There’s a lot to be bummed about when it comes to COVID-19.
Small business closings. The death toll. Debating between teachers’ unions, administrators and parents. And then there’s the protests, some of which appear to be never-ending.
Sports, too, have suffered. The games on TV are OK, but it’s not the same.
But here’s one success story: The Futures Collegiate Baseball League.
It is baseball, the real stuff. On a diamond, pitcher vs. batter.
The FCBL not only survived the virus, with a few Band-Aids over its seven-week run in the summer of 2020, but according to the head guy, it thrived.
Baseball-wise, it had arguably its best season over its nine-year existence, with an estimated 30 players expected to play some form of pro baseball, about 300% higher than a normal year. Players usually headed to the Cape Cod League and New England Collegiate Baseball League — which cancelled their seasons — came to the FCBL instead.
Financially? It was not a great summer. The for-profit league lost money. In some cases, lots of money (more on that later).
The FCBL bucked the trend, at least compared to the other elite summer collegiate baseball leagues. It didn’t cancel.
Instead, it waited. It waited some more. And then, get this, it adjusted.
“We accomplished what we set out to do,” said FCBL commissioner Joe Paolucci. “We play a shortened season, basically without hiccups.”
Without hiccups, among other things, means not one case of COVID-19 was reported from the 200-plus players, 30 coaches, 50 team staffers and several thousand fans.
Not one person related to the league, in any way, reported they suffered from COVID-19 symptoms.
Not one game was canceled or postponed.
The FCBL followed the guidelines of Massachusetts, N.H. and Connecticut — Mass., by far the strictest, not recommending fans — and figured it out.
This is not to be confused with testing. Nobody, at least initially, was tested.
But every team checked the temperatures of each player as they entered the respective parks for every game.
For those that may want to criticize this practice, of checking temperatures, as being “inconsequential,” I would remind you that every doctor’s office/medical-related facility in America, among other places, checks temperatures of all entrants.
“There were four players, in total, that had high temperatures and were sent home,” said Paolucci. “They then had to quarantine for two days and get tested before the returned. All of them tested negative.”
The league lost one team, in Pittsfield, due to the financial constrictions before the season started. And six others — in Nashua, N.H., Lynn, Worcester (Leominster), Westfield, Brockton and New Britain, Conn. — accepted there would be financial losses and did battle.
“We were willing to try anything,” said Paolucci. “My approach to owners, and they agreed, was that there was no reason why we should just cancel. Let’s wait two weeks and meet, then wait two more weeks, and meet again.
“We waited for governor (Charlie) Baker’s plan, which we heard would allow us to play,” said Paolucci. “We knew there would be a financial hit, but the owners agreed playing, giving players the opportunity, and giving fans some options, was smart and would help us going forward.”
Nashua and New Britain were under the microscope, a bit, because they were allowed to host 25 percent of capacity. Leominster’s mayor broke with Baker’s guidelines and allowed fans, too.
“I’m very proud of the way our franchises, with fans, followed strict guidelines with masks and social distancing,” said Paolucci. “They had staff at their parks, making sure masks were on and things were wiped down.”
Paolucci’s biggest fear, besides being shutdown because of an outbreak with a team or two, was about fans in the N.H. and Connecticut.
“Would they not show up, maybe looking down on us for trying to play?” said Paolucci. “But it was the opposite. The fans were great. They wanted to see live baseball. That was one of the great things about the summer.”
The other was level of play. There were at least 10 players who will be drafted next year, including Vanderbilt’s Dom Keegan (of Methuen), Boston College’s Sal Frelick and Cody Morrisette, Northeastern’s Ben Malgeri and Jared Dupere, and Harvard’s Logan Bravo (of Andover).
Those players, among others, were all slated to play in the Cape Cod League. Instead, because it was the “only game in town,” they were in the Futures League.
“It was an eye-opener for us, realizing how fans love to see the high-end talent,” said Paolucci. “We heard back from some Division 1 coaches who said their players had a great experience and they will send us some more talented prospects.”
Brockton Rox manager Andy Theriault, an assistant coach at Plymouth State credits Paolucci with leading the way to what was a season to remember.
“I tip my cap to commissioner Paolucci and ownership around the league,” said Theriault. “When everything started to go down in mid-March, the commission said we’re not going to cancel just yet, we’re going to try and play.
“That’s leadership and we had that,” said Theriault. “When it didn’t look good, he’d say we’re still going to try. The fact we were not only able to get on the field but play the entire season was a great thing for a lot of people. I know for me, it was a summer I’ll never forget.”
You can email Bill Burt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FCBL hoping to expand
The Futures Collegiate Baseball League is hoping to expand to eight teams next year, with Pittsfield returning as the seventh team. Within a few years, Commissioner Joe Paolucci’s goal is to add even more franchises.
“We have a master plan and 10 teams is where we’d like to end up eventually,” said Paolucci. “This season has really been a positive in a lot of ways. We know we have a good product that our fans want. We have owners that were willing to bite the bullet, for one year, so we could grow.”
Paolucci has a few possible locations in mind as growth spots, but the key is finding the right ownership group.