COLONIE — There are cheese and step ladder giveaways, hot dog eating contests, fans playing corn hole and slugging beers along the first base line and sugared-up Little Leaguers chasing down foul balls for a bag of Skittles.
But, in the middle of all the gimmicks to get people in the stands, on the field there is some pretty good baseball going on at Siena College, where the Albany Dutchmen are calling home for the first time this season.
And it’s being played by college kids, from the best collegiate programs in the country, with an eye towards playing in The Bigs someday. The chances of that are near astronomical, but a large banner hanging on the bleachers boast 19 former players who were drafted by major league teams from the inaugural, 2009 season through 2016.
“I know what the odds are for anyone at the college level making it to the pros, and I’m just happy I’m still in a position where I can make an upward move and hopefully I will play professionally one day,” said Matt Welsh, a right handed pitcher from Louisville University. “Right now, I’m just playing like I have nothing to lose, because I don’t. In the end, it’s a game I love playing and the dream is still alive.”
Last month, five former Dutchmen were called up by Major League Baseball franchises said Jason Brinkman, the Dutchmen vice president and general manager, and it’s happening more every year, not just in Albany but from the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League as a whole.
Most players in the league, he said, are playing in a three-year window when they can’t get drafted according to an odd MLB rule that says players can only get drafted right out of high school, once they reach their senior year or when they turn 21. Once they enter the realm of college baseball, they are off limits for three years.
“Those are the players we get. All the guys who are currently not eligible for the draft and still want to play against the best competition in the country,” Brinkman said. “And they want to be seen by scouts, and play in front of fans and play a professional baseball schedule when they play every single day and they use wooden bats whereas in college they use aluminum bats. That’s what we offer.”
Coach Nick Davey, a Delmar resident in his eighth year with the squad, said the goal of his staff is to develop the natural skills the athletes bring to the table.
“Our job is send them back to school better than they were,” he said, adding he still keeps in touch with the players who are moving up the minor league ladder. “I think people are starting to realize what kind of product we put on the field and hopefully we can tap into a different clientele on this side of the river.”
A new home
The Dutchmen are midway through their first season at the newly renovated Siena Field after playing the last five seasons at the College of Saint Rose. As the team settles in, Brinkman said it seems like it’s going to be a good fit.
Siena Field had a $500,000-plus facelift that added chair back seating, new dugouts, a new press box, a rebuilt infield and new outfield irrigation system.
“We feel that the recent upgrades made have transformed our field into an outstanding Northeast college facility, and one in which the players will enjoy,” said Siena College Vice President and Director of Athletics John D’Argenio at the start of the season.
The players are adopted by the Capital District baseball community for two months each summer and part of that is to give something back.
Each week the squad goes to Little League practices and clinics or volunteers at events like the Special Olympics, hosted by Siena this year, or the annual Stride Adaptive Sports 5K or other such activities.
“I really do look forward to getting out into the community every week,” Welsh said. “I didn’t think I would, but it is a lot of fun.”
For example, the Baseball Buddies program invites two Capital District Little League teams to the park for each home game and the players are announced along with the Dutchmen at the start of the game and run onto the field with them, work as bat boys and play catch with the players prior to the start of the game.
“We try to make sure our players are here not only for the baseball aspect of it, and to get better on the field, but to interact with the community and do things off of the field too,” Brinkman said. “The kids love it, the parents love it and we do that for every single game.”
“He’s just a great kid. He’s like a second son,” said Guilderland resident Rob Sholtz who has hosted Justin Childers, the Dutchmen centerfielder from Ohio Dominican University, for the past two years. “It makes you want to be here more and it’s a good environment for the kids, it’s family friendly and it’s some really good baseball.”
“And he plays whiffle ball and video games with us,” chipped in Ryan Sholtz while watching the game from the first base line.
As far as going to cheer on the squad, the younger Sholtz is into “running the bases, and chasing foul balls into the woods.”
Andy Sofranko is hosting Colin Kaucher, an Ohio Dominican player who catches and plays right field, for the first time this summer.
“The kids are great,” he said of the Dutchmen. “They come to the [youth baseball] All-Star games and their practices and help out with the team and they become part of the family so when they play at home it’s nice to support them and it’s fun. The baseball is really very good. I don’t think the people here know how talented these players are.”
Payton Sockwell, a Tennessee native attending the University of North Alabama and staying with a host family in Slingerlands, said upstate New York reminds him of home.
“I’ve heard it doesn’t usually rain as much as it has this past summer and the people are a lot nicer than I was expecting,” said the shortstop. “Everyone talks about southern hospitality and how people are up north are kind of mean, but that’s not the case at all. Everyone has been real nice and welcoming.”