We used to have some hungry players back in those days,” Lebel said. “We played 67 games in a summer. The one team we had in 2000 won the provincials and we finished that year with a 53-13 record.”
Today, it’s more of struggle to get the kind of numbers they once had, particularly at the older age group. Lebel said other sports coupled with other social interests, have cut into their numbers.
“I talk to a lot of coaches in a lot of different sports and it’s a common problem everywhere,” he said. “Maybe it’s social media issues, you know, you can now sit in your basement and play soccer, basketball land baseball on a device whereas in our day, you had to go to the parks to play.”
But while times have changed, Mike Lebel remains the same. He shows up daily. He is there for the kids and his drive is not self-motivated but community motivated.
So, just when will he finally hang it up? Well, the answer is simple and to the point.
“When they don’t want me anymore,” Lebel says.