08/07/12 10:00pm
08/07/2012 10:00 PM

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Joe Forney pitched three innings of relief for Riverhead in Game 2 of the Hampton Division finals against Southampton.

I have to admit that when I first heard about this idea of forming a summer league for college baseball players from throughout the country who would spend their vacation months on eastern Long Island, living with host families and playing in what would be a showcase league for pro scouts, I was skeptical. And it was more than just the skepticism that seems to be inherent in journalists. My skepticism was based on past experience.

I had heard and written about similar things in the past, grand plans that never went beyond the drawing board. Anyone, you see, can come up with a good idea. Turning that idea into reality, now that’s the trick.

In my defense, though, when I first heard about this concept six years ago, I wasn’t fully aware of just how determined a person Rusty Leaver is.

I have since learned that Leaver, the cowboy-hat-wearing owner and operator of Deep Hollow Ranch in Montauk, is someone who makes things happen. Leaver’s vision was to model a league after the famed Cape Cod Baseball League, giving college players a place to play in the summer as well as gain exposure to pro scouts.

Leaver founded Hamptons Collegiate Baseball in 2007 with one franchise, the Hampton Whalers, who reached the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League final that year.

Four new franchises, including the North Fork Ospreys and the Riverhead Tomcats, joined HCB in 2009, competing in the Kaiser Division. One of those new teams, the Westhampton Aviators, won the ACBL title. The following year it was the Ospreys who took the league crown.

With the addition this year of two expansion clubs, the Center Moriches Battlecats and the Shelter Island Bucks, HCB grew to seven teams, forming the ACBL’s Hampton Division.

In its time, HCB has seen 17 of its players drafted, including former Ospreys player Andrew Cain (the Milwaukee Brewers in 2011 and the San Francisco Giants in 2012) and former Tomcats Justin Echevarria (the San Diego Padres in 2010) and Nick Tropeano (the Houston Astros in 2011). HCB has sent 12 other players into the professional ranks where they have been able to pursue their dream of playing in the big leagues. The ACBL, which calls itself the “gateway to professional baseball,” is partially funded by Major League Baseball.

In addition to giving players the opportunity to chase their dreams, HCB has also provided what it calls free, family entertainment. For those accustomed to watching high school baseball, say, the college level is a real eye-opener. My first real taste of the HCB came in 2008 when I watched an exhibition game between the Hampton Whalers and the Long Island Battlecats. The players made an impression on me before the first pitch was thrown. During pregame practice, I saw a player catch a ball deep in the outfield and then fire the ball home. The throw was a laser that popped into the catcher’s glove on the fly, a perfect strike.

“Wow!” I thought to myself. “These guys are good.”

And they are. They surely have a gift, being able to do what 99.9 percent of us cannot do.

I would judge HCB to be a clear success. The biggest challenge, it seems, for the teams is finding housing for players, but things seem to have worked out on the field and off.

It’s a compact schedule, a 40-game regular season followed by the playoffs. I have sometimes wondered whether the 40-game playing schedule is too demanding of the players. Six game a week isn’t easy. Wouldn’t it be O.K. to make it five-game week instead, giving the players another day off to enjoy themselves? One player told me that the busy schedule is just what he wanted. Then a coach pointed out that the crowded schedule is by design, to give players a feel for what a professional player has to go through.

That makes sense.

From a competitive standpoint, the season that concluded on Sunday was a home run. The top five teams in the Hampton Division finished within three games of each other. Brett Mauser, HCB’s busy president and director of recruiting, deserves credit for that.

The playoffs brought surprises, with the No. 3 seeded Southampton Breakers and the No. 4 Tomcats pulling off upsets to reach the division finals, which the Breakers swept in two games last week.

“The top five or six clubs on a given day, with the right pitching, the right hitting, anyone can win it. That’s what’s great about it,” Tomcats coach Randy Caden said. “Seedings mean nothing. You just want to make it to the playoffs because then it’s a new season.”

And now we can begin looking forward to another one in 2013.

bliepa@timesreview.com

08/06/12 6:00pm
08/06/2012 6:00 PM

GARRETT MEADE FILE PHOTO | Shaun Hansen in his high school playing days.

Shaun Hansen might be the perfect example of the big fish-little pond syndrome.

During his high school playing days for the former combined Southold/Greenport baseball team and then Southold and Greenport separately, Hansen was a dominant force as both a hitter and a pitcher. He was a monster at the plate who hit for power and average. As a pitcher, he routinely fired fastballs past overmatched batters.

Then again, that was then, in the small pond of high school baseball on eastern Long Island. The present situation is quite different for Hansen. At 6 feet 3 inches tall and 205 pounds, Hansen is a sizable speciman, but he is no longer a big fish. For one thing, he’s no longer playing in the proverbial little pond. He is in a much larger pool now. As Hansen has found, college baseball is a whole new ball game.

Hansen learned early on in his freshman season at Suffolk County Community College that he needed to adjust to a higher level, not to mention a new position: third base.

“It was a lot different than high school, a lot more intense, but I like that,” Hansen said. “Everyone is an all star. I would go out there and I would play terrible the first couple of games. I would be like: ‘Wow, I need to go to the gym. I need to do something different to help me get better. I need to get in the cage more. I need to do this and that.’ It made me want to do better, want to work harder to get better.”

In continuance of that pursuit, Hansen played for the Riverhead Tomcats in the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League this summer. He played first base, took some swings as a designated hitter and pitched some.

Hansen came off the bench in a pinch-hitting role last Thursday to line a single over third baseman Bobby Geren in the ninth inning of a 12-4 loss to the Southampton Breakers in Game 2 of the Hampton Division finals. The victory brought the Breakers their first division championship.

But Hansen, who throws and bats right-handed, had difficulty with a back injury earlier this summer. “They found out that my vertebrae has actually shifted a little bit so it’s pinching my muscle,” he said. “They stretched me out and I guess they popped it back into place.”

The back trouble didn’t help Hansen’s numbers with the Tomcats. He batted .077 (3 for 39) during the regular season with two runs batted in. As a pitcher, he went 1-2 with a 13.50 earned run average. In the nine and one-third innings he pitched, he issued 10 walks against nine strikeouts.

Of course, the other side to this is the quality of the competition he faced in the ACBL, which draws college players from various parts of the country.

“Playing in this league, it’s a little overwhelming at first,” said Hansen. He added: “Really, when I came here, I just wanted to get the experience. I wanted to play against good competition. Even if I did poorly, either way it’s a good experience. It is summer ball. It really doesn’t mean much. It’s just about getting better. It’s what the league is about, developing players.”

Riverhead coach Randy Caden said Hansen has the size and strength to be a good player. “I think he has the ability, he just doesn’t believe in himself yet,” Caden said. “It’s a confidence thing with him. … He’s never played on this level, as most kids haven’t. It’s a new challenge. I try to tell him, ‘It will come; it will come.’ But that’s the thing, as you go up, the competition gets tougher.”

Hansen was in for a surprise this past college season at Suffolk when he was asked to play third base, a position he had little experience at, to fill a team need. He also pitched for the Sharks. Hansen, whose father Brian coached the North Fork Ospreys last year, said he would like to play for a four-year school after completing his sophomore year at Suffolk.

While Hansen may like to reminisce about his high school playing days occasionally, he knows they are done and over with.

“In high school I could throw a fastball right down the middle and usually two out of three times they’re not going to hit it,” he said, “but if I throw one down here, someone’s going to take it out of the park easily.”

bliepa@timesreview.com

07/01/12 7:12pm
07/01/2012 7:12 PM

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Ryan Solberg, right, receiving congratulations from North Fork teammate Anthony Aceto after clubbing a home run in the 13th inning.

OSPREYS 4, TOMCATS 3 (14 INNINGS)

Some “late-inning lightning” helped the North Fork Ospreys win a suspended game against the Riverhead Tomcats before real lightning led to the postponement of a regularly scheduled game between the two Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League teams on Sunday.

It was only fitting that a strange play should decide the resumption of a suspended game on a strange day. Alex Perez scored from second base following an unsuccessful pickoff attempt in the 14th inning to give the Ospreys the tie-breaking run in a 4-3 triumph over the Tomcats in Riverhead. The first 12 innings of the game were played on June 5 before the contest was suspended because of darkness with the score tied at 2-2.

Perez led off the 14th by dropping a single into left field. After Tomcats pitcher Matt Facendo retired the next two batters, Perez stole second base. Then a pickoff attempt at second base sailed high into the outfield and the ball skipped past the center fielder, allowing Perez to race all the way home.

Ospreys reliever Mike Czenszak gave up a two-out single by Austin Barrois and then a walk to Bryan Palermo before getting Josh Smith to pop up to the shortstop, Perez, for the game-ending out.

After that game, though, players, coaches, umpires and spectators spent more time watching the sky than watching baseball as growling thunder was soon followed by lightning and rain. The regularly scheduled game was halted with one out in the bottom of the first inning and later postponed. Neither team had scored. A makeup date has not been determined.

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Riverhead pitcher Jonathan Cohen preparing a delivery.

“It was just good that we didn’t come out here for nothing and we got one win out of it,” said Ospreys center fielder Kyle Adie.

A white cloud could be found among the thunder clouds. The postponement provided needed rest for weary pitching arms.

“It was definitely a more positive day than a negative day,” Ospreys third baseman Darrin Standish said. He explained: “Today we were pretty nervous about our pitching. We wanted to see how far [starting pitcher Mike] Tamburino could go, and we were looking for position players [to pitch] after that.”

The two innings of baseball that were played were eventful.

On the first at-bat of the day, the hot-swinging Ryan Solberg led off the 13th by socking a home run to left field for the Ospreys (12-6).

“I thought for sure we had that game won after Ryan hit that home run, and then they came back and they wanted it, too,” said Standish.

Indeed, the Tomcats (9-7) bounced back in their half of the inning, tying it at 3-3. Josh Smith led off with a bunt single. A wild pitch and a groundout moved him to third base before James Luppens rapped a double to the right-field fence, evening the score again.

Some players had as many as seven at-bats in the 14-inning game. Solberg and Perez were the only Ospreys with two hits each.

Josh Smith was responsible for half of Riverhead’s hits, going 4 for 7 with a double and scoring twice. Luppens added two hits.

It was an odd day for the players. Tomcats left fielder Andrew Gorecki likened it to a short practice. “You get your throwing in, you get your B.P. in, and then that’s it,” he said. “You go home.”

Barrois said completing the suspended game had an odd feel, sort of like starting a game and then finishing it without a middle.

“It’s kind of like jumping into the beginning of a game, but then kind of having the emotions of the end of a game,” he said.

While lightning may unnerve some people, it’s more of an annoyance to players like Gorecki.

“It’s stressful,” he said. “Once they call the lightning strike, we know it’s a half-hour [wait before possibly returning to the field]. The down time hurts you.”

bliepa@timesreview.com

07/29/11 12:36pm
07/29/2011 12:36 PM

The Riverhead Tomcats rallied for four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to overcome the visiting Southampton Breakers, 4-3, on Thursday, the final day of the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League Hampton Division regular season. Frank Schwindel drove in two runs while Eric Schlitter went 3 for 4 with a double and a run batted in for the last-place Tomcats, who finished the season with an 18-22 record. They did not qualify for the playoffs.

James McMahon went 2 for 5 for the Breakers (21-19), according to www.hamptonsbaseball.org.

07/28/11 2:17pm
07/28/2011 2:17 PM

Brett Schreiber earned a save and seven Riverhead Tomcats notched two hits or more in a 6-5 defeat of the Sag Harbor Whalers in the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League on Wednesday. The Tomcats totaled 17 hits to 14 by the Whalers.

Whalers pinch hitter Joe Solomeno singled in Charlie Curl (2 for 4, two runs, hit by pitch, stolen base) to make it a one-run game in the bottom of the ninth inning at Mashashimuet Park in Sag Harbor. But with the potential tying run on base, Schreiber got a flyout for the game-ending out.

Keith Herring drove in two runs and Jamie Wollerman went 3 for 5, scored one run and knocked in another for the Tomcats, according to www.hamptonsbaseball.org.

The Tomcats are 17-22, and the Whalers are 20-19.

07/23/11 12:29pm
07/23/2011 12:29 PM

The Westhampton Aviators slugged four home runs in an 11-6 defeat of the visiting Riverhead Tomcats in the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League on Friday. Joe Candela (four runs batted in), Aaron Cohn (3 for 4, two runs, two RBI), Kevin Heller (two RBI) and Brian Guymon (2 for 4, three runs) all went deep for the Aviators (20-17), according to www.hamptons baseball.org.

Adam Michel (two RBI) and Alex Gouin homered for the Tomcats (15-21). Another Riverhead player, Frank Schwindel, went 3 for 5, with a double and two RBI.

The Aviators took a 7-1 lead by the third inning and were in front, 11-1, in the sixth.

07/17/11 10:21pm
07/17/2011 10:21 PM

All nine Southampton Breakers batters had a hit or more as the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League team produced 21 hits in a 14-3 rout of the host Riverhead Tomcats on Sunday. Southampton (15-17) blew the game open with eight runs over the final two innings.

Leading the Southampton offense were Jordan Zech (3 for 6, three runs, home run, three runs batted in), Brant Whiting (4 for 6, three runs, three RBI), Andrew Shimkus (4 for 5, run, two RBI) and Steve Schrenk (3 for 5, three runs, double, RBI), according to www.hamptonsbaseball.org.

The Tomcats (12-20) received two hits each from Jim Luppens and Patrick Jones, who doubled, walked and had an RBI.

07/17/11 1:06am

GARRET MEADE FILE PHOTO

The Riverhead Tomcats scored all six of their runs in the first four innings of a 6-2 Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League defeat of the North Fork Ospreys on Saturday night at Jean W. Cochran Park in Peconic. Aiding the effort for the Tomcats (12-19) were home runs by Ryan Lukach, Alex Gouin and Frank Schwindel (2 for 4, two runs batted in). Jamie Wollerman and Adam Michel added two hits apiece to the victory, according to www.hamptonsbaseball.org.

Peter Kaplan was the winning pitcher, allowing eight hits and two earned runs over six and two-third innings.

Andrew Furr delivered two hits, including a home run, and stole a base for the Ospreys (17-14). Teammates Matt Carroll and Sebastian Graziani singled twice.