November 29, 2012 - New England Collegiate Baseball League (NECBL)
In the summer of 1996, a young shortstop for the Danbury Westerners via the University of New Hampshire worked a part time job as a groundskeeper - on the team's own Rogers Field - as he competed in the New England Collegiate Baseball League.
That summer, Sean McGrath took his first step in making the NECBL a big part of his life, yet he didn't know it. Over the course of the next sixteen years, McGrath spent the vast majority of thirteen summers around the fields of the NECBL.
McGrath completed a meteoric rise from player- and part time grounds crewman- to assistant coach, General Manager and after his election on November 18th, to new Commissioner of the NECBL. McGrath follows retiring commissioner Mario Tiani, ironically his GM at Danbury, who had served as Commissioner for six years and Deputy Commissioner for two years.
McGrath hit .254 with 18 RBI in his full summer at Danbury, where he showcased the skills that eventually led to a three-year stint as a New York Met farmhand. But McGrath's acumen truly showed during his time as GM of the North Adams SteepleCats. A North Adams native who served as a bat boy on the 'Cats' Joe Wolfe Field, McGrath helped to build a team in a small town in a remote location into a perennial stalwart that has sent six alumni to the Big Leagues.
The new commissioner recently took time out to field some questions.
NECBL.com: You played in the League for two summers. How did that experience help you in both baseball and then later in life?
Sean McGrath: When I look back on being a sophomore and junior in college, it is hard to believe all the games that were played and players that I competed against. When I arrived in Danbury and the NECBL, I had the eye on the prize, which was professional baseball, so I looked at the NECBL the same way most players do- which is on the job training, and what can I do to separate myself from the rest of the players? How can you outwork them and catch the eye of the scouts? Coming from the America East conference and going to the NECBL to compete against players from all around the country was a challenge. In addition to gaining experience by playing games everyday, traveling, and living away from home, I also focused on the players who flourished, tried to pick up on what they did and how they went about their profession. Whether it was more in the weight room, more on the field, speed and agility...what was it that gave them the edge? I was able to internalize, see what I liked and apply what I could to make myself better.
I've seen that a lot in the NECBL: kids arrive in the NECBL and pick up on different work ethics, different drills, different routines and they leave the summer having learned a lot from their peers in addition to the valuable experience of competing day in and day out, traveling and working. It was clear that it separated athletes who were serious about a career in professional baseball and those who were there because it was a lot of fun but didn't have that additional drive or motivation to get to the next level.
NECBL.com: Your time in Danbury helped to launch a long career of playing and coaching baseball...
Sean McGrath: I didn't get drafted in 1997, which was disappointing because UNH had dropped their baseball program and I had plans to transfer to UConn for my senior season. During the summer, I went to an open tryout in Pittsfield with the Mets and three days later, they offered me a free agent contract. About one-third of the way through my second summer at Danbury in 1997, I finished my day at work for the City of Danbury, packed-up, and flew out to Tri-Cities in Tennessee to play with the Kingsport Mets in the Appalachian League.
I was with the Mets from 1997 through 1999 as a utility guy, a role player and a team player. I played second, short, third, even a bit at first, left and right. I was the emergency catcher for a couple of weeks. I was an organizational man you might say. Following the 1999 season, I had a difficult decision to make, which was to continue my dreams or put my Business Administration degree to work and move to the next chapter of my life. After all these years, I think I made the right decision and opted to accept a part-time assistant coaching position at Williams College and a full-time position with a .com company when the industry was booming. I have no regrets and know that I gave it my all. I was able to do something that I always dreamed about and have never looked back.
NECBL.com: How did you get involved with the SteepleCats?
Sean McGrath: I was born and raised in North Adams. My father coached baseball in town at Drury High School for over 30 years, was eventually inducted into the Massachusetts Coaches Hall of Fame and was named the National High School Coach of the Year in 1990, which was presented to him at the annual conference of the American Baseball Coaches Association. I was probably the bat boy at Joe Wolfe Field since I was four years old. I grew up on that diamond playing Babe Ruth, American Legion, and high school ball there.
When the SteepleCats launched in 2002, they were looking for a coaching staff and I was fortunate enough to have been asked to serve as an Assistant Coach. We had a tremendous inaugural year- more players who went on to play Minor League baseball for a long time than any other team I can remember. We had Bobby Wilson, who now catches for the Angels. We had Mike Ekstrom who is on the Rockies and even a reality television star, the winner of the Bachelorette TV show, Roberto Martinez.
I have many wonderful memories of the inaugural season of the SteepleCats and the Watterson family who founded brought the organization and NECBL to our community. The community and myself are indebted to what John Watterson and his grandfather (the father and son of Keene SwampBats President, Kevin Watterson) did for our area. They had faith in the community, and the citizens bought into it. They've completed 12 years now, and we can't imagine summers without the SteepleCats in the Northern Berkshires.
NECBL.com: On paper, the SteepleCats shouldn't work. They are a small town that is hard to get to in an obscure corner of New England. Yet they are tremendously successful. What elements do you see in them, and other NECBL clubs, that makes them successful?
Sean McGrath: For us, it's always been community baseball. It's always been about the Northern Berkshires and being a community asset for our fans and the youth of our community. And for giving talented college players from around the country a place where they can be respected, treated like professionals and given the opportunity to work on their craft so they can become professionals. We've always said that if you want to go to the clubs and party scene, coming to our community wasn't the best choice. But, if you are serious about your baseball, and you feel that summer ball is a step in your career path, then coming to the SteepleCats couldn't be a better place. The fans will support you. You have a professional coaching staff that will encourage you and teach you. We've always tried to create that professional atmosphere for our players so that summer, regardless of what their batting averages were or how many wins and losses we had, they'll return to their college program and are better off for their experience.
NECBL.com. It's always a sign of validation when players who didn't have terrific years statistically have such positive summer experiences. That is true with so many of the NECBL alumni that we talk too.
Sean McGrath: It's real special when you are working behind the scenes trying to recruit a team, hire interns, market the team, work with volunteers on a wide variety of tasks, and put together all the logistics that are necessary for a smooth summer. It can be a challenge at times and hectic, but its all worth it when the players arrive, and you get to meet all of these kids who you've been talking to on the phone, following their college seasons and starting to see a team come together. A couple of days later, you have Opening Night with a thousand fans, lights and energy. You see people who you don't otherwise see except during the course of the summer. They're in the stands visiting one another and it's like 'Another summer is here. The SteepleCats are back.' That's exactly how it is all throughout New England with all of our teams. You want the community to associate summer and a night out of the town with your organization.
NECBL.com: How did you transition from coach to General Manager?
Sean McGrath: I coached in 2002. My job prevented me in 2003 from traveling with the team so I was unable to be involved. In 2004, founder John Watterson took an internship with the Texas Rangers so the franchise was either going to be re-located or sold. John DeRosa, now the NECBL President, but back then a host parent, stepped forward. He has always been a community leader who has given back to the Northern Berkshires his entire life. He made the observation that many had, which is: this is a great product and we can't let it go. What can we do to keep it here? He put together a group of individuals to purchase the team and keep the SteepleCats in North Adams. Once that was done, the next question was, 'Okay, who is going to do the baseball piece?' I had the coaching and the professional baseball experience but I was young and he obviously had some hesitations. We sat down, had a great conversation and I reached out to a couple of colleagues in the NECBL to find out what it takes to be a GM in this League. What do you need to do to be successful? Can I do this? I was much younger than I am now. We took a leap of faith that I could apply what I was doing as a coach and what I was doing professionally as an educational fundraiser and make it work. We certainly had a very steep learning curve but I'm very proud of the success we had in our first year of management in 2004 and thereafter.
NECBL.com: Do you have a vision as commissioner? Are there specific things you hope to accomplish?
Sean McGrath: My focus will be on three primary aspects: expanding the scope and influence of the NECBL; on the game of baseball and its players; and each organization and their community.
The NECBL has been around since 1994. Things have changed considerably. In the early days, it was very much a Connecticut-based league with mostly New England players. The League has evolved to have a national reputation with players from all across the country, with approximately 100 players drafted each year, and nearly 50 players in MLB this season. With this success and growth come opportunities and challenges. As a not-for-profit league made up of entirely non-profit organizations, it is important that the league pursues alternative revenue sources to complement the revenue that each team generates during the 42-game season. The league has matured and developed a national following over the past twenty years. We believe that the time has come for the league to expand its attention beyond baseball by hosting special events, fundraisers, merchandising, and extending to corporations the opportunity to market to our audience.
On the field, my goal is to continue to see the NECBL's reputation continue to grow in the eyes of collegiate student-athletes and throughout our New England communities. Summer baseball is at its finest when you have talented baseball teams competing in great venues in front of great fans who are being entertained by the game as much as the activities surrounding them in the ballpark. When I talk to coaches and players around the country, they will often tell you how challenging the competition is in NECBL and how we strike the right balance between player development and winning, which is exactly what we want. I know as a GM, coaches respect the NECBL and take pride in sending players who are ready-physically and mentally-to compete in the NECBL because it takes a special collegiate athlete to be successful. My colleagues have raised the bar every single year and if there is a GM who is slacking or takes a short cut recruiting, they're going to feel it during the summer when they struggle on the field.
While players come to the NECBL with aspirations of becoming professionals-and many do-a lot of them will never be paid to play baseball. And, for these players, the NECBL will be the highest level of baseball they'll ever play and that needs to be a special experience. Personally, I know how very rewarding it is to hear from SteepleCat alumni who are so appreciative of the special memories they made during their summer with the SteepleCats and the NECBL.
The NECBL can only be as strong as each of its organizations and therefore, I am looking forward to working with each organization in order to help them be as successful as possible. Each community and team is unique and has their own set of strengths and challenges, and I hope they will look at me as someone who can help them overcome adversity to become as successful as possible. There will be many measurements during my tenure as Commissioner, but providing stability to the league and its organizations is especially important to me as I know just how valuable each team in the NECBL is to their community. At the same time, there are many other great communities in New England that would be a welcome addition to the NECBL and I look forward to helping build those relationships so that the League can grow in a healthy and sustainable manner.
If you are asking how all this can be done, I will tell you that it won't be done by any one individual, but by a dedicated group who will work together to make the success of the NECBL a priority. Being the son of a coach, I have always understood the strength in numbers and in working as a team. Right now I feel honored and humbled to be on a team with ten great organizations in ten great communities, and I look forward to working with them to make the NECBL the best it can be.