Editor's note: College Baseball Nation is joined by guest writer, Riley Zayas, for coverage of the Texas Collegiate League. Riley Zayas is a high school freshman and freelance journalist from Round Rock, Texas. He began his journalism career as a Sports Illustrated Kid reporter and has since become a regular contributor to Horns Illustrated, covering Texas Longhorn sports. His work also includes Fellowship of Christian Athletes publications, his personal blog 360 Sports, and Sports Spectrum, a national christian sports magazine and website. He is passionate about all things sports and can be followed on Twitter at @ZayasRiley.
“I think this year we did a really good job of shrinking the gap of years that the Cape Cod League has on us,” said Uri Geva, President of the Texas Collegiate League and Founder of the Brazos Valley Bombers. “I always joke that they’re like the big brother and we’re the little brother, and every year we have a birthday, but they have a big birthday too. Unfortunately for the Cape, they didn’t have a birthday this year. We did. So maybe this year, we were able to gain some national recognition about the level of baseball in the Texas Collegiate League.”
The TCL is no longer the little brother in the world of college summer baseball. Over this past summer, the TCL has made a name for itself on the college baseball stage, finding a way to play out the 2020 season despite constant threats from the spread of COVID-19. In fact, the TCL has not simply existed in 2020, the league actually improved, with the addition of six temporary expansion teams, housed by minor league ballparks as a result of the cancellation of the minor league season. It proved to be a key advantage for the league, as competitive baseball with high-profile players drew fans from all over to the games. Even now in the final week of the season, eight of the ten teams in the league still have a chance to make the four-team playoff.
“Anything can happen in these last six days of baseball,” said Geva on Monday.
That is the beauty of summer league baseball, especially in 2020. Nearly every team has a chance to make the playoffs in a season that spanned just over five weeks. Interestingly, many of the new teams have been the ones leading the divisions rather than the four long-standing teams; Acadiana, Victoria, Brazos Valley and Texarkana. That is, with the exception of Brazos Valley. The Bombers, who are the defending league champs, have been jostling back and forth with Round Rock and San Antonio for the lead in the south division. With a phenomenal roster, the Bombers have managed to excel even with an increased level of competition and parity in the league.
“The beautiful thing about the Bombers is that adversity has not gotten in our way,” Geva told College Baseball Nation. “It makes it that much sweeter to continue to contend for a title. We had a coaching change at the last minute. We had players with COVID before they reported. Through all of this, we’ve maintained a focus on small ball, solid pitching, and it’s just an incredible honor to be a part of this organization on the baseball side. Our goal before the season, I told Coach Dillard, was to just make the playoffs.”
According to Geva, part of the reason as to why the newer teams have fared better in 2020, is because the teams assembled their rosters in mid-June, unlike many of the existing teams, who solidify their opening day roster for the most part, by the end of the fall. This allowed those new teams to take advantage of the lack of summer playing opportunities for college players, and stack their rosters with players who would have been otherwise playing in more established leagues such as the Cape Cod or Golden State league.
“The thing is, as you look at the original TCL teams, they were all built early,” said Geva. “The original four all built their teams in the fall, maybe a little bit in the spring. The new teams that were formed in mid-June, formed their teams in mid-June, when the players knew there were really no other summer college leagues. So they were able to stack the deck in their favor. Even with that, the Bombers have been competitive, just showing you how good they were to begin with.”
While it does not have the 100-year history of the Cape Cod League, the Texas Collegiate League is quickly adding its name to the list of the country’s premier summer leagues, recruiting a high number of elite D1 players from schools such as TCU, Texas A&M, LSU, Oklahoma and Baylor, along with several great D2, D3, and JUCO players. When one considers that it began as a league located solely in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, and has now expanded to three states and 10 teams for the 2020 season, it has come quite a long way in just 16 short seasons.
“The great thing about the Texas Collegiate League is that it has adapted.” -Uri Geva
“The great thing about the Texas Collegiate League is that it has adapted,” said Geva. “It started in the DFW area, with the kids staying at their parent’s houses and has evolved into a three-state league, with host-family programs, which do a fantastic job. It has continued to evolve, it has continued to develop and improve the ballparks that these kids get to play in.”
A large part of that was Geva’s ability to find a way to play out the season in 2020, especially when many of the other leagues were making the decision to cancel. That included strictly monitoring player symptoms, limiting locker room usage, and each team determining if fans would be allowed at the stadium or not. After all, Geva notes, the TCL has been working with three states, with three different COVID-19 plans, and three separate decisions when it comes to mandates. Despite these minor changes, the season is now in the homestretch, with no confirmed positive cases amongst players or coaching staff, and only one stadium being closed to the public. This season has been a leap in the right direction for the TCL.
“This has been sort of that “lightning in the bottle” opportunity for the Texas Collegiate League to leapfrog many of the leagues sidelined this year, because of the fact that we are one of the few elite leagues that is playing, especially in front of fans,” said Geva. “So you add in the ability to play in double-A and Triple-A ballparks, and that has led to an incredible summer of high level baseball.”
Playing in minor league parks have been a great advantage, especially because many of those cities already had a great baseball following with a minor league team close by. Hodgetown Stadium in Amarillo is a prime example, where the Sod Squad and Sod Dogs have played their home games. With three games left to be played at the double-A stadium, home of the Amarillo Sod Poodles, 38,083 fans have shown up for live baseball. In fact, Amarillo currently has the largest attendance in the country across all sports pos-COVID-19.
When it comes to the precautions taken this season, as well as in the College Summer Baseball Invitational (CSBI), which was played at Travis Field in Bryan, Texas and run by Geva and his team, a lot of thought went into ways to keep the teams safe and minimize the risk of a team-wide spread. The CSBI ended up being the first live baseball to be played post-COVID-19.
“The CSBI was a great test of what it would be like to play baseball again in America post-COVID-19,” said Geva. “It really gave us that opportunity of what it was going to take on the health side, both with the fact that these players haven’t been playing, and on the COVID side. And from that tournament of three days, six games, using that knowledge gained, gave us some protocols and procedures that are easy to follow, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand them. If you do everything to mitigate the risk while explaining the importance, the opportunity and the responsibility to these players, and you add all those things together, you get a formula for success that allows us to play in such a unique world that we all live in right now, and allows for fans to engage.”
When asked, Geva said if the season had to be played again, under the exact same circumstances, it could definitely be done, without a spread throughout the league.
“If you asked me could we play the season again, if the situation is exactly the same, I would tell you that yes, there’s a few things that we would refine but overall it has been a pretty, knock on wood, good summer of baseball,” said Geva. “It has taken a lot of hard work by a lot of people to make it happen.”
Throughout the season, there ended up only being one minor road block, a sign that the players truly did understand the responsibility that came with this extraordinary opportunity. That roadblock happened in Frisco, when a number of front office staff tested positive. Fortunately, no players or coaches were sidelined with the virus.
"They made the few tough decisions and we supported their decision-making and at the end, they’ve played some great baseball.” -Uri Geva
“The challenge there was that it was the font office and not the players,” said Geva. “We’ve had players throughout the league tested, and the players have made sure to keep a safe distance from their host families. With the focus on being safe, the Frisco front office decided to no play in front of fans for the rest of the season. That is each ballpark’s decision. At the beginning of the season we asked each team, ‘Are you going to finish the season, even without fans?’ Everybody said that they focused on completing the season. They made the few tough decisions and we supported their decision-making and at the end, they’ve played some great baseball.”
Finish the season they have, as a tight playoff race is in full swing with the Amarillo Sod Squad currently holding a slim .5 game lead in the North division while the Round Rock Hairy Men and Geva’s Brazos Valley Bombers remain tied for first in the South, each posting a 15-11 record. The addition of the six temporary expansion teams has truly made the TCL more competitive than it has ever been. Throw in a one-game championship game and you have a season in which every game can make or break your chances of hoisting the championship trophy.
As Geva looks out at the league he has played a huge role in developing, he can’t help but think about where it is going. After seeing what new teams have done for the league’s notoriety and growing fan base, there is a good possibility that additional, permanent teams could be added in future seasons, in cities like San Marcos or Tyler. It is likely that this will be the only season we will see teams such as the Round Rock Hairy Men, Tulsa Drillers or Frisco Roughriders in the TCL, with minor league baseball coming back next summer, but who knows?
“There are people who are talking about it, there is interest from other markets to join the TCL, even from some affiliates and independent teams in Texas who may not have been a part of the TCL for 2020,” Geva told College Baseball Nation.
For right now, those thoughts are at the back of Geva’s mind. He is solely focused on finishing this season on a high note, watching his Bombers contend for the playoffs and enjoying the high level of baseball that this TCL season has provided in the wake of such a challenging time.
“The focus for the next six days is the end of the season and then the TCL playoffs, which finish with a one and done championship game, a unique piece of our format in the Texas Collegiate League,” Geva said Monday. “It is the league’s two best teams, in a one and done game between north versus south. It’s going to be pretty exciting.”