With summer leagues canceled or delayed, college baseball coaches search for open spots

When the Cape Cod Baseball League canceled its season for the first time since 1946 last month, Eddie Smith grabbed his phone. Smith, LSU’s hitting coach, coordinates summer league placement for the Tigers.

LSU had nine players scheduled this summer in the Cape Cod League, one of the premier collegiate summer baseball organizations. Smith needed to find new destinations for the players while spots evaporated.

Using connections he had built throughout his career in college baseball, Smith called summer league coaches. He phoned one manager looking for a spot only to get referred to another team with an opening. He spent hours on the phone. He cold-called coaches. He tried to reassign everyone.

“I felt like a major league (general manager) at the trading deadline for the next 24 hours,” Smith said.

Smith found new teams for all nine players, but over the last month, he has moved players multiple times as leagues canceled or delayed because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Though some leagues have maintained hope they can play this summer, many start dates remain tentative. 

“The spots on teams that are still going forward this summer, it’s like gold,” Smith said.

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At its best, collegiate summer baseball gives players a chance to mature and improve, especially underclassmen who played sparingly. Players travel to leagues around the country, often staying with host families, during a critical period of their development. Though summer leagues can’t fully replicate an additional season, they help form the fabric of college baseball.

“I see it the most when a freshman leaves and comes back as a sophomore,” Tulane baseball coach Travis Jewett said. “They’re nodding their heads. They get confident. That’s when I see the biggest jump in maturation.”

Collegiate summer leagues began changing their schedules as states entered stay-at-home orders two months ago, and resulting decisions varied across the country. The Texas Collegiate League, which contains the Baton Rouge Rougarou, will begin July 3. The Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League canceled its season. The Northwoods League, which hosted two LSU players last summer and has teams in multiple states, indefinitely postponed its opening date.

The altered plans have forced coaches to scramble. They don’t know if anyone will play this summer, but some continue preparing for a potential start date, sometimes turning to leagues they hadn’t used in the past.

After its season lasted 17 games, LSU wanted many of its players to appear in summer leagues. The Tigers stocked their lineup with freshmen last spring, and summer baseball provided a chance to further their development, preparing them for next season.

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But as leagues canceled, open spots dwindled across the country. Original summer league placement occurred last fall, and while LSU reassigned its players, other programs decided to rest their student-athletes until school reconvenes.

Tulane had placed the majority of its roster in the Cape Cod League and New England Collegiate Baseball League. Both canceled. The Green Wave haven’t reassigned their players.

“Do you know how hard it is to place 35 players on summer teams and leagues that are already full?” Jewett said. “We don’t have any summer plans. It might be a complete off other than a late pickup here or there.”

In the growing void, temporary leagues have opened, some as scouting opportunities for professional teams. One, the Collegiate Summer Baseball Invitational, will take place in Bryan, Texas, the first week of June. It plans to hold a four-team, round-robin tournament with 100 players from around the country. UL may send one player. 

While summer games may help players improve and make up for a lost season, playing without proper training could threaten their health. The Ragin’ Cajuns assigned about 15 players to collegiate summer teams, but as leagues canceled, that number dropped to five or six. The program doesn’t view summer baseball as an absolute necessity, and it would rather have its players arrive healthy for fall practice than rush them onto the field after months away from competition.

“If you step back and look at this generation, most of them have been playing year-round since they were 8,” UL coach Matt Deggs said. “Taking a break is not going to be the end of the world for them.”

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Every coach must weigh the same risks and rewards. Their players have missed dozens of games, and though injury risks exist, collegiate summer leagues may help make up for lost time. College programs typically shut down their pitchers in the summer, but LSU recently put its staff on a throwing program to build toward summer games. Coach Paul Mainieri said if a player doesn’t feel ready, LSU won’t send them.

“You’ve got to pitch in the games,” Mainieri said. “You’ve got to face hitters to continue to improve. You balance that against the risk for injury, but they have to throw the ball at some point. We’ll closely monitor it all.” 

The virus hovers over every decision, threatening more cancellations and delays. As coaches looked for spots, they asked leagues about safety precautions and living arrangements. They considered location in relation to virus hotspots. Some let parents decide if their child will travel across the country to play baseball in the midst of a pandemic.

“You can have an arm in as good a shape as you possibly can,” Smith said, “but if this virus gets you, the work you did to get your arm in shape is worthless.”

For Smith, the job has not ended. Though he has found a spot for every player LSU wants in summer league this year, he expects more leagues to cancel. If they do, Smith will try to find another spot as the available number wanes. His phone waits nearby.

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