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Summer Collegiate : : Story
Newport Gulls No. 1 Summer Team
Published: Thursday, August 23, 2012

Perfect Game Final Ranking Top 50 2012 Summer Collegiate Teams

Befitting Team’s Unique Environment,
Talented Gulls Finish Season on High Note

As one of the more picturesque and historically-relevant cities on the Eastern seaboard, Newport, R.I., is truly unique in the scope of hundreds of communities across America that are homes to summer college league baseball teams.

No less unique is quirky little Cardines Field, a quaint, oddly-shaped, wooden baseball structure located in the heart of town. Its construction dates back to 1908, and it is believed to be the oldest ball park in active use in the United States.

Against that unusual backdrop play the Newport Gulls.

A prominent member of the New England Collegiate League, the Gulls have been one of the nation’s most successful summer-league teams over the course of the last decade. But the club has never done anything on the playing field to set it apart as truly unique—in keeping with the environment it plays in—until what it accomplished this summer.

In winning their fifth NECBL title in 12 years, the Gulls fielded arguably the best club in their existence. They broke numerous team and league records, and dominated to such a degree that they were hailed as the No. 1 summer-league team in the country in 2012. Perfect Game USA bestowed that honor on the team in its final weekly ranking of the nation’s top summer clubs.

In a sense, the Gulls may have moved into the realm of becoming ever bit as unique as the city and the ball park that have collectively defined the team and its very existence through the years.

It is an achievement to win the NECBL championship, but an honor to be selected at the top of summer-college baseball,” said Chuck Paiva, the Gulls co-general manager and guiding force in recruiting this year’s team. “I’m perhaps biased, but I think (Perfect Game) got it right and could not imagine getting knocked off the top by any team (once we were ranked No. 1).

This was the best team in Gulls history, certainly the best that has ever played here in terms of the body of work that was accomplished this year. We produced the best overall record ever, for both the team and the league; we broke league records for runs, doubles and on-base percentage; we established Gulls records in almost every offensive category; we had the batting champion, we had eight all-stars—and it could easily have been 30. We dominated in impressive style from the first game to the last.”

Newport produced an impressive 31-10 record in league play, handily winning the NECBL Eastern Division title in the process. The Gulls then ran off six wins in seven games in post-season play to finish the season at 37-11 and post the most victories in franchise history.

From the start, I thought this year’s team would be good, one of the most-special ones we’ve had here,” Paiva admitted. “But I thought it would be driven by the pitching staff. On paper, I thought this would be the best pitching staff we ever had here.

But we lost five big arms at the start, and some of the younger pitchers that we had counted on to carry us struggled initially. It was our offense that carried us the whole season. As the season progressed, our pitching started to catch up to our hitting, and by the finals our pitching was dominant.”

Mike Coombs, who won his third league championship in his eight years as head coach of the Gulls, concurred with Paiva’s assessment of the 2012 Gulls.

This is the best balanced team we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Coombs said. “We were solid in all areas—defense, hitting, starting pitching, in the back end of the bullpen, in middle relief.

Even when we lost our 3-4 hitters at mid-season (Washington State outfielder Yale Rosen to injury and Kansas catcher Alex DeLeon to summer school), we had someone else just step in and do the job for us. Even when some of our younger pitching prospects struggled in the beginning, some of our older, more experienced arms stepped in and solidified the staff. From start to finish, it was a team effort.”

As a team, the Gulls hit .313 during the regular season and stepped up their pace in the playoffs by swatting the ball at a .328 clip. In setting the league record for most runs scored in a season, they outscored their opponents 411-220. They produced the NECBL batting champion in catcher Jeff Melillo (Rutgers), who hit .404. Rosen broke the club single-season home-run record in just 30 games, before re-injuring his shoulder at the league all-star game and returning home.

Melillo himself lost significant time to injury during the season but, according to Coombs, was the player, more than anyone else, who picked up the pieces when Rosen and DeLeon were lost and put the team on his back. Rosen, who developed into the best prospect on this year’s Gulls roster, has since undergone labrum surgery on his shoulder but is expected to be 100 percent by the start of the 2013 college season.

The Gulls were so deep and talented this summer that they hardly skipped a beat when they lost the heart of their batting order and the pitching staff struggled, and the five players, led by Melillo, that returned to the team from 2011 were credited by the coaching staff for keeping the club on track all season, even in the face of adversity.

They were the foundation for our 2012 team,” said Kevin Long, the team’s second-year pitching coach. “These guys set the goals for this team with their personality—both on and off the field.”

Melillo, in particular, had a breakout season at the plate after unexpectedly going undrafted in June as a junior out of Rutgers. In the process of winning the batting title, he set a league record for on-base percentage. And yet it was his work defensively and in stabilizing the pitching staff that may have set him apart.

He did a great job with our pitchers,” Long said. “He solidified the team’s game plan and was more responsible than anyone for pulling the staff together.”

Just as Melillo was acknowledged as the team’s most indispensible position player, righthander Peter Kelich, who attends nearby Bryant University and also went undrafted in June, was the most effective pitcher on the staff, pretty much from beginning to end. He worked mostly in relief, or in any role he was needed, during the regular season and posted a 2-1, 2.40 record with four saves and a staff-high 49 strikeouts in 41 innings.

But Kelich, who was named the league’s all-star closer, may have saved his best for last as he was dominant in a pair of starting assignments in post-season play. He pitched the title-clinching game for the Gulls, striking out a season-high 13 while allowing just four hits in seven innings in a decisive 8-1 win over Danbury. Melillo set the tone early with a towering two-run homer in the first inning.

Kelich’s raw stuff was not in the same league as some of the other elite-level, projectable arms on the Gulls pitching staff such as righthanders Adam Ravenelle (Vanderbilt), Brett Graves (Missouri), Tanner Chleborad (Washington State) and David Schmidt (Stanford), and lefthander Jon Hochstatter (Stanford), all rising sophomores that were prominent draft picks out of high school. But Kelich outpitched them all, especially when a lot was on the line.

He was huge for us in big games,” Long said. “He doesn’t have overpowering stuff but his ability to manage a game was exceptional. If you could take him and put him in Adam Ravenelle’s body, he’d be Nolan Ryan.”

Led by the contributions of veteran players like Melillo and Kelich, along with second baseman Conor Keniry (Wake Forest), outfielder Robby Ort (Indiana State), and righthanders Jon Prosinski (Seton Hall) and Danny Wright (Arkansas State), the other returning players on the roster, it was a distinct feeling of togetherness that brought this team together and powered it to a league title and No. 1 national ranking.

Not only were we successful on the field, but we were an extremely close group of young men,” Keniry said. “The chemistry on this team was unbelievable, and I think that was one of the reasons why we were so successful. A lot of great friendships were formed from this summer and I hope they can last a life-time.”

In the spirit of togetherness, the entire Gulls team had their heads shaved just prior to the playoffs, all in support of the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a childhood cancer charity and one of many community-oriented causes the team openly embraced.

This team really liked each other,” Coombs said. “There was a lot of camaraderie among the players. Having our heads shaved just before the playoffs really brought us together and we ended up playing our best baseball of the season. We really develop a ‘why not us’ motto.”

With an NECBL championship in hand, who knows what the Gulls might have been able to accomplish if a true national summer-league championship was in the cards, but several Newport players would have relished the opportunity to take on all comers.

I would absolutely love the opportunity to play for a summer-league championship against the best teams across the nation,” Keniry said. “If the Gulls were to play in something like that this year, there is no doubt in mind that we would battle with the best of them, and I think we would have a great shot at winning it.”

Obviously, with no true on-field competition to settle the issue, comparing the relative strengths of various summer leagues on a national level is an apples vs. oranges circumstance, but Paiva, for one, leaves no doubt that this year’s Gulls team had what it took to take on and beat all comers.

This year’s club was so special that I think it would have competed for a championship even in the Cape Cod League. I have no doubt about that,” Paiva said. “This is the most balanced lineup we’ve ever had here, and our pitching staff is potentially as good as our 2010 team, when we had four pitchers (including Stanford righthander Mark Appel, a first-rounder this year) that went on to be drafted in the first five rounds.”

Because of Newport’s close proximity to the Cape Cod League, along with all the talent it has churned out in recent years, it is only natural that the Gulls have been closely linked to the Cape, whether as a competitor or a potential partner.

We don’t look at the Cape that way,” Paiva said. “In fact, we don’t view our proximity to the Cape as a positive or negative. We’ve developed our own reputation that we can compete with anyone in summer baseball, the Cape included, and we’ve never pretended to be in competition with the Cape. We have our own identity, both here and around the country, as a place to send top college players and we often have coaches with Cape-quality players that want to send them to us.

We tell kids if they want the chance to play in the Cape, then go there. We encourage kids to play in the Cape if that’s what they want to do. The Cape is the league that is the most respected, that gives the players the most exposure. But if that’s not what they want, we’ll welcome them here and we’ve often had kids here a year after they have played in the Cape. We have a history of taking care of our kids extremely well, and we do everything we can to make it a positive experience for our players.”

The Gulls have played the Cape’s Wareham Gatemen—ironically, this year’s Cape League champion—in exhibition games prior to the last two seasons, trading victories on the other team’s turf. The Gatemen gained the upper hand in this year’s contest.

Wareham is located roughly 50 miles to the east of Newport, but the conversation has never come up—publicly, at least—whether the Gulls would ever entertain a move to the higher-profile Cape Cod League.

To their credit, the Cape has had the same 10-team, closely-knit alignment for nearly a quarter century.

To my knowledge, the Cape has never looked at Newport as a possible team for that league, nor are we actively looking at a move to that league,” Paiva said. “We’re very loyal to the New England Collegiate League, and it would take a lot for us to even consider leaving. I’m not sure it would be in our best interests, but I’m sure we would consider anything if the Cape were to look seriously at us.”

In almost every way imaginable, the Gulls would appear to be an attractive fit for the Cape. Not only do they have a loyal fan base, drawing an average of 2,200 fans a game for the last several years—best in the NECBL by a wide margin—but they have the ability to recruit the same type of college player to play in Newport that typically ends up on the Cape.

That network has been cultivated through the years by Paiva and co-GM Chris Patsos, who jointly recruit all the Gulls players while splitting the day-to-day operations of the club. They have always had little or no trouble going head-to-head with Cape Cod League teams in securing elite-level talent.

Paiva began his association with the Gulls in 2000, when the team relocated to Newport after drawing sparse crowds in nearby Cranston, R.I. Even in their first year in Newport, the team averaged less than 700 a game at refurbished Cardines Field. But with back-to-back NECBL titles in 2001 and 2002, interest in the team locally skyrocketed.

At the time, the team’s ownership had a philosophy on how to operate the team that didn’t jive with Paiva’s, so in 2003 a five-man ownership group, led by Paiva, purchased the team and continues to own and operate the team.

When our group purchased the team, we really wanted to establish our mission here, and our focus became more community-oriented than the previous owners, because that was not their interest. The previous ownership was running this program to try to make a profit, and to have a successful team. When we took it over, our focus changed to have a community-oriented baseball team that gave back to the community that supported us.”

Through the years, the team has gained a significant foothold in Newport while also developing a reputation nationally as a highly-desirable location for college players to play summer ball. The team has never had a losing season under the current ownership.

Every year, our goal is to win 25 games,” Paiva said. “That gives us a good chance to win the division and potentially host the first round of the playoffs. It’s always been our standard to win 25, and we have managed to do that every year.

It’s also my goal—and I tell the kids this when they get here—that I want this to be the best summer-league experience they’ve ever had. They look at me kind of funny when I say that, but by the end of the summer it almost always is the best experience they’ve ever had. There wasn’t a player on this year’s team that didn’t tell me at the end of the summer that it wasn’t the best experience they ever had. Even kids who had previously been in the Cape told me their experience playing in Newport was the best they ever had.”

An integral part of playing for the Gulls is embracing the community.

It’s not just the baseball,” Paiva said. “It’s the whole experience. We get our kids actively involved in going around to schools and talking to kids, in charity work, in running our summer camps. But it’s also what we do for them that makes it a special experience. We place them with host families, we feed them, we take care of them.”

While the Gulls are renowned for all the success that they have achieved on the field over the last decade, culminating in this season, and their general commitment to fielding a competitive ball club, combined with their commitment to a loyal fan base and the way fans have embraced them in return,
Newport’s rich history and ocean-side surroundings, plus the quaintness and quirkiness of century-old Cardines Field, have played no small part in the Gulls success and the team becoming a prime destination for college players.

Newport is renowned as the city that was America's First Resort, and remains a prominent New England summer resort community. It is famous for its Newport Mansions, lavish, multi-million dollar structures which represent exceptional elegance and inspiration in architecture, art, interior design and landscapes through 250 years of American history.

Newport, founded in 1639,
was once a major center of pirate activity during the late 17th and early 18th century. With coastlines to the west, south and east, it is a maritime city with unmistakable beauty. Its harbors teem with commercial fishing boats, power and sail pleasure craft. It continues to be known as the sailing capitol of the United States and hosted every America’s Cup sailing competition from 1930-83.

Much like its more-famous contemporaries at the major-league level, Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Boston’s Fenway Park, Cardines Field is a definition
of patchwork design in ball-park construction. The facility is shoehorned into a small corner lot in the older sector of Newport, and effectively serves as a buffer between the encroaching residential and commercial sectors in the area.

The grandstand along the third-base line is so restricted in available space by the street access along America’s Cup Avenue that it encroaches within 15 feet of the third-base bag, and literally hugs the left-field foul line. The backstop is a mere 30 feet from home plate. The oddly-shaped, 20-foot-high outfield fence and cozy dimensions in right field are a factor of the close proximity of residential housing. A large, rundown private warehouse butts up against the right-field foul line.

Not only are a wild assortment of nooks and crannies an integral part of the facility, both on and off the field, but the odd shape of the structure does not allow for a dugout along the third-base line, or a bullpen in right field.

Newport is the best place to play summer baseball, and I heard it all the time in my two years playing with the Gulls,” Keniry said. “The historic field located right in downtown Newport is an awesome place to play at. The dugouts are located right next to each other on the first base line so it gives you a throwback feel to the game. The stadium fills up almost every home game too, so it’s very special playing in front of 2,500-3,000 fans a night who love the Gulls.

A lot of what the Gulls organization does is not always about baseball, but about giving back to the community. Every morning for the first two weeks we get to Newport, we go around the island to different elementary schools and read to the children. The idea is to promote summer reading for the kids on the island.”

Other Gulls players were equally effusive in their praise of the Gulls organization and the entire Newport experience, unique as it is.

Playing for the Gulls this summer and winning the NECBL title is an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life,” said Caleb Kellogg, a rising junior righthander from Louisiana-Lafayette. “It was an honor playing for such a great organization. The support of the community was unbelievable. After winning the championship, our team bus was given a police escort for our arrival back into Newport.

Playing at Cardines Field was like stepping back in time. I have never played in a stadium this old before. The dimensions of the field—the high fences and minimal foul-territory area—was something that we all had to adjust to. One of the most-unique features of the field is the dugouts for both teams are side by side, and so are the bullpens. This allowed us to get to know some of the players for the other teams.”

Keniry, who hit .326-1-18 this summer as the team’s regular second baseman, may have summed up his experience with the Gulls best.
“It has been a very unique and life-changing experience playing as a Newport Gull, and I will never forget these past two summers.”



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