Wood Bat League Keeps Gators Close To Home

Florida fans should soon be able to catch members of the Gators baseball team swinging wooden bats very close to home. The Florida League, a wood bat league in just its second year of operation, features players from the community college level through Division I playing competitive baseball in six central Florida communities.

The Florida Collegiate Summer League is without question one of the best entertainment values in the state as there is no admission charged to see these future major league prospects. Concessions costs are also very fair. Furthermore, fueling what is fast becoming a highly competitive atmosphere, is the fact that 75% of these players call Florida home.

Currently two Florida pitchers, Tommy Wynn and Michael Branham suit up for the Daytona Barracudas in the FCSL. Eight Gators are participating in other leagues such as the Northwoods League (Bryson Barber, Bo Smith, Matt Fuchs, and David Hurst) and the two more in the Cape Cod League (Brian LeClerc and Brandon McArthur). With the proximity and potential for a highly competitive league, one would be inclined to ask why more Floridians are not opting for this opportunity.

"Last year we really got everything together at the last moment, but still managed to get some pretty big name players," said Rob Sitz, General Manager of the FCSL. "This year we were established and contacted leagues' such as the SEC and ACC speaking to their coaches and trying to get some of those players to come into the league. Some of those coaches didn't know about the league yet, so we had to inform them."

"Most coaches look for NCAA certification," Sitz continued. "Well, we didn't have our NCAA certification yet. What happened was that the NCAA backed out of the certification and now it comes straight through Major League Baseball. It was an adjustment on all collegiate summer wood bat leagues. But, we really couldn't get the word out that we were equal to the Valley and Cape Cod leagues until, I guess that was January or February. Coaches especially at the Florida's, Florida State's, and Miami's don't want to risk their players receiving anything that might jeopardize their eligibility. I think now that everything is established and equal to these other leagues while the competition of the league continues to greatly improve, kids will see the league as being a great opportunity."

The league began two years ago in just four markets (Sanford, Orlando, Winter Park, and Daytona Beach) and expanded to six (adding Winter Haven and Zephyrhills) this year. There are several other communities interested in bringing a team to their town, but nothing has been finalized at this time. Sitz said that it is highly unlikely that the league would expand beyond six teams next season. However, interested communities will have the opportunity to speak to the league advisory committee. It's as simple as process as that created the league itself.

"The whole league came about when Sarah and Mike Whiting contacted current commissioner Sal Lombardo about potential summer leagues in Florida as their son, Corey who played at Duke University, wanted to play ball at home for the summer," Sitz said. "There was no place to play wooden league ball in Florida to get better. Sarah pursued asking what it might take to get a league in the state. Florida has the players, it has the facilities, it just needed an organization to help bring the ideas and the monies together. We raise all of the money from the league level and each club receives $40,000."

The league currently plays a thirty game schedule with playoffs and a championship game set for Sunday, July 31, at Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Plans are under way to add a few additional games to the schedule next year --- probably thirty five, but not more than forty --- as the administrators of the league don't want to wear players out, but rather provide them with an opportunity to play competitive baseball using wooden bats responsibly.

The coaching staff is largely comprised of collegiate coaches from community colleges and small schools in Florida. Many of these coaches are currently getting the word out. They will continue to do so throughout the coming months.

The FCSL held their All-Star Game a week ago at Sanford Memorial Stadium, former spring training home of the Giants. It was a tremendous game in a wonderful venue. Everybody from the concessions people to the T-shirt sales crew went out of their way to make it a friendly and comfortable setting for the fans. One of the most popular items of the auction was an autographed David Eckstein baseball.

Volunteers make up 95% of the league efforts, and those local community volunteers take considerable pride in putting their best foot forward. The league has an honorary group of advisors which includes former Florida players David Eckstein, Rick Eckstein, and Mike Stanley. Also on the committee are Chipper Jones, Tim Raines, Frank Viola, Dante Bichette, and former Florida Coach Jay Bergman, now at Central Florida.

Each club has at least one General Manager, made up of interns from business management programs at schools such as the DeVos School at the University of Central Florida and St. Leo University. There are also advisory committees in select locations made of local leaders and volunteers.

"We have an Advisory Committee in Sanford comprised of about six area leaders," Sanford River Rats General Manager Drew Tyler said. "This season the advisory committee organized a Casino Night Fundraiser to help raise money for the league and also helped start the "Scruffy Duffers Rat Pack Fan Club" with the help of Scruffy Duffers Bar and Grill."

One other area that should continue to achieve is the talent pool. There is no question that the state of Florida has a wealth of talented baseball players to make a league such as the Florida Collegiate Summer League thrive.

"We'd love to have more players from Florida," Rob Sitz stated. "Coach McMahon has built an outstanding program at Florida. They have a nationally known reputation. We have a lot to offer. We are a player focused league. Every decision we make is about the players, including travel schedules. We are a very competitive league and have a lot of scouts come out to the games. We really strive to get as many scouts as we can come out and see the players. The players want to play in front of fans, they don't want to travel too much, and they want the scouts out there to watch them play. That is our mission statement, to be player focused."

Check the schedule at www.floridaleague.com and get out to a game near you this week. You won't be disappointed in the abilities of these Florida collegians. The FCSL's mission should provide Florida fans with an excellent opportunity to follow their favorite Gators through the summer months for many years to come.


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