There is a benefit to social distancing guidelines. It allows venues, that wouldn’t otherwise, get an opportunity to host collegiate-level baseball.
Utica High School baseball coach Michael Sandman, who has spent much of his short tenure fixing up American Legion Post 92 field. He didn’t get a chance to coach Utica on the field this spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, he jumped at the opportunity to coach the Ohio Marlins collegiate team this summer.
He sold the field as a perfect spot for a collegiate game. So, Friday night at 6 p.m., the Marlins will host the Columbus-based TNT Knights.
“I give our team owner, Ryan Weaver, a lot of props on this one. It was just an idea that I floated out to him,” Sandman said. “It’s probably the only college game we’ll play there this summer. I pitched to him and he came and checked out the field and thought it looked great. Just the idea that we could bring really, really high-level baseball to Utica is really exciting to me. I’m really proud of the community and (it’ll) be awesome to have a big crowd there.”
Sandman is hoping to create a fun atmosphere. He’ll have two to three food trucks and kids who wear their summer league uniforms will get in for free.
“One of the big things that we’re promoting with it is that it’s so open, we’re going to have people bring their own chairs,” he said. “You can bring your own lawn chair or whatever and then (be able to) practice social distancing. There’s first-come, first-serve seating. We’ll have the hillside all mowed down, so people can get in and pick their seats and then go eat some delicious truck food and then take in some high-level college baseball.”
The Marlins feature some local talent too in Garrett Robberts, who played high school ball at Utica, and Ashton Spurgeon, who played at Mount Vernon High School.
Robberts started his college career at Cuyahoga Community College before moving on to Ashland for his junior and senior seasons. He batted .299 with 11 doubles, two triples, three home runs and drove in 44 runs over 52 career games with the Eagles.
He made it 11 games into senior season before the season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think it’ll be really neat for people in the area to get to see him right in their back yard,” Sandman said. “Garrett is a great player. He’s our starting third baseman and hits out of the cleanup spot. We use him as a pitcher too. He’s picked up two saves in the last week and he threw a complete game a couple of weeks back. He’s doing it all for us.”
Robberts was Ashland’s third basemen in its run to the Division II College World Series last season.
Robberts played with the Eagles with Marlin teammate Austin Eifrid, a shortstop. Robberts returns as a fifth-year senior next season as Eifrid enters his senior campaign. Ashland was 14 games in before the season got canceled because of the pandemic.
The good news is that Robberts and other 2020 collegiate seniors were granted an additional year of eligibility. So, he’ll be back with the Eagles next spring.
“It was pretty hard for all of us because of the uncertainty of all it. We didn’t know if we’d have the extra year … it was pretty tough,” Robberts said. “But since we’re getting that extra year, we all want to see what we can do.”
Robberts was planning to begin his career as an electrician after graduation. After an apprenticeship, he plans to be a project manager. Without the extra year of eligibility, his baseball career would have ended.
“I probably would have started my job and just gone on with life if we didn’t get it back,” he said. “I guess it’s a second chance at one last go-around. I’ll take it like that. Now that we get another chance, we can hit the restart button and do it all over again. It’s a second chance.”
Sandman was an assistant at Utica when Robberts was there.
“I coached Garrett for three years from when he was a sophomore until he was a senior,” Sandman said. “I’ve known his family for a long time. I went to school with and played with his brother Brett, who was a great player as well. Garrett’s dad, Brian, who was an all-Ohioan at Utica as well, was coaching an American Legion team. He contacted me and that’s how I got into coaching in the area was starting with Brian and getting in with Utica.
“I’ve coached Garrett for a number of years. I coached him football, I coached him for a year in basketball. He’s just a kid that I’m really close with and have a great deal of admiration for. He’s the hardest working athlete I’ve ever coached.”
The second chance gives Robberts an opportunity to play one last game at Utica.
“Honestly, it’s pretty cool to me,” he said. “I know Sandman has done a lot to that field to change it and fix it up. I think this is a great way to get people up there and see the field and see the work that he’s put into it. Getting to play in front of hometown crowds is a great feeling too.”
Spurgeon has played two seasons at Notre Dame College in South Euclid. The left-handed pitcher didn’t get a chance to see action for the Falcons this spring after making five appearance out of the bullpen in 2019. He has a career 0-2 record with a 14.63 ERA in eight innings of work.
COVID-19 cost Sandman his first season as a head coach at Utica. Coaching the Marlins gives him a chance to coach this summer.
“Honestly, I don’t if I would had done it had we had a high school season,” he said. “This was a good way to scratch the baseball itch. It’s awesome just getting to be around the college guys and being able to learn so much that’ll I be able to take back to our high school kids.”
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