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The Echo
Taylor University, Upland, IN
Tuesday, April 16, 2024
The Echo

WCABL brings big-game players to small-town baseball

The league has a distinct, classic feel

A ground ball is hit out between second and third, scooped up by the shortstop, zipped across the diamond and thumps into the first baseman’s outstretched mitt just in time to nab the runner.  

Game over. A player’s final college game is drawn to a close. What now? 

While many kids across America grew up playing Little League baseball, some of whom progressed to high school and eventually college, very few have ever had the opportunity to play professionally.

In southeast Pennsylvania, a town called West Chester has been home to competitive baseball for nearly seven decades.   

The West Chester Adult Baseball League (WCABL) is a wood-bat men’s league that has been in existence since 1956 and attracts high school, college and even pro talent. 

“League dues vary from season to season, but all in all the cost is roughly $5,000 per team,” Jeff Wisnewski, 46-year-old team owner and player-coach, said. Jeff Wisnewski is the father of writer Stephen Wisnewski.

In the past 15 years, several retired major leaguers as well as current and former minor leaguers have graced the league. 

Ryan Vogelsong pitched for seven seasons between 2000 and 2006 with the San Francisco Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates. Between 2007 and 2010 he took a hiatus from the MLB and spent some of his time playing in the WCABL. 

In 2011 he returned to the MLB and notched his first career All-Star appearance sporting a 2.71 ERA, and 13 wins by the end of the season. In that same year, he won a World Series with the Giants.

This level of talent is an outlier, but certainly far from unheard of for the WCABL.

Joey Wendle, a utility infielder for the New York Mets, spent time playing in the WCABL while attending West Chester University, a school just a few minutes drive from the league’s home field, Hoopes Park.  

When Wendle played in the WCABL, he primarily played third base. 

Wisnewski, a former player at Messiah University (then Messiah College), played alongside Wendle in 2009. 

“I was the fourth outfielder and played some third,” Wisnewski said. “Wendle played mostly third. Our infield was so stacked our shortstop (Matt Helm) played for Marshall University. The former hit leader for West Chester (University) was at second. He won DII’s best glove one year.”

Wisnewski started a handful of games but wanted to see more action. 

“I asked for my release and then two years later led the league in doubles,” Wisnewski said. 

He now ranks second all-time for single-season doubles in the WCABL.  

A few decades ago, metal bats were permitted in the league, and the offensive stats were more impressive as a result. 

Wisnewski has also been a baseball coach for 20 years and has had former players from his high school teams play in the league. 

One notable former player is Jeremiah Chow, who currently plays at Houghton University. 

To stay fresh for the spring season, Chow plays in the WCABL over the summer to get experience against higher-level competition.

“Playing in the WCABL has been good to sharpen my skills over the summer with a wide range of pitching talent whether it be high-level high school, current college or former college pitchers,” Chow said. 

“When I first joined the league, I was right out of high school, and the pitching was a big jump for me; as I got used to the higher level pitching, it has helped me prepare for college pitching.”

The WCABL has seen some dominant pitchers make brief stints.  

When Minor League Baseball was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, reliever Matt Swarmer played in the WCABL. At one point in time, Swarmer had the highest-rated slider in the Chicago Cubs minor league organization. The year after playing in the WCABL, Swarmer made his major-league debut with the Chicago Cubs. 

Chow recalled getting blown away by some of those pitchers during his first year in the league. 

“I was hitting seventh and knew that the pitcher was really good, so I thought I was surely getting a fastball,” Chow said. “I saw one, so I swung, but the pitch ended up at my shoes, and I realized it was a slider. I’ve never seen a ball come out of the pitcher’s hand like that.” 

The pitcher that Chow whiffed against was Braeden Fausnaught. 

Fausnaught is a 235-pound lefty who can pump it in the mid-90s. Multiple MLB scouts showed up to watch Fausnaught throw in his one appearance in the WCABL last season. He was drafted later in the week by the Philadelphia Phillies and is now working his way up the farm system.

Rising star Tague Davis watched the matchup between Fausnaught and Chow firsthand.  

Davis, who was only 16 at the time, is the son of MLB catcher and former number two overall draft pick, Ben Davis.

“Tague hit two absolute bombs off of Fausnaught,” Chow said. “Tague is one of the most talented and one of the most humble athletes I’ve met. That kid is definitely going places, and it’ll be interesting to see how far he goes.” 

Wisnewski recounted Davis hitting his first home run of the game off Fausnaught and the second off another pitcher. Regardless, the second pitcher was also throwing upwards of 90 mph.

Connor Barthmaier, a former player at Alvernia University, has enjoyed having Joe Nichols on his team.

Nichols was a catcher for the Lancaster Barnstormers and played in the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball with MLB Hall-of-Famer Rickey Henderson.

“One time he thought he popped out, but the ball just carried over the fence,” Barthmaier said. 

When Nichols rounded the bases and collected his bat to return to the dugout, he noticed he had splintered it on the swing. 

“Joe Nichols is a beast, one of the strongest players I’ve played with,” Chow said. “It’s really cool to get to play with a former pro baseball player.

As competitive as the gameplay can be, players are almost always messing around with each other. The atmosphere is relaxed in all the ways baseball ought to be.  

Comically bad umpiring is something that can occur at any level, and the WCABL is no exception.

With recurring umpires officiating games, players develop relationships with them and learn their zones. Each umpire calls balls and strikes differently, so there’s always an adjustment period between games.

“You get to know who is good and who is not so good,” Wisnewski said.

Other players in the league are not so gracious with their assessments of the officiating.

“It’s really atrocious,” Barthmaier said. “I was up to bat and called for time to smooth out the divots in the batter’s box and the umpire said, ‘no get in the box we don’t have all day.’” 

What feels like more than just occasionally, umpires have made some egregious calls that have led to ejections.

“The fact that Joe didn’t get ejected last year was a surprise,” Wisnewski said. “He’s usually good for one a year. We had team funds go toward paying off his suspension two years ago.” 

Smashed helmets and thrown bats are constantly symptoms of bad calls and player frustrations.  

But that’s how the game goes. That’s what makes it so special. 

Year after year, new players pour into the WCABL and veterans return. Whether they stay for part of a season, many years or just one game, their presence has an impact on the league. 

With all the good and the bad that comes along with a wide range of ages, talent and sporadic strike zones, the WCABL has been a staple of the West Chester community and the greater Philadelphia area and will continue to be for future generations.