The coronavirus pandemic has landed plenty of blows around the nation and the hits keep coming.
The pandemic is, of course, most serious for those infected with the virus and their families, but the deeply affected also include the unemployed and the thousands of businesses shuttered.
In the world of amateur baseball, canceled college and high school seasons delivered an unkind and life-altering shot to the hearts of the 2020 senior class. For former Diamond Jack Matt Toke, it appeared his baseball career was taking its last steps.
“I experienced every sort of emotion possible when they canceled us,” said Toke, Seton Hall University’s first baseman and No. 3 hitter. “I was thinking my baseball career is basically over.”
Seton Hall played its last game of 2020 on March 11, a 13-3 victory over Fairleigh Dickinson, and the NCAA shut down the season a day later. That was awful news for Toke, a senior who needed a strong senior season to assure himself a spot in Major League Baseball’s 40-round draft.
Toke had certainly exhibited professional level play his first three years at Seton Hall as his lefty bat and tremendous defense at first base had him on the radar of professional scouts. Then Toke’s chances of extending his baseball career took another body blow soon after when Major League Baseball announced – in a cost-savings decision – it would reduce June’s First-Year Players Draft to five rounds.
Toke, a high school All-Stater out of Hunterdon Central, was batting .303 in his college career to that point with 21 doubles, 7 HR and 74 RBI. He also drew 70 walks and scored 61 runs while reaching base at a .404 clip. His sparkling defensive is evidenced in the fact he committed just three errors in his career at the very demanding position of first base.
Fairly quickly, however, the NCAA offered seniors relief in the form of an extra senior season. Senior ballplayers around the nation suddenly had an option to return for the 2020-’21 season.
“I had to weigh my options,” says Toke, a business major. “I had a couple job offers but nothing that would be worth me not going back to school and playing baseball.”
Especially considering the professional possibilities that lie beyond.
Toke had left his Three Bridges home at the early stages of the pandemic – his younger sister has an immune deficiency – and hunkered down in Toms River with his girlfriend. Exacerbating the danger to Toke’s family, Seton Hall had returned a week earlier from an early season trip to California.
In Toms River, Matt began a careful and considered decision that would certainly impact his life both immediately and long term. Also weighing on Toke’s mind was the fact that Seton Hall told him and the Pirates’ seven other seniors it would honor their scholarships if they chose to come back. An NCAA edict had left the scholarship question up to individual schools.
“I talked to my family and people I knew in the business world,” said Toke, who concluded his bachelor’s degree this month. “People told me it might not be the best time to be entering the workforce with the economy the way it is right now. And I knew I was basically getting grad school almost paid for. Putting all that in perspective made the choice easier.”
Toke finally told Seton Hall coach Rob Sheppard about two months after his season was shut down that he would see him on the field again in September.
“We have four seniors coming back,” said Sheppard, “Toke, Tyler Shedler-McAvoy, Connor Hood and Michael Esposito. For all of the seniors, it wasn’t as cut and dried as people thought. We told the guys to give themselves some time with the decision. I felt, over time, their true feelings would come out.”
Shedler-McAvoy, the Pirates’ leadoff hitter and center fielder, was batting .304 when the season was shut down. The Northern Highlands grad also was 7-for-7 in stolen base attempts. Hood, a second baseman batting in the middle of the order was at .305 with 10 RBI in 14 games. Esposito, an outfielder and Mendham grad had played in five games.
“Some guys had job offers,” said Sheppard. “And finances are always an issue. I think our school offering to extend their athletic scholarships has helped a lot of them make that decision, so has the current economy.”
Sheppard remained in direct contact with his seniors throughout the process.
“Coach Shep reached out, included us in team news and we had senior meetings,” said Toke. “He said it was entirely my decision. It had to come from me.”
Something fellow senior Hood said along the way struck a cord with Toke, too.
“Connor said if you go back to school you would, at worst, regret that decision for a year,” said Toke. “But if you don’t go back you will regret that decision for the rest of your life.”
So sure of his final decision, Toke said if he didn’t return he would even miss the well-documented rugged fall regimen Sheppard puts his charges through.
“I won’t regret anything about coming back,” Toke said.
Still lingering in the air, nonetheless, is the loss of what was a promising 2020 season that saw Seton Hall (6-8) defeat USC and fall in walk-off fashion to No. 20 Wake Forest. The Pirates were the pre-season favorite to win the Big East Conference championship.
“As a team, we have a lot of frustration about the loss of our season,” says Toke. “Our pitchers were doing really well and you could see a lot of good things coming together. We knew we had a special group. But good things are ahead. We’ll have almost the same team next year.”
Toke is taking two summer classes as he opens the quest for his MBA and hopes to, at the very least, come close to wrapping up that post-grad degree by next May.
“I’m trying to get it done in a year,” he says. “I’ll take winter classes, too, but it’s not the end of the world if I don’t finish by next May. I see this all as a blessing in disguise. I was talking to my coaches about it. More education can only be better.”
And more baseball for Matt Toke is even better than that.