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Ken Lipshez

Twenty years later, NECBL still fills a need

The New England Collegiate Baseball League has entered its 20th season, which has particular significance to me because I was witness to its birth.

Bristol was one of six state cities to be granted a franchise, and with my experience in the front office of Eastern League teams throughout the 1980’s, the team’s general manager Jimmy Wilson invited me to a meeting at ESPN on Nov. 29, 1993.

STAR-STUDDED FOUNDATION: In addition to Bristol, teams were earmarked for Fairfield, Waterbury, Willimantic, Middletown and Stamford. A Southington/Meriden team, guided by the late Joel Cooney and Russell Baim of Southington, was in the works for the following season. Cooney, a Meriden resident at the time, was the NECBL’s director of player development and was charged with setting up a league-wide computerized statistics program.

“We couldn’t get the funding,” said Baim, whose son Eric played two seasons with the Waterbury White Sox. “You needed to get a commitment of so many dollars for uniforms, equipment, the entry fee, etc. For kids out of state, we had to get them places to stay and jobs. It became a huge undertaking.

“[The NECBL] has done very well expanding into other states and has had some decent players. My son played against [Texas Rangers closer] Joe Nathan, who played shortstop for the Fairfield team.”

The league’s founders lined up an administrative roster of seasoned professionals to help with the 1994 launching.

Former Cincinnati Reds and New York Mets slugger George Foster was the commissioner. Quinnipiac University baseball coach Dan Gooley was promotions director. The director of baseball operations was Joe Consentino, an Emmy-winning producer/director who played minor league ball and was the hitting coach at St. John’s University.

The late ESPN president Loren Matthews was a driving force. Legendary UConn coach Andy Baylock was the NCAA liaison and state-based Dodgers scout Dick Teed served as a conduit to Major League Baseball. Equally legendary Eastern Connecticut State University coach Bill Holowaty and former Yankees and Mets utility infielder/harmonica aficionado Phil Linz among others were tabbed as consultants.

With a lineup like that, it’s no wonder the NECBL has grown to be one of the more well-respected summer collegiate leagues that line up behind the venerable Cape Cod League. The concept was so solid that leagues have proliferated across the nation.

STRAHOWSKI PROSPERED: Among the players on the 1994 Bristol Nighthawks was Chris Strahowski, a left-handed pitcher from Central Connecticut State University.

Strahowski, a native of Bristol, who went on to pitch five pro seasons of independent league ball, doubles as a math teacher at Cheney Tech-Manchester and an academic advisor for the women’s soccer and swimming teams at CCSU. He now calls Wallingford home and sits on the Wallingford Little League executive board.

“It was fantastic,” said Strahowski, who coached Manchester Community College to four National Junior College Division III World Series’ before the school abandoned the program for financial reasons in 2011. “I had the opportunity to play in front of hometown crowds. My choices were a temporary contract in the Cape or an impact guy in a new league and getting to play at Muzzy Field. It was a no-brainer.”

Strahowski retains friendships with many of the people he met in the NECBL’s nascent days, many of whom have gone on to successful careers, like Eric Baim, director of secondary education for Torrington Public Schools.

“On that team alone, there were three people who were in my wedding party (Mike Church, Jerry Hasler, Kevin Browning) and are still my friends years later,” Strahowski said. “You run into some of the people. [Nighthawks manager] Bob Love was a great mentor. He and Constantino were great role models.”

Strahowski also earned his coaching wings in the NECBL with the Middletown Giants from 1999-2002 under venerable Berlin High coach Leo Veleas. Members of the Giants included Connecticut-bred future major league left-handed relievers, Craig Breslow and Jesse Carlson, and Tigers outfielder Rajai Davis of New London.

“I loved coaching with Leo,” Strahowski said. “He has that old-school mentality. He came to trust me and let me do my stuff with the pitchers and that helped me out. I got my feet wet with decision-making with college players and that was fun.”

BACK IN THE GAME: Given my involvement in the Eastern League, I was thrilled to be back in baseball administration, even though it was a non-paying position.

I helped put together the Nighthawks’ program, manned the public address system for games and wrote up results for the media. Any visit to Muzzy Field was always a special opportunity, and still is.

The games were low-scoring and almost totally devoid of home runs. The hitters were used to wielding aluminum in college in the days when balls would jump off bats and be discovered blocks away. The NECBL, like many of the collegiate summer circuits, uses wooden bats.

I’d keep the scorebook and send the reports to Cooney, who meticulously organized them and produced reports almost daily. The league was well-run and I was proud to be a part of it.

But the boon of all sports leagues that try to make a go of it in small cities in towns revolves around finances, as Russell Baim quickly came to understand.

Catcher’s equipment is expensive. Wooden bats break. Using the local ballpark usually has some cost attached, but in Bristol late Parks and Recreation Department director Dennis Malone was on the league’s board of directors and the economy in general was less of an issue than it is today.

In spite of financial challenges, the NECBL has flourished. The Connecticut Collegiate Baseball League and numerous others have blossomed in its wake and appear to be holding their own. The bottom line is young men have plenty of opportunities to play on beautiful fields at a competitive level, and only good can come out of it.

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