Nick Kruel ‘s baseball career has been a rollercoaster ride over the last six years. The soon-to-be senior at the University of Tampa went from being a state semifinalist at Pierson to playing for one of the top Division II programs in the country.
But after playing his first summer in 2015 for the Whalers, his hometown team in the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League (HCBL), Kruel endured open-heart surgery that for a time threatened to keep him from playing the game he loves.
Through the ups and downs, one constant has been the Whalers.
“You usually only get three years of summer baseball, but because of my heart surgery, I’ve gotten four,” Kruel said on Monday about his tenure with the collegiate Whalers. “Being able to come back to Sag Harbor is amazing. It’s one of the most beautiful and secluded places in the world, and there’s a special thing that comes with playing for the same team for a long time. I get to come back and be part of the same group of people and help put Sag Harbor and the Hamptons league on the map.”
Kruel’s surgery in November 2015 at Massachusetts General Hospital was to repair his aorta and aortic valve. He has returned home every summer since to pitch for the Whalers in the HCBL. The team shares its name, of course, with the local boys — the Pierson Whalers — who enjoyed their best season ever during Kruel’s senior year when he tossed a complete-game victory over Bolivar-Richburg in the 2014 state semifinals.
Kruel went off to college in the fall that year, having lost the state championship to Hoosic Valley. After a promising freshman season and his first summer as a member of the Whalers, Kruel’s career at Tampa came to a halt during the fall of his sophomore year when his heart rate skyrocketed. Doctors said he needed a heart valve transplant.
Kruel returned home to see Dr. Sean Donahoe, a cardiologist in Southampton, who told his family, including his mother, Sandi, the co-general manager of the collegiate Whalers, that he would need surgery, which he received in Boston from some of the best cardiologists in the world.
He returned to pitch for Tampa in the spring of 2016 but underwent a second surgery, this time a cardiac ablation, only to return to the mound back in Sag Harbor two weeks later for the summer season.
Don’t forget that Kruel throws a knuckleball, one of the rarest pitches in the history of baseball, or that he has pitched more innings in the HCBL than any other pitcher. And now another unlikely accomplishment is on the horizon — with two more wins, Kruel will become the league’s all-time leader in that category.
With Kruel, it seems, obstacle and success have always melded into one.
“You — and your coaches — really have to buy into and believe in the knuckleball and a knuckleball pitcher,” Kruel said, crediting his current summer league coach, Nate Lawrence, with nurturing his development, especially during his first tenure coaching the team in 2016 when Kruel returned from heart surgery. “It’s either really on or really off, but when you’re looking at stats, it doesn’t say two-point-zero ERA with a fastball. You’re not judged on your tools, you’re judged on results.”
Early last season, Kruel set a new HCBL record for innings pitched, a record that has expanded this summer to 149-and-a-third innings and counting. With seven career wins, Kruel is chasing the Whalers’ club record of eight, set by another Sag Harbor native in Kyle McGowin, who currently plays for the Harrisburg Senators, the Double-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals. With nine wins, Kruel would tie the league record set by Adam Brown, who pitched in the league from 2010 through 2012.
The Whalers as of Monday were 7-7-2 and in fourth place in the league standings, with Kruel still searching for his first win during what has been a so-so year so far with a 6.07 ERA in four appearances. The Long Island Road Warriors were in first place at 12-5, followed by Westhampton (11-6) and Riverhead (9-5-3).
“We’re coming up on the halfway point of the season,” said Kruel, who was scheduled to make his next start Friday at Southampton. “Maybe I’ll sneak out two wins. Especially with what I’ve gone through, it’s awesome to leave your mark behind, and having the innings record and going for the wins is something that’s pretty special.”
Kruel’s last year of competitive baseball will follow two other former Pierson Whalers whose careers came to a close this spring. Aaron Schiavoni graduated from SUNY Maritime after batting .321 for the Privateers during his senior season. Colman Vila, one of their teammates on the 2013 team, which also reached the state semifinals, graduated from the University of Delaware this spring after setting a record for the most appearances by a pitcher in a career with 95.
“Not a lot of people make it to play college baseball from Sag Harbor,” Kruel said when asked about his old friends. “I’ve never been part of a team with so much natural chemistry, and I couldn’t be prouder of both of those guys. It was great to see them become the players I always knew they could be. That was a special team.”
And … Whalers for life.
Whalers To Hold Baseball and Softball Camps Next Week
The Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League and the Sag Harbor Whalers will host their annual baseball and softball camps at Mashashimuet Park starting Monday, July 2, and running July 3, 5 and 6, from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. daily. Children ages six to 14 can participate and the cost is $175 per player.
The baseball camp will be run by Whalers head coach Nate Lawrence, as well as some of the collegiate players. The softball camp will be run by Bonnie McConnell, who played at Adelphi and coached at several colleges including Adelphi and Briarcliff.
Visit hamptonsbaseball.org to register or call Tom Gleeson at 516-361-0998.