The spring of 2021 was running its course and summer was just over the horizon, but Hugh Pinkney hadn’t played competitive baseball since the fall. It was time to take control of his immediate baseball destiny.
“I couldn’t be sure there would be a baseball season (in Canada) this summer and I knew I had to play,” said Pinkney, who had committed to Rutgers in July of 2020. “We had a shortened summer season in 2020 because of COVID and I didn’t want that to happen again. I was working my tail off and knew this summer was going to be important for me. I needed to play against top level competition.”
New COVID restrictions in Canada had preempted all games to at least early July.
The Toronto resident heard some of his peers were heading to the U.S. to connect with travel teams for the summer. “I reached out to my Rutgers coaches for advice on what to do,” said Pinkney. “That led me to travel teams in New Jersey and they connected me with the Diamond Jacks.”
The final hurdle for Pinkney was getting approval from mom and dad for his international summer baseball excursion. “It took a little convincing, but my parents have been so supportive along the way. The rest is history.”
That history certainly proved beneficial to both Pinkney and the Diamond Jacks Super 17U team as the lefty-hitting catcher didn’t need much time to shake off the competitive rust.
“Hugh’s just a great kid,” said Kevin Cust, the Diamond Jacks Super 17U coach. “We had a lot of catchers and had to mix him in. He had a great attitude about it. It’s hard to come into a really good team that has been together for a long time. But he fit right in and truly became an important part of the team.”
Indeed, Pinkney batted a team-high .451 (32-for-71) and was among the team leaders in RBI with 22 for a team that would conclude it’s summer at 33-13-2 against top competition. He lashed out 11 doubles, a triple and a home run.
“Hugh didn’t take long to get hot,” said Cust. “He was really big in the clutch for us. He batted .564 with runners in scoring position and 15 of his RBI came with two outs. That showed me a lot. It’s easy to drive in runs with less than two outs. It gets a lot harder with two outs. Hugh really had some big at bats. That’s really impressive for someone who hadn’t played in the fall.”
The baseball rollercoaster ride began for Pinkney in March of 2020 when COVID hit the continent.
“I was in Florida with my travel team during spring break,” he said. “COVID shut us down and we had to take a 24-hour bus ride home. The whole world was closing down.”
Once home in Toronto, Pinkney took advantage of the down time to focus on his college future.
“I decided this would be a good time to send emails to some schools,” said Pinkney. “I sent 30 emails out that day.” One of those emails went to Rutgers assistant coach Brendan Monaghan. “I told him I was very interested in Rutgers. That very afternoon Monaghan reached out to Pinkney by phone.
“We kept in contact over the quarantine and I sent them videos of me hitting and catching,” said Pinkney. “I would sneak out during the quarantine and hop a fence at a local field to get some practice in.”
By early July, 2020, Pinkney had verbally committed to Rutgers and he signed on the dotted line last month. “I chose Rutgers because of its academic reputation, strong coaching staff and excellent competition in the Big Ten,” he said.
Pinkney comes to Rutgers as an excellent three-sport athlete, having also played quarterback in football and is the captain of the Silverthorn Collegiate Institute basketball team.
“Hugh is one of the top players in Canada at his position and continues to develop,” said Rutgers head coach Steve Owens in a release on signing day. “He is a very good left-handed hitting catcher with soft hands and plus arm strength. In addition, he is also athletic enough to also play corner outfield.”
That instant connection to Rutgers would factor greatly in Pinkney’s 2021 summer in the Garden State, where he and, alternately, his mom and dad, took up temporary residence in a hotel in Branchburg. “Mom came down with me to New Jersey in mid-June and stayed until my birthday on July 11. Then mom went home and my dad came down until August.”
Pinkney is not some neophyte ball player on a summer camp excursion. He is a talented enough athlete to earn an invite this past fall to the Canadian Junior National Team. Still, there was sure to be an adjustment playing ball in another country with a new team over the summer.
“I came down not knowing what to expect,” said Pinkney. “I was welcomed by friendly coaches who helped me get acquainted with the team. My teammates were great people and I had no problem settling in. I was comfortable right away. If I was uncomfortable, I don’t know how successful I would have been.”
Pinkney admitted he struggled a bit in his first tournament with the Diamond Jacks as he was facing “really good pitching” for the first time in a long time. “By the end of the first tournament, I was getting my feel back,” he said. “Then we went to Georgia and I don’t think I’ve hit better in a tournament.” He hit .550 in Georgia to set the wheels in motion for a huge summer at the plate.
When the Super 17U squad returned home for a tournament at Diamond Nation, Pinkney got to meet the Rutgers coaching staff. “I got one of my official visits in and met coaches Owens, Monaghan and (Kyle) Pettoruto. It was great playing at Diamond Nation and always being seen by the Rutgers staff.”
The Super 17U’s next tournament was in Staten Island where Pinkney erupted for a .714 average. “Everything was going great and the hard work was paying off,” said Pinkney. “I had high expectations of myself and knew I could do that well once I got my confidence in line. Being comfortable with my teammates and coaches allowed me to play to the best of my abilities.”
Sports in Canadian high schools is a quite different animal than in the United States. Club ball is king while competition in high school seems less important.
“There is high school baseball in Canada but it’s not the focus,” says Pinkney. “The focus is your spring team and the Canadian Premier Baseball League, which is a loop of teams across Ontario.”
Pinkney, however, says it’s harder to get recruited in Canada. “There are no facilities like Diamond Nation where there are 100 colleges watching you,” he says. “We have diamonds but no complexes like Diamond Nation, which is nothing like I’ve seen before. There is no better place to play than Diamond Nation. Coaches eyeballs are on you all the time.”
Pinkney’s overall high school experience is a bit different than most student-athletes in America. His high school permits an adjusted schedule to accommodate the needs of athletes.
“I train everyday for two hours before school, lifting, catching, hitting,” Pinkney said. “Then I go to school 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. It’s a normal school but it caters to all types of athletes like hockey players, gymnasts, swimmers. That’s been my schedule since seventh grade.”
Pinkney trains at Pro Teach High Performance Training Center and former Major League catcher Greg O’Halleran schools him on the fine arts of catching. “Pro Teach also has a performance lab and cameras to study my swing,” said Pinkney.
Pinkney was coached by his dad during his earliest youth ball days and found himself behind the plate primarily because his dad had no one else to turn to.
“I was a shortstop,” said Pinkney. “We really didn’t have a catcher, so dad stuck me back there. I loved it. I always had great hand-eye coordination, so it was a perfect fit. Then I started going to catchers classes. I’ve been working with coach O’Halloran since I was 10.
Pinkney got the invite to the Canadian Junior National Team in October and traveled to Florida for the team’s camp. “I’m going back to Florida with the team in March,” he said. “We have games scheduled against minor league teams from the Blue Jays, Phillies and Yankees organization. We got a little taste of that in the fall when we played at TD Bank Park, the Jays spring training facility.”
The Canadian Junior National Team roster will be trimmed to 20 players as the team prepares for the World Championships in September.
Cust remembers an at bat the 6-2, 185-pound Pinkney had against FTB Tucci, a prominent national team out of Florida, that he says defined his season.
“Kyle McCoy was shutting them down and Hugh came up with the bases loaded and two outs in a 1-1 game,” said Cust. “He got the count to 3-2 and he kept fouling balls off. Then he ripped a two-run single up the middle to give us a two-run lead. That was an important at bat for a 17 year-old. And he had at bats like that the rest of the summer. To miss two seasons of high school ball and jump in with us like he did and not miss a beat is something. Rutgers is getting a good one. He has a body for pro ball. He will fill out and he’ll have even more pop.”
Pinkney won’t soon forget his two-month stint with his Diamond Jack Super 17U teammates. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “It was top notch. I definitely got that family feel. I’ll cherish last summer forever.”
Did you know: Pinkney’s father, Colin, played rugby and his mom, Charlene, competed in swimming and water polo. He has a younger sister, Aoife. His great uncle, Bob Pinkney, played professional football for the Ottawa Rough Riders of the Canadian Football League in 1955 and ‘57. … Greg O’Halloran, a catcher, had a cup of coffee with the Marlins in 1994.