Profile: Coaching the boys of a Shelter Island summer

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Jon Karcich in rare relaxation mode from a hectic but fulfilling schedule managing the Shelter Island Bucks.

Jon Karcich in rare relaxation mode from a hectic but fulfilling schedule managing the Shelter Island Bucks.

Like Silver Queen corn, the Shelter Island Bucks are a sweet and fleeting part of a Shelter Island summer. For a couple of months, we get to enjoy baseball at its finest: crisp and accomplished, played by college athletes.

Of the 45,000 or so young men playing baseball at the college level, only a handful go on to play professional baseball. Shelter Island Bucks Manager Jon Karcich was one of the chosen few when he was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in 2009.

A talented shortstop with a family tradition of baseball, Jon was drafted after his junior year at Santa Clara University and spent four heady years getting paid to play baseball. He made it all the way to “Triple A,” the last stop before the big leagues, when an injury slowed him down. It was, he says, “ a good ride.”

Now Jon has brought that rare experience to the Island’s representative of the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League, where many players aspire to the major leagues. “I know what it takes to get there, so that grabs their attention,” he said.

Last summer, Jon coached the Matsu Miners in the Alaskan Baseball Summer League in Palmer, Alaska, about an hour north of Anchorage. When he arrived there in May to start the season, “there was still snow halfway up in the mountains.”

Since the fall of 2013, Jon has been assistant coach of the Chandler-Gilbert Community College Coyotes in Chandler, Arizona, the school that produced New York Mets outfielder Eric Young Jr. It was around this time that he heard from a former coach at Santa Clara, Shawn Epidendio, who had been coaching the North Fork Ospreys, and loving it. When it turned out the Bucks were looking for a coach, Epidendio put Jon in touch with the league and “it worked out, fortunately,” he said. “It’s been great so far.”

What sets Shelter Island apart for him is the welcoming community, especially his host family, Robert and Sonya Neis. “I have a beautiful host family. They are great people, friendly and supportive of the Bucks.”

Jon also credits Dave Gurney for being an outstanding general manager. “I go over to the field and it’s a good set-up … Dave Gurney handles things very well.”

He noted that the Bucks’ two-month schedule is short and sweet, with very little time for practice, so Jon maximizes the opportunity he has to help his players by showing up for “early work” around noon each day before a game. “I put it in pretty blunt form, I say, ‘I’m there for you, but ultimately it’s your career.’”

The first few weeks of the season, Jon tried to give playing time to all as he sized up his players. “It’s about finding the team’s identity, so I get a good grasp of who belongs where,” he said. “There’s a core group of guys who will play more than others. Usually if the players improve, the team ends up winning.

Jon believes in getting players out of their comfort zones to try new things. He may suggest that a player try a new batting stance or change his grip on the ball. “On the field, I like to be aggressive in our actions, whether it is an aggressive mistake or we are successful,” he said.

The generosity of the host families and local restaurants who house and feed the team, as well as the enthusiastic turnout for home games is the foundation of a good season in Jon’s opinion. “The community is unbelievable,” he said.

As he sees it, part of his job is to make sure the team gives back a measure of the support they enjoy. On July 2 and 3 the Bucks held two free kids’ camp clinics, open to ages seven and up. “Thirty kids each day showed up — a great turnout,” he said.

Jon Karcich’s results with the Bucks are good. The season has been solid, with the team at .500 and about two games out of first place. “We are right there … in a good position,” he said. “The team that’s playing the best when the playoffs start at the end of July, that’s usually the team that takes off and makes a run at it.”

Jon also has a long term goal of his own: to manage a Division I college team. In the meantime, with discipline, talent and a strong feeling for the community, he has helped make the Bucks a sweet part of this too-short Shelter Island summer.