Sandi Kruel is set to enter her third season as president of the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League. Her second was, of course, affected immensely by the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, which canceled what would have been the league’s 13th season.
While the HCBL took this past summer off, Kruel still had the unenviable task of not only keeping the league afloat, but keeping it relevant, even though there were no players on the field.
Established in 2008, the HCBL has been committed to providing free family entertainment with top-tier collegiate baseball talent through its six teams in Sag Harbor, Southampton, Westhampton, Riverhead, Shelter Island and the North Fork. A seventh team, the South Shore Clippers, is scheduled to play games in Bellport for the first time this year. The HCBL is part of the 12-league National Alliance of College Summer Baseball (NACSB), and since its inception, has welcomed more than 1,700 players from more than 40 states, as well as several international countries. Over 200 players have been selected in the Major League Baseball draft, with 20 reaching the big leagues.
On top of being league president, Kruel sits on the Sag Harbor School Board, and also has three children who have since graduated from the district, including Brandon, Nick, and Dylan, the last of whom graduated last year and is now attending Tulane University in New Orleans studying biochemical engineering.
Many throughout the league’s communities have been wondering if the HCBL is returning this summer, how it intends to run and host players, and what the future may hold for the league. Kruel sat down with the Express News Group this past Friday to answer all of those questions and give some of her personal insight into how the league intends to operate through the pandemic.
Question: How difficult was it to cancel the 2020 season?
SK: We were going back and forth, back and forth … I am part of an alliance of 13 leagues, and I deal with Major League Baseball, and we were meeting probably every three to four days to decide what we were going to do. Once the Cape Cod League canceled — I mean, they’re like the granddaddy of leagues — we knew that if they can’t do it, nobody could do it.
But two leagues were able to hold some sort of a season. One was Florida and one was Georgia, both of which have very lax rules, of course, with COVID. And their kids aren’t housed, they all live at home, so it’s a little bit easier for them. We actually thought about doing that last year, doing just all local kids because there are enough kids, when you go into Nassau County, but we had no fields. We weren’t allowed to go to public parks, or private parks, so at the end of the day the decision was kind of made for us. But it was heartbreaking. It was just … to have to send that letter out to those kids was just, it was awful.
Q: What’s the status of the 2021 baseball season?
SK: My term of the year is “cautiously optimistic.” With the vaccines going down to kids, we have sent letters to all of the athletes saying that we would like you to be vaccinated. Of course, we can’t make you get vaccinated, but it would be easier to house you if you are vaccinated, that social policies would definitely change. And that if they had any relatives or friends who could possibly help us in housing that would be really good, and we’ve had a really good turnout with that. There’s still some teams that are struggling, and you know, people are scared and we understand that, but our hope is that we’re going to be able to go, that’s our hope.
Q: Any tentative date for the start of the season?
SK: The other thing that we had to change this year, which hasn’t in the past, is that Section XI (the governing body of Suffolk County high school athletics) has decided that high school sports will end on June 15, the last possible date. We start on June 1. Schools aren’t going to want to share their fields with kids coming in from all over the country, so we’ve moved our date to June 15. That’s our Opening Day, and we’ll still close on July 31, because the kids have to get back to college. It’ll be a 30-game regular season instead of 40. We’ll sprinkle in some doubleheaders in there and hopefully make the best of a crazy situation. We’re in such uncharted waters, that we’re doing the best we can.
Q: What, if anything, have you learned over the past year? Do you plan on doing anything differently?
SK: We’re definitely implementing all of the CDC COVID requirements. And the reason why we haven’t announced an opening date or start date is because I felt it was important for all of the communities to see their high school kids doing exactly what we see right now and doing it successfully, responsibly, and safely. And I think that if we could implement those and watch that, that we would have people more likely [to host], because without house families, we don’t exist.
So we’ve learned how to put those precautions in place, we’ve also learned how resilient our athletes really can be. The Ivys have canceled their entire season — and we have a lot of kids coming from the Ivys — but they’re all holding unofficial practices, they’re all training with their coaches, so I think the biggest thing we’ve learned is that we can make it happen if we work really hard.
Q: So those kids like the Ivy League players, they’re allowed to play here?
There was a lot of controversy. Some schools, believe it or not, the freshmen are not welcomed back on campus this season. So they’ve played fall ball and they’re not welcomed back, like they don’t want them there for COVID reasons. And, there was a lot of discussion in our league, do we let those kids play? You can’t hurt a child because of a decision or pandemic going on in the country, so the NCAA met with us and said that any child that has eligibility who was on a roster is entitled to play. That’s what we’re going with this year. It’ll be a one-year thing because we highly tout that we’re bringing in collegiate athletes and some kids weren’t allowed to go back. Some kids didn’t go back because they didn’t get their scholarships because their schools didn’t pay, so there’s many reasons for it to happen, and it’s not fair to make the kids the brunt of it.
Q: How do you plan on housing players?
SK: What we’ve put in place, like I said, we’ve sent out letters asking kids to get vaccinated, because they’re now eligible in most states to get the vaccine. We’re asking for all kids to come in with a negative PCR test and we are looking for those kids who have not been vaccinated to house them for three days, quarantine them and then do a negative PCR test before the season starts. Kids that are vaccinated will come in a little bit later, kids who aren’t will come in earlier, and then we will be dealing with spontaneous or spot testing teams on a regular basis.
We’re just hoping that enough people have been vaccinated that they’re okay with it. And like I said, the more you see other kids playing, or Major League Baseball … I have been watching college baseball very closely because my feeling is, if they can take care of it there, we should be able to do it here. And to my knowledge there’s only been one team that’s had a COVID quarantine since opening. They’re doing pretty good with that, so if they can do it, we should be able to do it.
I have kids who are housing with their college roommates in Southampton, or their aunt’s house in Westhampton, or what have you, so it seems like it kind of sparked them to think aggressively and make arrangements, so that’s going to help us a lot. We usually have an entire team (South Shore Clippers) filled with locals and we sprinkled in locals into all of the teams this year. We’ve increased the other teams base of local people because it would be easier for them to house. Instead of 28, you only have to house 18, and then of course the Clippers will still continue to be local, but they will have to help us house 10 players — that’s the deal. They’re going to have to share their bedrooms with at least 10 players. It’s that or we don’t go. Everybody has to figure out solutions. That’s what we have to do this year.
Q: When you talk about people being vaccinated, you’re talking about the host families being vaccinated? Or the player?
SK: I’m talking about everyone being vaccinated. And I’m not a pro-vaxxer or anti-vaxxer, but at this point, people feel more confident.
Q: What are your goals for the upcoming season?
SK: To get it up and running. Right now I’m at a stand still. I have all of my uniforms. Do I order hats? Do I order baseballs? Do I order bats? Do I do the insurance? Because you only have a certain amount of time. Is my insurance premium going to go up because of COVID? A lot of things are so unknown at this time, but the entire group of the executive board is committed to having a season, and to try to get some sense of normalcy back. We just want to get back to some sort of normalcy, and if this helps us, let’s do it. So that’s where we’re at.