Sports Desk: Hamptons Collegiate Baseball has been a hit

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Joe Forney pitched three innings of relief for Riverhead in Game 2 of the Hampton Division finals against Southampton.

I have to admit that when I first heard about this idea of forming a summer league for college baseball players from throughout the country who would spend their vacation months on eastern Long Island, living with host families and playing in what would be a showcase league for pro scouts, I was skeptical. And it was more than just the skepticism that seems to be inherent in journalists. My skepticism was based on past experience.

I had heard and written about similar things in the past, grand plans that never went beyond the drawing board. Anyone, you see, can come up with a good idea. Turning that idea into reality, now that’s the trick.

In my defense, though, when I first heard about this concept six years ago, I wasn’t fully aware of just how determined a person Rusty Leaver is.

I have since learned that Leaver, the cowboy-hat-wearing owner and operator of Deep Hollow Ranch in Montauk, is someone who makes things happen. Leaver’s vision was to model a league after the famed Cape Cod Baseball League, giving college players a place to play in the summer as well as gain exposure to pro scouts.

Leaver founded Hamptons Collegiate Baseball in 2007 with one franchise, the Hampton Whalers, who reached the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League final that year.

Four new franchises, including the North Fork Ospreys and the Riverhead Tomcats, joined HCB in 2009, competing in the Kaiser Division. One of those new teams, the Westhampton Aviators, won the ACBL title. The following year it was the Ospreys who took the league crown.

With the addition this year of two expansion clubs, the Center Moriches Battlecats and the Shelter Island Bucks, HCB grew to seven teams, forming the ACBL’s Hampton Division.

In its time, HCB has seen 17 of its players drafted, including former Ospreys player Andrew Cain (the Milwaukee Brewers in 2011 and the San Francisco Giants in 2012) and former Tomcats Justin Echevarria (the San Diego Padres in 2010) and Nick Tropeano (the Houston Astros in 2011). HCB has sent 12 other players into the professional ranks where they have been able to pursue their dream of playing in the big leagues. The ACBL, which calls itself the “gateway to professional baseball,” is partially funded by Major League Baseball.

In addition to giving players the opportunity to chase their dreams, HCB has also provided what it calls free, family entertainment. For those accustomed to watching high school baseball, say, the college level is a real eye-opener. My first real taste of the HCB came in 2008 when I watched an exhibition game between the Hampton Whalers and the Long Island Battlecats. The players made an impression on me before the first pitch was thrown. During pregame practice, I saw a player catch a ball deep in the outfield and then fire the ball home. The throw was a laser that popped into the catcher’s glove on the fly, a perfect strike.

“Wow!” I thought to myself. “These guys are good.”

And they are. They surely have a gift, being able to do what 99.9 percent of us cannot do.

I would judge HCB to be a clear success. The biggest challenge, it seems, for the teams is finding housing for players, but things seem to have worked out on the field and off.

It’s a compact schedule, a 40-game regular season followed by the playoffs. I have sometimes wondered whether the 40-game playing schedule is too demanding of the players. Six game a week isn’t easy. Wouldn’t it be O.K. to make it five-game week instead, giving the players another day off to enjoy themselves? One player told me that the busy schedule is just what he wanted. Then a coach pointed out that the crowded schedule is by design, to give players a feel for what a professional player has to go through.

That makes sense.

From a competitive standpoint, the season that concluded on Sunday was a home run. The top five teams in the Hampton Division finished within three games of each other. Brett Mauser, HCB’s busy president and director of recruiting, deserves credit for that.

The playoffs brought surprises, with the No. 3 seeded Southampton Breakers and the No. 4 Tomcats pulling off upsets to reach the division finals, which the Breakers swept in two games last week.

“The top five or six clubs on a given day, with the right pitching, the right hitting, anyone can win it. That’s what’s great about it,” Tomcats coach Randy Caden said. “Seedings mean nothing. You just want to make it to the playoffs because then it’s a new season.”

And now we can begin looking forward to another one in 2013.

[email protected]