Summer baseball in central Connecticut is going to look very different than it has in previous years, as both the New Britain Bees and Bristol Blues find themselves in new leagues for their 2020 campaigns.
For the Bees, this will be their first venture outside of professional baseball, as the organization left the Atlantic League for the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, a college summer league.
“It’s been business as usual for us,” New Britain general manager Brad Smith said. “It’s just a shorter season. It’s still baseball. The business model is still the same, just with fewer games.”
The Bees are taking the Blues’ spot in the seven-team league as Bristol leaves the FCBL for the New England Collegiate Baseball League, a larger league they expect will allow them to bring in a higher caliber of player.
“We definitely did it because [the NECBL] was a way better league for us,” Blues general manager Nick Rascati said. “We were really excited for this because the players are a little higher caliber. It is the No. 2 [league] in the nation now right behind the Cape [Cod League]. So we did want to make that jump just to bring more excitement within the Bristol community. There was really no decision about it, it was really easy to make.”
FROM PRO TO COLLEGE
After struggling to build attendance as a member of the Atlantic League, the Bees organization left the professional game for college summer league baseball. With this transition came two major changes: a vastly shorter season and a roster that starts from scratch.
New Britain is downsizing from a 140-game season to a 56-game schedule, currently slated to start May 27 on the road against the Worcester Bravehearts, with the regular season ending in early August instead of late September.
The Bees have 29 home events this season, as in addition to their 28 home games during the regular season, they will christen their inaugural FCBL season by hosting the league’s All-Star Game on July 14.
“The biggest thing is the shorter season,” Smith said. “You’re able to scale back a little bit. Your expenses aren’t quite as much. Really, the biggest thing is on the baseball side of things. It’s a lot less hotel nights, a lot less bus rides, the coaching staff is a lot less. It’s less labor intensive coming from the Atlantic League, which is basically Triple-A baseball, one of the premier independent minor leagues in the country. Being a premier league, you also have premier expenses.”
Playing so many fewer games means the team’s revenue stream will be far less, but no longer competing in a professional league causes a drastic change in the team’s finances. Now that they are recruiting college players during their offseason, the organization is no longer paying its players. In addition, the travel required as a member of the Atlantic League was far greater than the FCBL, which consists of five teams from Massachusetts and one from New Hampshire.
“Under the old model, we were responsible for 30 baseball players, four coaches, the trainers, 70 nights of hotels, buses, some flights out to Sugarland, Texas. We’ve been able to scale back quite a bit.”
Fewer home games means less revenue, but Smith said the team’s loyal sponsors and season ticket holders have adjusted well to the new format. His plan for the season is to condense all of the business the team would see over 70 home games into the 29 games taking place at New Britain Stadium this year.
The team’s attendance is greatly reliant on group events, so when there may have been one large group attending each game last year, there will be many large groups filling out the stadium for every game this year.
“Our home opener, which is still scheduled for May 28, we had a sellout with the New Britain school systems. Obviously that’s on hold right now, but that’s what we’re looking at. We had 5,000 tickets sold for Opening Day.”
The benefit of transitioning to a college summer league is building a competitive roster every year that starts with a blank slate. Players typically join teams as their college baseball seasons end, which can differ based on the division they play in and how far their teams go in the postseason.
The man originally tasked with building the Bees’ first summer league roster was Ray Ricker, who was hired Nov. 6. A long-time coach at Post University, Ricker spent the next two months compiling the majority of New Britain’s roster through his contacts throughout collegiate baseball.
On Jan. 11 Ricker announced he would no longer be managing the Bees this summer after he accepted a job in the Philadelphia Phillies organization. One month later, Yale assistant coach Ray Guarino was hired to finalize the roster and bring the vision to life.
Guarino has no experience in college summer league baseball, but is an experienced coach who is confident in the roster in front of him and the prospect of what they could accomplish.
“I’m super excited to get going,” Guarino said. “Hopefully we start on time and we play as many games as possible. I’m ready to put a uniform back on for sure.”
Guarino said the roster is essentially complete and he is incredibly pleased with much of the talent he will have at his disposal. His only decision currently is if he wants to bring in an additional three bodies due to the FCBL expanding the roster size from 35 to 38, but he is afraid that would interfere with everyone getting an adequate amount of playing time.
TAKING A STEP UP
The college summer league grind is not new for the Blues as they are simply moving from one league to another. The 13th team in the NECBL, the Blues began looking into the new league three years ago, and the staff is excited to start a new chapter.
“It was a very easy transition,” Rascati said. “The league as a whole has been really good to us, everything has been very professional. It’s a really good league and we’re extremely excited to be in it.”
Elliot Scheiner, a member of the Blues’ ownership group, said interest in joining the league was mutual between both sides. He said he was not only attracted to the quality of player that comes with joining the league, but also the number of teams.
“They wanted us as much as we wanted them,” Scheiner said. “They actually, in a roundabout way, sent word out that they would like to have Bristol in the NECBL. I knew [NECBL Deputy Commissioner] Gregg Hunt, and we started to talk about this. They wanted to have another team in Connecticut and it seemed more viable in terms of traveling.”
The only major change required by the NECBL was for the team to become a nonprofit. The reason for that is because Major League Baseball is a sponsor of the NECBL and it is required by MLB that the teams be nonprofit.
While the Cape Cod Baseball League is almost universally considered the best college summer league in the country, the NECBL has been ranked second behind Cape Cod by Summer Baseball Register for the past two seasons, while the FCBL did not rank in the top 10. This gives the Bristol coaching staff the opportunity to contact coaches at colleges that previously had no interest in the Blues about players that previously would not have played for the Blues.
“We get to call a wider range of schools now where you can get that higher caliber guy,” Rascati said. “At those higher Division I schools, now we get their juniors and upperclassmen when before we would usually get their freshmen. That was kind of exciting.”
“I think the town of Bristol is really going to be excited about this change,” Rascati added. “Just because we are bringing the closer to minor league baseball feel.”
The Blues’ roster features Division I players from top to bottom including three pitchers from UConn and one from Boston College.
“We have a few more seasoned guys this year that have already played a couple of years of baseball at the collegiate level that will be joining the roster this summer,” Manager Ronnie Palmer said. “It’s basically the same offseason in terms of compiling the roster and the things you do to get ready for the summer.”
Another improvement the Blues will benefit from is having a third umpire on the field. The Futures League only had two umpires per contest and Scheiner believes that contributed to many of the team’s losses last year.
“We lost a lot of games by guys making a call at third base when he’s in the outfield,” Scheiner said. “Having umpires be closer to the situation is good.”
With the Blues’ expected season opener on June 3 at the Winnipesaukee Muskrats steadily approaching, everyone around the organization expects a strong season as the Blues take the next step in franchise history.
“Pitching-wise, I think you’re going to see some guys that may have a little bit more velocity,” Palmer said. “When you get a guy that’s thrown a year or two years of college baseball, they’re going to be a little bit more polished at their craft. They’re going to be able to hit spots more and throw those secondary pitches for strikes.”
WILL THERE BE A SEASON?
For both of these teams, all the work that has gone into these new beginnings could potentially be put on pause for as long as an entire year as Connecticut and the rest of the nation endure the coronavirus pandemic.
With approximately two months until the start of their seasons, neither teams nor their leagues have made any decisions as to if the season will be delayed, or worse, canceled. With updates on the situation coming constantly, the teams are ready for anything and still expect to play full seasons.
There is a slim hope that they could have their players report to the team earlier than normal and have a small preseason. This would normally never be possible because players are generally going straight from their college seasons to their summer league seasons with very few days in between.
“It’s tough,” Smith said. “It’s a tough time to try and do business, but we’re obviously much more concerned with the safety and health of everybody out there in the community. We want to get through this, keep everyone safe and healthy and then when we’re playing baseball again, that’s when we know everybody is on the road to recovery. So we’re looking forward to that.”
One issue Guarino is worried about is whether or not families will still want to host non-local players. One of the crutches of college summer league baseball is that players come from all over the country and need to be hosted by local families because the players aren’t making any money.
With the season starting in what hopes to be the early wake of the nation rebounding from the outbreak, Guarino fears locals, for good reason, will be increasingly more cautious of letting unfamiliar people stay in their homes.
“Right now, with everything that’s going on, I’m hoping people are willing to open their house to complete strangers and be a host family,” Guarino said. “I’m not sure if people are going to be very willing to do so. That right now is going to be the biggest obstacle we have to overcome.”