Collegiate wood bat baseball comes to Martha’s Vineyard

The buzz out at the Vineyard Baseball Park was audible from Gay Head to Cape Poge over the last couple of weeks, as builders, plumbers, landscapers, electricians, and painters have been scrambling to get the place ready for amateur baseball at its best.

The buzz will give way to a roar at 5 pm tomorrow, June 10, when the Martha’s Vineyard Sharks sprint out of the home dugout for the first time, ready to take on the Seacoast Mavericks from Rochester, New Hampshire.

It will the first game for the local entry in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League (FCBL), one of 20-some summer collegiate wood bat baseball leagues around the country. In this neck of the woods, a well-known example is the Cape Cod League, which has helped hone the talents of thousands of major leaguers over the years, including current Red Sox stars Kevin Youkilis, Jason Varitek, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Daniel Bard.

The other two teams in the FCBL are the Torrington (Conn.) Titans, and the Nashua (N.H.) Silver Knights. The teams will play 44 games between now and early August. Each 24-man roster must include at least 13 players who either live or attend college in New England. Tad Gold of Oak Bluffs, a sophomore at Endicott College, is one of four outfielders on the Sharks roster. Talk about local talent!

The FCBL was co-developed by the Carminucci Sports Group, owner-operators of the Brockton Rox of the Can-Am League, and Drew Weber who owns the Lowell Spinners, the Single A affiliate of the Red Sox.

“The Rox and the Spinners are two of the most successful minor league baseball teams in New England,” said Darren Harrison-Panis, president of the FCBL last Friday, June 3. “We created a joint venture with them because we felt there were underserved markets in New England that would really benefit from having top level collegiate baseball.”

For a college baseball player who hopes to make it in professional baseball, playing in a summer wood bat league is almost essential to showcase himself in front of major league scouts. Major League Baseball supports many of these leagues, realizing that they are a great proving ground for young talent. “It’s as if baseball said, ‘let’s just put everybody out there playing every day with wood bats — away from Mom and Dad, away from the girlfriend, away from college — and see how they perform,’” Mr. Harrison-Panis said.

For Islanders, taking in a game at the park behind the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School will offer not only excellent amateur baseball, but also a festive atmosphere with plenty of entertainment off the field. In minor league baseball, after which the Sharks are modeled, what’s going on around the ballpark can be as important to the fans as what goes on between the foul lines.

At the Vineyard Baseball Park, people will be able to spread blankets or set up portable chairs on a berm that parallels the fence down the right field line and around to center field. In the Kids Zone, an enclosed area behind the left field bleachers, bouncy castles, a sandbox, and a basketball hoop will occupy young fans who might lose interest in the game on the other side of the fence. In a 2,000-square-foot tent, picnic tables and a concession stand will be available for fans who don’t need any more sun on any given summer day.

There will be a Bark in the Park day, when fans will be encouraged to bring their dogs to the game. And there will be on-the-field fun for fans too, like Launch-A-Ball, in which contestants try to throw tennis balls into buckets on the field, and the chance for one young fan to race the team mascot around the bases. Guess who always wins.

“They’re the kind of fun things you can do in minor league baseball,” said Sharks president Hannah Schley while she slathered purple paint on the inside of the visiting dugout last Friday. “It’s too serious in the majors.”

To date, the Sharks have donated more than $200,000 to improving the park. They’ve trenched in electricity and water. They’ve built new concession stands and an equipment building that also houses a batting cage that will be available to young Island baseball players all year-long.

The Sharks management team knows the value of promotions, marketing, and brand recognition — all critical in the effort to build local support for the team. “Just like it takes a community to get a kid to the major leagues, it takes a community to make a baseball team,” Mr. Harrison-Panis said. “I don’t care how much money you have, who you think you are, or what you’ve done in the past, it’s all about the community coming to the ball games.”

And so far, the community has stepped up. Some 70 corporate sponsors have signed on, most of them on the Island. And that’s not all. “We’ve had amazing people try to help us — like nonprofits and volunteers,” Mr. Harrison-Panis said. “More and more people are coming out each day, saying, ‘I can do this, I can help out with that.’”

Still, it takes baseball people, on the field and off, to make a baseball team go. “They needed someone who knew how a baseball team works,” Ms. Schley said of her recruitment. “My dad’s been involved with minor league baseball his whole life, so I’ve grown up with it.”Ms. Schley has interned with the St. Paul Saints of the Can-Am League and the Charleston RiverDogs, a single A affiliate of the Yankees. “I know what the fans want,” she said with the sort of open-ended, matter-of-fact confidence that seems to come naturally to many Californians. “I know everything from what kind of hot dogs to sell to on-field promotions.”

As for the former, grilled is the only way to go. “Not like those boiled things they sell at Dodger Stadium,” Ms. Schley said, speaking of the closest major league stadium to her home in Malibu. But the crummy hot dogs are not the only reason she stays out of Chavez Ravine. “Anyway, I’m a Red Sox fan.”

Along with the grilled hot dogs, high-end food will include burgers made from grass-fed beef and free-range chicken sandwiches.

But back to the baseball, which, ultimately, fuels all the excitement out at the Vineyard Baseball Park. “We have some really talented kids coming out here,” Mr. Harrison-Panis said. “We’ve got kids from Georgia, Wake Forest, Vanderbilt — some of the top southern programs. The center fielder from Harvard, who hit .355, is going to be out here roaming center field for us.”

Pat Short, northeast director of Major League Baseball’s scouting bureau, is the baseball advisor for the Sharks. “We don’t take anybody who’s not recommended by either a scout or a head coach,” Mr. Harrison-Panis said. “You will see a future major leaguer on this field this summer — guaranteed.”

At 25 years old, maybe Mr. Harrison-Panis is too young to know better, but with energy and conviction like his, who’s to say this exciting experiment won’t work? “I love the game of baseball, but this is bigger than just baseball,” he said. “This team, this place is going to be a community point, and this is a community that can take this and run, once it sees what we have here and buys into it.”

Then there’s the pure, joyful enthusiasm of Ms. Schley, herself only 24, who summed up perfectly the vibe around the ball field in these final days leading up to the opener: “This is so exciting, because we get to start our own team,” she said.