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Daily Hampshire Gazette – Baseball: Hampshire, South Hadley to ‘get a taste of what it’s like to be a pro’ at Dunkin’ Park

Hampshire Regional's Cody Gaida (9) high fives Will Hogan (3) after scoring on a passed ball against Hopkins Academy last week in Westhampton.

Hampshire Regional’s Cody Gaida (9) high fives Will Hogan (3) after scoring on a passed ball against Hopkins Academy last week in Westhampton.
STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

On Thursday afternoon, the Hampshire Regional and South Hadley baseball programs will compete against each other for the 25th consecutive year. The two teams are used to battling it out, but the quarter-century edition is special.

The Tigers and Raiders won’t be trotting to one of their Hampshire County diamonds, but will instead be playing at Dunkin’ Donuts Park in Hartford, Conn. – home of the Hartford Yard Goats, the Double A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies.

According to a recent study, only two percent of all high school baseball players go on to play some form of professional baseball. So it’s not likely that playing in a three-time Minor League Stadium of the Year award-winning venue will be a regular occurrence for the players competing on Thursday.

The stadium opened in 2017 and can seat more than 6,100 people. It will truly be a memory they will never forget.

“It’s a cool opportunity,” said Hampshire head coach Mark Baldwin. “Everyone who plays dreams of becoming a professional, but realistically that won’t happen for most. So this is a chance to get a taste of what it’s like to be a professional. The scope and scale of the stadium feels good, it feels like a premier league. And the facilities are great.”

Last summer, a pair of current Hampshire seniors played in a baseball showcase at Dunkin’ Donuts Park. They then went to Baldwin and floated the idea of ​​playing there. In the past, the Raiders occasionally played in Cooperstown, NY, where the Baseball Hall of Fame is located. Renting out facilities is therefore nothing new for Hampshire and Baldwin.

They investigated whether they would play in Hartford and what it would cost to rent out the property. All they needed? An opponent to play against.

And who better than Matt Foley and his South Hadley baseball team. Baldwin and Foley have known each other for a long time, as friends and as coaches. They have played against each other every year since 1999. This year they are two of the best teams in Hampshire County. The Tigers are 11-2 and are getting the job done on defense and pitching with timely hitting. The Raiders are 9-5 and rely heavily on their deep lineup and powerful bats.

“Matt is one of my best baseball friends,” Baldwin said. “It’s always good to compete against him on a personal level, and I really respect the great program he has put together. It’s always good to play against the best, and I think we’re two of the best in Hampshire County. It should be a lot of fun.”

During the offseason, the two teams split costs and raised money to make it happen. South Hadley provided the deposit and Hampshire paid the balance.

It will be well worth the investment. Each player is introduced, and as they are called to the board, their portrait is shown on the big screen, accompanied by walk-up music. They get the full professional experience, including the difficulties of playing on a professional field.

“The surface will be fast, that will be the part they will have the hardest time adjusting to,” Baldwin said. “Pro infields are fast. The ground is hard, the grass is short – it is certainly the nicest surface for them to play on.”

Sure, this unique opportunity is unique in itself, but there’s still a baseball game to be played – and the best bet is that both teams want to win it.

The real test is which team can block out the distractions of what’s going on around them and hold on for seven innings. The stage is big, and whichever side doesn’t let it get too big can gain the upper hand.

“Hopefully South Hadley is just as distracted,” Baldwin said. “They’re all high school boys, so it doesn’t take much to get distracted. But this game matters. They’re in the same division as us, they’re a similar team to us. They are fundamentally a little bit healthier than us, but I think we score a little bit better than them. It will be a good match between two equal teams. The outcome is important. Yes, the event will be fun, but we still have to win the competition.”

The first pitch is scheduled for 3:30 p.m., with the two teams battling for position in the crowded Division 4 state power rankings. Hampshire checks in at No. 19, while South Hadley is at No. 27. A win could go a long way in deciding who gets to host more than one home match when the tournament rolls around.