The Winter Garden Squeeze prepares for a new, unique season as the Florida Collegiate Summer League gets back to work following a lengthy delay.
It’s been a while since Ethan Brown last participated in a competitive game of baseball.
Months have passed since his sophomore season at Seminole State College was interrupted by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, and since then, his days have been filled with training and trying not to go insane.
But now, standing on the mound for the Winter Garden Squeeze in a preseason game, he finally gets his taste of live pitching in what feels like an eternity. In a few innings of work, things feel a smidge more normal.
“I felt better than I ever have,” said Brown, a Winter Garden resident. “With this whole break I’ve had, I’ve been able to look back at video work, and I’m able to nitpick all the small mechanical changes I have, work on pitches and how I can make my curveball better and my cutter better, and then being able to actually execute it. … That right there was a big accomplishment for me.”
Brown’s sentiment is shared among the players, coaches and administration of the Florida Collegiate Summer League, which earlier this month announced it would go forward with the season — albeit with changes.
For Adam Bates, the general manager of the Squeeze, it feels right to have baseball back.
“It feels good, because so much hard work has gone into it,” Bates said. “It feels good, because you feel a sense of normalcy and you feel for the players. With this being our seventh year in the league, and then the 17th year of the complete league, we’re a part of the summer.”
In early June, the Florida League Board of Directors announced it had voted to proceed with the new season. The decision was made following months of uncertainty, said league President Stefano Foggi.
“There was a period of time there for two months-plus where it was looking pretty bleak,” Foggi said. “We didn’t know how this virus was going to affect us, and there was new information coming in by the day, so it was kind of day-to-day. All along, our goal was to just be in a position to pull off a season if the virus situation allowed us to — that could have been a whole lot of work for nothing, and it’s exciting to see that we have this potential to have a season now.”
“It feels good, because you feel a sense of normalcy and you feel for the players. With this being our seventh year in the league, and then the 17th year of the complete league, we’re a part of the summer.”
— Adam Bates, Winter Garden Squeeze GM
Along with that news, the league listed a series of steps it would be taking to ensure everyone would be safe as the coronavirus pandemic continues. Players and staff were tested for COVID-19 before they proceeded into a two-week preseason period — which started June 15.
What follows now is a 27-game regular season that begins Monday, June 29, and a postseason running from Aug. 6 to 14 for the top five teams. All games will be played at one of three locations: Sanford Memorial Stadium in Sanford, Pat Thomas Stadium in Leesburg and Melching Field at Conrad Park in DeLand. Having teams play in only three locations is a means of creating a protective bubble for players and staff, Foggi said.
After initially deciding on having no fans at games, the league decided to allow for 50% capacity — which can be accomplished because of the larger stadiums in which the teams will be playing.
The news of having at least some fans attend games was welcomed by players such as Brown, who said having a crowd helps to get players fired up.
“When it comes to no fans, the game just isn’t as alive as it should be,” Brown said. “Players don’t have as much energy — they don’t hear people cheering or calling their name out — so at that point for me, and for some of my other guys, it basically feels like an intersquad. You’re just there to get your reps in to try and get better instead of trying to perform to the best of your ability. … You’re just going through the motions.”
WORKING ON THEIR GAME
Although this is far from the typical season, things have been good so far through the preseason, said Squeeze head coach Terry Abbott.
Despite baseball seasons being suspended for months, many of the guys who have shown up are raring to go — regardless of how awkward the new changes may be.
“Our kids have been upbeat, the focus has been there, they’ve got high energy, and they come into practice and they get their work done in a pretty businesslike matter,” Abbott said. “I’ve seen some good work habits out of some of the guys.”
Not only are the guys in full-baseball mode, but also they are enjoying themselves. Sure, they’re there to get better and prepare for their next season of college baseball, but the happiness to just be back to the game they love has been palpable, said Bryce Hubbart — a Windermere High alumnus and current pitcher on the Florida State University baseball team.
“You can definitely see how people feel after these past two days,” Hubbart said. “Thursday and today (Friday) … we actually got to play intersquad — we got to play each other — which is a normal thing, but it was just very enjoyable.
“Most of the time when you’re at school or you’re playing intersquad it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re doing intersquad’ — you’re intersquading every day and it gets tedious,” he said. “But you could just see it was an extremely enjoyable environment to be around. It’s been good.”