Unlike many of the players who were on the Guelph Royals’ roster when the team made the decision to sit out the 2021 Intercounty Baseball League season due to the uncertainty of the global pandemic, first baseman Justin Interisano didn’t go looking for another place to play.
“I had chances to go to other teams and play,” Interisano said. “I don't want to wear another uniform other than Guelph. Guelph is the city where I live. It's the city that I know best. It's the city where I coach the university team. I am so tied to Guelph at this point, it's either Guelph Royals or nothing for me.”
It’s also the city he was born in and the city where he’s played almost all of his baseball. He was one of the top players on the Guelph junior team a little more than a decade ago and was dominant with the Guelph Gryphons in the Ontario university league after that, winning the OUA league’s MVP award in back-to-back seasons (2012 and 2013). He’s now an assistant coach with the Gryphons.
The 30-year-old Interisano is now in his eighth season with the Royals and 10th in the league. He did play with the Kitchener Panthers in the 2016 and 2017 seasons when playing in the Royal City wasn’t a happy time for him.
“That was a little bit of different circumstances,” Interisano said. “(I was) younger, too, but as you get older and you realize that life is moving a little bit quicker with some other avenues that weren't there four or five years ago. Home is where you want to be if you can be.”
The Royals are now 4-4 on the season after splitting their two games on the weekend.
Sunday they fell 4-3 in 11 innings in Toronto. Saturday they came from behind with four in the eighth inning to beat the Kitchener Panthers 13-12.
Guelph plays in Welland Thursday then hosts Hamilton Saturday at 1 p.m.
In his time with the Royals, Interisano has hit 42 homers and driven in 147 runs in regular season and playoffs combined. In his two seasons in Kitchener, he hit 23 homers and 94 RBIs.
Now he’s raring to go this season, a season that has started slowly as he’s had to self isolate after close contact with a person who contracted COVID-19. He got in one game before the self isolation.
“After two years, I've been itching to get back out here. I didn't play last year,” he said prior to the season. “The Legacy Classic (in London) and the Home Run Classic is all I've done. I've done the minimum of minimums leading up to this year.”
The two things he mentioned were in 2020, the Legacy Classic allowing the London Majors to keep their string of consecutive years playing at Labatt Park alive.
When the IBL announced that it was expanding its schedule from the usual 36 games to 42 this year, Interisano wasn’t a fan of it. Having missed five of the teams first six games, his opinion might have changed.
“I didn't really enjoy reading 42 games in a regular season, but it's what the league did,” he had said. “At the same point, it gives more of an opportunity for fans and other teams to see each other during the year. I think it's going to be extremely competitive as the season goes on across the entire league with the imports being allowed back this year and the talent the teams have signed. It's going to be a dogfight and I think adding the extra games is really going to test team's depth, especially on the mound.
"I think it just sets up for an absolute grind into that late August into September when the playoffs get going.”
It’s also nothing new for anyone who played in the 2013 season, the only other time the teams in the league played 42-game seasons. That was his second full season with the Royals and he finished with 10 homers and 29 RBIs, the first time he hit double digits in homers.
“At that point it was more baseball, great,” he said. “Now I'm older, it's, oh, more games. There's going to be some strategy involved to keep guys fresh, keep guys healthy and obviously guys work and they can't make every game and that sort of thing. I think the key will be depth -–42 games plus playoffs, depth is going to be tested.”
While the Royals started with the grind of playing six games in 10 days, they’re in the midst of another stretch of six games in 11 days.
“It brings you back to when you were 12 years old and you'd play two games during the week and then go play in a Vaughan tournament or something,” Interisano said. “The difference was that those 13 guys on the squad, all of them could pitch. Not all 25 guys on an IBL roster can pitch.”
While Interisano is excited to just be back playing, he’s looking forward to seeing if the Royals can come together as a team with so many new players on the team including former Major Leaguers Dalton Pompey and Dario Alvarez. Of the 31 players listed on the roster, 11 of them were with the Royals in 2019. The 2020 season was cancelled due to the pandemic and the Royals opted out of the 2021 campaign.
Those back from 2019 are Interisano, pitchers Steven Dressler, Evan Kiser and Ben Reid, catcher Brendan Keys, infielders Darius Barlas and Kyle Kush. outfielders Josh Garton, Ethan Hammond and Jeff MacLeod and designated hitter Sean Reilly.
It’s how those players and the 20 newcomers come together, once they’re all here, that holds the key to the season.
“There's a good group that have played at a high level and now it’s to bring them all together to gel with some of the guys like me who have only made it as high as Canadian university baseball and to be a lifer when it comes to Guelph,” Interisano said. “Chemistry in the locker room is very, very important and they're going to provide a level of locker room cohesiveness that maybe we've never been exposed to before.
"I think that's a good thing, to be honest to you. And we might be able to give them a little bit of as taste of, hey, this is kind of what it's like to play in a local city market kind of deal.”
And Interisano feels manager Dino Roumel is the perfect guy to bring all the players together.
“One of the things I always look forward to is just being in the locker room with the boys,” Interisano said.
“It's one of the most fun places to be in for the summer. With more games, there's going to be more opportunity to build something in there and I think Dino is a great manager to help bring that all together. The guy's got a history. He's got a resume you can't argue with. He knows how to win in this league. He knows how to get players. He knows how to build a clubhouse and he knows how to build a winning product on the field. I don't think there's any more to say to that other than I think this is going to be really, really fun.
“The talent here is outstanding. I can tell you that the fans are going to be in for quite a treat this year to be brutally honest. I think Guelph Royals baseball is going to be the place to be Tuesdays and Saturdays back in the city.”