Inside the ‘gritty’ do-it-yourself league that kept Ben Rice on the Yankees’ radar

When COVID-19 shut the world down in the spring of 2020, Tommy Seidl and Buddy Mrowka took matters into their own hands.

The global pandemic had postponed the Ivy League season, but the two Harvard ballplayers wanted to keep their skills sharp. That’s when Mrowka’s father, Pete, a longtime agent, suggested that they start rounding up like-minded players in New England.

“Honestly, it was his idea to start,” the younger Mrowka told the New York Daily News. “We hadn’t really done anything like this before, obviously, so it took some time for us to all wrap our heads around it.”

Added Seidl: “We just wanted to keep playing in the spring of 2020, so we started reaching out to all the guys that we knew in the area.”

One of those guys happened to be Ben Rice.

The 25-year-old is now playing first base for the New York Yankees and in the early stages of his big league career. Back then, the Cohasset, Mass., native caught for Dartmouth. Rice, who has known the Mrowkas since childhood, also sought competition after totaling just 30 games and 110 plate appearances at the collegiate level from 2019-2020.

Rice brought a bunch of other Big Green players into the mix, though he downplayed his role in the organizing efforts.

“Those two guys really spearheaded it, and Pete helped a lot too,” Rice told The News of Mrowka and Seidl. “I was kind of like a third guy steering the ship a little bit.”

As the trio recruited more players, they began to call their do-it-yourself operation the New England Grit Baseball League. The name played off of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, which canceled its summer season in 2020.

“We sort of embodied grit, toughness, dealing with adversity on the field, off the field, in the classroom, everywhere else,” Mrowka said. “So it was sort of a gritty setup.”

Initially, Seidl said the NEGBL better resembled “backyard baseball.”

With just a handful of players, the group rented fields at the New England Baseball Complex in Northborough, Mass. There, they took live batting practice and did other baseball activities in the spring of 2020.

“It’d be freezing out in March and April and we’d go out and we’d run a full workout,” Rice said. “We’d have some pitchers who were able to throw some live BP that day. I’d hit fungos. We’d do infield-outfield. I’d throw BP. Other guys would throw BP. It was a bunch of Ivy League players and some independent ballplayers.”

By the fall, word of the NEGBL had spread. As more players joined the makeshift league, “we tried to make it as formal and as organized as possible,” Seidl said.

“I don’t know if we were keeping score or anything like that, but they were structured games,” Mrowka said. “It was pretty close to real baseball.”

The NEGBL kept spreadsheets so that hitters could track their at-bats and pitchers could monitor their workloads as scrimmages became possible. In addition to Ivy Leaguers, UMass players also participated. So did one-offs from other leagues and programs, including some affiliated and independent minor leaguers.

Eventually, scouts began showing up.

Seidl’s hitting coach, former major leaguer Chris Colabello, also lent a helping hand.

“Not only do we have players to hit and throw and get scrimmages together, not only did we have scouts to watch us, but we also had a former big leaguer who hit .321 talking through at-bats and stuff like that,” Seidl said. “Everything was just so high-level.”

Rice acted as a selling point, too. As a catcher, he attracted pitchers who were tired of throwing into nets. When it was his turn to hit, someone else would volunteer to catch in Rice’s borrowed gear.

Rice’s left-handed swing was also the primary reason scouts traveled to Northborough.

“I don’t think any of the scouts would have come if it wasn’t for Ben Rice,” Seidl said. “It’s no accident that he’s playing at Yankee Stadium right now. He’s one of the best hitters I’ve ever played with, and so just having him there would draw guys.

“He had the Yankees on his tail the whole time.”

Indeed, the Yankees watched Rice in the Futures Collegiate League in the summer of 2020. While earning the league’s MVP, he formed a bond with the Bombers’ northeast area scout, Matt Hyde, and vice president of domestic amateur scouting, Damon Oppenheimer.

The Yankees would go on to scout Rice in a men’s league, the Cape Cod League and, of course, the unofficial NEGBL.

“It was a lot of fun scouting him because it wasn’t the conventional means,” Hyde told The News while attending Rice’s major league debut on June 18. “Anybody was invited to come out and see [the NEGBL]. We were there more than anybody, though.”

Hyde added that Oppenheimer saw Rice “more than any other scouting director.” That was partly because Oppenheimer’s son played junior hockey in the area, but Rice confirmed that the Yankees “were always there.”

“It was just perfect timing,” the rookie said.

With the Ivy League season canceled in 2021, the NEGBL continued until that May. Because UMass had an official season, numbers started to dwindle. But a lot of players still needed at-bats before playing in summer leagues or delayed professional leagues, so games continued when possible.

Rice spent that summer playing in the Cape Cod League before the Yankees used a 12th-round pick on him. He didn’t do much over 13 games for the Cotuit Kettleers, but the Yankees had already seen enough.

Hyde called Rice “the star of the show” during NEGBL exhibitions, but other future prospects benefited from the improvised league. That includes Yankees pitcher Ben Shields, Nationals pitcher Jaren Zin, Blue Jays pitcher Alex Amalfi and Cardinals outfielder Kade Kretzschmar.

“It ended up being far more productive than we all thought going into it,” Mrowka said, making sure to credit his dad for the impactful idea. “It is kind of fun looking back at it and seeing all the great outcomes that a lot of different people had in college and the pros when it would have been easy to just kind of sulk in our bedrooms.”

As other NEGBL alumni work their way through the minors, Mrowka and Seidl are paying close attention to Rice in the majors.

Rice’s bat, which the Yankees are big believers in, has been quiet so far, producing a .231/.323/.231 slash line with zero extra-base hits over 10 games. Meanwhile, he’s held his own at a position that’s still new to him, though he botched a ground-ball in Thursday’s loss to Toronto.

Regardless of results, the fact that Rice went from limited Division I experience and pickup games to the majors in such a short amount of time is undoubtedly impressive.

Except to those who know him best.

“It sounds weird, but I’m not exactly surprised,” Mrowka said. “I’ve played with Ben since I was 13, and when I think of a professional baseball player, I think of consistency paired with talent. Ben was a late grower, but was always consistently good. He was a consistent performer. He was even professional when he wasn’t a professional.

“I don’t think we knew that he was going to get to the big leagues as soon as he has and do as well as he has, but from the amount of time that I’ve spent with him and knowing everything he puts into it and just seeing him be good day after day after day, I’m not totally surprised.”