The best baseball seasons turn into a ride - a chaotic up-and-down rollercoaster in which every game means everything in pursuit of the ultimate goal of a championship. Runs like those do not happen every year, making each one special for the teams that go on them. However, for many players in the New York-Penn League, this rare opportunity can actually happen twice in the same baseball season.
Many of this year's Connecticut Tigers started the 2015 baseball season for their college programs, far away from their first professional baseball team in Norwich, with the goal of culminating their amateur careers with a conference championship in May and deep run to Omaha and the College World Series in June. And for one team in the wide-open NYPL playoff chase, it will end with a dog pile and title for many first-year pros somewhere on the circuit in September. Combine two potential title runs with the thrill of beginning their professional careers and the chase to the Big Leagues, and a season in the NYPL can be as unique and fun as any in a player's career.
"It's definitely been a great experience in my life," says Tigers pitcher Matt Hall, who was drafted in the sixth round by Detroit in the midst of pitching the Missouri State Bears to the Missouri Valley Conference championship and trip to the NCAA Super Regionals. "It's more fun playing in the big games then going out there and playing in the those non-meaningful games, so its been a great environment with both teams."
Amidst the highs and lows of their college careers coming to a screeching halt comes the challenge of quickly adjusting to professional baseball. "When you're on a team, you want to stay on that team as long as you can until you can't play together anymore," said Hall. "We came up short, it was very heartbreaking and not quite your storybook ending. But life goes on and you have to go on and try to fulfill your dream of playing professional baseball."
The biggest adjustment is the everyday nature of pro baseball, with a 76-game schedule in an 81-day stretch. "You don't play as many games (in college), so every game really counts," says Tigers shortstop Keaton Jones, who helped lead the TCU Horned Frogs through an epic Super Regional three-game showdown with rival Texas A & M to this year's College World Series. "We're not used to playing as many games, so you just have to stay focused and try to grind day in and day out to learn and adjust to pro ball."
The Northwest League - the west coast Short Season A level equivalent to the NYPL - can make for the same unique opportunities. In a crazy twist of fate, last year's championship winning Hillsboro Hops were led by two players who battled against each other for College Baseball's biggest prize just months earlier. Jared Miller helped pitch the Vanderbilt Commodores over catcher Nate Irving's Virginia Cavaliers in the College World series in June of 2014. Yet, in September, they both finished the season in the same dog pile after winning a NWL title as first-time pros and battery mates in the Arizona Diamondback's system. This year, however, Irving won back some bragging rights when his alma matter redeemed itself in a NCAA title rematch against Vanderbilt and Dansby Swanson, who Arizona made the number one overall pick in this June's draft. Now, Irving and Swanson are teammates and roommates in Hillsboro, after their respective schools battled each other throughout a legendary two-year stretch as the top two programs in College Baseball.
Hops General Manager K.L. Wombacher recognizes that the NWL's unique situation lends to a great product on the field. "Kids grow up with the dream of playing as a pro, and they get to the Northwest League and this is the first point where they realize, 'I'm a pro baseball player,'" says Wombacher. "We get players that take it all in, they play hard every night, they are great with the fans, and they are living out their dreams of playing pro ball. They play with a similar intensity as they did in college, and they play with that same kind of value of winning like they did in college."
Tigers General Manager Eric Knighton believes the players' appreciation for both their current situation and people's interest in their blossoming pro careers makes for a more interactive fan experience. "All the guys here now were the best players in Little League, in high school, and in their college conferences, but the level of talent now is so much better," says Knighton. "Now they are playing against other guys who are equally as good. They are excited to have people watching them, interested in their careers, and now are more than willing to sign autographs and do things to make their fan experience all the more special."
The wild ride is winding down in the playoff chase for the NYPL and NWL teams still in the hunt. That only means there are more unforgettable moments to come in the most unique baseball season in many of these players' lives.
Randy Brochu is a radio broadcaster with the Connecticut Tigers in the New York-Penn League who previously served as Radio Voice of the Yakima Bears from 2007-2008 in the Northwest League.
The Connecticut Tigers are the New York-Penn League affiliate of the Detroit Tigers and play a 76 game schedule that runs from mid June through early September. 2015 season tickets, group tickets, mini plans, individual game tickets, and team merchandise are now on sale! The front office and ticket office is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and can be accessed in person or by calling 860-887-7962.