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IMHO: Play for the jersey? NECBL’s priorities skewed

  • Greg Fennell. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Sports Editor
Published: 8/14/2021 9:37:00 PM
Modified: 8/14/2021 9:37:12 PM

The official scorebook says the Upper Valley Nighthawks’ New England Collegiate Baseball League campaign ended last Monday with a 4-2 loss in the North Division finals to the North Shore Navigators in a contest shortened to six innings by rain.

And that certainly is believable given the region is experiencing one of the wettest summers on record.

In reality, however, a severely depleted roster ultimately was the culprit for ending the Hawks’ deepest-ever playoff run. Too many of the team’s players needed to head home before the end of a far-too-long NECBL postseason to get ready for their true priority: college.

That’s something for which the league and the Nighthawks need to account in the future.

Summer college baseball is perfectly suited for an area such as the Upper Valley. Like our own summer season, it is meant to be fleeting. The emphasis for the players is on having fun, working on skills and seeing a different part of the country.

NECBL commissioner Sean McGrath seemed to have forgotten that dynamic when he talked to Valley News staff writer Seth Tow in the wake of Upper Valley’s strange denouement last week.

The Nighthawks-North Shore game — the second of a best-of-three series — was called by the umpires late Monday after a 90-minute rain delay. The NECBL requires all playoff games go their full nine innings “except when, at the discretion of both general managers and the approval of the Commissioner, it is unfeasible to do so,” the league’s rules dictate.

In this case, unfeasible was the determination, and McGrath pinned the blame squarely on the Nighthawks.

“I think those organizations need to look at themselves in the mirror,” McGrath said. “There’s lots of teams that are well-positioned, and that comes down to leadership and that comes down to working with your players and making sure that they’re playing for the name on the front of the jersey.”

Nighthawks president Noah Crane told Tow the team would have had only around 13 players left to continue the contest; manager Justin Devoid pegged that number at closer to eight. (A reminder, baseball is normally played with at least nine.)

Regardless of the true tally, more than half the roster had departed, and the team lacked the athletes necessary to compete legitimately.

Given the purpose summer league baseball serves for most players, it is absurd for McGrath to suggest that players would put off returning to school in favor of pursuing a meaningless championship.

Starting on Jan. 1, the college baseball season runs roughly like this: A couple of weeks of skill work, a couple of weeks of team practices, then the start of the NCAA season around Valentine’s Day. The regular season extends through May, with conference and NCAA tournament play carrying deep into June.

Summer ball starts the first week of June and can extend into August. Most colleges — particularly those outside New England — expect their players to report back by around Aug. 15 to begin fall workouts and scrimmages that end in November. After six weeks or so off for the holidays, the cycle resumes when the next Jan. 1 arrives.

NCAA play is the priority, not the NECBL or any other summer set-up. Summer ball is for learning, growing, experiencing something new.

A former Nighthawk whom I asked about the NECBL schedule said it is unfair to expect a college player to inconvenience his school for a summer league title run. The former player offered a simple suggestion: End the summer season — playoffs and all — no later than Aug. 1.

It makes sense, and it’s an easy fix. The NECBL could still fit in a 42- or 44-game season with its usual start date. Playoffs need not be a drawn-out affair. Take the top three or four teams in each division; play single-elimination games until a champ emerges after three days.

Certainly there’s no reason for the playoffs to extend into the second week of August, as has been the case with the NECBL for a decade, perhaps longer.

Play for the name on the front of the jersey? Maybe in college. McGrath needs to remember summer ball’s role in the whole of a college baseball year.

Meanwhile, Crane could have saved himself some heartache by building a more resilient roster with more players based closer to New England.

The tipping point this year came when the team’s last remaining catcher had to hop on a flight home after Monday’s loss. The Nighthawks might have kept playing had they possessed a backstop who only had to, say, drive to Connecticut or Quebec before returning to school.

I hear frequently from people who describe the NECBL as one of the best summer circuits around. That’s from the quality of play.

To stay that way, the league should fully understand their recruits’ desires, goals and — most importantly — their priorities.

Anything less is a disservice to them and the game.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.




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