Valley Blue Sox primed for another summer in Holyoke

  • Holyoke product Endy Morales throws long toss with some of the Valley Blue Sox coaches after the team’s first practice Tuesday in Holyoke. The Valley Blue Sox open the season at 6:35 p.m. Thursday against the Newport Gulls in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Hezekiah Randolph is taking over as the Valley Blue Sox manager this season. He played for the team in 2016 and has been the organization’s hitting coach since 2018. The Blue Sox open the season at 6:35 p.m. Thursday against the Newport Gulls in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • The Valley Blue Sox open the season at 6:35 p.m. Thursday against the Newport Gulls in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • The Valley Blue Sox open the season at 6:35 p.m. Thursday against the Newport Gulls in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

Staff Writer
Published: 6/2/2021 3:11:07 PM

HOLYOKE — Players and coaches from around the country won’t have much time to become the Valley Blue Sox. The Holyoke-based New England Collegiate Baseball League team opens the season against the Newport Gulls at 6:35 p.m. Thursday at MacKenzie Stadium. A small group of players arrived and practiced for the first time Tuesday. The rest got to Western Massachusetts on Wednesday.

“You have to gel pretty quickly,” Blue Sox director of baseball operations John Raiola said. “Which is why it’s so important to be getting players from programs you trust and respect and are sending you good guys who have the ability to do that and understand what it’s all about and what the big picture is.”

Holyoke product Endy Morales gets it. He’s played for the Blue Sox every summer he’s been eligible. In 2018, he was an all-star and had the lowest earned run average in the league.

“I love what they’re doing here. Each year they’re working on getting better and it’s never about them,” Morales said. “It’s always about the guys that come in and trying to make their game better so when they go back to school they’re a completely different product. Not change them, but they’re better than when they came in.”

After a torn meniscus took away his 2021 season, the Tennessee Tech pitcher is grateful to be back on the mound for the first time in seven months.

“I got my season ripped away from me. I want to be out there competing and nowhere better than in front of my hometown,” Morales said. “It’s always been a dream of mine to pitch in front of my mom, my supporters, my friends. I get to do that here.”

He’s one of several Blue Sox that grew up and played high school ball in Western Mass. Springfield’s Kevin Hummer (Western New England), Westfield’s Ryan Towle (UMass Lowell) and Amherst product Jake Balderston (Western New England) are also on the roster. Hopkins Academy grad Jon Morrison of Rhode Island will miss the start of the season with an injury he suffered during the last few weeks of the college season, but he said he’s trying to come back later in the summer.

Between eight and 10 players who were supposed to be on last year’s team before the season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic returned for this summer. All players and coaches need to have received a COVID-19 vaccination to participate, Raiola said.

“They’re here for a reason, they’re one of the best players on their team. It really is in a lot of ways like an all-star team,” Raiola said. “It’s a phenomenal opportunity for them to play more baseball and get exposure. Everyone on the field should have dreams of playing professional baseball.”

The season mirrors part of a pro schedule. The Blue Sox will play 44 games in 56 days traveling all over New England. The season runs through July, and the playoffs begin August 3. The Blue Sox won back-to-back championships in 2017 and 2018.

“You don’t do all of that unless you’re taking this extremely seriously and your hope and your goal is to play professional baseball. We want to give them that exposure and that opportunity,” Raiola said. “We’ll have a bunch of fans here and have a bunch of scouts here.”

The Blue Sox are the top-drawing team in the NECBL. They had 33,000 fans across 22 home games in 2019. There will be no limits on fan attendance this summer, Blue Sox general manager Kate Avard said. A full MacKenzie Stadium is one of the things new manager Hezekiah Randolph is looking forward to most.

“It’s always pretty cool when you come out here and you play in front of this many fans. This team means the world to this city, the surrounding area, the valley,” Randolph said. “I think it’s so awesome the fan engagement we get.”

The New Orleans native is taking over for Raiola, who managed the Blue Sox for six seasons. Randolph played for the Blue Sox in 2016 and has been the team’s hitting coach since 2018.

“When I got an opportunity to come back and coach, be a part of John’s staff, he’s always been there for me, a leg for me to stand on if I ever needed anything. When I had that opportunity it was a no brainer,” Randolph said. “This place, they’ve been huge for me. Not many people enjoy playing summer ball, but for me the whole summer I was here in 2016 was probably the best summer of my life.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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