Howard Herman | Designated Hitter: NECBL commissioner reflects on changing landscape for summer baseball

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Young baseball players from across the country have begun their seasons playing for Berkshire County's two summer wood bat league teams.

How things have changed.

Sean McGrath has played, coached, and general managed in the New England Collegiate Baseball League, and is now the league's commissioner. The former Drury High School standout, who's league is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, said that the proliferation of summer leagues has made it more of a challenge to find quality players.

"It was Cape Cod and Alaska, and if you were a college athlete and wanted to play at a high level in the summer, you had two options," McGrath said. "Thanks to our founder Joe Consentino ... thanks to him and George Foster, the NECBL was formed 25 years ago. We've had general managers and teams be able to build relationships with college programs around the country."

When McGrath played for the Danbury Westerners in 1996 and 1997, the number of high-caliber collegiate wood bat leagues could be counted on maybe two hands. Now that he's the NECBL commissioner, he sees that there are teams to the left of him and teams to the right of him.

Just in the time since he was named the general manager of the North Adams SteepleCats in 2004, he has seen the creation of the Futures League, the New York Collegiate Baseball League and the Perfect Game League — all in the Northeast. And that's not even counting the Cape Cod League, which has been in existence since the 19th century.

"There's more summer leagues. Now, virtually, if you're a Division I, II or III athlete and you have an ambition to play in a summer collegiate baseball league, there's probably a home for you somewhere in this country," said McGrath. "The range of leagues from the West Coast, to the Midwest, to the South, they're everywhere. Kids have the opportunity to play everywhere."

The NECBL's commissioner said that there were 18 league alumni on Major League Baseball rosters on Opening Day in 2018, and even with the number of teams and leagues around, he said his league is known for getting players drafted.

McGrath said there were about 90 NECBL alumni drafted in this year's First Year Player Draft.

"We want 33 percent, a third of every roster, drafted. That's every team's internal goal, and we have some teams that out-perform that," he said. "We want our strongest teams to continue to grow, and teams that are putting five or six into pro ball to grow, too."

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Eight former North Adams SteepleCat players were drafted last week. Noah Vaughan, who played for North Adams in 2016, was drafted along with seven members of last year's team.

One of last year's draftees, pitcher Blake Whitney, said he was playing golf.

"I got a text as I was on the golf course. I was just trying to keep my mind off the draft and not watch it," he said. "[A Chicago Cubs scout] texted me, asked me a few questions. An hour later, he texted me back and said 'we might take you with the next pick.' I went 'oh my God.'

"I was on the golf course with my brother and I went on Twitter to look at the Draft Tracker, and I saw they had just picked."

When the 24th round came about, the Cubs picked right after the New York Yankees, and when the 2017 NECBL Pitcher of the Year checked, he saw his name on Twitter.

"I was speechless," he said, when reached at his Georgia home.

"I didn't really know they were that interested going into the draft," Whitney said, "until he texted me."

Whitney was an NECBL All-Star and spent time in the Cape Cod League playoffs. During 2017, he set a North Adams team record for strikeouts in a season and was virtually untouchable.

"I think [2017 in North Adams] did it all," he said. "I just did really well there, got my foot on the Cape which was awesome, and then it gave me a lot of confidence going back to school."

When it comes to his future, Blake Whitney wouldn't commit on how long it might take him to get to Chicago. But when I asked if he had taken a couple of minutes to envision himself on the mound at Wrigley, Whitney paused before answering.

"I haven't even thought about that yet," he said. "When you say that, it brings chills to me."

Howard Herman can be reached at hherman@berkshireeagle.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.


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