Across the country, collegiate baseball programs continue to develop at a monstrous rate every year. By allocating money towards new facilities and technology, schools strive to give its players the best opportunities to grow and succeed. Not only does this aid in development and improving chances for professional careers, but it also positions the school to be more competitive in recruiting top tier talent to their programs.
Hillsborough Community College, a division 1 junior college in Tampa, Florida, is already ahead of the curve. With help from the most well-known and historic organization in all professional sports, the New York Yankees, the HCC Hawks have access to the best facilities any collegiate player could dream of.
For over thirty years, the Yankees have worked alongside HCC to give its players the best opportunity to develop by utilizing the George Steinbrenner Stadium and Himes Complex, home of the Single-A Affiliate Tampa Tarpons and Spring Training site for the Major League ballclub every year.
New York Yankees Facility
The Yankees facilities are located across the street from Raymond James Stadium, home of the Bucs and just 10 minutes from Downtown Tampa. Hillsborough CC neighbors up in between the two, on the same side of Dale Mabry Highway with George Steinbrenner Stadium and Community Field right next to the campus. The Hawks have full access to Community Field for practices and most of their games, with the opportunity to play 2 to 3 games in the stadium every season. At Community Field, the field is prepped and broken down by Yankees grounds crew everyday, with a complete pro level playing surface.
New at the entrance of Community, a locker room was constructed in the Fall with wooden locker and players names. Upstairs, the press box was renovated, and a coaches locker room was added with a window overlooking the field. The Yankees give HCC’s hitters and pitchers access to their own respective areas to get work in.
For hitters, a 4-cage indoor hitting facility, accompanied by highspeed pitching machines to practice hitting high pitch speeds, is available for the players’ use. For pitchers, a “5-pack” which is a set of 5 mounds in a covered bullpen under the stadium, offer plenty of space for all pitchers to get their work in quickly. Half a mile down the street, Yankees Himes Complex has 4 different fields that the Hawks use for practice. This also serves as the minor league complex where top Yankee prospects spend time playing and practicing as well. From practicing alongside big leaguers and prospects to pro-level playing surfaces, this opportunity is a special gift, yet requires a huge responsibility for the ones fortunate enough to have it.
A Leader in Recruiting and Development
Raydon Leaton, head coach for HCC, is aware of just how special of an opportunity it is and has a deep understanding of what it takes to maintain this relationship. “I don’t know what I’ve done in my life to deserve it, but I’m sure gonna take it. It’s been outstanding” expressed the Tulsa, Oklahoma, native in his 21st season as a head coach and 2nd at HCC. Leaton has a history of cultivating success for his players, both on and off the field. He spent his first 19 years as a coach at Northern Oklahoma College Enid where he played a hand in starting a baseball program that would go onto be a NJCAA Division II World Series champion in 2019. During his tenure, he has accumulated many coaches accolades – most recently, his 7ooth career win in January 2023. Off the field, his teams have held over a 3.0 GPA every year of his career.
Leaton is no stranger to success as he continues to settle his feet in the sand of HCC to be at the helm of building a strong program and further the relationship with the Yankees. It offers experiences in a new high-class facility with its own opportunities. He mentioned, “like this morning, I’m sitting in my office and I’m watching Aaron Judge and Anthony Rizzo take batting practice. That’s a cool amenity that not a lot of people have. And you know, I watch and learn trying to see what they’re doing, and put that into our program as well.” These opportunities to learn from the Yankees aren’t available unless the Hawks take pride and cultivate a good relationship with their professional host, and they’ve done just that.
“They’ve been really good to me and our program. And we’ve tried to reciprocate that.”- Raydon Leaton, HCC Head Coach
Raydon stressed the importance of taking pride in the tools and resources they have by setting a standard for his ballclub to leave everything, whether it be the Yankees’ or any opponent, better than they found it. With unique opportunities, different challenges may arise as well. When Spring Training is in session, HCC is forced to work their game and practice around the schedule of the Yankees because the big leaguers, rightfully so, have main priority. The Hawks usually have a long schedule of away trips to begin the season which can be draining and hard to build early momentum at times. Sometimes, they must move over to a different site at Himes Complex, the rookie ball site down the road from the their practice field at the stadium. However, the willingness to be flexible and working around these requirements results in great progress for the Yankees and Hawks alike. There really is no extreme con to this pro of a relationship according to Leaton: “At Himes, we’re out there practicing and the Yankees are playing on two different fields or scouts run around everywhere. It just takes one guy to see you and get your name on the radar. We have plenty of opportunity here for players to advance their career.”
When Stanton takes Cole deep on our Home Field 🤗 https://t.co/3SMnjFp9bT
— Hillsborough Communtity College Baseball (@HCCFL_Baseball) February 26, 2023
Over time, hard work and consistency at a high level will not go unnoticed. In just his second year at HCC and partnering with the Yankees, Leaton shared, “I think the Yankees saw that we’re going to take care of their facilities, we’re going to do what they ask us to do, and we’ll work hard to maintain the excellence that they have on from the grounds crew. I think they’ve just appreciated that right” said Leaton.
Results of consistency show up in another challenge the Hawks faced. In years prior, HCC players and coaches would get dressed in the parking lot when arriving to Steinbrenner Field since their locker room was back on HCC campus and shared with other men’s teams.
The Yankees noticed and didn’t forget. This past offseason, the Yankees organization renovated Steinbrenner Community Field’s pressbox, constructing a player locker room and coaches office for the Hawks to prepare and be onsite without commuting to and from the HCC campus. They now have a space to meet, relax, and share comradery. This was the realization that their work and respect is being seen. “I think they saw that as a sore eye a little bit and that we deserve better. But I also think they were waiting on the culture to get to where it is, so we would appreciate and maintain it the right way. I think we’ve done that. So they said let’s give them a locker room.” said Coach Leaton.
It helps the players of today and attracts the players of tomorrow. Being just 10 minutes from a beautiful downtown Tampa area, a short trip to the beach, and plenty of professional sports teams in the city like the Bucs and Lightning, Hillsborough Community College is attractive on its own. Adding to that, HCC has top of the line facilities in conjunction with the New York Yankees to offer potential athletes in the baseball program. Coach Leaton had big things to say about the facility overall:
“I think with surface and facility, nobody can compare to us junior college wise especially in the state of Florida”
With such a high concentration of talent in Florida alone, he mentioned during recruiting, “you just have to go in and find guys that are the right fit for you and fit the culture that you’re trying to maintain here at HCC.” The facility and program sell itself, however, Coach Leaton and his entire staff are constantly searching for ways to build, especially during recruiting. After the first need of a locker room, HCC set it eyes on another need: a batting cage for their players to get work in whenever they need to. Coming this offseason, the Yankees are constructing a “Hawks Only” batting cage next to Community Field that they can utilize with no stress. With players who take care of facilities like this, they can do just that.
Rainy days? No problem. Grateful for these cages and the ability to get better pic.twitter.com/51lso4mO5b
— Hillsborough Communtity College Baseball (@HCCFL_Baseball) August 25, 2022
A program can have the most beautiful facilities and pristine playing surface with the best location possible, but without the right players-with the right mindset- all of that is smoke and mirrors. In his first two years, coach Raydon Leaton has leaned on a handful of players to carry on the Hawk standard of the respect and responsibility it takes to cultivate a winning culture to recruit and develop players that benefit from the facilities that the Yankees offer.
“The best college facilities period. I mean, it’s the Yankees it doesn’t get much better than that.” -Quin Prosser RHP, HCC
Along with mentioning a great school in a great location, Hawks Sophomore pitcher Quinn Prosser had high praise for the Yankees when asked about what stood out most to him during his recruiting trip to HCC. Redshirt sophomore outfielder, Jake Griffith added, “It’s definitely a blessing having the best field that you don’t have to fix your own because it’s cared for by a crew that does it professionally.” These factors have the ability to attract talented players and contribute their development into high value recruits. Prosser is an emerging player for the Hawks with looks from top schools like LSU, USF, JU, and many others, along with Griffith accepting a full scholarship from 2019 D2 national champion, University of Tampa.
According to the players, even though it comes with its challenges, being able to use the facilities during spring training is still the most exciting time to be apart of the program. Griffith stamped it as “motivation” by getting to practice alongside his favorite team’s star players like Aaron Judge and Harrison Bader. Simply observing these players first hand offers learning tools that you will not find in any other program. “I can also take small things that they work on and drills they do to put into my routine and help further my game in return,” says Griffith. Another sophomore utility player Josean Sanchez, who racked up 60 hits as a freshman for the Hawks last year, attributes some of his success to this opportunity:
“Not everybody gets to experience being that close to watching baseball players at the best level work on their craft. When you just watch and learn from that, your game gets really good ,and it’s a blessing.”-Josean Sanchez UTL, HCC
Not only does Steinbrenner Field and its facilities attract praise and attention from HCC, but their rivals as well. Both Prosser and Griffith mentioned, “even our conference rivals say it’s just different” and “I talked to a bunch of friends that are on other conference teams and they’re always saying ‘Man, this fields way better than ours’ and how they wish they had what we have.” With the utilization of both indoor bullpens and hitting cages, the opportunity to get better is always available, and the challenge of a long road schedule to begin the season, as mentioned before, has since been improved from years prior.
Hillsborough Community College is in the Suncoast Conference, which previously included Florida Southwestern State College, a two-and-a-half hour drive for the team that they had to make multiple times during the beginning of the season due to spring training. However, this year the reconstructed conference relocated FSW, and now most of the Hawks’ road trips are only 30 to 45 minutes away making it more bearable as the season pushes on. Later in the season when they are slated with long stretches of home games, the Yankees allow HCC to play 3-4 games in the main stadium, Steinbrenner Field. Once again, though Hillsborough CC is faced with a few challenges while holding a great responsibility, they are rewarded time and time again for their consistency with the Yankees.
Sunny and 75 with some pregame meditation.
First pitch scheduled for 6pm 🏝 pic.twitter.com/eVZ3L79jAi
— Hillsborough Communtity College Baseball (@HCCFL_Baseball) April 20, 2022
Growing the Game
According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), casual participation in baseball increased by 22% in 2020. This was amid the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused the vast majority of youth baseball and softball leagues to shut down for the year. Since then, baseball and softball development initiatives have been led by MLB, designed to improve access and foster growth of diversity within the youth and amateur levels of the sport.
Initiatives like The DREAM Series, a showcase event focused on the dynamics of pitching and catching for a diverse group of high school elite athletes, are expanding the MLB’s reach and making baseball more accessible in diverse communities. Also, The Andre Dawson Classic, is a tournament launched in 2008 by MLB to highlight Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs) and their baseball programs. The MLB has even reached to the youngest generation possible through Fun At Bat, a joint initiative between MLB and USA Baseball that provides a free “Bat & Ball” program in P.E. curriculum in public schools around the world. But where is the development effort for college athletes at levels other than division 1? The New York Yankees have taken its own initiative to give back and grow the game right in its backyard. An organizational effort, down to the very player, is being felt from HCC.
Griffith noted from time to time getting to have one on one conversations with prospects in the facility. These are gems for players looking to grow and reach deeper into development than just watching may ever do. He says,” It’s awesome to have these conversations and getting their mindset on what they think and how we can implement different approaches into our game.” He believes HCC has a bright future ahead with the capability to recruit top players from around the country as this relationship grows. While the Yankees solve problems for HCC and the Hawks continue to respect the opportunity they have, this joint effort will surely serve as a blueprint for professional organizations and collegiate programs alike to develop for generations to come.
“They are going to go out of their way to help us. They didn’t have to give us a new clubhouse, a new coach’s office, or batting cage. It’s something that this relationship has been building for decades. And now it’s starting to come into play helping us flourish in our baseball careers.”- Jake Griffith OF, HCC