NP grad Kuntz playing in revamped Northwoods League
As part of the safety protocol for the Northwoods League, Roman Kuntz had to undergo a test for the coronavirus.
Having a long cotton swab put into his sinus cavity will never be the New Prairie graduate's idea of fun, but it goes with the unknown territory that represents baseball in 2020.
"It's something I wouldn't want to do again," the Great Lakes Resorters outfielder said. "It wasn't too painful, but it was uncomfortable. Hopefully, it's a one-time thing."
After his freshman season at Lake Michigan College was limited to 11 games by COVID-19, Kuntz was set to play in the Ohio Valley League for the Muhlenberg Stallions this summer, but that collegiate league had its season cancelled in April.
"I was just staying in the loop, working out at home," Kuntz said.
Then, on June 11, Kuntz got a phone call from the Resorters, a newly-formed team created along with the Northern Michigan Dune Bears as the Northwood League reconfigured its divisions into pods to greatly reduce or even eliminate travel. The league features 22 teams across six states -- Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and North Dakota -- but none will cross borders during this campaign.
"My college coach (Derek Gribler) played in the league a year or two and he had a connection here," Kuntz said. "An assistant coach at a school we played in the fall got in contact with him and I was lucky enough to have this opportunity to come up. I'm really grateful to be here. Going to a junior college, I only have two years to get noticed by another scout, so after losing the season, this is big time for me. I just couldn't pass it up. It will help me a lot."
The Resorters, named after a professional team in Traverse City from 1910-15, are joined in the North Division by Northern Michigan and defending champion Traverse City. They will play a 38-game schedule at Turtle Creek Stadium over the next two months. The South Division features the Kalamazoo Growlers, Kalamazoo Mac Daddies and Battle Creek Bombers. The division winners meet in a three-game championship series Sept. 3-5.
"They got the idea from the United Shores League," Kuntz said. "They have four teams play in one stadium. They had to wait for the actual go-ahead when the (Michigan) stay at home order eased up so they couldn't get players lined up until the proposition actually went through. I found out two weeks before I came up here, so I basically packed up and went."
While Pit Spitters players are staying with host families, accommodations for the Great Lakes and Northern Michigan players were made at the Interlochen Center for the Arts. The academy typically hosts band camps during the summer, but with those cancelled, 40 log cabins are serving as housing for those teams. Players are on their own for breakfast, but lunch and dinner are catered through local restaurants.
"They try their best to replicate the (minor league) experience," Kuntz said.
The Great Lakes roster ranges in age from 18 to 24. Kuntz, 19, is vying for action in an outfield that includes players from Central Michigan, Missouri and Washington. While most of the team is from the Midwest, there are three who attend Washington and a pair from Gonzaga, one driving 30 hours to Michigan from Idaho.
"Our center fielder (Seth Halvorson) was drafted out of high school," Kuntz said. "Some of these guys have been in Division I, the SEC, for four years. The young guys, there's a lot to go through, there's no better person to have here for you. It's something where I came in with an open mind, to try to learn as many new things as I can."
The pandemic was about the only thing that could quiet the left-handed outfielder's bat at LMC. He started nine games and was leading the Red Hawks (7-4) in several hitting categories with nine RBI, 10 runs, 10 walks, two triples and their only home run.
"The most difficult thing is you play a four-game series, so if you do well, you're not going to see another fastball the rest of the series," Kuntz said. "It's not like high school where you play just once. You can't miss a fastball. You ought to be able to hit a fastball by now. We do a lot of work in practice taking breaking pitches off the curve ball machine."
Since his freshman season was cut short, Kuntz hopes the two months in Traverse City will put him in position to make a move to a Division I school in a year. He will retain two years of eligibility if he wants to use it.
"I wanted to go to JUCO the whole way. It was the best thing for me," Kuntz said. "It gives me two extra years to prove myself in the classroom and on the baseball field. It makes for a smoother transition and is a good way to prove to the scouts what I can do. I have two (more) years, but the goal of JUCO is to get in and get out. I love the program. If I was there for three, I'd be happy, but my plan is for two years and then play Division I. If I got drafted, that would be awesome, too."
Presuming the season goes on uninterrupted, Kuntz will head back to school in Benton Harbor after the schedule is complete.
"A lot of the guys have to leave in August," he said. "I'll miss the team moving back in at school, but not any classes."
Between now and then, Kuntz will learn the social dynamics of baseball in the COVID-19 era.
"The big thing they're really enforcing is wearing masks in the dugout," he said. "I have a mask with the team logo. You try to limit high fives. They've got sanitizing dispensers in the dugout. They gave us a packet of things to do to stay safe. We have temperature screenings every day. If anybody feels any symptoms, they get tested for it."
The league is in its 27th season, having sent over 230 players to the majors. Its most recent alum is Pete Alonso of the Mets. Given the circumstances, Northwoods Commissioner and President Gary Hoover is happy to see the season go on. Attendance is limited to 500 to meet social distancing guidelines.
“Striking a balance between their serious efforts to provide safe environments for fans, players and personnel, while they simultaneously convey some much-needed whimsy describes exactly what fans should expect to experience from these teams when they come to the Michigan ballparks this summer, ” Hoover said in a June 15 media release.
The Great Lakes Resorters were named for a
professional team that played in Traverse
City, Michigan from 1910-15.