Martha’s Vineyard baseball standout Jack Roberts to play with Sharks

Jack Roberts was in action last spring for the Vineyarders. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

We love phenoms. American sports fans are fascinated by phenomenally skilled and unknown players that burst into view and dominate their game.

Baseball phenoms seem to be our favorites. They have been the stuff of Broadway plays (“Damn Yankees”), successful novels (Malamud’s “The Natural”) and lyrical essays by John Updike. Phenoms have become part of the American hero mythology. And they’re fun to watch.

Our local phenom is Jack Roberts, a four-sport Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School senior.

“Jack is number one in academics, a phenomenal soccer player, point guard in basketball and a shortstop in baseball,” Jerry Murphy, general manager of the Sharks, said last week. “Last year, in 20 high school baseball games, he had 20 RBIs (runs batted in), scored 22 runs, and stole 16 bases. In 66 at bats, he hit for a .439 average with an OPS (on base plus slugging) of 1.227 with five doubles, six triples, and a home run

Jack accepted Mr. Murphy’s offer of a Sharks roster spot for the 2013 Futures Collegiate Baseball League (FCBL) season, which begins a 55-game season in early June. The FCBL, like the Cape Cod League, is a proving ground for gifted collegiate players. Amateur leagues like these require that players use wooden rather than aluminum bats used in high school and college. Professional baseball scouts are attracted to these leagues because of the caliber of play and the use of wooden bats which pro players must use and are regarded as a better measure of hitting ability.

“I invited Jack to practice with us last year and pitched batting practice to him,” Mr. Murphy said. “He’s got that smooth left-handed swing. We’re allowed one roster exception for a high school player intending to play baseball in college. He’s being heavily recruited by Harvard, Trinity, and Williams. We’ve invited him to play this season and I see him working his way into the lineup as he gets some at bats. I believe he’ll do well here.”

Jack’s senior year is a dizzying ride for the school’s top student and premier athlete. He took some time between high school state tournament basketball games to talk about his academic and athletic lives.

“We have one more quarter to go in school. So I have to keep working to maintain my class standing,” he said. He will attend Williams College in the fall as a student-athlete with an interest in history, pre-law, and science.

“I’m excited and a little nervous about playing with the Sharks but it’s a great opportunity to play against college players before I get to college,” he said. “Yeah, its going to be a ton of baseball this summer. We play 18 high school games and the Sharks play a 50-game schedule with a lot of travel. I got to know some of the players last year at practice, so I know it’s tiring, but we’ll get through it.”

While the prospect of being a pro is enticing — Jack is aware that several former Sharks are now playing professional minor league baseball — he is keeping a level head. “I’ve been to seven or eight baseball camps and I have an idea of the skills it takes to be successful. Williams is a well-regarded college baseball program but it’s also a top academic school and that’s important.

“My parents and coaches have invested a lot of time and resources in me. And guys like Sam Berlow have mentored me, really since Little League, on the physical and mental aspects of the game. I owe them a lot.”

While football, soccer, and basketball have cut into the popularity of “America’s Pastime” in recent decades, fan interest in baseball grows as a favored way to spend time watching a sport, as attendance figures attest.

Certainly the proliferation of amateur and professional parks has helped to increase fan interest. Construction of the Shark’s stadium, behind the MVRHS campus, is an example. The Marinucci Sports Group, owner of several minor league baseball franchises, scurried, successfully, to create a field for the Sharks in order to enter the newly formed FCBL in 2011.

That work continues, Mr. Murphy said. “We are installing 420 more seats now and we have approval from the airport, the Federal Aviation Administration and from the high school to install lights. Now we are raising funds for the $200,000 installation cost. We learned it’s often too hot to begin games at 5 pm and that a 7 pm start would be cooler. That’s why we need the lights.”

The Sharks have also added 100 reserved seats behind home plate, direct from Camden Yards (the Baltimore Orioles’ major league park), changed the protective mesh behind the plate to improve visibility for fans and to provide revenue to help minimize operating losses of more than $100,000 in the Sharks’ first two years.

“The field is a huge commitment for us and the benefit for the Island is that this infrastructure is in place and remains there for the high school – along with a $50,000 lawnmower,” Mr. Murphy chuckled. “Getting lights will change the dynamics of the games and enhance the fans’ experience.”

All good stuff, especially when it’s with the hope that maybe, just maybe, we’ll someday get a glimpse of the next Mick or Teddy Ballgame.