Montauk - It’s December, days after Thanksgiving, weeks before Christmas, and Rusty Leaver is busy thinking about baseball. This month’s agenda looks eerily similar to November’s, October’s, even September’s - wake up bright and early, hit the phones, hit the road and piece this thing together. The truth is, when last year’s Whalers team took the field for the 2008 Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League championship game, Leaver was already ear-deep in plans for the 2009 campaign. Expansion was central among his concerns, and after negotiations with villages and towns on the North and South Forks, Hamptons Collegiate Baseball (HCB) is set for play to begin in early June.
The day-and-night love affair to bring top-flight ball to the East End began long ago, and it won’t soon cease.
“This may be The Hamptons, which has a posh Rodeo Drive image, but this is an idea that accentuates the Iowa in the Hamptons, the small-town nature of what we really are,” Hamptons Collegiate Baseball President Rusty Leaver said, characterizing the campaign. “We want the East End of Long Island to become synonymous with where future stars got their starts.”
Of the five East End squads, two have confirmed nicknames - the Sag Harbor Whalers and the Southampton Breakers. Current proposals have the Riverhead team likely to be called the “Tomcats” and the Westhampton franchise to be known as the “Airmen.” The North Fork committee is currently batting around half-a-dozen proposed mascots, whose short list will likely include the “Ospreys” and the “Anglers.”
Additionally, the Long Island Mustangs, a Kaiser Division team that has historically called Hofstra University its home, may relocate to Stony Brook University’s main campus under the guidance of owner Phil Pursino. The South Bay Battlecats, who are based out of Center Moriches, have expressed interest in joining the league as well, although that wouldn’t become a possibility until the summer of 2010.
The six teams in HCB make up one-half of the Pennsylvania-based ACBL (All Collegiate Baseball League), in which last year’s flagship team, the Hampton Whalers roared back to win the Kaiser Division before eventually falling in the league championship game. Like last year, the victors from the east will meet the western champ to settle ACBL supremacy.
But who would make up these teams? Last year, New York Tech Assistant Coach Mike “Butch” Caulfield brought in roughly 25 kids to make up the Whalers; this year’s task of putting together five teams was far more challenging. In September, Leaver appointed Dan Gallagher, who won more than 500 games as the head coach at Fordham and currently an associate scout for the Philadelphia Phillies, to spearhead the recruiting process. With the help of his son-in-law, Dave Walker, a Long Island baseball mogul who is also the father of former Whalers Kyle and Chris Walker, approximately 95 players - or two-thirds of the rosters - have been signed to contracts as of Wednesday. Thirty others have been extended the necessary paperwork, with dozens of players on the hold list. A large percentage of those enrolled in Hamptons Collegiate Baseball hail from Division I schools and on Major League scouts’ follow lists. Among them are:
Billy Boockford, Notre Dame RF: The Irish’s starting right fielder batted .275 as a freshman.
Logan Welch, Maryland SS/OF: Frosh figures to see significant time in middle infield and corner outfield for Terps.
Tony Lepore, Southern Illinois 3B: Led all Division I junior college third basemen in batting average last year (.453) at South Suburban JC.
Ian Dickson, Lafayette RHP: All-Long Island pitcher from Northport consistently hits 88-92 on radar gun, topping out at 94.
Tony Bernazard, Jacksonville SS: Slick-fielding son of the former major leaguer and current Mets vice president of player development.
Brendan Floyd, Hartford RHP: Lanky righty is younger brother of White Sox starting pitcher Gavin Floyd.
Local players that will be featured on rosters are Farmingdale State 1B/OF Mike Labrozzi (Sag Harbor), Springfield RHP Dan Reiser (Sag Harbor), Sacred Heart C Jeff Heppner (Aquebogue), Farmingdale State 1B Kevin Curtis (Riverhead), Stevens Tech LHP Joe Finora (Mattituck) and Rhode Island RHP Gardner Leaver (East Hampton). Altogether, more than 65 schools are represented; others include Big East champion St. John’s, UConn, Rutgers, Seton Hall, Boston College, Indiana, UNC-Wilmington, Stanford, Santa Clara, UNLV and San Francisco.
“I think what the fans will see is the best quality amateur baseball you can see,” Leaver commented. “Professional players are supreme athletes at that level, but you can’t replace the combination of budding talent with a dream and the dedication and passion with this level of sports. These are young, hungry guys who aren't in it for the money but the love of the game.”
The teams’ coaching staffs are also beginning to be assembled. The first managerial hire was Shawn Epidendio, a second-year assistant coach at West Coast stalwart Santa Clara. With Epidendio’s help, the Broncos scored victories over perennial power Stanford and eventual national champion Fresno State last year. A former Santa Clara standout himself, Epidendio batted .269 over 151 games in his four-year career.
Epidendio will be assisted by Clarence Griego, the pitching coach at Allan Hancock College of the NAIA. Last summer, Griego coached for the Fairbanks Goldpanners of the prestigious Alaskan Baseball League. Lengthy discussions have also occurred that would lure Gallagher out of retirement to manage the Westhampton franchise. Additionally, Brown University assistant Jason Lefkowitz has been offered the Sag Harbor head position, and Gerard Pineda, a former assistant at the University of New Mexico, has been extended an invitation to lead a team as well. Julio Vega, who led last year’s Whalers to the Kaiser Division championship, has said in the past that he’d consider returning if given the opportunity.
Covering All The Bases
Leaver has worked diligently behind the scenes with the teams’ host committees, which are made up of government and school officials, sponsor representatives, coaches and local residents. Each is in charge of team finances, gameday operations, player housing and facility management.
The fields on which the teams will play have all but been lined. Sag Harbor will continue to play its games at Mashashimuet Park, which hosted some of the flagship team’s most memorable moments, namely Phil Klein’s perfect game and the Kaiser-clinching come-from-behind win over the Metro N.Y. Cadets.
The Breakers of Southampton will branch off on their own and play at Southampton High School, although initial negotiations to build a state-of-the-art field at Stony Brook-Southampton have taken place. There’s also talk that seats from the recently retired Yankee and Shea Stadiums could be used, although those discussions are preliminary.
Further west, the Westhampton team is slated to play their games at the newly constructed varsity fields behind the grammar school in Westhampton. On the North Fork, the Anglers are penciled in to split time between Mattituck and Southold, while the Riverhead franchise will play their home games at the lit Calverton sports complex on Route 25. However, Riverhead High School is also a possibility.
Hamptons.com, the official online media source for Hamptons Collegiate Baseball, is one of the league’s cornerstone sponsors, joined by Hampton Jitney, Prudential Douglas Elliman, Emil Norsic & Son, and Bridgehampton National Bank. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld, media baron Mort Zuckerman and J. Crew CEO Mickey Drexler were major contributors last year and have expressed interest in further backing the league’s development. Sponsors on the broad and local scale are still welcomed.“These companies that are supporting this whole concept of free family entertainment are doing it when the times are tough, when it's not easy to do it,” Leaver pointed out.
If there’s any aspect of summer ball that Leaver believed fell short last year, it was major league scouting. He’s made that one of his main focuses for the 2009 season. The goal is to help scouts plan extended visits to the East End, and Leaver has asked a sampling of those scouts, including Pat Shortt (MLB Northeast Region), Larry Izzo (Mets), Paul Gibson (Braves), Joe Rigoli (Cardinals), Gallagher (Phillies) and others for their input. Meanwhile, host committees are working on setting up tee times at local golf courses, discounts at area restaurants and other leisure activities to make their stays more enjoyable.
“We’re doing everything we can do to help extend a gracious welcoming feeling to the people of Major League Baseball who are important to the growth of Hamptons Collegiate Baseball,” Leaver said. “They’re all rooting for this. Much like the Cape [Cod Baseball League], they can spend two or three nights on the East End of Long Island and that will provide them with the opportunity to see 150 players that are on their radar screens for future drafts.”
Every detail is being ironed out long before the first pitch is thrown. Each team, newly named, needs a mascot. They need jerseys, hats, bats, gloves, public address systems, announcers, scorekeepers and a whole lot more. The pieces are slowly coming together, and once they’re all in place, full-fledged rivalries between north and south, east and west, are expected to materialize. For the full baseball experience, the slightest bit of baseball Americana isn’t slight at all in fact.
“Each town is going to have baseball cards,” Leaver said. “Some of them are going to be valuable someday.”