It was a proud moment for Pacifica native Mike Hughes when pitcher Matt Manning made his major league debut for the Detroit Tigers Thursday night.

Manning is the last of a dying breed, a big-league caliber player cut from the ranks of the Joe DiMaggio Baseball League summer circuit. Manning, a native of Elk Grove, played for Hughes at Sheldon High School, and played for his son Doug with the River City Outlaws Joe D team.

Prior to the emergence of for-profit summer travel ball teams, Joe DiMaggio League was where the players honed their skills to prepare for the dreamlife of collegiate and professional baseball. Tony Gwynn, Keith Hernandez and C.C. Sabathia all played Joe D baseball during their high school years.

“I don’t care what team you played for, they had more than one guy,” Hughes said. “They had pitching … they had guys that would go on to be top guys and get drafted. And that’s just the way the league was.”

Things started changing in a hurry through the 2000s. Now, after not operating in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, Joe D League will be nonexistent for the second straight summer. The six-man board of directors last month voted unanimously to forego its season.

San Bruno Joe D general manager Lee Graf was adamant the league will return in 2022, however.

“We’re going to come back stronger,” Graf said. “In fact, in the Santa Rosa, Napa-Sonoma area, there’s a very strong interest.”

In 2019, Joe D operated 19 teams composing three divisions: the Peninsula League, the San Francisco League and the North Bay League. Hughes said the North Bay League in which his son Doug’s River City Outlaws play was anticipated expanding from six to seven teams.

But when problems arose in the Peninsula League — due to the varsity high school schedule when the Central Coast Section gave the go-ahead to hold its playoffs in June — the entire Joe D League had to suspend its season in an attempt to keep the league together.

“We could have had our own league up here … but we didn’t want to cut off the head of our snake,” Hughes said. “What I mean by that, the Peninsula has always been our strength … so, we didn’t want to do that.”

The CCS playoffs conclude Saturday. Had the Joe D League played this summer, this weekend would mark the second week of its regular-season schedule. One of the mainstays of the Peninsula League is San Bruno Joe D. While South City and Pacifica were having difficulties lining up coaching staffs, San Bruno had its hierarchy in place, from Graf as GM to field manager Tony Rohatch.

However, San Bruno’s roster has long been comprised of mostly Capuchino players. So, when it was clear from the outset of the Peninsula Athletic League varsity season Cap was going to contend for a CCS playoff spot, it took a bite out of the signups for San Bruno Joe D.

“We had a schedule, we had the umpires, I had the field reserved down here,” Graf said. “Everything was a go … but then, CCS … when they changed that, it was impossible. … You didn’t know if your team was going to play or not. So, it was impossible to put together a schedule in four weeks.

CCS was the straw that broke the 2021 Joe D season’s back, according to Hughes.

“Again, we had that thrown at us in the last minute,” Hughes said. “In all honestly, we didn’t know who was going to be in the (high school) playoffs, we didn’t know how long that was going to last. And then again, with the coronavirus … we didn’t know if we were going to be able to get fields.”

At least two Peninsula League teams — San Bruno and Millbrae — will field teams this year, but they will play independently. With the annual Fourth of July Invitational tournament in Yountville set to be played next month, the two squads will join the San Francisco Cardinals, the Napa Crushers, the Napa Acorns, the Sonoma Stack, and Cardinal Newman in the seven-team, round-robin tournament July 1-4 at the Veterans Home of California, Yountville.

Graf said after Capuchino was eliminated for the CCS playoffs last Saturday in the opening round of the Division II tournament, the signup list for San Bruno Joe D spiked to 27 players.

“They’re all local kids,” Graf said. “So, the interest is definitely there. I’m excited about it. For the first time in a long time, I’m excited about it.”

The blueprint of the league will be vastly different than the glory days of Joe D baseball thriving as a statewide enterprise. In 2019, the league made the excruciating decision to allow for players to enroll in Joe D while concurrently playing travel baseball. Joe D had previously abided by a longstanding rule its players could only play for the one league.

Joe D even restructured its schedule to allow for players to play travel ball on the weekends, streamlining its game days to midweek play only, forgoing a Saturday doubleheader tradition that had gone back generations.

Graf said the league plans to implement the same Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday game schedule in 2022 and that the league will certainly return next summer for its 54th season.

“And I think we’ll be better off for it,” Graf said. “There’s quite a niche there. There’s quite a lot of players that don’t have anywhere to play.”

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