Whalers with Little League Roots Aim for Major League Growth

The new committee running the Sag Harbor Whalers with their children on the old grandstand at Mashashimuet Park. Picture, in back from left to right, are Alex, Frank and Matthew Venesina, Beau Campbell, and Andrew and Kevin Dehler. In front, from left to right, are Kai, Ashton and Brent Greene, Matthew Dehler and Tracy Cavaniola. Gavin Menu photo

Late last spring, Brent Greene walked off the Little League fields at Mashashimuet Park with his young sons hearing the unmistakable pop of baseballs hitting mitts at high rates of speed. It was not the sound of a catch between children, though, or even the Pierson Whalers.

This was collegiate ball, and the players were from the big time.

Greene’s children stopped in their tracks and it wasn’t long before Greene became part of a new future for the Sag Harbor Whalers of the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League (HCBL).

“All my kids want to be college athletes,” Greene said at the park on Sunday. “And you have kids from the HCBL who are doing that. They’re athletes, but first and foremost they’re students and they’re going to college.”

The Whalers are the flagship organization of the HCBL, founded in 2008 as a member of the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League. The HCBL formed the following year and has grown to include teams from Riverhead, Westhampton, Southampton, Sag Harbor, Shelter Island and the North Fork, along with a team made up of collegiate players from Long Island who, starting this season, will have a home field at Bellport High School.

Henry Bramwell, the league’s longtime president, stepped down after last season and Sandi Kruel, a Sag Harbor native, was tapped as his replacement. Kruel helped run the Whalers alongside Tom Gleeson since the beginning, so there were big shoes to fill coming into 2019.

The natural move was to enlist members of the community with a stake in local baseball, and Little League baseball, to be specific, since a connection to local families is critical for a league that needs housing every summer in some of the most expensive resort towns in America.

In the end, Greene joined a committee to run the Whalers that included Kevin Dehler, a wealth management advisor, Beau Campbell, a construction contractor, Tracy Cavaniola, who manages the Watchcase condominium complex, and Frank Venesina, the former owner of Sag Harbor’s beloved pizzeria, Conca D’oro. All members of the management team have children and, most importantly, a healthy love for the game of baseball.

“As parents of young children, coming off the Little League field, we were watching the Whalers and all of us decided it would be a good idea to make sure we can keep this league running and help takeover the Sag Harbor Whalers,” Dehler said. “We feel the committee already has come together to start creating what we hope to be a really energized family event.”

Dehler said the group is working to bring a host of new activities to the sidelines this summer to complement the impressive on-field talent set to arrive in early June. As a trial run, the Whalers were approved to hire a food truck for a game in early June by the board of directors that oversees operations at Mashashimuet Park, which was gifted to the community by Sag Harbor’s great benefactor, Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, nearly 100 years ago. For the HCBL, it’s a unique situation compared to teams in the league that play on school or municipally owned fields.

“In terms of a partnership, everybody wants to have a working relationship and make the park the best it can be,” said Gregg Schiavoni, the president of the Parks and Recreation Association of Sag Harbor. “In terms of the Whalers, they have a lot of ideas and we’re looking at all of them.”

Since taking over the Whalers, the committee and other Little League parents have helped fill a 20-yard dumpster with broken-down pieces of farm equipment and scrap metal that were littering parts of Mashashimuet Park. They renovated a Little League field to make it regulation and fixed a mobile batting cage known as a “turtle” that the HCBL donated several years ago. They also have plans to replace a rundown batting cage near the varsity and collegiate baseball field, all at no expense to the park. And their dream is to keep on going.

Plans are moving forward to replace the old batting cage at Mashashimuet Park. Gavin Menu photo

“We have electricians, plumbers, carpenters, construction managers, horticulturists and landscapers, all of which, throughout the history of the HCBL, have donated time and services and materials to different parks,” Dehler said. “We hope to gain more traction on that in our own community as well.”

“Time, money and effort,” added Campbell, a former collegiate player, himself, who is the official general manager of the Whalers. “Everyone in this community can give one of those three things. And if everyone in the community gives a small piece, it blows up into something huge.”

Kruel has been full speed ahead with her new duties as president of the league and said this week that she expects 2019 to be a great season for the Whalers under their new management.

“These guys are so energetic, and many hands make for easy work,” said Kruel, whose sons, Brandon and Nick, played for the Whalers in past seasons. “I think they’re going to be very successful in what they do.”

For Kruel and Gleeson, the biggest challenge was finding housing for a roster of roughly 30 players and coaches every summer. Cavaniola is handling the housing push for the team this season and has about two-thirds of the team set up with housing for the upcoming summer.

“I have nine players that I still don’t have housing for, but I have everyone else already taken care of,” Cavaniola said. “And we’re already connecting players with the families. I really want them to be established before they get here. And, so everyone understands, we feed them after games, they’re at the gym daily and almost all of them have cars this year. They’re very self-supportive and sustaining.”

The league this year is offering a $50 per week, per player, stipend for host families. There are also incentives for families with young children who can participate in free baseball and softball clinics run by the Whalers and their coaches.

Speaking of coaches, the Whalers have a new manager as well in Steve Litras, a former professional infielder who played for the Detroit Tigers in the 1970s. Litras lives near Dehler in Sag Harbor, and they are both originally from Floral Park. Joining together to help lead the Whalers, Dehler said, just seemed natural.

“In a very short period of time, Steve became our head coach,” Dehler said about the time that followed a chance meeting the two had in Sag Harbor.

This year’s roster includes players from across America, from St. Mary’s in California to Boston College in Massachusetts. The HCBL tries to build rosters that promote parity across the league so that each team can bring the best possible product to the field. From there, as the Whalers’ new management team pointed out, the community building can begin.

“As we improve our product, more sponsors will feel comfortable getting behind us,” said Dehler, who has been charged with raising funds to support the Whalers and the league in general. “What we’re all trying to create is something not only for the betterment of our own children, but creating a legacy for generations to come.”