Summer collegiate league starts swinging today in New Albany

Clark Richey says he has only worked about eight hours at his engineering business in the last six weeks.
The reason: Richey, a lifelong baseball fan, has been assembling a bigger project – the BNA Bank Cotton States Baseball League North Division. Partnered with Sam Creekmore and Frank Dodds, Richey has started a summer collegiate wooden-bat league in North Mississippi, with the purpose of providing college players a chance to polish and showcase their skills in a competitive environment.
“I love baseball and I would love nothing better to sit over there every night and watch two collegiate-level baseball games,” Richey said. “That’s what I’m probably going to do for two months.”
Richey only came up with the idea for the league two months ago after talking with former major-leaguer Chris Snopek, the former Ole Miss atandout, who was interested in expanding his Jackson-based Cotton States Baseball League to North Mississippi.
The original Cotton States League was a Class D and then a Class C minor league that played the majority of its games in the first half of the twentieth century.
“We’re serving a lot of customers,” Richey said. “We’re serving the kids, we’re serving the coaches of the universities and colleges, and we’re serving the communities that are involved.
“If we can make all three of those groups happy, then we have really done something that is a little bit above and beyond what has been done before. That’s what we’re trying to do here.”
With 77 players signed up as of Tuesday and its inaugural season starting on Monday, the expansion league will feature four teams that will play all their North Division games at the New Albany Sportsplex’s Legion Field. To kick off the CSBL North’s inaugural season, the Tupelo Thunder will take on the Tallahatchie Rascals in a doubleheader beginning at 6 on Monday night.
“We look to expand in the future to multiple sites,” Richey said. “Next year we plan to be a true option for Division I schools.”
Although the CSBL is not on the level of the Alaska Baseball League and the Cape Cod Baseball League in terms of the player talent pool those summer leagues draw from, it will still provide college players in the Mid-South an opportunity to be scouted in a pro-style summer league.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for these collegiate guys to be able to come home and stay home during the summer,” said Tupelo Thunder head coach Shawn Hairald. “All of these guys don’t get placed in leagues in the Midwest, East Coast, up North.
“So, it’s a great opportunity for these guys to show what they can do.”
Hairald, who also scouts for the Kansas City Royals, said he finds it hard not to run the Thunder’s team workouts as a scouting workout camp in which he is accustomed to being around.
This year, Hairald has been seen at area high school baseball games scouting players, and he says a lot of scouting is based on projection. What has made it difficult for Hairald to project whether an amateur hitter has enough talent suitable for pro ball is the fact that the hitter was using an aluminum bat as opposed to a wooden bat, which is required at the pro level.
“From my perspective, if a possible kid out of this league has a chance of playing pro ball, it gives me a good chance to look at him swinging wood,” Hairald said.
“When you see a guy use it and then does well with it, then it’s not hard to determine if a guy can translate to the next level or not.”

How’s this possible?
Twice, Richey said he tried to back out of his commitment to bring the CSBL North full circle, citing this summer as such a short timetable to begin playing games. But his CSBL partner, Sam Creekmore, would pull him back in.
“He said, ‘Man, my picture has already been on the front page of the New Albany Gazette, and we got to do it,’” Richey said.
Every team sponsorship was quickly sold. Not to mention, CSBL North games will be broadcast every night on ESPN Radio affiliate WXWX (96.3 FM), and all the sponsorship for the radio broadcasts have been sold, says Richey.
“Either we’re priced too cheap or they saw a great product,” Richey said.
Richey added that he had invested about $20,000 into personnel, equipment and the league’s Web site. The league’s players will pay a registration fee on average of about $400, which Richey says will be reduced next year once the league is more stable financially.
“My investment, though, is a small amount compared to the city of New Albany has invested,” Richey said.
New Albany Mayor Tim Kent, who played college baseball at North Alabama, said $96,000 in tourism funds was approved to renovate Legion Field. No city taxes were used, according to the mayor.
“They have really taken that facility up to a collegiate-level facility,” Richey said.
Over time, Richey expects that the money invested into the renovation of Legion Field total nearly $400,000.

Players and coaches
What distinguishes the CSBL North from the rival Cape Cod and Alaska leagues is that junior college and high school senior players will be playing in the CSBL North.
For example, the Tupelo Thunder has seven players on its roster that spent the spring playing junior college baseball, and one who played high school ball this past spring.
The Mississippi league also offers players from small colleges a chance to be scouted during the summer. No college seniors who graduated this month can play in the league.
“Halfway through this season, I started looking for a place to play this summer,” said Tupelo Thunder pitcher Chris Bennett, who spent his junior collegiate season pitching for NAIA Belhaven College. “I was going to have to move out of the state of Mississippi to play until Shawn (Hairald) called and said they were getting this league together and asked me to play with him this summer.
“I was excited they did get this together.”
Players from SEC schools such as Mississippi State and Ole Miss will also be on the Legion Field diamond this summer. Kyle Thornton of Ole Miss (Golden Triangle Jets) and Brent Brownlee of Mississippi State (North Delta Dealers) are just two of 16 Division I players signed up to play in the CSBL North so far.
The number of Division I players committing to the league is impressive when considering that most college players are assigned to summer leagues in the fall and the CSBL North didn’t even exist at that time.
Ethan Bright, a Mississippi State signee, will play for the North Delta Dealers after graduating from South Panola High School this month. His college coach, John Cohen, told Creekmore he has players who will be rehabbing this summer and asked if they could pitch maybe once a week in the league.
“They can live in Starkville, do their rehab, go to school and play a little baseball,” Creekmore said.
Richey, Creekmore and Dodds are quick to point out they did not play a major hand in attracting players to play. It was the league’s coaches – Chris Basil (Tallahatchie Rascals), Doug Robbins (North Delta Dealers), Jeff Hunter (Golden Triangle Jets) and Hairald – who recruited these players to the league.
“They got great experience with a lot of these guys in the past,” Richey said. “They just saw the same thing I saw: something good, a good opportunity and something they wanted to be a part of.”

John Wilbert/NEMS Daily Journal