Article by Nick Kappel
In 2011, seven teams from the New York Collegiate Baseball League and one expansion team united to form the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League.
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – In January, PGCBL President Jeff Kunion announced that the Oneonta Outlaws—2011 champions of the New York Collegiate Baseball League—would join the PGCBL, setting up a nine-team league that began play Wednesday.
Oneonta’s 2011 championship roster will return only one player this season. The coaching staff hasn’t changed, but the challenges will.
“I expect the competition will be a lot stronger,” said Head Coach Greg Zackrison, who has a 74-53 record (.583) in three seasons with the team. “With the Perfect Game name attached to our league, the goal is that we’ll move up a tier. The league-wide talent has definitely increased in terms of Division I playing time.”
And that includes Oneonta.
“Last year, we were a power team,” Zackrison continued. “We led the league in doubles and home runs. But most of our home runs were at away games because our home field is huge” (the team website lists the center field fences at 406 feet, the left and right field lines at 350 feet). “In three years, I think we’ve hit four home runs total at home. We must have led the league in 400-foot outs last year.”
This season, third baseman Zac Johnson (Illinois State) and shortstop Zach Lucas (Louisville) will be counted on to provide some pop in the Oneonta lineup.
“Zac Johnson was All-Missouri Valley Conference first team this season,” Zackrison said. “He looks very good. He’s going to be a middle-of-the-lineup guy for me. And Zach Lucas was the Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year last year out of high school. He led Louisville in doubles as a true freshman.”
Given the large dimensions of Damaschke Field, however, management has loaded the roster with speedy players this season.
“We talked about recruiting more speed, bringing in more doubles and triples guys, and it just kind of worked out that way,” Zackrison said. “We’re a very speedy team. We will have a green (light) guy in seven out of the nine spots in the lineup.”
That includes former FTB (Florida Travel Ball) players Orlando Rivera and Omar Garcia (both from State College of Florida), and outfielder Logan Brown (Baylor). Rivera stole 27 bases in 32 attempts this season; Garcia was 30-for-33. Brown runs a 6.4 60-yard dash according to his coaches at Baylor.
While the Oneonta lineup figures to be the team’s strength, the pitching is still somewhat in question. Four of the top pitchers Oneonta recruited were shut down by their schools for the summer. According to Zackrison, southpaw Sheldon Lee (San Francisco) is the favorite to lead the rotation.
And then there’s Donovan Gonzales, the lone player returning from last year’s team.
“He’s very, very intelligent, a well-spoken kid,” Zackrison said. “He’ll be in politics one day. You almost get taken back that he’s such a young kid.”
In January 2009, Donovan contracted a bacterial infection while pitching for the Tampa Bay Rays’ 18 and under team in Australia. He didn’t start feeling the effects of it until May, when a growing abscess in his liver hospitalized him.
“I lost 40 pounds in two weeks. I looked like a skeleton,” Donovan said. “They said I would never play baseball again.”
Doctors contracted the abscess, and Donovan was released from the hospital on the same day he was drafted by the Marlins.
“I had worked out with a few pro teams and was looking forward to signing a pro contract,” Donovan said. “I had to tell the teams I was sick, but the Marlins took a flier and gave me a chance to sign if I was able to get healthy.”
About a month later, a blood clot formed in Donovan’s left arm, delaying his rehab. This guaranteed he wouldn’t be healthy in time to sign by the August deadline.
Without a pro contract, Donovan wanted to attend UC Riverside as a political science major. But without a baseball scholarship (which was offered to him before his illness), he wouldn’t be able to afford tuition. That’s when he received a call from Doug Smith, the baseball coach at UC Riverside.
“We’re not going to take away your scholarship,” Smith told Donovan. “We want you to come and be a part of the team, even if you can’t play.”
“The coaches at Riverside were very understanding,” Donovan said. “They gave me the time I needed to recover.”
Donovan was cleared to resume baseball activities over Thanksgiving break, less than six months after his release from the hospital.
“I worked my butt off for two-and-a-half months to get ready for the season,” Donovan said. “In my first outing back, I had a four-inning save against BYU. It was really emotional because of everything me and my family had been through.”
Donovan scrapped a 12-to-6 curveball he used as an out pitch before he got sick. He’s since picked up three new pitches—a slider, splitter and a changeup—as he continues to find the “new Donovan.” His velocity has slowly crept back to where it was in 2009, working in the 88-90 mph range consistently this season.
Donovan hopes to continue his progress with Oneonta this summer.
“I want to start,” he said. “I’d like to get as many innings as I can, help the team get back to the playoffs and win another championship. The town deserves it because the fans are unbelievable. They are extremely passionate about the team.” (Oneonta accounted for more than half the league’s total attendance in 2011.)
If the next 12 months go well, Donovan could find himself in the same position he was three years ago when he was drafted.
“After being told I would never play baseball again, it sounds cliché, but I’ll never take this game for granted,” Donovan said. “I’ll just continue to work hard until I’m successful. And if it doesn’t work out, I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to come to UCR and get an education.
What does he plan to do with that education?
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe I’ll be the president someday or something.”