College | Story | 4/8/2020

Summer opportunities at stake

Nick Herfordt        
Photo: MJ Rookard (Macon Bacon)

Late last Thursday evening a foreboding announcement meandered through email in-boxes and Twitter timelines which sent a collective shudder down the spines of college baseball players, coaches and fans. The Valley Baseball League, a nearly century-old summer establishment which has produced over 1,000 professional baseball players, canceled their 2020 summer league season.

For many it created a dreadful sense of déjà vu which mirrored an announcement less than a month prior when the Ivy League was the first NCAA D-I conference to officially scrap their spring sports season. The Ivy League’s abandonment of play was the first domino to fall in a series of statements from conferences from every division that canceled competitive play. One couldn’t help but wonder if another deluge of announcements would follow, this time by the collection of college summer baseball leagues which stood to be the sport’s consolation for play in 2020.

Nearly a week has passed and so far the VBL remains the sole league to close shop for the summer. Other leagues remain hopeful that the familiar crack and ping of the bat will be heard across diamonds by the end of May.

An all-encompassing elimination of summer collegiate baseball wouldn’t just be a bummer, it would be detrimental. The leagues not only serve as a vessel for players and coaches to hone their baseball skills, but allow them to develop personally and professionally as well. Additionally, summer leagues teams serve as star attractions for smaller communities who aren’t able to support their own minor league affiliate or whose remote location prohibits casual travel to catch nine innings elsewhere.

Located along the Georgia coast nearly four hours from Atlanta, Savanah, Georgia is a big-small town whose size can perhaps be best measured by knowing that they are home to only three movie theaters. Their residents have fallen deeply for the appeal of the Savannah Bananas of the Coastal Plain League.

“A sellout for us is 4,100 now, maybe 4,200, and we sell that out every single night,” affirmed Bananas’ Vice President Berry Aldridge. “We sold out every single game for the 2017, 2018 and 2019 seasons, and those are 100 percent legitimate. Anybody can tell you that if you come to a Savannah Bananas’ game on a Tuesday or a Saturday or a Wednesday – if I didn’t tell you what day it was you’d have no clue because every game looks the same. It is absolutely sold out every single game.”

The loss of the summer league season would be tragic to the Savannah community. it would mean a loss of over two-dozen home games for fans to attend. That would translate to a lost entertainment opportunity for well over 100,000 spectators this summer. The loss of fans then creates a dearth of employment opportunities and occasions for local businesses to sell and advertise their goods. It is a form of trickle-down economics which everyone wants to avoid.

Greg Suire is the president of three teams in the Coastal Plain League: the High Point-Thomasville HiToms, the Wilson Tobs and the Martinsville Mustangs. For Suire, a former player himself, summer baseball isn’t just a diversion, it's an institution, one which he doesn’t take lightly or for granted. Suire strongly feels time spent on summer diamonds not only is an essential time for players to advance their game on the field, but an essential component to developing their maturity as well. Suire stated that the mission of the HiToms is to grow the future leaders of our immediate community, state and country.

“We know our responsibility in the educational development chain,” Suire stated. “And someone may say, ‘Oh, it’s just baseball’, but guess what, baseball teaches you a lot about life in regards to failure, handling failure and grabbing your glove and not taking the bat back out to your position … You don’t know when these young people will learn that, ‘Ah you know it’s just one year’, but everybody goes through the evolutionary process different. Everybody’s development is different.”

Suire is also quick to point out that the potential loss of the summer game would have terrible consequences for communities along the Atlantic coast. Another CPL team, the Tobs, call Wilson, North Carolina their home. Wilson’s 50,000 population makes Savannah look like a metropolis. Suire proclaimed, “The community loves the Tobs. They’ve just embraced the Tobs. The void in towns like that will be tremendous over the summer.”

Of course, the players would be impacted if the season were to be nixed. Their time on the diamond is not only crucial to getting better, it also allows them to get noticed.

The Coastal Plain League is one of dozens across the county. Dustin Brown founded the North Louisiana Collegiate League after he graduated because he loved the experience and opportunity it created.

“Summer baseball is where kids build confidence,” Brown quipped. “No matter if you’re Mike Trout or Smalls from The Sandlot, you get a chance to prove yourself. For some guys this might be their only chance. This is why I believe summer baseball is just as important as the spring games. I personally had more summer starts than at my college and it kept the game fun for me.”

M.J. Rookard was a quality outfielder for the Middle Georgia State in Macon, Ga. His senior season he batted .348 with nine home runs for the Knights. They were very good numbers, but not nearly enough to catch the attention of a professional team. After the season Rookard joined the Macon Bacon, another club in the Coastal Plain League. Rookard was sizzling with the Bacon, batting a team-leading .396 with power and speed.

While heading to Cary with a Coastal Plain select team Rookard received a call informing him that the Gary SouthShore RailCats, a professional club in the American Association, were interested in having him join the team. Suddenly his once nearly squelched dream of playing professional baseball had come true. If Rookard hadn’t had the opportunity to dress for the Bacon, it wouldn’t have come true.

Nate Gorczyca has been a pitcher for Des Moines Area CC the past two seasons. He was looking forward to pitching this spring for the Bears with the hopes of catching the attention of a coach at a four-year NCAA or NAIA program. With his school season being extinguished after only four outings, he aspired that perhaps another summer would give him an ample opportunity to compete and showcase his 6-foot-6 frame and 90-plus fastball.

Additionally, the summer season allowed him to expand his repertoire. At DMACC he threw out of the bullpen, but while pitching for the Normal Cornbelters for the Prospect League last summer, he received experience being a starter as well.

“Playing summer ball would have given me opportunities to be seen and compete against all levels of the game, JUCO, NAIA and all the NCAA divisions,” Gorczyca lamented.

The list of lost opportunities doesn’t end with Rookard and Gorczyca. It seems every summer roster has multiple standout players who use the second season to shine.

“We see D-II kids in this league, NAIA kids in this league, hit their growth spurt as 20-year old men or 21-year old men and the light is flashing. It just beings to click and all of a sudden they’re striking out from the ACC and SEC schools,” Suire promoted. “Programs that never would have considered this kid from Tiffin University in Ohio are all of a sudden now saying, ‘How did we miss this kid?.’ And that is the beauty of summer college baseball. It really unearths these diamond in the rough.

“That’s what’s so beautiful about this game and that’s what’s so sad about this whole experience now, is that this could derail some of this evolvement and some of this growth.

Suire was referring to HiToms hurler Michael Boswell who has stuck out 86 batters in just 59 2/3 innings of Coastal Plain League baseball. In this first season he threw six shutout innings in the Petit Cup playoffs to win the West Division title for his team. By pitching in the summer he earned the acknowledgment of scouts that likely wouldn’t have seen him throw had he been limited to throwing exclusively at Tiffin.

With such a tremendous stake in the games taking place summer leagues are waiting in the wings with their fingers crossed that they will be able to play within the next couple of months.

“Obviously we don’t know what’s going to happen but we’re going to keep preparing and being optimistic for the best-case scenario until the best-case scenario changes,” Aldridge declared when asked about the likelihood of games being played.

Both Aldridge and Suire emphasized that a single pitch won’t be thrown in the Coastal Plain League if it is not prudent and safe. Each also underscored that they still have a lot of time before a decision needs to be made regarding the fate of the upcoming season. While their season is scheduled to start at the end of May, postponing opening day until contests can be played without health concerns remains a viable option.

“Our league’s position is that we’re going to do what’s best for the student athlete, and if that’s playing an abbreviated summer season and letting them go back to school in August, then we’re going to do that,” Aldridge explained. “If that’s playing a longer summer season that goes deeper into August and schools don’t start until later than we’ll do that. If that means we can’t play any at all this summer and student athletes just need to stay quarantined and stay protected we’re going to do that.

“The student athlete safety and safety of our community is priority number one.”

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