Possibilities Abound as Manhattan Baseball Eyes VCP Return

by, Caroline McCarthy & Pete Janny, Asst. Features Editor & Sports Editor

With the spring season quickly approaching, Manhattan baseball’s long-awaited return to Van Cortlandt Park is on the horizon.

A positive COVID test from one of their team members pushed back opening day, which was originally scheduled for March 20, to a later date. This sets back the already long-awaited return to VCP, which the Jaspers have been waiting for since 2014.

It’s been a long time coming to bring Manhattan baseball back to VCP, after moving to Dutchess Stadium in Dutchess County, New York due to field conditions that were insufficient for NCAA standards.

The Dutchess Stadium field has been maintained while serving as the home base for the Hudson Valley Renegades, a minor-league baseball team that was founded in 1994. This made it a sufficient playing field for the Jaspers.

Still, the commute to Dutchess Stadium for six consecutive seasons took a toll on the team. The drive from campus to the stadium was 1 hour and 15 minutes.

For the sake of the longterm future of the program, it looked like a gamble to be playing home games that far away and at the same time recruit players who would want to sign up for such a commitment.

From 2016 to 2019, Manhattan managed to have a player sign a Major League Baseball contract in each of those years despite not having a legitimate home field. Moving for ward, they may be able to produce more professional talent if the transition back to VCP is a successful one.

There was also the history of a home field advantage rooted at VCP, most evident from their 10-year run from 2005- 2014. In that span, the Jaspers had 130 wins to only 34 losses in games at VCP, helping propel them to three MAAC Championships and as many NCAA Tournament appearances. The 2006 team will forever be remembered for advancing to the Regional Final after upset wins over Nebraska and San Francisco, the former of which came in front of a packed stadium in Omaha when the Jaspers beat a Cornhuskers team led by former Yankee Joba Chamberlain.

Shortly after Marianne Reilly was hired as athletic director in March 2016, she voiced her intentions for bringing Manhattan baseball back to VCP, touting the plan as one of her main goals during her tenure.

“We’re thrilled to be able to bring our baseball team back to our backyard in Van Cortlandt Park,” said Brennan O’Donnell, president of Manhattan College, according to an article on the Go Jaspers website announcing the program’s return.

“We are grateful to be able to work with Iris Rodriguez-Rosa and her team in the Parks Department to make this a reality. I’m also grateful to our team, including Marianne Reilly, Mike Cole and Rob Walsh, for their hard work and determination in giving our team a true home field.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the 2020 season was supposed to be a special one for the Jaspers with the program back in its natural habitat. Yet, even though the weight of the pandemic was not predicted as the 2020 season approached, the school experienced troubles in getting the field ready on time.

Last year’s home opener was slated for March 7 against Albany, but the field was still not ready due to frequent rainfall that left it in even worse condition. As a result, the Jaspers played that first home series against Albany at City Park in New Rochelle.

Before long, though, none of that mattered as COVID-19 wiped out the rest of the season and further delayed the program’s resettlement at VCP.

The lead-up to this season has been full of hard work in getting the field in game condition.

Field improvements have been made to the baseball field at Van Cortlandt Park since the beginning of 2020. After six seasons away, the Jaspers return this season to play their homes at the park. ROB WALSH/COURTESY

Deputy Athletic Director Tony Vecchione calls the recent renovations to VCP “spring cleaning,” following the major renovations that were done in the lead-up to the short-lived 2020 season.

Prior field renovations included sodding the infield and the spaces in front of the dugouts, grading the outfield and lastly replacing fencing for the dugouts, backstop and outfield. The Jaspers also welcomed the installation of a new scoreboard, windscreens, fence caps, dugout benches and dugout canopy tops. These renovations were completed to fit NCAA standards.

“Everything was ready to go and then we were shut down [for COVID-19],” Vecchione said. “This year we still have all those renovations in place but we had to go in and get the field Division One baseball ready.”

The most challenging renovation to the park was the removal of trees on the field. The college worked alongside the New York City Parks Department to gain permission for their removal.

“They do it for good reasons,” Vecchione said. “And there’s a phase of approvals you have to go through in order to trim a tree plan with the New York City Parks.”

Manhattan College went through these approvals and removed the necessary trees without much pushback from the community. Other renovations will require annual maintenance, such as the sodding of the field and dugout areas.

“I think they go more on safety than they do on telling you what type of surface you have to have, but you have to make sure that the surface is safe,” Vecchione said. “The NCAA rules just basically work with dimensions.”

The 2021 season will be played on a traditional grass and sand field, though fundraising efforts are in place to add turf at a later date. This renovation will help solidify VCP as Manhattan baseball’s permanent home.

“The long term project depends on how quick we raise the money,” said Vecchione. “Then after you raise the money, it could take anywhere from about a year to go through the design permit, the approvals and then the actual build.”

Manhattan College is aggressively working on raising funds to launch the next phases of the project. Due to COVID-19, most of the efforts are being done behind the scenes through alums and the advancement office. In order to get the field playable, the school has had to pull from their own budget in the meantime.

Manhattan College’s permit in VCP holds a limit to the number of people allowed at the field at one time, in accordance with CDC guidelines. Because of this, only the home team, visiting team and staff will be in attendance and there will be no in-person fans for at least the beginning of the season. This permit is subject to change as COVID restrictions ease or become stricter in New York City and NYS.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced fans will be allowed at a limited capacity at Yankees and Mets games this season. And as it stands, come April 1 outdoor venues holding upwards of 2500 people may open at 20 percent capacity, while indoor venues holding above 1500, but below 2500, will start at 10 percent capacity.

Vecchione confirmed that Manhattan College is abiding by the rules of the state regarding in-person fans and sees potential for the 2021 season.

“There is potential [to have in person fans this season] but right now, we do not have that confirmed and really don’t know when,” said Vecchione. “You never know come April, all of a sudden it could change.”