Baseball: Hampshire, South Hadley to ‘get a little 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

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 05-08-2024 7:30 PM

On Thursday afternoon, the Hampshire Regional and South Hadley baseball programs will be taking the field against one another 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 out to one of their Hampshire County diamonds, they’ll instead be playing at Dunkin’ Donuts Park in Hartford, Conn. – the 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 varsity baseball players go on to play some sort of professional baseball. So playing in a three-time Minor League Stadium of the Year award-winning venue isn’t likely to be a regular occurrence for the players competing on Thursday.

The stadium opened in 2017 and holds over 6,100 people. It’ll truly be a memory they will never forget.

“It’s a cool opportunity,” Hampshire head coach Mark Baldwin said. “Everyone who plays dreams of being a professional, but realistically that’s not gonna happen for most. So this is a chance to get a little taste of what it’s like to be a pro. The scope and scale of the stadium feels good, it feels big-league. And the facilities are awesome.”

Last summer, a few of Hampshire’s current seniors played in a baseball showcase at Dunkin’ Donuts Park. They then went to Baldwin and brought up the idea of playing there. In the past, the Raiders had every so often played in Cooperstown, N.Y. – where the Baseball Hall of Fame is located. So renting out facilities is nothing new to Hampshire and Baldwin.

They looked into playing in Hartford and what it costs to rent the place out. The only thing they needed? An opponent to play against.

And who better than Matt Foley and his South Hadley baseball team. Baldwin and Foley go way back, as friends and as coaches – playing against each other every year since 1999. This year, they are two of the best teams in Hampshire County. The Tigers are 11-2, getting the job done with defense and pitching with timely hitting. The Raiders are 9-5, relying heavily on their deep lineup and powerful bats.

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

Throughout the offseason, the two teams split the cost and fundraised to make it happen. South Hadley took care of the down payment, and Hampshire paid the balance.

It’ll certainly be worth the investment. Each player will get introduced, and while they are called up to the plate, their headshot will be shown on the big screen accompanied by walk-up music. They’re going to get the full professional experience, including the difficulties of playing on a professional field.

“The surface is going to be fast, that’ll be the thing they’ll have the toughest adjustment with,” Baldwin said. “Pro infields are quick. The ground is hard, the grass is short – it’s the nicest surface they’ll get to play on, for sure.”

Sure, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is unique in its own, but there is still a baseball game to be played – and best believe both teams want to win it.

The true test is which team can block out the distractions of what’s going around them and lock in for seven innings. The stage is big, and whichever side doesn’t let it get too big may have the upper hand.

“Hopefully South Hadley is just as distracted,” Baldwin said. “It is all high schools boys, so it doesn’t take much to get distracted. But this game does matter. They are in the same division as us, they’re a very similar team to us. They’re a little more fundamentally sound than we are, but I think we hit a little better than they do. It’s gonna be a good match up between two evenly-matched teams. The outcome matters. Yes, the event is going to be fun, but we still need to win the game.”

First pitch is scheduled for 3:30 p.m., with the two teams jockeying for position in the crowded Division 4 state power rankings. Hampshire checks in at No. 19 while South Hadley sits at No. 27. A win could go a long way in deciding who gets to host more than one home playoff game come tournament time.