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A Diamond In The Rough

By Michael Wright, 04/24/08, 12:04AM EDT


The father of an aspiring baseball star from East Hampton has planted the seeds of what he hopes will be a new collegiate baseball league on the East End. Its first team will begin playing home games this summer in Southampton and possibly Sag Harbor.

As the league evolves, games will be played across the East End at local school fields, admission will be free and players will be unpaid—but if the league becomes anything like the 120-year-old Cape Cod League, on which it is modeled, it will generate high spirits and a positive impact on the local economy.

The league's co-founder, Rusty Leaver, owner of the Deep Hollow Ranch in Montauk, said his newly formed Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League will someday have as many as 10 teams, all based on the East End, attracting some of the country's top collegiate athletes, Major League Baseball scouts and crowds of East End residents and visitors. He promises a team in East Hampton next year.

"It's ambitious but anybody that's ever seen a Cape Cod Baseball League game, they're incredible," said Mr. Leaver, whose son Gardner pitched for East Hampton High School last year and now plays for the University of Rhode Island. "Their fan base is huge," he said of the 10-team league on the Cape. "There are great rivalries between towns, it's a really great thing to see. It's low-cost family entertainment that is a part of real Americana."

But first things first. This summer, the first team of the future East End league, the Hampton Whalers, will be playing in the established Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League, against teams mostly from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The 25-man team is made up of college players from NCAA Division I and Division II schools, including Boston College, Yale, North Carolina-Wilmington and, of course, Gardner Leaver's the University of Rhode Island. The team will play 20 home games at Southampton High School and possibly Mashashimuet Park in Sag Harbor, and 20 away games in June and July. Mr. Leaver said the team will also play some non-league games around the East End to drum up support for additional future teams.

Michael "Butch" Caufield, an assistant baseball coach at the New York Institute of Technology, will coach the Whalers. His $6,500 salary will be paid through fund-raising, as will the costs of running the team. There will be two assistants and a trainer. Some costs will be covered by "passing the hat" at games, Mr. Leaver said, which he says has worked well on Cape Cod. Rawlings, the sporting goods company, will donate the team's equipment.

Despite the long distances that its teams will have to travel to play here, Mr. Leaver said, the Atlantic League welcomed the advent of the Whalers out of support for the formation of a league on Long Island. "They said yes right away," he said.

Mr. Leaver came up with the idea for a local league after traveling the country to watch his son play last summer, he said. With the help of fellow East Hampton baseball aficionados Richard Whalen and Mike Mirras, he created the non-profit league this fall in the model of the Cape Cod League and the hometown teams of old that lured baseball players simply by offering them room and board with local families and part-time jobs at local businesses.

Mr. Leaver said he hopes to have at least five East End teams playing each other by the summer of 2009. The Whalers and the future teams of the Hamptons League will be made up of students playing for top-level collegiate baseball programs, most of which require that their players participate in summer leagues around the country to keep their skills sharp. East Hampton High School graduate Ross Gload, now a professional baseball player for the Kansas City Royals, played in the Cape Cod League in college.

The teams would be funded through a private-public partnership with the support of local businesses as well as Suffolk County and East End townships. County Executive Steve Levy has pledged to offer his administration's support and deputy county executive Ben Zwirn, an East Hampton resident, has been instrumental in the formation of the Whalers and promotion of the league throughout the East End, Mr. Leaver said.

The Southampton Town Board has also pledged to support the Whalers and the fledgling league.

The Whalers players will not be paid—as NCAA players, the rules forbid it—and will stay at the homes of local residents who volunteer to take them in. The league is still looking for families to house a few players, Mr. Leaver said, and looking for employers to offer part-time jobs for the players so they can earn spending money between games and practices.

Funds raised by the league will be used to make minor improvements to the fields that host teams. The league will help the Southampton School District improve its main field for Whalers' games this summer.