It is true that first impressions can be lasting impressions. Not always, but in this case, it certainly is the case.
My first impression of the quality of college summer league baseball we see on eastern Long Island was unforgettable. I had arrived early at Jean W. Cochran Park in Peconic one day to watch batting practice and pregame warmups. (Baseball is the only sport, I think, in which the pregame activity can be almost as much fun as watching the actual game itself). One of the teams was in the field for infield and outfield practice. A coach drove a long fly ball that an outfielder caught in deep centerfield. Then, in a fluid motion, the outfielder fired the ball on a clothesline home. The ball popped right into the catcher’s glove.
A perfect strike!
“Wow!” I thought to myself. “These guys are unbelievable.”
And they are. The games of the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League are some of the coolest things we cover in the sports world out here. The caliber of play is exceptional. Players from all over the country, from big colleges and small, converge on eastern Long Island to play a 42-game, regular-season schedule over a two-month span.
The HCBL, a non-profit organization that traces its beginnings to 2008 with one now-defunct franchise, the Hampton Whalers, has come a long way since. Despite difficult economic times, it expanded by adding four teams in 2009 and another two in 2012, raising the number of clubs to seven.
A member of the National Alliance of College Summer Baseball, the HCBL’s stated mission is to provide free family entertainment, which it does. But the league has done so much else. It has constructed a state-of-the-art baseball facility at Stony Brook Southampton College that serves as the league’s Player Development Center. It has made improvements to ballfields in Mattituck, Southold, Shelter Island, Montauk, Sag Harbor and Westhampton. All seven teams conduct free clinics for youngsters.
For the players themselves, the league offers experience and exposure. It hosts scout days and an annual All-Star Game that draws major league scouts. This past June, 24 former HCBL players were selected in the MLB Draft, the most ever. Since 2008, more than 100 HCBL alumni have been drafted, including current major leaguers Nick Ahmed (Arizona Diamondbacks shortstop), Zack Godley (Diamondbacks pitcher) and Nick Tropeano (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim pitcher), who played for the Riverhead Tomcats in 2009. Former Mattituck High School star Steve Ascher, who pitched for the North Fork Ospreys in 2012, was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays two years later. He is now playing Class A advanced ball for the Charlotte Stone Crabs in the Florida State League.
It is fun to follow the progress of local players at higher levels.
To those accustomed to watching high school baseball live, seeing these college players show off their considerable skills is an eye-opener. The pitching and the defense, especially, are a treat to behold. You will typically see about as many errors in an HCBL game as you will see in a major league game: not many.
And what makes it all the more enjoyable is the fact that the league employs wood bats, not aluminum, so you will hear a crack instead of a ping when a batter makes contact with the ball, the way baseball was meant to be played.
So, it is with some regret that I see the HCBL season coming to an end. Both the Ospreys and the Tomcats were swept in their semifinal series over the weekend. That means I most likely have covered my last baseball game until next spring. Shortly after that, the boys of summer will be back.
When I first heard talk, years ago, of a college baseball summer league on the East End, I have to admit I was skeptical. I had heard about such schemes before and nothing materialized. This time it was different, though. It looks as if the HCBL is here to stay, and to that I can only say, “Wow!”
Photo caption: North Fork catcher Sean Buckhout leaps for a high throw as Montauk’s Ryan Markey scores during Game 2 of the HCBL semifinals on Saturday night. (Credit: Daniel De Mato)