Despite a global pandemic and contentious labor fight, Major League Baseball is, in fact, on track to return this year, in one form or another. But baseball’s reach is far greater than its highest level.
Countless other people — in high schools and throughout college campuses, from youth teams and travel ball to the minor leagues, in a multitude of roles at every level — have suddenly been left without the game that has been such a big part of their lives. Their plight is a reminder of baseball’s scope and significance in a time when the sport is teetering.
This is the first of a series examining their stories, starting with a look at how baseball’s lost seasons have affected those on the collegiate level.
THE SEASIDE TOWN of Cotuit, Massachusetts, felt particularly empty on June 13, for what would have been the opening game of the Kettleers’ season — their first game since capturing the Cape Cod League championship last summer. It was a Saturday, and 14-year-old Matthew Flaherty wanted to see what a barren Lowell Park looked like. His father, Peter, who raised three baseball-loving boys with special ties to those Kettleers, drove him there. They sat in their usual spot behind the backstop as 4 p.m., the time of the originally scheduled first pitch, came and went without a sound. Suddenly the void was obvious.
“Dad,” Matthew said, “it’s like the summer is over before it even began.”
Peter Flaherty spent 13 years as a homicide prosecutor in Boston before becoming a trusted adviser for Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush in their pursuit of the U.S. presidency. But baseball has always been his lifeblood, a passion that lives on with his sons. Rather than ride on boats or swim in pools, Peter’s boys spend their summers immersed with the Kettleers, one of 10 teams in the prestigious wood-bat league that features some of the sport’s best collegiate players.
His youngest, Matthew, has become a symbolic fixture throughout the league.
His oldest, Peter Jr., is one of the Kettleers’ most important employees.
Peter Jr. was a fan before he could walk, and began attending the team’s camps right around the time he started grade school. When he realized his baseball skills wouldn’t lead him to a major college program that might allow him to play for the Kettleers, Peter Jr. learned about a scout liaison role that could help him contribute behind the scenes.
He spent summers scrubbing toilets and sweeping bleachers before graduating to field maintenance, then landed the coveted, immersive summer internship during his freshman year of college. Peter Jr. spends three-quarters of the year recommending players and tracking their progress. During the two-month season, his days begin at 9 a.m. and end no earlier than 9 p.m. In between, he preps the field, answers scouts’ questions, runs TrackMan video equipment, cleans everything up, convenes with the Kettleers’ coach, Mike Roberts, and gets ready to do it all over again the next morning.
“If there was enough room,” Peter Jr. said, “I’d bring a cot in and sleep in the baseball ops room.”
Hendrik Herz, a scouting analyst for the Baltimore Orioles, did Peter’s job a few years earlier. Peter saw Herz via Zoom during ESPN’s broadcast of the five-round MLB draft earlier this month and thought about how he’d like to be in that position someday. He’s 21 now, heading into his senior year at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. The 2020 season would have marked his third in this hybrid front-office role, coming off a summer when he helped build a championship roster and gained serious momentum within the scouting community. Because of the coronavirus pandemic that wiped out the Cape League schedule, he won’t have that opportunity. He wonders whether he ever will again.
“This has been the entirety of my summer for as long as I could remember,” Peter Jr. said. “Obviously I understand the decision. You have to keep players safe, keep their families safe. It’s for the better. But it’s really weird not making that drive down in early June and seeing guys pulling into the ballpark and meeting Coach [Mike] Roberts for the first time. It’s been really weird without it.”
BILL JENSEN WAKES UP and immediately asks himself the same question every morning.
What time do I need to be at the ballpark?
For Jensen, the month of June has been absorbed by the College World Series for the past 37 years, the past 19 of which he has been the tournament’s public-address announcer. Now, with the pandemic forcing the cancellation of the NCAA’s entire slate of sports, there is no College World Series, there are no games, and suddenly there is no need for Jensen to be anywhere near a ballpark. He’s still adjusting.
“It’s kind of an empty feeling, really,” Jensen said. “It’s not here. We drove by the ballpark the other night on the way to dinner, and I looked over there and the parking lots were empty, the lights weren’t on at the stadium, and I wasn’t up in the press box.”
Jensen, 73, was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, home of the College World Series since 1950, and grew up a fan of the Milwaukee Braves because he idolized Hank Aaron. He became PA announcer for the Kansas City Royals‘ nearby Triple-A affiliate, but also worked the College World Series in different capacities beginning in 1983, taking tickets, running the scoreboard and serving as an usher. When legendary PA man Jack Payne retired after a 37-year career at the end of the 2000 CWS, Jensen beat out 23 other applicants for the right to replace him.
Had this year’s series gone on as scheduled, Thursday would have marked Jensen’s 300th consecutive game.
His predecessor’s streak reached 533.
“I figured it out — if I were to try to tie his record, I’d have to do this ’til I’m 90,” Jensen said. “I don’t think I’m gonna make it.”
But he might try. Jensen said he hopes to continue on in his role as long as his mind remains sharp and his voice continues to carry. The College World Series took on a greater significance for Jensen since he retired from his full-time job at News Radio KFAB-AM in 2012. The tournament — composed of up to 15 games in less than two weeks — can be exhausting, but Jensen has found it to be exhilarating.
It has forced him away from his daughter most years on Father’s Day, but it has also given him something to look forward to every summer. He loves seeing old friends, catching up with Payne and handing out souvenir baseballs to kids in the parking lot. He spends most of April and May consuming as many college baseball games as possible and tries to hone pronunciations for the 200-some-odd players he will eventually introduce.
“For most of these kids, this is the pinnacle of their baseball career,” Jensen said. “And so I definitely don’t want to be a person who messes up their name when they come to the plate.”
This year, Jensen is spending most of his time gardening and playing golf. He likes to get out with his wife, but social distancing restrictions haven’t allowed for much of that. These days, they often take short drives together to pass the time. When he’s alone, Jensen still finds himself watching old college baseball games, longing for an elusive sense of normalcy.
“The town feels empty,” Jensen said. “We’re not a little town — we have half a million people here — but it just feels different.”
THE BASEBALL TEAM at Johnson County Community College was 20-3 when its season ended, leading the National Junior College Athletic Association — an organization consisting of 49 regions and 406 schools — in home runs and slugging percentage. Before the season began, Kent Shelley announced that it would be his last at the school in Overland Park, Kansas, marking the end of a 34-year run as head baseball coach. His players rallied around that, pushing themselves to give Shelley that elusive championship before his retirement.
Shelley, the second head coach in the program’s 48-year history, had compiled more than 1,000 wins, had claimed four regional titles and had led the program to two prior appearances in the NJCAA World Series. But this last group, he admits, might have been his best, led by an excellent crop of sophomores. Not seeing it through, Shelley said, “felt like somebody had kicked me in the gut.”
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt and it wasn’t disappointing. We had high hopes this year.”
Shelley, 60, remains at peace with his decision. The school’s athletic director, Randy Stange, pestered him about reconsidering, but Shelley didn’t budge. He decided to move on mainly because he wanted to spend more time with his parents, but also because he’s ready for something else. He will continue in his role as an associate scout for the Royals and might also help at the local Urban Youth Academy; eventually he hopes to volunteer at Children’s Mercy Hospital.
Shelley addressed his team one final time on a Friday, with the novel coronavirus beginning to spread throughout the United States. He did so conscious of the possibility that it might be his final team meeting, but he tried his best to wipe the thought away, holding on to hope that the season might only be temporarily suspended. Three days later, on March 16, the NJCAA canceled all of its spring sports.
“We had one of our best clubs in my tenure, and that’s where I felt sorry — for my players,” Shelley said. “I feel sorry for them that they didn’t get to finish what they started. I had a great team, very talented, but more importantly I had a team of young men that possessed integrity. They were loyal. They were fun. They were hard-working young men, and they had set goals, and they had a vision, and that was to get our club back out to Grand Junction, Colorado, and the JUCO World Series.”
Shelley began at JCCC in 1986 as an assistant for Sonny Maynard, the college’s first baseball coach. Shelley replaced Maynard the following year, ultimately coaching 11 NJCAA All-Americans and more than 40 professional players. He began with aspirations of leading a major four-year program, but quickly began to view coaching teenagers out of high school as his calling. Due to this year’s shortened MLB draft and players getting an extra year of eligibility, Shelley believes these next two years “will be two of the most talented years that community college baseball has ever seen.”
He’ll be watching from the stands.
“I’ve just tried to never look back and second guess and say ‘what if,'” Shelley said. “I just have always felt life’s too short for that.”
THE DAY HIS collegiate career came to an abrupt end, Aaron Wong was running late. He had a job interview that spilled into the start of practice. When he finally made it onto the baseball field at Chapman University in Orange, California, most of his teammates were sitting in the dugout in shorts, and some of the pitchers were messing around taking batting practice. Wong feared the pandemic might have forced the postponement of some upcoming games. Moments later, the coaches approached him with news he was not ready for — college baseball in 2020 was finished.
“That night hurt,” Wong said. “It hurt a lot, just to know that I wasn’t going to have a senior season.”
Wong was a catalyst on the Chapman team that won the Division III championship last year, starting all 56 regular-season games and coming through with the walk-off hit in the super regionals. He won a West Region Gold Glove Award at second base, then spent most of his summer and fall working on his explosiveness and agility in hopes of making more plays in the hole and winning the national Gold Glove in 2020.
When the pandemic ended his season and kept the Panthers from defending their title after a 12-3 start, Wong had a chance to return. The NCAA granted its student-athletes an extra season of eligibility, and Chapman coach Scott Laverty promised Wong a spot on next year’s roster.
“That was comforting,” Wong said. “But at the end of the day, I was ready to move on.”
Wong is living with three teammates in Newport Beach, California, and is actively looking for summer employment. He hopes to apply to jobs related to his business administration degree at some point this fall, though there is no telling what the job market will look like by then.
“It’s not that I don’t want to continue playing baseball,” Wong said. “I still love baseball. I’m gonna have fun coaching my kids when I’m older, that kind of thing, maybe join a Sunday league down the road. But for now, I think I’m ready to explore a new chapter in my life.”
Wong’s graduation was staged virtually, as was the case for practically every senior in this country. It consisted of recorded messages from faculty members and lasted no longer than 30 minutes. Wong and a few of his friends put on a cap and gown and walked on top of a table to simulate the experience, just for fun.
His last game came on March 9, a 17-0 win against the University of Dallas, at a time when it felt as though three-quarters of his season remained.
“It feels like a blur now,” Wong said. “I just remember I ended with a hit, a single in the [shortstop] hole, so that was cool.”