New wooden bat summer league a hit for players and coaches

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Cam Seymour, of the Scarborough-populated Nova Seafoods squad, lines a hit during a recent victory over Bruno’s Restaurant (Portland) in the Regency Mortgage Summer League.

Ben Stasium, of the Portland High-populated Bruno’s Restaurant team, takes a swing with a wooden bat during a recent game against Nova Seafood (Scarborough). 

Longtime successful high school coaches Mike Rutherford of Bruno’s Restaurant (Portland High), left, and Mike D’Andrea of Nova Seafoods (Scarborough High) talk during their teams’ contest. Both coaches staunchly believe that the new wooden bat league for returning high school players is only going to get bigger.

The sun was shining and the breeze was pleasantly warm at Scarborough’s Kippy Mitchell Sports Complex on a recent afternoon and after a frigid and wet spring sports season, local baseball players have a lot to look forward to this summer as a new league, the Regency Mortgage Summer League, has formed.

And it’s unlike anything that’s been seen before here in the state of Maine.

The league is for underclassmen only, players are instructed by their high school coaches and making things even more unique, the bats are wooden, not aluminum.

Year one is underway, nine teams are taking part and two of the state’s most storied coaches are thrilled with the auspicious beginning.

“All the programs involved are happy,” said Mike D’Andrea, the varsity coach at Scarborough High School, who is coaching the Nova Seafoods squad this summer, featuring Red Storm players. “All the coaches have a say in how the league is run. It’s exciting. This is next year’s varsity team. and now, I get to see my freshman and JV players too. Before, I couldn’t see them. To these guys, every game counts because they’re playing in front of us. I’ve been pleasantly surprised.”

“It’s better competition than Junior Legion,” said Mike Rutherford, the coach of the Portland High varsity and this summer, Bruno’s Restaurant, featuring many of his Bulldogs. “The only guys who made this team are players who have the ability to play varsity baseball. The kids love it because the head coaches are here. It’s like a game practice. We’re competitive, but we’re also coaching. I call timeouts, not to talk to the pitcher, but to talk to my infielders. Situational stuff. After this summer, I’ll have a good idea of who will be on my starting lineup next spring.”

The league began from the understanding that AAU baseball had become a focal point for the state’s top players and that there was a need for kids to be able to play with their high school teammates at a top level.

“All of this got started because the platform for these kids has changed,” D’Andrea said. “The vehicle needed for exposure has changed. As the Director of Maine Lightning baseball, I know that AAU isn’t going anywhere. We needed a league to co-exist with AAU. These kids want to chase dreams. There’s probably somewhere for everyone to play. It’s not beyond their grasp.”

“Mike and I talked in the offseason and we know that AAU is here to stay,” Ruherford said. “The best players on every Class A team play AAU. We had to adjust. We’re not playing weekends, so we go Monday through Friday, playing as many games as we can during the week. If we didn’t have this league, Falmouth and Portland would be together doing Legion and a lot of these guys couldn’t play on that team.”

The games are fast-paced and played at a high level, but the most notable aspect is the ‘thwack’ of the wooden bat, as opposed to the ‘ping’ of aluminum.

Using wooden bats was by design and could summon the wave of the future.

“The AAU players use wooden bats in tournaments now,” Rutherford said. “These guys love hitting with wood. Aluminum bats are $400, while a good wooden bat is $60. The SMAA is using this as an experiment. We’d love to have wooden bats for varsity next year.”

“Wood bats add something,” D’Andrea said. “If you can hit with wood, you can hit with aluminum. You can’t say that in reverse. It’s good for the kids and it’s safer. They like it.”

In addition to Bruno’s Restaurant and Nova Seafood, the Regency Mortgage Summer League includes Bird’s Eye Painting (Windham), Fitness Factory (Deering) and Ossipee Trails Motors (Bonny Eagle) and non-sponsored teams from Gorham, Greely, South Portland and Westbrook.

Teams are guaranteed 16 games in a season that runs a little over a month in duration, although some squads are planning to play more. Everyone makes the single-elimination playoffs, with the No. 8 and the No. 9 seeds meeting in the preliminary round, followed by quarterfinals, semifinals and on July 30, the championship game, which will be played at Hadlock Field. 

“We’re fired up about the tournament,” Rutherford said.

“The only thing we don’t have is a tournament where you move on, but at the end of the day, only one goes anyway,” D’Andrea said.

From there, the sky’s the limit. 

Expect even more teams to take part in 2018.

“We believe we’ll have at least three more, maybe six more teams next year,” Rutherford said. “We’d like to keep it Greater Portland. Bonny Eagle is the farthest trip we have right now. I expect Portland, Falmouth, Yarmouth to join next year.”

“This is best for the players right now,” D’Andrea said. “Last year in American Legion baseball, I had a tough time coming up with 10 kids combining with Westbrook and Gorham. This year, I had to turn kids away. I have 22 kids this year. Interest has peaked.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached atmhoffer@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

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Sports Editor of The Forecaster since 2001. Find detailed game stories at theforecaster.net. I tweet prodigiously at @foresports.