Bigger and better: the baseball year at Herts

2017 was a year which saw Herts add new elements to its already impressive array of sporting possibilities. There was the arrival of softball, the development of a Rec League, and a new summer tournament which we hope will become a regular fixture. So, as the club prepares for next week’s AGM to start planning 2018, let’s look back over 2017.

The Herts Hawks led the way again for the club in the BBF leagues. After winning it all unbeaten in Single-A in 2016, they stepped up a division and continued on a tear.

Last year’s sluggers Gilberto Medina and Jon Lewys were still on board. The team had also been strengthened by the arrival of Michael Cresswell from the Raptors, and Ernie and EJ Ayala, a father and son combination well known in British baseball circles but new to Herts.

The Hawks kicked off with a 21-9 victory at Farnham Park against the Daws Hill Spitfires, the defending champions of Double-A. They survived a fightback to beat the Richmond Dragons, then extended the winning streak further by beating the London Marauders.

The Hawks taking on the Latin Boys

The run of victories was at 23 when they faced off against the East London Latin Boys, who were also undefeated on the season at that point and were leading the league. Herts took the first game of a double header, but then lost 14-8, their first defeat since September 2015.

Latin Boys and Sidewinders were the only sides to get the better of the Hawks in the regular season, and they qualified for the playoffs with a 17-4 record.  There they faced their old rivals the Tonbridge Wildcats. They went down 11-7, beaten with both bat and ball by the Tonbridge phenom Christian Sacareanu.

In the top division, the National Baseball League (NBL), the Herts Falcons were bolstered by  the return of Cris Hiche from a season playing ball in Austria — and by the late addition of former national champion Jarrod Pretorius.

They started the season with a sweep of the Brighton Jets, powered by home runs from Pretorius and Darren Meintjes. There was an early bump in the road with a controversial incident in the game at the Southampton Mustangs – which remains unresolved — then struggles for form and quality.

There were further wins over the London Capitals and Brighton, but the season high point was a hard-fought 5-2 victory over Southampton in July. Zack Longboy took the win, a complete game four-hitter. The Falcons continued to blood their young talent throughout the year, ending with a record of 7-19.

The Herts Single-A team, the Raptors, narrowly missed the playoffs. They were quick out of the blocks, with 2 wins out of their first 3. One of a raft of talented rookies, Ben Sinclair, made his mark with 2 home runs and a triple in the victory over the Old Timers.

Raptors facing the Norwich Iceni

The team came close against quality opponents such as London and Cambridge, but suffered a run of defeats to put them in a hole. Luckily for team spirit, the trip to Norwich to get hammered by the eventual champions was thoroughly enjoyed by everyone!

Veterans such as Ken Pike and John Kjorstad – added to improving newcomers Tom Carson and James Emblow – helped the Raptors fight back in the late summer.  A nail-biting win against the Essex Archers was a highlight.

The playoffs were still an option as they faced the 11-2 Guildford Millers at Grovehill in their final game. The occasion got the close, quality contest it deserved, and just one run separated the teams as late as the sixth inning. The Millers went on to win 15-13, holding off a strong Herts rally. Raptors ended the season 7-7, the second consecutive year at .500 or above.

Youth baseball continued to flourish at Grovehill, the Herts Red Kites (Under-17s) having another strong season under the tutelage of Andrew Fulford. The developing core of players not only won games, but played the game the right way. That was honoured at the National Baseball Championships, where they won the sportsmanship award.

Herts Red Kites (Under-17s)

The Red Kites also won the inaugural Kal Cup which was played in August in memory of our friend and team-mate Kal Dimitrov who died suddenly in 2015. Many former Herts players came out of retirement to compete as Kal’s Knights, while the Essex Archers also joined us for the event. Falcons manager Lee Manning, who served as Commissioner, said Herts hoped to make the Cup an annual event.

The Herts youth movement also saw a successful year for the Under-13s, and leaps and bounds of improvements for the Under-11s, where many any of the players were still new to baseball in the Spring. They performed well in games against Brighton, Guildford and Forest Glade, and were able to start winning by the year’s end. U-11 Coach Dana Myzer said they had matured, grasped the game, and became better sportsmen and team-mates.

There was also continued growth for the Under-8 programme – these guys and girls had more fun than anyone when they got to practice sliding into the bases!!

And all of these age groups took part in the Herts Futures Tournament in September. 17 teams, featuring some 200 players and coaches, were involved. There were wins for the Red Kites, for London Sports, Brighton and the London Mets – but most importantly everyone had a good time.

Softball was part of the Herts stable of sport this year for the first time. Tireless efforts by Mark Caress and others saw the first indoor sessions in the Spring, which attracted dozens of people.

The Buzzards played their first tournament in May at Farnham Park and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. There were also games during the summer in a Milton Keynes league.

Softball the Buzzards way

The final major addition — of what seems like a long list this year! – was the Rec League at Grovehill on summer Saturdays. This gave players the chance to show up when they could, for a time-limited game in a relaxed atmosphere. Cris Hiche helped drive the idea, which was ideal for new players wanting to try the sport of baseball without a big commitment, but also good for existing and past members who could now keep in touch.

2017 ended in traditional fashion with the Hunlock Series, in which every Herts player from every level — as well as newcomers and anyone from across the baseball community — gets drafted into new teams for a tournament.

It’s always a blast, with games just one inning long to recreate the drama of the ninth over and over again. The Blue Rockers came from nowhere to win the closest contest in history.

Fortunately, by the time the memories of a sun-kissed Grovehill fade away, the prospect of new baseball starts to appear. Herts will be running a range of adult and youth teams this year, and members are already registering. See you on the diamond!