Hawks Nest: Sharks swimming in new waters

  • Upper Valley Nighthawks' Manager Keller Bradford, left, Pitching Coach Mike Coss and Hitting Coach Brandon Eady speak with Martha's Vineyard Sharks Head Coach Jay Mendez, second from right, before the start of their game in Oak Bluffs, Mass., on July 19, 2019. It was the first game the Nighthawks have played on the island. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Geoff Hansen

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/20/2019 10:20:31 PM
Modified: 7/20/2019 10:20:29 PM

OAK BLUFFS, Mass. — It’s been a tumultuous few months for the Martha’s Vineyard Sharks. Despite that, not much has changed for the summer collegiate baseball team playing its home games a ferry ride away from the mainland.

That, of course, was by design.

The Sharks, who play their home games at a baseball field dubbed the Shark Tank on the campus of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, is the newest team in the New England Collegiate Baseball League, joining after seven seasons competing in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League. It was a bitter divorce involving a lawsuit from the Futures League seeking to block the team’s move; the lawsuit was shot down by a Middlesex County, Mass., judge in October. The NECBL announced the Sharks’ addition on Jan. 19, four month after the Plymouth Pilgrims ceased operations.

Since then, it’s been business as usual, said third-year Sharks general manager and president Russ Curran during Friday night’s home contest with the Nighthawks. The Shark Tank continues to draw fans; the listed attendance for Friday’s 5-4 Sharks win was 1,875. On the outside, he said, the only difference was an NECBL patch on the team’s uniform.

“It definitely feels different,” Curran said. “The organization is so much more organized, from the top down. You can talk to the other GMs and go over stuff. … The baseball is better. That’s what we’re here for. It’s all about the players. A lot of people came out to see the new product.

“We can’t talk about (the FCBL), but it’s summer baseball; you should just let us walk away,” he added on the separation pains with the Futures League. “They made it hard for us.”

Under the surface, the change was a bit more complicated. A league switch from the for-profit model of the Futures League to the nonprofit model of the NECBL required some organizational adjustments for Curran. But the nonprofit designation doesn’t mean the team can cut back, or put less focus on, its money-making features.

“You still have to be sustainable, though,” Curran said. “Before me, they were losing money every year. We broke even that last couple of years. The run we had last year (winning a share of the Futures League championship) helped everything. It helped sponsorships. I doubled sponsorships from the year before.

“Between the lines, it’s still baseball. It’s still competitive. But outside the lines, it’s a family. We’re all pretty friendly.”

A baseball team on an island requires some creative logistical planning. All away games require a ferry ride; the same goes for road teams traveling to the Sharks. Lengthy games late at night are almost certain to go longer than the nightly 9:30 p.m. or 9:45 p.m. ferry back to the mainland, requiring visiting teams to commission a fishing trawler to take them across Vineyard Sound.

All that despite being in the heart of the Cape Cod League, which is widely considered the top summer baseball league in the country. Martha’s Vineyard travels past three Cape Cod teams — the Falmouth Commodores, the Bourne Braves and the Wareham Gatemen — on its way to its closest NECBL foe in Newport, R.I.

But Sharks head coach Jay Mendez, who has coached the team since 2017, said the team turns an added 45 minutes across the water into a positive.

“We embrace it; we’re a bunch of dirt dogs,” said Mendez, who also teaches at South Shore Charter Public School in Norwell, Mass., during the day — and travels back and forth — when the season begins in early June. “We state that from day one like, ‘Would you rather spend your summer here in Martha’s Vineyard or somewhere else?’ It can be a haul, but our guys manage well. That’s a testament to them.

“It’s honestly better in terms of travel (this year). We only play everyone in the South like six times, as opposed going to everyone four or five times a season. I think that’s been the biggest difference travel-wise. We only have to go up north once. … It’s clutch for us.”

The change in leagues, Mendez said, has not changed the game, his coaching strategy or the makeup of the team drastically.

“Honestly, I think the biggest difference this year is just arms,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s a baseball diamond. Everyone plays the same thing. … Obviously, we have bigger-name guys (this year), but the only real adjustment we’ve had to make from the Futures to here is probably the base stealing. The catchers are really good in this league, and even pitchers can hold people on.”

For Curran, the biggest challenge was the late start — the team arrived in the NECBL months after the rest of the league had their initial rosters together. Despite that, Curran found the search a lot easier than expected. The quality of players, he said, has been the biggest difference.

“We thought it was the right move to get better-quality baseball all around,” Curran said. “And there’s more teams. You’re not seeing the same Brockton Rox six times, seven times.”

The Sharks have had plenty of success over their nine-year history, including an outright FCBL title in 2013. They entered the weekend atop the NECBL’s Southern Division with a 20-13 record, using an 11-game win streak to catapult up the ladder.

Success seems to follow the Sharks around.

“To be honest, (the change in leagues) didn’t really matter to me. I just wanted a job,” Mendez said. “But if you think about it, going from the Futures League to the NECBL — the second-best league in the country — it’s like, ‘Um, yeah. Can we play there?’ ”

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.

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