By Don Leypoldt
“I believe that there are things you learn on a baseball field that you can’t learn in the classroom, and I very much see myself as an educator,” Mike Leonard stated.
It is a philosophy that makes Leonard a unique man in a unique position.
Just five years out of college himself, Leonard was the head coach of a college baseball program. This season, his third as the skipper of Bates College, Leonard was the ripe old age of 30 when the Bobcats played their 2013 opener.
Every baseball coach wants to win. Leonard is no exception and his Bobcats have had success on the diamond. During his first two seasons as head coach, Bates went 44-32 and they are 9-11 as of press time.
But coaches at Bates, or any other school in the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) know they have a special mission: to truly develop a student-athlete. The NESCAC is colloquially known in New England as “The Smart Kid Conference.”
There are nine other teams besides Bates that field baseball programs under the NESCAC banner. All ten schools are ranked among US News and World Report’s top 40 Liberal Arts Colleges in the United States. (One school, Tufts, is ranked as a National University instead but it falls in the top 40 of their category.) Four NESCAC schools occupy US News’ top six spots.
“Being a student-athlete in the NESCAC Is a special gift: nowadays it is rare in the sporting world to find a collegiate league that has the mandate and the means to create a competitive atmosphere for student-athletes,” said NECBL Secretary Max Pinto, a first team All-NESCAC outfielder at Williams and a 2007 NECBL All Star with the North Adams SteepleCats. “In college, I had a lot of help and support in working towards what I was in school to do, and that was to get an education first, and win championships second.”
“The students aren’t forced to choose between competing at a high level athletically or challenging themselves in the classroom,” Leonard noted about Bates. “A school like Bates gives them the opportunity to balance a very rigorous academic load with an extremely competitive baseball experience.”
Leonard himself did compete at a high level. He was the Gatorade High School Player of the Year coming out of Rockville High outside of Hartford. At UConn, where he earned a Political Science degree in 2004, Leonard was named to All-Big East baseball and academic teams.
He parlayed his diamond success into a five-year professional career mostly with the Red Sox organization, where he frequently caught Clay Buchholtz. As a Worcester Tornado during the 2009 season, Leonard learned from his skipper Rich Gedman. Gedman logged nearly 1,000 games as a Big League catcher, mostly with the Red Sox, between 1980 and 1992.
“(Coaching) occurred to me after my career as a professional was finished. I think that, like most college players who are at the Division I level and having success, your goal is to play professional baseball,” Leonard remembered. “So from 18 to 22, my goal was to play professional baseball. Beyond that I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I did know that I would need my college degree to do whatever I chose to do after baseball. Even though professional baseball was my goal, I understood that my education would most likely take me a lot farther than my playing ability would.”
Two of Leonard’s summers between the ages of 18 and 22 were spent in the NECBL. He played with the Manchester Silkworms (now Laconia Muskrats) in 2001 and with the Eastern Tiders (now the Mystic Schooners) the next summer. As a Tide, Leonard ranked first or second in the team in average, doubles and RBI.
“The quality of baseball is something that will always stick out,” Leonard recalled. “Playing on the Silkworms, there were two guys from that team that played in the Major Leagues-Jonah Bayliss and Chris Denorfia. Chris is still up there with the Padres. The funny thing about that is both were Division III guys and I love to tell that story.
“Playing against kids from Stanford, Florida State, or Vanderbilt coupled with all of the talented players from New England Division I programs, and also the best of the best from the New England Division II and III programs made for a really fun experience.
“A lot of the kids I played against in high school, and even some of my UConn teammates, would be on other teams in the NECBL. It was a lot of fun, because not only were you competing against some of your best friends who were great players,” Leonard concluded, “but you were also competing against some of the best players in the entire country.”
The NESCAC and the NECBL have a rich, intertwined history ever since the NECBL has been in existence. Consider:
- There have been 13 NESCAC players drafted by Major League Baseball since 1997. 10 of them played in the NECBL
- Wesleyan SS Jed Hoyer had a .361 on base percentage for the 1995 Waterbury Barons. Hoyer, who still holds Wesleyan’s career saves record, is entering his second season as GM of the Chicago Cubs
- Bowdoin DH Matt MacDonald and Tufts P Jeff Taglienti were first team all-NECBL picks in 1996. Taglienti would later be a Red Sox seventh round pick, posting a 3.74 ERA in four seasons at Double-A
- Williams’ Keith Surkont was the NECBL’s Pitcher of the Year in 1997; he would later become an Oakland A’s fourth round pick
- Trinity’s Bayliss made the NECBL All-Star team as a Manchester Silkworm in 2001, striking out 50 in 49 innings. Bayliss became the 16th NECBL alum to make the Majors when he debuted with the Kansas City Royals in 2005
- Trinity infielder Jeff Natale was the 2003 NECBL 10th Man Winner for Torrington. He hit .322 and led the league with a dozen doubles. Two years later, he would be the NESCAC Player of the Year and a Red Sox draft pick. He topped out at Triple-A, hitting .274 at the highest level of the Minors
- Pittsfield and Trinity LHP Tim Kiely, who ultimately reached Triple-A, was second in the NECBL in strikeouts in 2005.
- The NECBL’s 2009 MVP, Trinity OF James Wood of Holyoke, was the co-NESCAC Player of the Year and a Mariners’ draft pick in 2010
- Pinto led the 2007 North Adams SteepleCats in batting average and slugging percentage
- Orioles GM Dan Duquette, an Amherst alum, owned the NECBL’s Pittsfield Dukes team from 2004 to 2009
- Fay Vincent, a Williams alum, served as President of the NECBL from 1997 to 2003. Prior to that, he served as Commissioner of Major League Baseball
That said, as competitive as the NESCAC is, few players are as talented baseball-wise as Bates’ coach, who is grounded in reality when instructing his charges.
“As much as every baseball player wants to play at the highest level and play for the rest of their life, at some point baseball ends. I tell our guys that I hope it’s after a great Big League career but if its not- like for most of us-what else are you going to do?” Leonard asks. “I believe that being a student-athlete will prepare you for a career.
“Being on the field and competing, learning to manage time, having the discipline it takes to balance the responsibilities of being a student-athlete,” he continued, “are really translatable skills to the job force. I fully believe that our kids will distinguish themselves from others in the job market after they graduate, because of their experiences as a student-athletes.
“Certainly with my job, there is very much of an educational component. All of the coaches at Bates have another duty and the duty I have is the Leadership Coordinator of our 31 varsity sports teams,” explained Leonard, who earned his Masters in Education from St. Lawrence in 2009. “I do captains’ programming and development for all of our student-athlete leaders, ranging from monthly meetings and discussion, to bringing in presenters, to community service activities. So it is very much a part of my job to be doing things other than baseball.”
During his year as head coach of the Elms College Blazers, Leonard instituted “Blazer Buddies”, an after-school mentoring program for students in the elementary grades. Bates baseball is very involved with Tree Street Youth:
Leonard explained, “It was started by a Bates alum as an after school program in downtown Lewiston. Surprisingly to many, Lewiston has one of the largest Somali immigrant populations in the country so there is a very diverse group of students that are in the Lewiston public schools.
“We help them with their homework, play soccer, basketball, baseball and build relationships. We have done reading programs in elementary schools for various events, like Martin Luther King Day. We also do youth baseball clinics in Maine. “
Coaching baseball, while truly instructing students in leadership and academics, is a hand-in-glove fit for Leonard. The backstop is quick to deflect credit to a long list of excellent mentors that he was blessed to have on the baseball diamond.
“The reason I am able to coach at the age I am at the level I am,” said Leonard, “is that every single coach I have ever had- even from middle school- has been a really really good coach. I learned something from everyone I ever played for.”
But his time as graduate assistant at St. Lawrence under long time head coach Tom Fay sealed the deal that Leonard is in the right profession.
“Once I got to St. Lawrence, I really saw the Division III level for the first time. Seeing how committed the students were at St. Lawrence and are at Bates in the classroom AND on the field, was a really eye opening experience. It showed me that I wanted to coach in an environment where academics and athletics were not competing with one another, but rather working together.” Leonard noted.
“I loved my Division I experience at UConn,” Leonard said, “but it was a significantly heavier baseball load and at times, it can detract from the academic opportunities. Not in all cases and not with all students but certainly at a school like Bates there is no doubt that our kids are there to be students first. As a coach, I wanted to be a part of that whole educational experience.”
Mike Leonard’s Advice to Future Coaches in the NECBL: “I think spending as much time as you can coaching, whether it is working clinics, working camps, and doing instructions with someone who does not do it at the level you do because no matter what group it is, whether it is a pro coach talking to a minor league guy, whether it’s a high school kid talking to a Little League kid, a college kid talking to a high school kid, anytime you go down a level, you get perspective and that is certainly helpful. I’d also say another great thing they can do is listen to and talk with coaches. Use the resources that are right there on the field with them every day. If you’re an outfielder, listen to what the pitchers are doing. If you’re an infielder, listen to what the catchers are doing. Don’t just focus solely on your position. Learn about all of them.”