-by Blake Dowson
The Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League starts anew on Friday with all 12 teams in action, with a whole bunch of renewed energy in the league.
Through two and a half innings of Game Three of the 2018 Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League Championship series, it appeared like it would be more of the same. Amsterdam, which combined with Mohawk Valley to win every title since 2012, led the Jamestown Jammers 5-0, and looked well on their way to claiming their fifth league title in seven years.
It wasn’t to be, as the Jammers came all the way back and won the decisive Game Three by a score of 8-6. That alone put the rest of the league on notice; that a team other than Amsterdam or Mohawk Valley can win a championship. Add to that the fact that Jamestown will not be in the PGCBL this season, and the league has never felt more winnable to every franchise.
“It really makes it wide open,” Ryan Murphy, PGCBL’s director of communications, said. “No one has that target on their back as the defending champs. When you look at the rosters up and down the league, there’s no team you can look at and really say they’re the favorite. It definitely makes for a very wide-open race.”
One thing you can continue to count on, however, is that Amsterdam will again field a very competitive team. Returning players aren’t all that common in the PGCBL, as alums of the league often move on to the draft or the Cape. That being said, Richard Barrella will return to Amsterdam this summer to anchor a young lineup for the Mohawks.
Barrella, who was a senior at Manhattan this spring, was injured early in the year and decided to redshirt. That decision gave him eligibility for the summer, which led him and his .338 batting average from last summer back to Amsterdam to make another run at a title.
Brian Spagnola, Amsterdam’s President and General Manager, said Barrella’s experience will do wonders for the younger players on the roster that are experiencing the grueling schedule for the first time.
“We typically don’t get a lot of guys back. Some teams in our league do. We have a lot of high-end freshmen, and we understand their road is with us as a freshman, on the Cape as a sophomore, and getting drafted as a junior,” Spagnola said. “…The nice thing about Richie is that he is an older kid. We do have a lot of freshmen, and with freshmen it is good to have an older guy there. Richie is a real leader and a hard-nosed kid.”
As much talent as Amsterdam typically has and with as many championships as they have won, there really is talent all over the league. In 2018, 10 of the 13 teams in the PGCBL had a First-Team All-League selection, and five teams (Amsterdam, Mohawk Valley, Watertown, Albany, and Utica) had at least three All-League selections.
The Mohawks also aren’t the only team returning major talent this season.
Ryan Hernandez, who spent last summer torturing pitchers as a member of the Mohawk Valley lineup, is back for another go as a DiamondDawg. Hernandez, who spent his college season at San Jacinto Community College and is headed to the University of Houston next year, led the PGCBL with an out-of-this-world .423 average. As could be assumed, Hernandez was a First-Team member of the league last season.
The Newark Pilots also return a First-Team member from the 2018 season in outfielder Allen Murphy. The right-handed slugger left the yard six times last summer and racked up 41 RBI on his way to a .369 average, while also taking the Home Run Derby crown during the All-Star Game festivities.
All told, there are more than 30 returning players for the 2019 season with their eyes on a league title. However, even with the high number of league veterans returning, including stars like Barrella, Hernandez, and Murphy, the biggest buzz of the offseason may well have been due to a newcomer.
Connor McCaffery is no newcomer to upstate New York, though. McCaffery, who will suit up as a first baseman and outfielder for the Albany Dutchmen this summer, grew up on the same Siena College campus that he’ll play his home games on. His father, Fran, was the head basketball coach at Siena before he accepted the same position at the University of Iowa in 2010.
"I'd come in here, shoot, we'd hit balls, mostly on the softball field. I'd make this walk past the baseball field every day to go up to the cafeteria to eat,” McCaffery said at the Dutchmen’s team media day. “It's just interesting, being back. I love it. I just got in last night, so I'm still trying to get familiar with the area, but I'm sure it'll all come back to me."
McCaffery, who plays point guard for his father during the winter and hits in the middle of the lineup for the Hawkeye baseball team during the spring, just finished his redshirt freshman year in both sports.
It’s certainly a unique situation. McCaffery will experience the daily grind of the PGCBL schedule while also getting time on the hardwood with the Siena basketball team.
The day-after-day nature of the league is an adjustment for every newcomer of the league, something Spagnola has made clear to his team ahead of Opening Night.
“By the end of the summer the guys will have a lot more respect for the guys in the Big Leagues,” he said. “They’ll feel the grind, and when they see their name’s not on the lineup card one night, sometimes they’re happy. They’ve played seven nights in a row, and they get a night to just sit and rest.”
By the end of the summer we’ll have a lot of things figured out about the PGCBL. For now, every team has a chance, and every team has plenty of talent.
“If you look at the league as a whole and the talent it keeps bringing in, the league is moving up,” Spagnola said.