On Tuesday afternoon, Vineyard Field was quiet; a breeze tinged with fall kicked up some dust next to the batting cages. The bounce houses were deflated, the food stands empty and there were just two people on the field, tossing a ball back and forth.
Martha’s Vineyard Sharks general manager Jerry Murphy loaded a tub of purple-and-black gear into his car before a meeting with some of this summer’s host families. He’d just put in another order for merchandise; the summer supply was sold out and still in demand.
“The season’s over,” he said. “It’s crazy.”
In their second season as members of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League (also in its second year of existence), the Martha’s Vineyard Sharks posted a 26-27 record, faltering down the stretch — after being in second place two weeks before the playoffs started — in the wake of shortstop Eric Jensen’s injured knee and third baseman Eric Brenk’s broken hand. After winning 11 of 15 games from July 9 to July 24, they had a five-game losing streak — “which we never recovered from,” Mr. Murphy said. The Sharks notched a 12-3 win against the North Shore Navigators in their final game but missed out on a post-season berth. Last year’s champs, the Nashua Silver Knights, again stormed the playoffs and took home the wooden bat league crown.
“From a baseball point of view, it was a disappointing end to the season,” Mr. Murphy admitted.
At the same time, however, the caliber of the athletes playing on the Vineyard jumped in quality as the league, which added five new teams this year and intends to add three more before the 2013 season, became more established. It is one of 20 wooden-bat leagues followed and scouted by Baseball America.
From the beginning, showcasing quality baseball has gone hand in glove with providing summer entertainment for families, and from this perspective the Sharks have had an outstanding sophomore season.
“The kids are having a great time and the families are enjoying it,” Mr. Murphy said. The Sharks drew their biggest crowd on opening day, but coming in a close second was kids day, when all Island camps were invited to a morning game — the only one of the season — against North Shore.
“I was afraid nobody would show,” Mr. Murphy said. Instead, over 1,200 people turned out to see the 9-1 victory. The Sharks plan to have one kids day per month next season.
Attendance held steady compared to last year, in spite of significant cutbacks in advertising efforts, with about 630 fans turning up for each game. The team sells about $900 in apparel per game, with merchandise also available at Sports Haven, Island Apparel and Shirt Tales. Still, the numbers were not enough for the organization to break even, and Mr. Murphy doubts the red and the black will balance out in year three. The team’s toughest opponent, it turns out, is not the Silver Knights, but rather the sunny days.
“Our biggest competition is the beach,” Mr. Murphy said. “[Compared to that] we’re always going to be a secondary point of interest.”
Nearly all Sharks games start at 5 p.m., when the weather is still sunny and warm enough to call beachgoers to the shore. Later start times would attract another 150 to 250 fans, Mr. Murphy estimates, but with three games suspended this year because of encroaching darkness, the only way to truly solve the problem is to install lights. It’s the first priority on the Sharks wish list.
“The field is a great field,” Mr. Murphy said. “But I think we’re the only team in the league that doesn’t have any lights.”
The organization also hopes to replace the chain-link fencing that circles home plate with netting and build a stadium seating setup behind home plate, but “that’s all wishful thinking,” Mr. Murphy said.
The recruiting process for next year has already begun. Three former Sharks will return as assistant coaches and the team expects several players from this year’s roster to play in 2013 as well. The Sharks’ 2012 coach, Ernie May, will not return for the next season “not because we don’t want him,” Mr. Murphy said, but because Mr. May is working to add an Enfield, Conn., team to the league.
It remains to be seen whether Ryan Brockett, the sophomore lefty pitcher from St. Mary’s in California, will return. Mr. Brockett’s eight innings of perfect no-hit baseball were a highlight of the season — Mr. Brockett only ended his bid for a complete perfect game because of a 100-pitch limit imposed by the league. He was third in strikeouts in the league; fellow pitcher Matthew Bradstreet was first overall and second in wins.
“I don’t care what league you’re in — high school, Little League, college,” Mr. Murphy said. “Perfect games are exciting.”
Vineyarders Tad Gold and Ryan Fisher also remain eligible for one more season of play in the league (players can compete in the league as long as they have a year remaining of NCAA eligibility). Sharks fans will have to wait until the first of the year to learn roster details.