By Jim McElhatton (Photo/Mark Briscoe)
Alexandria Aces owner Don Dinan stood behind the fence along the first base line watching his team’s home opener Saturday night, but his thoughts momentarily turned to a heartbreaking game 11 months ago.
Making their first playoff appearance last year against three-time champion Bethesda Big Train, the Aces led 2-1 in the eighth inning, only to lose 3-2 after Bethesda’s Hunter Renfroe — the 13th overall pick in this month’s Major League draft — scored the tying run.
“We came so close to advancing,” Dinan said. “But on the other hand, it just goes to show you the quality of the play. … You’re watching some of the best college players in the country. About a third of these kids are going to get drafted, and you’re going to remember who they are.”
Dinan, a partner at a Washington law firm, is a lifelong baseball fan who grew up in Massachusetts, where he and his father went to Fenway Park in the 1950s to watch the Boston Red Sox and the game’s greatest hitter, Ted Williams.
But as easily as he reminisces about Fenway, he talks excitedly about the history that his young Aces franchise is building as it enters its sixth season in the Cal Ripken Collegiate League.
Former Ace Tyler Sciacca — a second baseman for Villanova University — was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 27th round just days earlier. He and Renfroe were among 22 former Ripken League players taken in the draft.
Last year, the Kansas City Royals selected the team’s biggest standout — pitcher Kyle Zimmer — with the 5th overall pick. And the Nationals took former Aces pitcher Michael Boyden in the 31st round.
The players come and go, which is the nature of the summer league, said Dinan, who’s happy to see them move on and hopefully progress. Last year’s head coach, Corey Haines, got promoted at Shippensburg University, leaving the manager position open for his assistant, David DeSilva.
This year’s roster includes players like Ryan Mincher, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, who went two for four in the opener Saturday against the Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolts. He’s the latest in the pipeline of Ivy League talent to join the organization in recent years.
One of three catchers on the roster, Nick Collins is a sophomore at Georgetown University, where he hit .333 in 177 at-bats, including three home runs and six doubles. And infielder Christain Choman, a sophomore, led Iona College with a .309 batting average this season.
For the players, summer ball is a sort of parallel universe to the minor leagues — a chance to hit with a wooden bat, which has a smaller so-called “sweet spot” compared to aluminum bats used in college and high school. More importantly, it’s an opportunity to be seen by pro scouts, who not only want to find out what players can do on the field, but also how they handle the summer heat, bus rides and weeks of back-to-back games.
“They want to see who’s got toughness and stamina,” said Dinan, who describes the business side of the nonprofit Aces operation as just trying to come within shouting distance of breaking even each season.
Last year’s playoff run saw the franchise’s emergence as a contender following a few lean years after joining the league as an expansion team in 2008.
“We went through what all expansion teams go through,” said Dinan, who glanced up at the scoreboard in center field, showcasing a 3-2 lead for the Thunderbolts.
“They’ve got to get going here if they’re going to do anything,” the teams chairman and CEO said.
The Aces had their chances early in the home opener, outhitting the Thunderbolts, but they failed to capitalize on potential rallies early on.
In the fourth inning, James Guillano, a left-handed hitter from Iona College, worked a 3-2 count and hit a leadoff single. Next, Mincher swatted a single to right field, moving Guillano to third with no outs.
An infield grounder that turned into a double play on the next at bat scored Guillano but left the Aces with nobody on and two outs, effectively ending the scoring threat.
In the end, Aces right-hander Brian O’Neill took the loss after the Thunderbolts scored three runs in five innings — all in the fourth — though Aces relievers Blake Ream, Tyler Brown and Shelby Dixon shut down the visiting team for the rest of the game.
“Early on we had some opportunities,” DeSilva said after the game. “I think our guys were anxious to get out there and play after a couple of days of rain, but overall I thought we played a pretty solid game. We also had a good showing out of the bullpen.
“As far as the season goes, we’re going to play a lot of close games this year and come out on the winning side more times than not.”