Good baseball will be played on July 10 in Rhode Island, even without the originally scheduled NECBL matchup between the Ocean State Waves and the Newport Gulls.
With the NECBL season canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Newport Collegiate Baseball League has been formed as a pop-up venture to get players back on the field. Opening day for the four-team circuit is set for July 10 at Cardines Field.
“Once this thing started, it was always in the back of my mind,” said Mike Falcone, the Newport Gulls Director of Baseball Operations and the founder of the new league. “Really the idea sprung immediately after the NECBL season got canceled on May 1. I put a feeler out to the college coaches in the area and a lot of the people who work with the Gulls. Would you be interested in running something? Would you have players that would want to play? And everybody was super positive.”
With approval by the city of Newport and the prospect of state regulations being eased come July, plans were set in motion. Sure enough, games in low-contact sports like baseball are being permitted as the state transitions to Phase III of its reopening plan, so the league is primed for opening day. Rosters are filling up, with players jumping at the chance to get involved.
“The talent we’ve been able to recruit is very strong,” said Waves president and general manager Eric Hirschbein-Bodnar, who will also coach in the league. “A lot of guys who were supposed to be in the Cape League, the NECBL or get drafted – we were able to scoop up a lot of those guys.”
In Phase III, spectators are also permitted to attend sporting events. Initial plans that Falcone submitted to the city did not include fans, but he said the league may explore allowing people in the stands. At the very least, games will be broadcast online.
Baseball fans will see some familiar faces. Along with Hirschbein-Bodnar, former Ocean State Waves pitcher and assistant coach George Capen is slated to coach one of the teams. University of Rhode Island assistant coach David Fischer and Rhode Island College Frank Holbrook are coaching the other squads.
Local players in the mix include South Kingstown native and URI rising junior Bo Brutti, URI and Waves standout Xavier Vargas, and former Newport Gulls Scott Holzwasser and Jake Gustin.
“We’re hoping to give our local fans, our host families, our community with the Waves, the Gulls local community, something they can follow along and enjoy,” Hirschbein-Bodnar said. “The local ties, the local players – players people in this town have cheered for. Now they’re back and hopefully that’ll be something special.”
While the NECBL welcomes players from across the country – the Gulls had three players from California last year – the Newport League will be mostly regional. With games three days a week and no host families, most players will be commuting from their homes. Protocols will be in place for making sure players are healthy, including temperature checks before games and players using the stands instead of dugouts.
“It’s just making sure we’re keeping everybody safe,” Falcone said. “That’s the most important thing.”
“With everything Mike’s doing safety wise, it should be a great setup,” Hirschbein-Bodnar said. “Everyone is going to be taken care of, we have all the protocols to ensure the safety of these players, so guys can just go out and play baseball.”
Small and local though the league may be, the baseball should be good. The talent on the rosters and the perspective gained from a lost spring season are powerful forces.
“Guys are hungry for baseball,” Hirschbein-Bodnar said. “They’ve been working out on their own. Now they can get back after it. I think it’s going to be a really good brand of baseball.”
The teams will play 18 games, with playoffs to follow. It’s a valuable opportunity to get back out there for players whose last game action came in early March. Many summer leagues canceled their seasons, including the NECBL and the Cape Cod League. The Futures League, which also operates in New England, will play a season beginning this month.
Other leagues around the country have gotten creative. The Northwoods League is operating in pods, with two or three teams utilizing one stadium. The Texas Collegiate League has partnered with minor league teams to create new franchises that will operate just for this summer.
“Summer is very important for development. Coaches want their guys out there,” Falcone said. “And the guys are excited. They love baseball and they miss it. They’re all telling me they’ve been working out at home, they’re ready to go.”
When July 10 comes around, they’ll be on the grass at Cardines Field, getting their games back up to speed and bringing baseball back to the area in the process. It won’t be Waves-Gulls, but it will be something.
“At the end of the day, you can train all you want, you can throw bullpens all you want, but you learn so much more between the lines,” Hirschbein-Bodnar said. “For the underclassmen guys who are coming in with not that much experience in-game at the college level, it’s going to make a difference for them to have this opportunity.”