In the wake of a challenging 2023 baseball season that saw UC Santa Barbara secure sixth place in the Big West Conference, a significant portion of the team turned their attention to summer leagues spanning across the United States and Canada.
UC Santa Barbara finished in sixth place out of 11 teams in the Big West Conference in 2023, after winning 18 games and losing 12. After the baseball season ended, many Gauchos continued playing in summer league baseball for two to three months across the continent to develop their skills.
24 UCSB baseball players — out of the 44 on the team — played baseball this summer.
Players are usually assigned to summer league teams based on where their coaches believe they will grow the most.
“Last year, I didn’t have a choice of where to go. I was just told that I was going to be playing summer ball in Canada early on in the fall last year, and so I went. I got really lucky. In other leagues, like the Cape Cod [Baseball] League, there’s definitely more of an extensive recruiting process,” Skyler Chang, a sophomore statistics and data science major who played second base and utility infielder for the Edmonton Riverhawks in Canada over the summer, said.
The baseball coaches at UCSB have contacts with summer baseball coaches and they are usually able to help place their players in leagues that would best contribute to their development.
“It’s all networking. The UCSB coaches have an idea where they want the players to play, and they reach out to the summer ball coaches,” Zander Darby, a junior statistics and data science major who played third base and first base for the Yarmouth–Dennis Red Sox in the Cape Cod League in Massachusetts this summer, said. “Summer ball has different leagues around the country and players from different teams all over the country come together to play on a team. Each league has its own prestige and level, so players go to the leagues best fit for them.”
Some players — if they are skilled and experienced enough — are invited to play in top leagues.
“The top summer ball league is the Cape Cod [Baseball] League,” Matt Ager, a junior economics and accounting major who played pitcher for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team this summer, said. “In order to play in the Cape you have to prove yourself during a season and get invited to play there.”
Players may also end up skipping summer ball altogether, especially due to injury concerns.
“Some people decide not to because of the load it puts on your body and arm. You might need that break if you pitched a lot during the season or if something is a minor injury that you want to heal,” Ager said.
Nevertheless, players have a variety of reasons for playing summer baseball.
“Some players do it for recruitment; some have stand-out years and are invited to the Cape Cod [Baseball] League or one of the other top leagues, where scouts are in the stands at every game. Others play summer ball to get reps in … like most freshmen for example,” Chang said.
A majority of UCSB’s summer baseball players played for teams on the West Coast of the United States or Canada. Five players played for California teams, and five played for Washington teams — the most out of all other states and provinces. Four players out of the 24 summer UCSB baseball players played for teams in Canada.
Only four players, three of whom played in the Cape Cod Baseball League in Massachusetts, played summer baseball on the East Coast. The other player — Ager — primarily played in North Carolina since that was where the United States Collegiate National Baseball Team was based.
Once players leave UCSB for their summer teams, each player is assigned a host family to stay with.
“Host families range anywhere from young families with kids to old couples with no young children in the house,” Darby said.
Darby and Ager reflected fondly on their experiences staying with their host families.
“My host mom’s name was Mary Jane, and it was just her and me. It was only her third year hosting and she had Y-D Red Sox memorabilia all over her house. She had signed balls, bats and pictures,” Darby said.
“They took me in and treated me like one of their own kids,” Ager said.
Chang shared that his host family welcomed him into their home and provided him with whatever he needed during his time with them.
“My host parents, James and Vanessa Derry, were so welcoming to me. They were just normal people that kept on living their lives even with a stranger in their home,” Chang said. “Their home had everything I needed and more: they had a piano for me to learn new songs on and also an underground bar. Every week, or whenever I asked, they'd get me groceries and such.”
The relationship between a host family and a player can last long after the season ends. Jessada Brown, a junior sociology major who played as an outfielder for the Victoria HarbourCats in Canada over the summer, said that he still remains in close contact with his host family.
“It's completely out of the kindness of their heart to do it and it's a great experience for both the player and the family. A lot of times you make a lasting bond with them,” Brown said. “My host family from when I was going into the freshman year in Medford, Oregon still keeps in contact with Matt [Ager] and me and will text us after games as well as send us letters.”
Players rely on their host families for support during the season, which can be quite packed.
The summer baseball season is more densely scheduled than the UCSB baseball season, where games are usually played four days a week — Friday, Saturday, Sunday and one weekday between Monday and Thursday.
“During summer ball, it’s literally just games. In the WCL — West Coast League — where I played this summer, it was six games a week with a rest day on Monday,” Chang said. “I had never played so much baseball in my life, but it was super enjoyable. It’s busier baseball-wise, but there's no school so the days go by quickly because you're having so much fun.”
Unlike the regular season, when there are days devoted specifically to practice, there is not much time to practice during the summer baseball season due to the heavy game load.
“Since you are playing 6-7 days out of the week, there aren't practice days. You get your practice in before games,” Brown said.
“A typical day for me during summer ball would be: wake up around 9:30 and make breakfast, be at the gym from 10:30 to 12:30 make lunch and then be at the field around 2:00 to hit and do other early work such as fly balls or catching work. Game time [was] at 6:35 and then [I’d] go to bed around 12,” Brown added.
Darby had a similarly full schedule throughout the summer season, but he was also taking classes, leaving little room for downtime.
“For home games, I showed up to the field at around 1:00. From 1:00 to 2:00, I would do hitting drills and infield drills voluntarily with my coaches. At 2:00 we stretched and did batting practice and eventually got ready for the game at 4:30. The game would go until 7:30 or 8:00,” Darby said. “I would also go to the gym in the mornings, so I would barely have time to do class. There weren’t any practices.”
Chang’s schedule was also busy, but he was able to find moments to unwind while eating lunch daily with his team and greeting fans after each game.
Despite the long days, players were still able to find time to relax. Ager said he was able to unwind by spending time with his friends at night.
“I would typically get home around 11 p.m., and then I would eat dinner and play video games with my friends until 1 to 2 a.m., and then do it again the next day,” he said.
The summer baseball culture is more relaxed than that of regular-season baseball, according to Ager.
“It is common to see people either trying out new positions or just messing around in different positions,” Ager said.
“I played third and a little bit of first. It can most definitely be different. I never played first before, but I did this past summer. One of my teammates was the starting second baseman for Vanderbilt and he played outfield for us,” Darby said.
“I played all outfield this summer, but at school, I am a catcher as well,” Brown said.
“I played in what felt like a place and environment where winning wasn't as important as my development and just getting reps,” Chang said. “Our coach emphasized having fun and enjoying the moment, win or loss, and appreciating the fans that came out to watch.”
And while players might have a great season over the summer, it has little to no effect on their spot on the university team, according to Darby.
“Everything is earned at UCSB. Even if you have a good summer, you still have to perform as you would to earn a spot,” Darby said.
Nevertheless, summer baseball still has the potential to impact a player’s regular season performance.
“You could get hurt playing, and it would mess up your season if you don't heal it right, or you could have a really good summer and play well and carry that momentum into the fall season and then ultimately the actual season,” Ager said. “We have a full fall season where we scrimmage ourselves and that is where the lineup is made. Summer ball is for self-development.”
Beyond skill development and exploring new positions, players have the chance to create lasting memories during summer baseball.
“You play with a bunch of guys from different parts of the country and different schools, so you make lasting connections with people you wouldn't usually meet,” Brown said.
Chang said that summer baseball felt like a vacation with his friends.
“It was an amazing experience exploring new cities all across western Canada all while being able to improve my baseball skills at the same time,” he added.
Ager and Darby both shared that their favorite moments from the summer season involved spending time with their summer teammates.
“My favorite memory this past summer would be playing Nintendo Switch with my new teammates in our hotel room and just getting to know all these different guys from across the U.S.,” Ager said.
“My favorite memory from playing summer ball is cooking dinner and watching movies together after games with my teammates,” Darby said.
Darby is undecided on whether he plans to play summer baseball in 2024. Brown, Ager and Chang all said they would play again if given the opportunity.
A version of this article appeared on p. 12 and p.13 of the Oct. 5, 2023 print edition of the Daily Nexus.