Mark Andrews knew he had to think outside of the box when he was asked by the Wheeler administration to host some sort of virtual practice with his baseball team after the Coronavirus pandemic put an abrupt end to the season before it even was in full effect.
Andrews, Wheeler’s head baseball coach, thought long and hard about what he could do to stay connected with his young team and keep them engaged – especially knowing the next time he would see his players on a field would be almost a year later at the start of the 2021 season.
“I knew I had to get creative,” said Andrews, who has coached baseball in a variety of capacities in Rhode Island from youth to high school and everything in between for decades. “I didn’t want to hit in my kitchen and have my players watch and then go out in their backyard and hit off of a tee. I didn’t want to have everyone get on their phones and go out and run a mile together. And I definitely didn’t want to be the one talking to them for an hour. That all just seems so boring.”
So Andrews, 45, created a virtual speaker series. He scrolled through his contacts and reached out to college coaches, professionals and others involved in baseball at various levels. All had ties to Rhode Island. All jumped at the chance to address Andrews’ team.
The speaker series is held twice a week using a Zoom platform. Prior to each Zoom call, Andrews sends the guest speaker’s bio to his players.
“They have to do their homework and know a little about each speaker,” said Andrews.
Andrews asks that each player wear some sort of gear to represent Wheeler on the call, a Warrior branded baseball hat or shirt. Andrews and his players typically choose a Zoom background with the team logo the guest is affiliated with. Questions are allowed at the conclusion.
While attendance isn’t mandatory, it has been well-received.
“It’s voluntary, but all the players have been showing up,” said Andrews.
The list of guest speakers is impressive. New York Yankees’ Mike King, Toronto Blue Jays’ Tom Pannone and minor leaguer Rob Henry – who all played together at Hendricken – have been among the guests joining Andrews’ Zoom “practices.”
Everyone shares a different story.
“Mike talked about what it was like being with the Yankees. Rob talked about what it’s like in minor league ball.
And Rob talked about how he didn’t get any Division I offers out of high school, but killed it at a Showcase and Brown was there and offered.”
Pannone, King and Henry also once played together on a RI Tides AAU team formerly coached by Anrdrews. Pannone opened up the Zoom call by sharing a story about that experience so many years ago.
“Pannone told the story of how they all played together. Pannone, King and Henry. We didn’t have a catcher and Mike King volunteered,” said Andrews. “He said he was a catcher once in Little League. He ended up being our catcher all season.
He never even pitched for us. Now he’s pitching for the New York Yankees. Crazy. When Mike came on as our guest speaker, I made sure I had Yankee Stadium up as my Zoom background.”
Brian Beneduce, a motivational speaker who focuses on anxiety management, kicked off the speaker series at the start of May. Additional guests include Idris Liasu, who runs a college development program and is also an Associate Scout for the Los Angeles Angels and Ben Alexio, a former second team All-Stater who led Wheeler to the 2017 Division 3 Championship.
“I loved being part of the championship team. Winning was an amazing experience.,” said Alexio.
Alexio, now a junior at Babson, discussed the transition from high school to college ball and shared how he was handling the current quarantine.
“In high school you might have two or three pitchers in the rotation. There’s a lot more in the rotation in college. You may not pitch as much in college as in high school, but you always have to stay ready. You need to always be ready.”
While he certainly was disappointed his senior season was cancelled, Wheeler’s Henry Stanton has enjoyed the speaker series.
“It definitely sucks that the season was cancelled, but this has been a cool alternative,” said Stanton, who is headed to UCONN. “It’s been good to hear different coaching philosophies, learn from the professionals and hear about their routines and how they got to the pros.”
Stanton said he didn’t have a favorite among the guest speakers, but did note that Beneduce’s message was impactful.
“He introduced us to mental health and how it impacts not just baseball, but life,” said Stanton. “It was very interesting. I learned a lot from him.”(Watch Brian’s show on Anxiety and coping with COVID-19)
Former CCRI baseball and current Cranston Mayoral candidate Ken Hopkins will wrap up the speaker series next week.
“So many coaches and players have contacted me wanting to be part of the speaker series. We only go until the end of May. I don’t have enough spots left for everyone who wants to come on. I just can’t fit them in. I didn’t know it was going to be this popular,” said Andrews. “I may have to do this again next season, even when the Coronavirus is over.”