Summer nights in Wakefield will feel a little different this year. There will be no Ocean State Waves baseball following the cancellation of the New England Collegiate Baseball League season on Friday night due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“This decision was reached after a careful and thoughtful review of the guidance from federal, state and local officials, the leadership of our host communities, and recommendations from the CDC and medical community,” read a statement from the league. “The conclusion was that canceling the 2020 season was necessary for the health, safety and well-being of our players, coaches, umpires, volunteers, fans and host families.”
With 13 teams across all six New England states, the NECBL has become one of the top summer leagues in the country. Its Rhode Island contingent includes the Waves and the Newport Gulls, who were set to celebrate their 20th year in Newport this season, with festivities including the NECBL All-Star Game on July 19.
The Waves were prepping for their eighth season at Old Mountain Field in Wakefield. The team has been a perennial contender, finishing as NECBL runners-up in both 2017 and 2018. President and general manager Eric Hirschbein-Bodnar, who was also set to take over as head coach this summer, had been hoping the league would find a way to play, but knew prospects were dimming.
“We’ve been going back and forth as a league since this whole thing started,” Hirschbein-Bodnar said. “The decision was made strictly on the important things – the health and safety of our players, our host families, our communities, and the viability of our league and organizations going forward. God forbid, if we ran this summer and a player or a host family got sick, we would never be able to come back from that. And if we risked having a season and teams weren’t ready for it financially based on sponsorship, field availability, size of gatherings, we could end up losing franchises for the future. The league has done such a good job building itself the last 25 years into one of the top leagues in the country, and it’s all about their communities. To risk losing that because of a reckless decision was something we were not ready to do as a league.”
The nearby Cape Cod Baseball League, the nation’s premier summer circuit, canceled its season the week before. The NECBL held out hope a little longer.
“We’re very different from the Cape, where they’re centralized more in one location and have an older demographic of host families,” Hirschbein-Bodnar said. “For us, we thought we had a shot because we’re more spread out. But then other factors came into play, like the different state by state regulations. Everyone has their own restrictions on travel and park closures. That all came into play. We had a to make a unified decision as a league to protect our host families and the future of our league.”
The NECBL’s Vermont Mountaineers announced earlier in the week that they would not field a team this year, even if the league went forward with a season.
“There would have been other teams that would have had their hands forced for financial reasons or field availability,” Hirschbein-Bodnar said.
For the nearly 400 players set to join the league, the decision is another blow in a challenging year for their baseball careers. The NCAA canceled its season in March and summer ball stood as a possible chance to get back on the field. Some summer leagues remain hopeful about having a season, including the Futures League in New England, but the situation remains fluid.
“They were hurt obviously,” Hirschbein-Bodnar said of talking to his players. “They were looking forward to this and hanging on to this as the last glimmer of hope to play baseball this year. And they’ve been training hard. All the coaches and general managers, we’re all talking about how we can help these players be prepared for going back to school. How can we talk to them? What can we say to keep their spirits up and get them motivated?”
While the coaches will offer advice, they’ll also be dealing with a strangely quiet summer themselves. Hirschbein-Bodnar has been with the Waves organization for six years, as an assistant coach and assistant general manager before moving into the top jobs.
“It’s going to be hard,” he said. “Summer baseball has been a part of my life for a long time – playing in Little League and travel ball, coaching in the summer and recruiting, to being with the Waves the last six summers. It’s going to be really, really hard. It’s the routine – wake up every day, go to the gym, go to the office, go to the field, see coach [Pete] Clays doing his early work with the guys. You miss the bus trips. It’s a grind but that’s where you really bond and get to know these guys. I think we all don’t know what we’re going to do.”
The Waves plan to be back on the field next summer. In the meantime, they’ll try to continue being a presence in the community, where possible.
“We’re going to start working for 2021,” Hirschbein-Bodnar said. “We obviously don’t know exactly what that will look like yet, but we have great relationships with our sponsors, and we’re going to do everything we can to help promote them right now. At the end of the day, our organization is a family. It’s a family that consists of players, coaches, host families, community leaders and sponsors. When we see our partners, our sponsors and community leaders stepping up to help others, we’re going to continue to promote them. That’s a big thing the Waves are going to do throughout the summer.”
And they’ll be looking forward to more summer nights in Wakefield.
“Hopefully that can be kind of a shining moment for the community, in better times, when we get back on the field,” Hirschbein-Bodnar said.