Wooden bat amateur baseball comes to Martha’s Vineyard

Wooden bat amateur baseball comes to Martha’s Vineyard

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Ah, spring is coming. Baseball is back. The Boston Red Sox equipment truck has pulled into Ft. Myers and major leaguers are in camp, warming up for spring training.

The Island has a double dose of baseball joy this year, preparing for the inaugural season of the MV Sharks, an amateur collegiate team that will compete in the brand-new four-team Futures Collegiate Baseball League (FCBL), both formed by Carminucci Sports Group (CSG) in New York City.

The first pitch of the Sharks’ season will be thrown at 5 pm on Friday, June 10, at Vineyard Field, aka the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) diamond off Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road in Oak Bluffs. The 26-player team will be made up of 18- to 20-year-old college players who will play a 50-game schedule, hoping to catch the eye of major league scouts.

Amateur wooden bat summer leagues are a proven route to the big leagues. For example, many of baseball’s biggest stars, including Bosoxer Kevin Youkilis, cut their teeth in the Cape Cod League across the sound.

The Sharks are a little different because the team has been established as the community’s team, a nonprofit designed to support and be supported by Island nonprofits — businesses as well as fans and families looking for low-cost quality entertainment. The Island community has already benefited with a $75,000 investment in field upgrades and construction of a field house and batting tunnel to be used by The Sharks and by high school teams.

“I’d say the Sharks will play on a level at or just below Single-A pro ball,” VP-Operations Bob Tankard said recently. Mr. Tankard is a lifelong sports junkie and a former prospect himself in high school back in New Jersey. He moved to the Island 50 years ago.

A dead ringer for Hall of Fame Red Sox player Jim Rice, Mr. Tankard regularly restrains himself from signing autographs for fans convinced that he’s the slugger. “I’ve never met [Mr. Rice] and I’ve wondered if anyone ever asks him if he’s Bob Tankard,” joked the genial host of the Tank Talk interview show on MVTV here.

Island resident Jerry Murphy is the team’s general manager, while Ted Currie, Norton (MA) High School baseball coach and an experienced summer league manager, is the field coach. MVRHS baseball coach Gary Simmons is assistant coach.

Darren Harrison-Panis is a vice president of CSG, which owns a couple of minor league teams, consults with distressed franchises, and identifies player talent for their teams and other pro organizations. That’s their business. The Sharks are their passion.

CSG has provided an organizational structure for an all-volunteer Island organization to run operations from field care to selling tickets and selling food and souvenirs. Several internships have been made available to high school students.

The team is hoping that ticket sales, sponsorships, web and on-field advertising and concessions will create operating revenue for the Sharks’ expenses. Future revenue above team operating cost will be returned to the Island in the form of donations to nonprofits and scholarships.

Fundraising is also available to Island groups for promotional nights at Vineyard Field. To date, more than a dozen nonprofits have signed up for nights during the 25-game home schedule. The team will also run summer camps. For more information, visit mvsharks.com.

The birth of the Sharks was serendipitous and dramatic. It all happened in just 12 months with roots going back three years. “We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Gary Simmons,” Darren Harrison-Panis told The Times recently in an interview from his New York office.

Mr. Simmons and Mr. Harrison-Panis both had noticed that Cape League exhibition games drew nearly 2,000 fans to the Island high school field in 2007 and 2008.

“It’s been a dream of ours to bring a Cape League team to the Island for years,” Mr. Simmons said of efforts by residents to redo the high school field as an attractive top-quality playing venue in hopes that it would attract a team from off-Island — a kind of “if you build it, they will come” mindset.

“We’ve been working for 10 years to build a field conducive to collegiate baseball,” said Mr. Simmons, who has taught physical education at the high school for 10 years. “The more baseball we have, the more we can improve baseball on the Island. It’s nice to have the high school as part of this project.

“One day in November 2009, out of the blue, I got a call from Darren, who said he was interested in bringing a Cape league team here,” Mr. Simmons said last week. Mr. Harrison-Panis knows the Vineyard well, having spent summers at his grandmother’s (Rose “Roz” Harrison) house on Sengekontacket.

“We walked the field in January and decided to apply for a Cape League franchise,” Mr. Simmons continued. When the Cape league passed on their idea for an Island team, Mr. Harrison-Panis and his boss, Chris Carminucci at CSG, decided to start their own league and to launch an Island team to play in it. The teams will travel from as far as Portsmouth, N.H., and from as nearby as Scituate.

The SMG pros got busy fast, putting together an ownership group which includes Mr. Harrison-Panis and Mr. Carminucci, Island residents, including actor Bill Murray and two members of the Schley family, owners of several successful minor league franchises. Hannah Schley has been named president of The Sharks.

“This is not a professional team, but it’s run like a professional team,” Mr. Simmons said.

The team is composed of players from New England or playing at New England colleges as well as recruits from Division 1 and Division 2 colleges and junior colleges as far away as Texas. Tad Gold, a MVRHS grad, has made the team. He will play college baseball at Endicott College in Beverly.

Mr. Harrison-Panis describes the Sharks as a “passion project. We won’t be anywhere without the community support. This is the Island’s team that will be supported by coming to the ballpark, volunteering to cook hot dogs and hamburgers, opening a home to the ballplayers. The Martha’s Vineyard Boys & Girls Club will provide batboys and batgirls. We want (the Sharks) to be an Island tradition and we hope it goes on long after us.”

Club officials Murphy and Tankard believe they are off to a good start with more than two dozen sponsors signed up, including Sharky’s restaurant, sponsor of Sharky, the team mascot. The team has arranged for the Patriot boat from Falmouth to ferry players after late road games to the Packer terminal in Vineyard Haven, where players will be provided with parking.

Concessions will be leased to Island food providers and the goal is that a family of four can get a good meal and a ballgame for under $75, Mr. Tankard said.

Tickets are $3 for kids, $5 for adults. Little Leaguers and Boys & Girls Club members enter free.

“I think this is gonna be a winner,” Mr. Tankard said.

Home hosts needed

Jerry Murphy of Vineyard Haven is a Bronx guy who learned to be a successful banker. Now he’s learning to be Theo Epstein.

Unlike Mr. Epstein, the Boston Red Sox general manager, Mr. Murphy does not have a cadre of assistants or a big budget. Also unlike Mr. Epstein, he is responsible as general manager of the MV Sharks amateur baseball team to find lodging for his players.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Mr. Murphy talked with The Times while driving to New York for eye surgery he’d sandwiched between finding additional sponsors for the Sharks and finding summer lodging for his 26 players. Mr. Murphy explained that summer collegiate baseball has a long tradition of host families who provide lodging for a player, often beginning a long relationship extending beyond the season. “Basically, it’s matching wholesome family environments for 18- 20-year-olds away from home,” he said.

Both families and players are vetted for suitability. Players in the league are required to have met their school’s academic standards and must be recommended by their college coach. Host families are required to provide a bed and linens for the season that runs from June 1 through mid-August.

Hosts are not required to feed or transport players. Hosts receive a season pass to Shark games and Sharks gear for their family.

Residents interested in being a host family should contact Doris Clark, hosting coordinator, at 508-299-3499 or email her at Doris.Clark@mvsharks.com