Baseball: Former Oxford Hills and USM star Verrier catches on in Canada

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Matt Verrier arrived in Moncton, New Brunswick in early June and found a city on edge.

Verrier was there to play some baseball, but the city of 65,000 was preoccupied with findng a man suspected of killing three Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers

“The shooter was on the loose. The whole city was on lockdown for two days,” said Verrier, whose father, David, is the former police chief in Paris. “It was a little bit scary. It was a sad thing.”

The suspect was found and arrested and life returned to normal in Moncton. That included supporting their amateur baseball team and its American catcher, the former Oxford Hills and University of Southern Maine star.

The Moncton Mets aren’t the biggest thing in town. The city’s Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team, the Wildcats, are kings. But they do sometimes draw close to 1,000 fans to Kiwanis Park for their Sunday night home games.

Not yet ready to put away his catching equipment, Verrier drove north of the border two days after USM was eliminated from the Division III World Series.

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“It’s just a fun way to keep playing baseball,” Verrier said. “I’m glad I get to keep playing somewhere.”

Verrier heard about the New Brunswick Senior Baseball League through University of Southern Maine coach Ed Flaherty.

“Coach Flaherty contacted them about me possibly catching here. I talked to them during the school year,” Verrier said. “They watched my games online and talked to coach Flaherty and told me they wanted me to catch.”

Each NBSBL team is allowed one “import” from outside of New Brunswick. The Mets have made a habit of importing catchers, and usually seek out college seniors who play the position so they can have them by the league playoffs. Former University of Maine catcher Myckie Lugbauer played for the Mets in 2010.

In the spring, Mets manager Gerry LeBlanc got a short list of possible import candidates, including Verrier, from the team’s former general manager, Ralph Chambers. LeBlanc watched one of USM’s games over the Internet and was immediately impressed with Verrier.

“I only needed to see one of USM’s games on-line to assess Matt’s abilities and whether he would fit with our team,” LeBlanc said in an e-mail to the Sun Journal. “When I saw him standing at home plate and the first one in line ready to shake hands with the opposing team after losing the ball game, I said that he is the player we want in our organization.”

The NBSBL has a few alums known to most baseball fans. Former Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee pitched for the Mets in the mid-1980s after retiring from the big leagues. Last year, former Major Leaguer Matt Stairs played for the Fredericton Royals, who have won eight of the last 12 league championships.

The Mets are in a rebuilding phase, according to LeBlanc. The roster is a mix of players like Verrier who are fresh out of college — or “university” ball as the Canadiens like to say — and grizzled veterans, mostly in their late 20s.

“Some guys have been in this league for quite a while. They’re up around 28 or 29 years old,” Verrier said.

The most grizzled veterans on the team are the pitchers. Verrier developed a rapport with the staff quickly and its a 2.03 ERA is a big reason the Mets have an 8-5 record and are in a three-way tie for first at the season’s midpoint.

“As far as his adjustment, it was immediate,” LeBlanc said. “The pitching staff has so much confidence in themselves since he has been behind the plate and that is due to the presence he brings to every game. It has not taken him long to learn all the hitters in the league and that explains why the team is having success at the moment.”

“They’re throwing really well right now,” he said. “One of our guys, Steve Aube, is a slow-throwing lefty who can locate it well. He’s been in the league six years, maybe, and he just knows how to get guys out. Then we have another guy named Ben Sollows. He throws hard. He went to junior college out in Texas but he’s from New Brunswick.”

Offensively, Verrier has cooled off after a torrid start batting cleanup for the Mets in the wood bat league. LeBlanc said that’s mostly because the word is out on Verrier around the league and he isn’t seeing many pitches to hit.

“I broke a few bats. I don’t know how, but I did,” Verrier said. “I’m just swinging at everything, pretty much, having a good time.”

The NBSBL consists of six teams. The Mets are one of two teams in Moncton, sharing Kiwanis Park with the Hub City Brewers.

Teams play two or three games per week. The Mets are always at home on Sunday nights and their longest road trip is about 90 minutes by coach bus. Players aren’t paid but do get discounts from the team’s many sponsors.

The regular season runs mid-May to mid-August. Every team makes the playoffs, and the league champion is crowned by the end of September. The league champion gets a berth in a national senior league tournament involving all of the provinces and played the following year. Import players are not eligible to participate.

Verrier lives in his own apartment right next door to Kiwanis Park. He spends most of his free time at the Park, at a nearby YMCA or walking around the city. Next week, he’ll be accompanying LeBlanc to baseball clinics in the Moncton area.

“The kids enjoy seeing him play and will certainly enjoy learning to play with him,” LeBlanc said.

Verrier admitted he was a little homesick for a couple of weeks, but now feels at home 30 miles from the Bay of Fundy.

“The city’s nice. There are a lot of beaches nearby,” Verrier said. “It’s not too different from Maine. There are no pennies here. Beer is a little expensive.”

Whenever the season ends, he plans to return to USM and finish up his criminology degree and start a career.

The two-time all-Little East selection hit .322 for the Huskies with a team-leading eight home runs this year.

USM reached the World Series Verrier’s last two years there, playing in the national championship game his junior year. The Huskies were eliminated four games into the double-elimination tournament this year.

“It was great. We expected to win and then we ran into a hot team in Wisconsin-Whitewater in the first game,”he said. “I think we accomplished our goal, which was to get back there. We had lost our two best hitters (to graduation) and our All-American pitcher (Logan Carman) wasn’t there the whole year. So to go back and do what we did is pretty good, I think.”

Satisfied with the Huskies’ season, Verrier still needed to satisfy his need to play baseball. A small amateur league in Canada is doing that. And he wouldn’t rule out returning next spring if the Mets want him.

“It’s competitive baseball,” he said. “It’s not like college baseball, where you’re at it every day. But it’s competitive and it’s fun.”

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