Summer league baseball has been absent in Watertown, New York, since 2015, but it was barely apparent during their opening weekend in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League.
Manned by a team built mostly of D-II and D-III players, the Watertown Rapids scored nine runs in the ninth inning against last year’s champions, the Mohawk Valley DiamondDawgs, to win 14-1 in their season opener.
As if that wasn’t a bold enough statement, the Rapids won their home opener 5-0 over the Utica Blue Sox behind Matt Valin’s strong starting pitching performance in front of 1,287 passionate fans. Valin, a local product who grew up 20 minutes from Watertown, struck out nine batters over five innings and was in awe of the packed stadium at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds.
“Pitching in front of 1,200 fans was a new experience,” said Valin who couldn’t pass up the chance to stay close to home and pitch in a competitive league. “It definitely pumped me up out there. It was a great turnout and fans were getting into the game.”
Head coach David Anderson, a former independent baseball player and four-year pitcher at Division III Muhlenberg College, echoed what Valin said about opening night.
“Opening night was incredible,” Anderson said. “The fans were awesome. I know it fired our guys up. It was a cool experience for them and some said it was the most people they’d ever seen at a game. The fans enjoyed the game as well. Overall, it was a great night for the organization.”
The dual ownership from Paul Velte and Mike Schell led the rebirth of Watertown baseball, while Anderson excelled in handpicking the player personnel to assemble the team.
However, it wasn’t easy. He inherited an empty roster with many potential players already having found teams to play for in the summer. Anderson sent out many one-way emails that received no responses, but it ultimately came down to using his connections and finding guys who were the right fit. Eleven of the 15 position players on the team are from coaches and networks that Anderson has built through his baseball career.
No matter the player, one thing remained constant – he wanted to build a competitive culture.
“For me, it’s making sure everything we do is competitive,” Anderson said. “Not everything is going to go right in a nine-inning game, but as long as the mistakes we make are aggressive and we’re doing everything with high energy, I’m going to be able to live with that. Our guys have really adapted to that.”
Trevor Kuncl, a utility player from George Washington University, spoke highly of Anderson’s baseball mind and has already seen a growing bond amongst the team even though they’ve known each other for less than a week.
“There’s a lot of confidence in each other, especially with a shutout on Saturday night, all the hitters were excited to see that,” said Kuncl, who hit a two-run homer in Friday’s 14-run outburst against Mohawk Valley. “On Friday, pitchers were excited to see 14 runs go up. It’s definitely a recipe for success.”
Watertown outscored opponents 22-5 in their first three games. Addison Pawelek, a righthanded pitcher from Wayne State, threw seven innings with five strikeouts on opening night, while numerous relief arms have stepped up late in games. Anderson reluctantly said the bullpen hasn’t give up a run on the season, and sure enough the baseball powers-that-be came full circle as Watertown fell to Utica 10-9 last night.
Nevertheless, Anderson’s democratic style has already paid dividends towards the team’s chemistry and willingness to develop in the summer. Anderson and the rest of the coaching staff have set times where they will be at the stadium for practice, or “early work,” as they call it. Then, the players come and choose what they want to do for the day.
“My focus has been on how they’re doing things versus what they’re doing,” Anderson said. “I give (the players) a lot of freedom to say this is what I want to work on and we’ll figure out how to work on it. We had 13 guys at early work the other day. That’s not what you see often in summer ball. The guys have bought in to having a say in their own development, which is huge for us.”
Anderson and his club seem to be a perfect combination for the revival of baseball in Watertown. General manager, Brandon Noble, a graduate of nearby SUNY Cortland, credited Anderson for being the right manager for the inaugural season.
“We’ve talked a lot and become pretty close over the past couple months,” Noble said of Anderson. “He’s been a great person to have as our coach and we’ve all worked well together. It’s nice to have him leading our first team.”
Like most of the Watertown staff, Noble was quite impressed by the attendance at the home opener.
“I’ve never seen that place that full,” he said. “Talking with a couple city officials and workers, they haven’t seen it like this in a while. People who followed baseball in Watertown for many years were happy with how the game was run and the professionalism we were able to bring to that night and to the season. People are looking forward to the rest of the season.”
The passionate fanbase has already rubbed off on Kuncl, who is working on becoming a more consistent hitter over the summer.
“Playing in front of 1,200 fans was an unbelievable experience,” Kuncl said emphatically. “This town is a baseball town. They were very excited for baseball to be back. I’m extremely excited to be a part of the team they brought back. I can tell you right now, with my host family and all of the supporters in the community, it’s definitely going to be a fun summer.”
On top of the baseball atmosphere of Watertown, both Kuncl and Anderson attributed Perfect Game to raising the level of the competition for a summer league.
“Everybody knows, in the baseball world, what Perfect Game is,” Anderson said. “That’s huge to have that brand name on the league. It benefits everybody, to be honest. It helps you get players. It gets players excited. It’s something very cool to be a part of.”