There wasn’t much of a break for the members of the University of Maine baseball team after their season ended May 27 at the America East Championship.
After a 56-game season with the Black Bears, team members quickly dispersed to participate in one of several summer collegiate baseball leagues.
This year, there are again numerous UMaine players on summer league rosters in one of at least six leagues stretching from Sanford all the way to South Carolina.
Playing summer ball can be an important part of the growth process for players from UMaine and colleges across the country.
“The reason these leagues are nice is that a kid gets to be around top-level baseball for another two months in the summer,” said UMaine head coach Steve Trimper. “I’m a firm believer it’s a deciding factor in making sure a kid gets a year better, not just a year older.”
Those who have aspirations of playing professionally, along with players who want to improve their skills, relocate for the summer in search of a quality baseball experience.
Bears have summer presence
UMaine is well-represented in summer ball and the Northeast is blessed with three established leagues, the Cape Cod League, the New England Collegiate Baseball League and the New York Collegiate Baseball League.
As of this week, there were Black Bears playing in the Cape League, the NECBL, the NYCBL, the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League in Maryland, the Coastal Plain League (South Carolina) and Portland’s Twilight League.
The Cape League is considered the premier summer league. UMaine has placed pitcher Keith Bilodeau with the Wareham Gatemen, while pitchers Kevin Scanlan and Joe Miller are on temporary contracts with the Chatham A’s.
Pitcher Steve Perakslis was with Wareham, but is resting his arm. He may be reactivated and play later this summer.
Outfielder Taylor Lewis is playing for Amsterdam of the NYCBL. Joey Martin of Portland and infielder Michael Fransoso are with Bristol (Conn.) and pitcher A.J. Bazdanes at Keene (N.H.), both in the NECBL.
Outfielder Pat Thibodeau of Caribou and catcher Fran Whitten are at Silver Spring-Takoma (Md.) in the Ripken League. Pitcher Jimmy Cox of Bangor has hooked on with Florence (S.C.) in the CPL, while infielder Robbie Trask of Saco is in the Twilight League.
“We’re pretty spread out this year,” said Lewis, who spent last summer in the heat and humidity at Florence and is pleased to be closer to his Connecticut home. “It’s going good. I’m having fun up here.”
A handful of UMaine players have pursued other avenues. Pitcher Jeff Gibbs has been “shut down” to help him recover from arm fatigue and won’t play at all.
Pitcher Jon Balentina, who sat out 2010 after arm surgery, will compete at a tournament in his native Curacao. Trimper said pitchers Matt Jebb and Kyle Benoit, and catcher Tyler Patzalek, are competing in a league in their native Ontario.
Twins Justin Leisenheimer and Ian Leisenheimer are playing in a local league near their New York home, while infielder Kyle Stilphen of Pittston is having a shoulder issue addressed.
Going to bat for the Bears
Most players are placed with summer league teams through their coaches.
At UMaine, Trimper taps into his network of coaching peers and professional contacts each year to find a good fit for as many of his players as possible. Much of the legwork is done well in advance.
“Honestly, it starts out right about this time of year for next year,” he said.
Trimper explained players such as Fransoso and Patzalek, who had good freshman campaigns for the Bears in 2010, may have a shot at the Cape League in 2011.
“Basically the hot time is usually the end of the summer where you’re calling all your connections and trying to get your incoming kids and everybody placed,” Trimper said.
While the Cape League is laden with big-time college talent, there is plenty of outstanding summer baseball being played across the country.
Lewis could have played on the Cape, but it wasn’t the right fit this year. He weighed his options after talking with Trimper and opted for an established team at Amsterdam.
“[On the Cape] I was going to be like that fourth outfielder, so I thought it would be in my best interest to go somewhere that’s a good league, has good competition, but at the same time still be able to play every day,” Lewis said.
Trimper was quick to point out the high caliber of ball being played in the NYCBL.
Swinging the “lumber”
The biggest difference between the college season and summer ball is the bats. Most summer leagues require the use of wooden bats.
The rationale is simple. Professional players use wood bats, so the summer gives college hitters the opportunity to swing the lumber.
“Number one, it helps us because your guys develop as better hitters,” Trimper said. “Two, your guys are getting in front of scouts and are swinging a wood bat, which is what they want to see.”
While it seldom translates into gaudy numbers, using a wooden bat has a positive impact on hitters because they must make better contact.
“I still go up to the plate with the same approach and it seems to work out all right for me,” said Martin, a former Portland High standout. “No matter what, you have to hit it with the barrel.”
Fransoso, Martin’s teammate at Bristol and UMaine, used a wood bat some last summer. He said they’re not as forgiving as the aluminum bats.
“With a metal bat, you can hit it off the end or get jammed and it’ll be a base hit,” Fransoso said. “If you don’t square it up with a wood bat, it’s not going anywhere. You try not to break the bat, too.”
The expense of replacing broken bats is the reason they’re not used in NCAA play. Summer teams provide the bats. At Bristol, a new team this year, players use bats crafted by a local manufacturer.
“We went right to his house and picked the model and then he put our names on them right there,” Fransoso said.
Wooden bats also mean pitchers are more effective. Pitchers will be more aggressive in the summer than they might in a college game where metal bats are used.
“They don’t have to worry about those cheap hits. They can focus on their mechanics,” Martin said. “You see a lot more fastballs. Pitchers aren’t afraid to go right after you, which is good.”
Most hitters who achieve some success with wooden bats can see positive results when they return to using the metals bats during the college season.
“It does take a little adjustment but, overall, it without a doubt makes you a better hitter in the long run,” said Lewis, who also pointed to the benefit of facing top-caliber pitching day in and day out.
Home away from home
Players in summer leagues are often a long way from home, so they’re in need of some assistance.
They’re essentially adopted for the season by host families. People living in those communities open their homes, usually to one or two players.
The families, many of which include die-hard baseball fans, provide amenities to help keep the athletes’ expenses down.
“It’s great what they
do, taking in kids just to play ball. It’s good experience,” said Lewis, who will earn some money doing pregame and postgame field preparation for the Mohawks.
Lewis said his host “dad” has been inviting players into his home for 34 years.
Fransoso’s host parents, Robby and Lisa Gillette, have a teenage son who plays AAU baseball, so there is plenty of baseball talk around the house.
“I’m a pretty shy kid, so at first it was a little weird,” Fransoso said, “but they’re great people.”
Each league has different guidelines, but some host parents receive money to defray their costs. Lewis said NYCBL players pay $300 to the team, some of which goes to the host families.
Others, such as the CPL, don’t collect any money.
Martin and Fransoso said the Bristol organization provides one meal per day at a restaurant across the street from Muzzy Field and that players usually are given a sandwich by opponents after road games.
The players consider themselves fortunate to have the support, which enables them to have a rewarding and inexpensive summer experience.
“There’s nothing else I would rather be doing right now than playing baseball,” Lewis said.
While some teams conduct clinics for which players might receive some compensation, most of them are busy enough with baseball that they don’t pick up part-time jobs.
Martin said Bristol players often head to a local gym to work out together.
Scouts scrutinize summer swings
Most collegiate players have two goals during the summer: Get better and get seen.
Major league scouts frequent Cape League games, but also have a regular presence at NECBL and NYCBL contests, which means players often have the chance to showcase their baseball talents.
“The creation of these leagues came years ago when they wanted to have all the best players playing in summer leagues with wood bats so the scouts can sit in one spot and watch them,” Trimper said.
UMaine assistant coach Aaron Izaryk played two seasons for the Sanford Mainers of the NECBL. This summer, he is managing that team for the second year in a row.
“I had four or five players drafted [by the major leagues] off last year’s team,” said Izaryk, who pointed out Washington Nationals pitching sensation Stephen Strasburg pitched for the former NECBL team in Torrington (Conn.) in 2007.
“The goal of the league is still trying to pass players on, give them the professional baseball experience when they’re playing in college,” he added.
Martin holds onto a similar dream, but is focused more on short-term goals.
“I’ve never been going into summer ball expecting anything, but it’s always good to play baseball and see different places,” he said. “I definitely to get better for this year at Maine.”
Izaryk said a player’s success during the summer is based mostly on his desire to work hard for seven weeks.
“In the New England league you have to be a pretty serious ballplayer,” he said. “We’re playing five out of seven days, sometimes six.”
Ultimately, the commitment will pay off for those who dedicate themselves, as was the case last season with Lewis. He went from being a .282 hitter and part-time starter as a freshman to an all-conference choice who led the team with a .369 average, 53 runs scored, 21 stolen bases, a school-record 13 triples and 52 runs batted in.
“Taylor’s a very talented kid that needed playing experience,” Trimper said. “He went down to the Coastal Plain League last summer, he hit in the .230s and cut his strikeouts down and you saw the kind of year he had (at UMaine).”
In September, the Black Bears will return to Orono and begin their fall season. The experience gained in the summer wooden-bat leagues should translate into a more productive 2011.