Four teams. Six weeks of games. One winner. And, perhaps fittingly, the name on the trophy after the first ever Herts Baseball Development League is the Raptors.
The League was the creation of the Raptors’ manager Mantas Poderys, when baseball received clearance to restart games after the coronavirus lockdown. The aim was to give the swelling ranks of rookie and inexperienced Herts players a taste of competition without the pressure of a formal BBF league.
Mantas split his roster in two – sharing out specialists such as pitchers and catchers – and teams from the London branch of the club enthusiastically came on board to join the league. So a schedule was created in which Raptors A and B would face the Eagles and Londoners in a round robin, then a medal series.
A series of new safety measures was drawn up and adopted, and everyone was ready to go.
The opening weekend of games in August was under baking sun at Grovehill. Raptors A got out to the best start with 2 wins. New recruits got their first taste of game action, and stars started to emerge. Cory English of the Londoners showed his slick skills, and Raptor rookie Declan Carlean made a great play from deep in the hole at shortstop.
After a rained out week, games resumed with Raptors B now taking strides forward. Ken Pike, a former manager and a champion at Single-A as a player, was one of the club veterans who returned for the HBDL. He was leading the Blues with typical gusto.
For the Londoners, Andrew Slater was the old hand with the magic, returning to the pitching mound with great results. He ended with several wins to his name.
Although there were a lot of laughs in these games, as friends got the chance to compete against each other in a relaxed setting, there was plenty of intensity too.
New Londoners recruit Kevin Abioye took a knee to the jaw as he desperately tried to reach first base on an infield hit, while Raptor B’s Laurence Currington took a tumble as he raced into the collision to help save the game for his team. (Everyone was fine afterwards, with maybe a bruise or two).
These games were also packed with dramatic walk-offs. In the third round of games, Londoners secured an 8-7 win over Raptors B when a run-down between third and home went awry and what looked like a terrible base-running decision turned into a victory moment.
The best of five championship series was between the Raptors B and the Londoners, as they finished in the top two slots of the League. The Eagles and Raptors A would play a best of three to decide the bronze medal.
The Blues took a 2-0 lead in the first week of playoffs, with the Eagles starting with a win. All to play for on the final Sunday.
Wily veteran pitcher Greg Bochan led the Londoners to a win in the first game on the last day, keeping the series alive. In Game Four, the Londoners took a 6-4 lead into the final frame. Great fielding plays from Matt Jackson and Rob Gibson had helped keep the Blues in check. The Londoners tacked on 3 more runs – surely the game was safe?
But Raptors B had other ideas. Manager Ken Pike had pitched the game, and delivered with the bat too. Once on base, he represented the winning run. In a match up of veteran pitcher (Nic Goetz) and rookie hitter (Pedro Martins) the youngster came through. He drove in Pike for a 10-9 win and plenty of celebrations.
In game 2 of the bronze medal series, the Eagles took a lead into the final stages. But again there was a dramatic Raptor rally. Raptors A scored a clutch of runs to tie it up.
And again, the final act was old hand against young star. Declan Carlean on the mound, Rob Jones at bat. This one was won by the veteran, with a hit to centre field clinching the 2-0 series win.
The idea of keeping the tournament in-house had been to keep the players as safe as possible at a time when travelling and mixing were both officially discouraged – but also to give the best chance for fun and competitive baseball. It succeeded on both counts.
Mantas Poderys said he was focused not on the victories for his players, but on their spirit and their development – and that, on that basis, all games were wins. They responded with equal warmth, praising his hard work, support and the welcome he gave players, some of whom had not even played organised sport, let alone baseball.
While this League was going on, other elements of Herts were also staying active. The Falcons of the NBL held regular practices and scrimmage games, and also traveled to the Kent Buccaneers for a game which they won.
Youth training sessions resumed at Grovehill in July and continued throughout the summer. Coaches Lee and Colin kept as many age groups as possible active, and open sessions also received a great response when they began at Basing Hill in northwest London in August.
Some of the Herts youth players have been taking part in a Fall League organised by LYBL on the diamonds at Farnham Park, so their season looks to stretch into October. The club now turns its attentions to the winter and to preparing for what 2021 might bring.
The Raptors, meanwhile, polish their trophy!
Thanks to all who took part and helped the club through all aspects of a most extraordinary year. Coaches, officials, parents, fans and players all had a huge role to play. Herts is a family and we stay committed to each other, and to baseball.