There is no shortage of baseball talent at the service academies. Army made the 2018 and 2019 NCAA Tournaments. Navy’s Noah Song was a fourth-round pick of the Boston Red Sox in 2019.
The New England Collegiate Baseball League is aiming to create opportunity for that talent.
Because of their obligations, service academy players may not be able to get the exposure and experience of summer ball. Not only is there a shorter window for them to play, but teams may be reluctant to use a roster spot on a player who will only be in town for a few weeks. A new policy implemented by the NECBL aims to solve the second problem, giving teams a roster exemption for service academy players.
“This is something that was a no-brainer for us and the league, just to give these guys an opportunity,” said Waves president and general manager Eric Hirschbein-Bodnar.
The exemption will take effect this summer, assuming there is a 2021 season, which the league is hoping for. It basically creates a free roster spot to add a player for the limited time he can play. Teams are otherwise limited in how many players they can sign.
“Students at these military academies have a very demanding schedule that includes military commitments during the summer months, which makes it more challenging for them to find a place to play during the summer,” said NECBL Commissioner Sean McGrath. “Our decision to incorporate these military waivers provides our teams flexibility in managing their roster in order to accommodate these military obligations.”
The Waves tried to provide the chance even when there was no exemption. Army’s Cam Opp pitched briefly for the Waves in 2018, and recently signed a minor league deal with the New York Mets. Army’s Anthony LoRicco followed in his footsteps in 2019. Rob Regine of Army, a Coventry native, was on the roster for last summer, when the season was canceled.
“It’s only because those guys are willing to protect our freedom that we’re even playing baseball,” Hirschbein-Bodnar said. “Giving those guys a chance to just come out and play the sport they love is pretty cool. They get to be a kid again.”
The Waves have a strong connection to West Point. Rhode Island native and former URI head coach Jim Foster took over the Army program in 2017.
“As someone who is born and raised in Rhode Island, and has coached in South County at The University of Rhode Island for 10 years, the Ocean State Waves have always been a very special organization to me,” Foster said. “It starts with the people - they have always run a first class operation and have provided a great experience for the players and community each summer. My father still goes to as many games as he can each season. Owners Matt Finlayson and Eric Hirschbein-Bodnar have been great colleagues and friends over the years. The coaches they’ve had there have done a great job, and the players that have played there have played hard and consistently represent the team and the league well.”
He’ll be happy to send players to Kingston and to other outposts in the league.
“This new rule that will allow service academy players to play more baseball in the summer while not counting towards roster limitations is a huge win for everyone involved,” Foster said. “You are getting some of the best and brightest student-athletes our country has to offer by providing a great opportunity to experience beautiful South County while gaining valuable baseball experience playing in a top summer collegiate baseball league.”
The NECBL is the first league to institute the roster exemption and Foster hopes others follow suit. While it’s designed to be helpful for the players, their presence is welcome for teams.
“From our perspective, having those guys around the team is so beneficial,” Hirschbein-Bodnar said. “There’s respect from the players, coaches, host families, the communities for the sacrifices these guys are taking on. And they have such a different outlook on their craft, their process, their work ethic. It kind of rubs off on the other guys.”
Teams hope to see the benefits in 2021, just as they hope to be back on the field. The league decided last May to cancel the 2020 season. With college baseball set to resume in February after last year’s truncated season, it’s basically full steam ahead for summer ball, with the understanding that the landscape could change.
“We’re doing everything we can to play,” Hirschbein-Bodnar said. “All indications are that we’re playing. We’re working with state officials and we’ve organized a COVID-19 task force to make sure all the players, coaches, host families are safe. That’s our top priority. We’re working with everybody in the community to come back strong in 2021.”
The Waves have sponsorship opportunities available and are seeking host families for the summer. Email email@example.com for more information.