Summer Nine

Day 4: Santa Barbara

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Tradition is a hard thing to build and a hard thing to maintain in summer collegiate baseball.

Players roll into town when their spring seasons end. It can be as early as Memorial Day weekend or as late as the end of June, if their college teams make Omaha and the College World Series. After they’ve arrived, the summer flies by, a whirlwind of games nearly every day. When they pack their bags at the end and head home or back to school, most won’t return to that summer field.

A rough estimate says three-quarters of college baseball players spend one summer with a given team. Then they climb the ladder to a different league or get drafted. A few call one place home twice. Only a handful will be there three years. It’s the nature of the beast.

Amid all this, the Santa Barbara Foresters win, year after year after year.

“It’s a tradition here,” says Tulane’s Lex Kaplan. “And winning is always more fun than losing.”

That mentality built the tradition in the first place. When longtime manager Bill Pintard took over the team in the 1990’s, the goal was to get to the National Baseball Congress World Series, an end-of-season tournament for summer clubs. The trip was long and expensive, Pintard said, and just getting there wasn’t going to be enough for a competitive baseball guy like him.

The Foresters, who play in the California Collegiate League, expanded their recruiting base from local schools to national programs. They introduced a host family program. Pintard, a longtime scout on the West Coast, built trust with the nation’s top coaches. And the paradise that is Santa Barbara remained a pretty good draw.

It all added up to big success. The Foresters have won five NBC World Series championships – second-most in the event’s history – and Pintard owns more than 800 career victories. He’s believed to be the winningest coach in summer collegiate baseball history.

This season, the Foresters got off to a slow start by their standards, losing four of their first seven games as they waited on some late arrivals. But starting June 12, they won nine in a row.

When I was in town, they were in the midst of a sweep of the Walnut Creek Crawdads, succeeding with an aggressive brand of baseball that has become their trademark. They would go on to play well in a pair of meetings with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, a barnstorming squad for the best of the best in college baseball, losing one game and tying another.

They’ll be busy in July and will aim for the NBC World Series in August. The team shapes up as a contender again.

The tradition continues.

Day 3: Midnight Sun

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You know it’s going to be unlike anything you’ve seen, and it still wows you.

Between business and pleasure, I’ve probably attended 500 or so baseball games, maybe more. I knew going into the 111th Midnight Sun Game in Fairbanks, Alaska Tuesday that this would be unlike all the others, and it was. When the sun – which had been behind clouds most of the day – poked through around midnight for a golden sunset that seemed to last forever, that was the wow moment. The crowd buzzed and snapped cell phone photos. The bucket list box was checked off.

I had read about the Midnight Sun game many times. For 111 years, they’ve been playing it in Fairbanks, Alaska, where the sun stays up nearly 24 hours a day around the summer solstice. They don’t turn on the lights. In fact, the lights at Growden Park aren’t even hooked up.

The Alaska League was a pioneer in collegiate summer baseball, so players like Barry Bonds, Tom Seaver and Dave Winfield have come through town. In recent years, the Midnight Sun Game, hosted by the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks, has caught national attention with ESPN coverage and more.

I got to the field around 3:30 p.m., a solid seven hours before game time. New Goldpanners president John Lohrke and staff members were busy with preparations. As the afternoon went on, I hung out with some Goldpanners fans tailgating in the picnic area outside the stadium. They’re regulars and they shared plenty of memories of the Midnight Sun game. Inside, I caught up with a fan who had been wanting to come up for the game for more than three decades, from the time he first heard about it.

After some pomp and circumstance and a ceremonial first pitch at 10:30 p.m., the Panners rose to the occasion for the big game, busting out to an 8-0 lead.

“We were due to play well,” Lohrke said.

When the gold of the sunset faded, though, the Midnight Sun Game turned into the Midnight Clouds Game. Twilight doesn’t fade in the two-plus hours when the sun is done, but the overcast skies made the light dimmer than usual, and umpires suspended the game. Fans booed and chanted “Let’s play ball.”

They would go on to finish the game the next night, with the Panners maintaining their lead over the final two innings.

It wasn’t ideal that a game built around endless light got suspended due to darkness, but for me, the moment of Midnight Sun had already happened.

I’ve been to many baseball games, but that one, I won’t forget.

Summer Nine is an upcoming book by Will Geoghegan about summer collegiate baseball, from Cape Cod to Alaska. Follow along here and on Twitter @Summer9Book

Day 1 & 2: New England

Sunset at Cardines Field in Newport, Rhode Island
Sunset at Cardines Field in Newport, Rhode Island

 

It didn’t feel much like summer in Cotuit, Massachusetts, on June 2. Low clouds persisted and the breeze carried a chill. But baseball players started arriving to Lowell Park around 1 p.m., ready for the first practice of the summer with the Cotuit Kettleers of the Cape Cod Baseball League.

They listened to coach Mike Roberts for a good hour as he ran through everything from practice schedules to pre-game stretching. The first time they picked up a bat or touched a ball, they were in right field. The bats were plastic. The balls were whiffle balls. Eighteen of the best college baseball players in the country looked a lot like big kids. It sets the course for what Roberts wants out of his players – backyard baseball.

Day two of the Summer Nine came 11 days later, in Newport, Rhode Island, home of charming Cardines Field and, as you can see in the photo above, beautiful sunsets.

The Newport Gulls of the New England Collegiate Baseball League were taking on the rival Ocean State Waves of nearby Wakefield. School was still in session, but kids in every corner of the bleachers were convincing their parents to stay a little longer. It was Tiverton Little League night – with dozens of kids in uniforms on hand – and nobody wanted to leave. The Gulls have become a fixture in the Aquidneck Island community, thanks to nights like that and connections with youth leagues, schools and organizations.

Summer baseball is a family and community game, right down to the players staying with host families. They might be Major Leaguers some day, but they’re eating at the kitchen table these days. It’s a cool part of the story of summer baseball.

That’s all for now from day one and two. Day three is actually today, but a little later … and just a little further away. Stay tuned!
 

Summer magic

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“Baseball, to me, is still the national pastime because it is a summer game. I feel that almost all Americans are summer people, that summer is what they think of when they think of their childhood. I think it stirs up an incredible emotion within people.”
– Steve Busby, former Kansas City Royals pitcher

Summer was hot and humid and fun, but not terribly interesting in the suburbs of Louisville, Kentucky. But for two weeks every July, we packed up the van and headed north. Once we passed over the bridge and into Cape Cod, summer was a little bit magical. The beach and the twilight that seemed to last forever, and everything in between.

And there was baseball, a game nearly every night in the Cape Cod League, where college players spend their summer. From the bleachers behind home plate or the hill in center field, we watched future stars, getting autographs and remembering names. It’s always tempting to wax poetic on America’s Pastime, but it feels especially right on Cape Cod. It’s baseball that feels familiar, even if you’ve never seen it before.

For me, the magic of a childhood baseball fascination stuck around, and I started writing about the Cape League at rightfieldfog.com. Along the way – after a move to Rhode Island – I found more baseball that felt a little magical, at Cardines Field in Newport and Old Mountain Field in South Kingstown. I read about the amazing Midnight Sun Game in Alaska, the talent in the Northwoods League, the tradition in California.

Summer collegiate baseball, I realized, is part of the fabric of America’s Pastime – and a unique part. It’s a small-town game full of Big League dreams, the crack of the bat on a summer night, a passion that draws in so many people for no other reason than the passion itself.

And it’s time to tell a few of those summer baseball stories.

This summer, I’ll be weaving my way through the summer baseball landscape for the book Summer Nine. The nine is for nine days, the lens through which the stories will be told, from the Cape to Alaska and a lot of places in between. Two stops on the journey are already down, with seven more to go.

The words on a page are a ways off, of course, but you’ll be able to follow along here and on Twitter @Summer9Book.

Let’s find some summer magic, shall we?