Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Summer college baseball league hopes expansion to the Hamptons will attract scouts, and bring higher profile
By: Matthew Stanmyre/The Star-Ledger
Brandon Boykin knew plenty about the Hamptons on Long Island -- he had heard about the extravagant houses, the pristine beaches, the socialites from Manhattan who flocked there to party away the summer.
But Boykin, a rising junior at Rutgers, had never thought about playing baseball there -- until recently.
The Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League, with two franchises in New Jersey, added four Hamptons-based teams this summer in an ambitious attempt to mirror the Cape Cod Baseball League, considered the finest college summer league in the country.
Because of the ACBL's location, elite players from New Jersey like Boykin -- a Teaneck native who attended Don Bosco Prep -- are trickling to the league in greater numbers. Overall, 13 players with local ties are on the Hamptons rosters.
The expansion also means more eyes than ever -- league officials hope -- will be on the wood-bat ACBL because of what it offers: A picturesque baseball setting that trumps many other college leagues based in rural outposts.
"We have an opportunity to become credible very quickly," said Rusty Leaver, an entrepreneur who helped expand the ACBL to the Hamptons. "We're in a position to carve out a unique category in the country."
The ACBL already had the backing; it's sanctioned by the NCAA, partially funded by Major League Baseball and is one of only nine summer leagues approved by the National Alliance of College Summer Baseball.
And now, it has the setting. When Boykin, who plays for the Sag Harbor Whalers, arrived at his host family's home before the season, he was greeted by a pool in the backyard with a lake in the background. The home included a Jacuzzi, a pool table and flat-screen televisions.
"They got everything here," Boykin said. "It was great."
Boykin's reaction was the kind Leaver anticipated when he first broached an idea many thought would never work.
A PROUD HISTORY
Roughly 25 years ago, the ACBL was one of the top college summer leagues in the country, close in competition with the Cape. The two leagues even squared off in an annual all-star game from 1970 to 1987, with their games held at venues such as Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium.
Leaver, who owns and operates the country's oldest ranch in Montauk, N.Y., saw a untouched niche in the Hamptons. Despite the wealth and nightlife the area offers, there was a void for wholesome evening activities, he said.
Leaver, whose son pitches for the University of Rhode Island, began tapping into his entertainment roots, a background that included bringing the popular Paul Simon-hosted concert "Back at the Ranch" to the Hamptons.
Leaver studied the Cape Cod League. He talked to owners from its franchises. He examined his surroundings in the Hamptons.
He knew he was on to something.
"In terms of demographics and geography, I thought, 'Gee, this should be a good fit,'" Leaver said. "A lot of young coaches and young scouts should want to come out here."
With partial financial backing from Hamptons socialites like comedian Jerry Seinfeld and J.Crew chief executive officer Mickey Drexler, Leaver and the ACBL experimented last season with one franchise, the Hampton (now Sag Harbor) Whalers. After positive results that included burgeoning fan attendance and a team that made it to the league championship series, Leaver decided to take another step.
Because of the logistical nightmare having a team in the Hamptons presented -- travel time between there and some of the teams in New Jersey and Pennsylvania was treacherous -- Leaver broached the idea of bringing in more Hamptons teams and then splitting the league in half.
The league approved the idea, adding the North Fork Ospreys, the Riverhead Tomcats, the Southampton Breakers and the Westhampton Aviators. This season, the Hamptons teams, who play in the six-team Kaiser Division along with the Long Island Mustangs out of Old Westbury, will not face the New Jersey/Pennsylvania teams, broken off into the Wolff Division, until the championship series.
"It was crazy ambitious, but we're doing it," Leaver said.
The process included putting the teams together, which became a round-the-clock endeavor. Leaver contacted college coaches from across the country and took out advertisements in Baseball America, eventually cultivating 123 interested players who had been rated by position. From there, the five Hamptons teams drafted the players one by one.
The players live with host families and work part-time jobs that Leaver and others have found for them. They are coached by managers from college programs from Brown University to Santa Clara University. They play in a wood-bat league that many scouts hope to cover because of the setting -- factors that, combined, Leaver and others believe with help the league flourish.
"We wanted to have players from all over the country," ACBL president Tom Bonekemper said. "We needed to have an area to attract kids, some place with land and jobs. This gave us a chance to attract those college players from across the nation."
It also helped propel the ACBL back into the national spotlight.
ONCE AGAIN A RIVAL FOR CAPE COD
Doug Cinnella, back in the 1980s, played for teams in both the Cape and the ACBL. Back then, the two leagues were not far apart in talent, Cinnella said.
That changed over the next two decades for various reasons, but Cinnella believes the ACBL can again become a dominant entity -- which is why the former major-league prospect helped further expand the league this year with the addition of the Northern New Jersey Eagles, who will play their games at Ramapo College and Seton Hall University.
Cinnella believes the atmosphere in the Hamptons rivals that of Cape Cod. Now, it's just a matter of spreading the word about the new ACBL, one that Cinnella himself is helping further establish.
"On paper, yeah, it should," Cinnella said of the ACBL's ability to rival the Cape in the years to come. "But you need the horses. You've got to have the kids that can run and hit and throw. You've got to have the kids that get drafted."
Boykin said the league's profile has already grown -- because of the level of play, and now because of where some players can live for the summer.
"There's a lot of money out here," Boykin said. "I was just looking forward to going to a real nice place and playing. It's a good situation."
Players from New Jersey colleges and high schools are scattered throughout the four Hamptons expansion teams, including players from Rutgers, Seton Hall, Princeton and Fairleigh Dickinson. Cinnella's club, meanwhile, has about half of its roster comprised of local players.
But for the players on the Hamptons teams, playing in a top-notch league was the main draw; living in one of the country's most coveted summer playgrounds was an added bonus.
"That's the appeal, to go out there and be in a resort town," Bonekemper said. "The Hamptons has a very good reputation. It's a very exclusive area and the kids want to be out there. There's something magic about being in the Hamptons for the summer."