My Journey Through Baseball
“I’m more entranced than the average fan…I used to play, you see, and I know I still can.” – Robert DeNiro in The Fan (1996)
Although you wouldn’t know it here in New York, today is the first day of spring. The reason you wouldn’t know it: because it snowed this morning and it feels as though winter is giving us one last jolt of cold to remember it by.
I woke up this morning and the first thought that came to my mind was, “Wow. I cannot believe that less than 24 hours ago I was wearing shorts and playing baseball.”
It was hard to believe, even though it happened. Yesterday I went to the park with my friends and we played baseball. It was such a nice day that we couldn’t pass up the chance to play our favorite game.
As we were playing catch and batting the ball around, we found ourselves remembering all the times we played organized baseball for the towns we lived in. We recalled what jersey numbers we had, the games we excelled in, and what it was like to play baseball in a coordinated environment.
I figured I would share a little bit of my journey through baseball, and sports in general; the years I played, the triumphs I enjoyed, the tragedies I endured, and how to this day I still love to go outside when the spring comes and play baseball with my friends.
Before I even started my baseball career, I played soccer and basketball – two sports that in this day and I age I do not particularly care for. When I was young I played soccer in the Peewee League. I scored one goal the whole time I played – and it was in a scrimmage.
To this day I’m not sure why I picked up soccer at such a young age. I suppose I needed to run around and drain away some of my pent-up energy, but other than that, I can’t think of a reason why I played it.
When I stopped playing soccer I started CYO Basketball. I played for four years and was on different intramural teams each season. The first year I played I was forced to sit out; I was on the bench the entire season with a broken wrist. It was the worst feeling in the world. I broke my wrist on the same day of my first ever basketball practice.
Ironically enough, my broken wrist had nothing to do with basketball. I fell off a bed.
The second year I played, my team was very good. We won every single game with the exception of one, nearly going undefeated for the season. The problem was, it was intramural CYO – there was no playoff system or trophy presentation at the end of the year. My team was the best, yet we had no concrete evidence to show for it.
I can remember the final year I played basketball, though I’d like to forget it. From being on the best team I went to the absolute worst team. The squad I was on was ridiculous; I have no problem admitting that. We lost every single game we played because most of the kids on the team were ball-hogs and had no clue how to play basketball. I think my ears still hurt from the amount of times the refs blew their whistles calling fouls on my team.
Come to think of it, my team lost a game that season by a score of 69-16. That’s how bad it was.
After that beating, I knew it was time to give up basketball and concentrate on the best sport in the world: baseball. In February of 1998 I signed up to play Rookie Ball – the level right below Little League.
A few days later my family got a call saying I was too old for Rookie League. I was already 10 years old and by the time the season began I would be 11, meaning if I wanted to play, I had to play Little League. They put me on a team and believe it or not, my team was the Yankees. In the town of Beacon where I played, each team was given the name of a Major League Team.
There were the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Giants, the Indians, the Dodgers…you get the idea. It was pretty cool. The uniforms were also great: we were given jerseys that boasted the logos of each team you were on. I was on the Yankees, and my uniform looked like this…
I was given number 19 to wear, which at the time was being worn by Luis Sojo. But looking back, some of the best Yankees have worn number 19. Dave Righetti, Robin Ventura, Al Leiter, and Aaron Boone (among others) have worn it; 19 is a pretty solid number in Yankee lore.
My team was coming off a strong season; in fact, the year before they had won the town’s Little League Championship. It was an incredible feeling walking in the Opening Day Parade with them and being introduced as a defending champion – although I did realize I had nothing to do with winning the championship and I was new.
Thankfully my teammates weren’t mean to me and didn’t try to make me feel as if I didn’t belong there. They welcomed me to the team with open arms, although I think they knew in their minds I wasn’t going to be very good, considering it was my first year playing.
Those thoughts were well-founded. I wasn’t good at the beginning.
In my first year, I drew a few walks here and there, but I couldn’t buy a hit. I played left field and didn’t see a lot of game action. Despite taking my first year bumps, we kept winning. My Yankee team was undefeated for quite some time, before the Orioles finally stopped our winning streak halfway through the year.
On one of the last days of the season I finally got my moment to shine. I stood in the batter’s box, saw the pitch coming, and swung the bat, cracking a line drive base hit to centerfield. My hit drove in a run for my first career RBI and we went on to beat the Indians that day. I stood on first base and looked over to the dugout. I smiled, looking at my whole team standing up and clapping for me.
After each game, the coach on the winning team awarded the game ball to the standout player on the team. It was almost like winning the “Chevy Player of the Game” award, if you will.
My coach tossed me the game ball and said, “Congratulations on your first hit and your first RBI.”
I was speechless. All season long I had watched the other players on my team receive the game ball and the honor went to me. It was an unbelievable feeling and one I’ll always remember.
The second year I played Little League I was a lot more comfortable. I knew what to expect and I had more than one hit all year. The first game of the season, we played the Mets. I struck out in my first at-bat and my coach had asked me if I was comfortable bunting before I stepped up to the plate. I told him I wanted to swing away, and he obliged.
My next at-bat however, he didn’t ask me if I wanted to bunt. He told me I had to.
I laid down a beauty and reached safely to drive in a run. That bunt almost set the pace for the rest of the season, and I went on to have a pretty good year. I remember laying down a lot more bunts after that game and my coach once called me “the best bunter on the team.”
That was evidenced when we played the Dodgers, and I once again laid down a perfect bunt. Pitching was a young man named Steve, who was in my class. During the day he and I talked a lot of smack about who was going to win, especially since he was pitching.
My bunt drove in a run and I reached second on an error. We won the game and for the second time I was awarded the game ball. Again, it was a great feeling to receive the honor and afterward there were no hard feelings between me and Steve. I think he actually congratulated me the next day.
Little League was quite an experience and I will not forget it. But it was just the beginning of my journey through baseball and the game afforded me even better memories as I continued to play at the next level.
I was in eighth grade when I started to play in the Babe Ruth League. The first day of practice was unreal. The field was so much bigger than the Little League field, most noticeably the outfield dimensions. Right and left field were 285 feet while dead-center was 315 feet – a foot longer than right field at Yankee Stadium.
Another change was the team names. No more MLB team names, but instead our teams were sponsored by the local clubs and organizations. My team was sponsored by the Knights of Columbus and our team name was K of C.
I was only in eighth grade but played against high school kids. I knew that I was going to have to start from scratch again and I probably wasn’t going to be very good, much like how I was in my first year of Little League. However, the town put all us Babe Ruth rookies on a travel team as well our regular teams, just so we could get some more at-bats and fine-tune our fielding.
Suffice it to say, I had a better first year playing on the travel team than I did on K of C, the Babe Ruth team. On my travel team, I had a few key hits and played against another friend from school. Once again my team won that game, 7-6. I even had a hit that went right over my friend’s head; a bloop single that landed in between the right fielder and my friend who was manning second base.
The biggest change going from Little League to Babe Ruth was my position. The whole time I spent in Little League, I was an outfielder. I played mostly left field, but was tossed around quite a bit and saw time in right field and center field.
The first game I played at the Babe Ruth level, my coach announced my name and told me I was starting at second base. I had never been more confused – and scared – in my life. I had never played the infield before, and I was worried I was going to make a million mistakes.
I surprised myself by not performing poorly. I made a few defensive stops and before long I became comfortable at second, although I did see a lot of time in right field throughout the rest of the season. My travel team ended the year with a good record, but my K of C team had a rough year. We finished the season in fifth place out of sixth.
The second year I played was a different story.
I knew from the first day of practice that there was something different about our team. We went into these practices and performed as if we were playing in actual games. We were steadier, a little bit younger because we had some Little Leaguers coming in, and we wanted to erase finishing fifth the year before.
All in all, we were hungry.
There were so many defining moments that stand out to me in that season, but two come to mind. The first was painful, at least for me. We were playing the Lions, a team sponsored by (you guessed it) the local Lions Club. They had a very powerful left-handed hitter, who just so happened to also pitch and was one of the hardest throwing hurlers in the league that season.
He came up to bat with two outs in the fifth inning and we only held a small, 3-2 lead.
In right field, my coach told me to shade over toward the foul line. I knew that as a lefty, if he had gotten around on a pitch, it was coming to me. He had taken the first two pitches for balls one and two, but on the third pitch he saw, he swung and delivered a high fly ball…that was going over my head.
I turned around and immediately started to run. Frantically, I raced toward the right field wall as my hat flew off my head. I stuck out my glove and by some act of God, the ball landed in its webbing. Three outs with the lead intact. The parents and supporters of my team went nuts from the bleachers after I made the catch.
It was almost reminiscent of Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series. It was beautiful.
As fate would have it, after my web gem, I was due up first in the next half-inning. Facing the guy whom I had just robbed of an extra base hit, I walked up to the plate. He threw a fastball that came in so fast, I didn’t have a fraction of a second to react – and the ball plastered me, right on the outside of my left thigh.
I fell to the ground in such pain that, for a moment, I didn’t know where I was.
The coaches ran out and helped me get to my feet. I walked around behind home plate for a couple of minutes before my coach asked me if I wanted to stay in the game. Even though my leg was aching in excruciating pain, I refused to let him beat me. I made up my mind that I wasn’t leaving the game and I chose to stay in, bad wheel and all.
We wound up winning the game 3-2 and it was one of the better games I remember playing, just because of my attitude. Not the fact that I got hit or the fact that I made an outstanding defensive play, but for the fact that I stayed in the game and didn’t allow myself to be bullied.
To this day, I am convinced he beaned me on purpose. He may have won that little battle, but I feel I won the war. Not only did my team win, but I stayed in the game.
The second moment that stood out came later in the season. We were playing BPBA (Beacon Police Benevolent Association) and at that point we were scuffling a bit. We were down early in the game and for some reason that day, my coach decided to plug me into the number three hole in the lineup. In the fourth hole we had a tall, powerful right-handed hitter named Brian; a kid capable of hitting the ball out of the cavernous ballpark.
In the fourth inning I led off with a single. I remember checking the defense and every single outfielder backed up – they knew what kind of power he possessed.
Brian swung and hammered the ball to the deepest part of the park: centerfield. I came off first base a little bit, took a few steps back in case the ball was going to be caught, and then checked the center fielder. He looked up and watched the ball sail out of the park for a two-run home run, right over the 315′ sign.
I rounded the bases with a smile on my face; with joy in my heart. I knew that I was never going to hit a home run at this field, and this was the next best thing: being on base when my teammate hit one. The whole team waited for us at home plate and high-fived us after we crossed the plate.
Brian whacked the top of my helmet as we walked back to the dugout.
“Good job kid,” he said to me. “Thanks for that single. Because of that it was a two-run homer!”
I looked up at him, smiled, and simply replied, “No problem.”
We went on to win that game big, 14-3. From there we got hot and went on a winning streak. We finished the season with a record of 12-6 and were headed to the playoffs. No champagne celebration for us, but we were very happy and satisfied with getting there. We also knew that as well as we had played during the season, it meant nothing if we didn’t win the championship.
The playoffs were a four-team tournament: single elimination in the first round, and best two out of three in the championship series. We had a huge challenge in front of us, playing the Lions in the first round. We had faced them four times during the regular season and split the series, 2-2. This was the rubber game; the chance to show once and for all which team was better.
Not to mention the winner had a one-way ticket the championship series.
My team was not fazed by pressure. We obviously didn’t feel it because we pounded out 16 hits and went on to win the game 10-0. We were going to the championship series and for the first time in my baseball career, I would know what it felt like to play in a series for all the marbles.
I couldn’t help but think of my Little League days when we won the first round game. I remembered how I was recognized as a champion, even though I hadn’t earned it. This was my chance to earn it.
Unfortunately for K of C, the magic vanished.
We played a team named Palisi in the finals, a squad named after one of the local auto body shops. They were the only team that we lost a series to during the regular season, as they edged us, three games to one.
In Game One, they pounded every mistake we made. They went up 6-0 in the first inning and never looked back. They let us know that, in no uncertain terms, they were not going to lay down for us. After the game we obviously felt discouraged but knew we needed to win the next game in order to stay alive and push the series to a deciding Game Three.
We lost Game Two. But it wasn’t nearly as lopsided as Game One, as we were only beaten by a score of 6-2. We faced another power pitcher; a flame-throwing righty named Mark who was tall and built like Phil Hughes. In my only at-bat in Game Two, I drew a walk to lead off the fifth inning. Mark struck out the next three batters and the score remained 6-1.
In the sixth inning Brian came up and led off with a solo home run to bring it within four, 6-2. We all went out to greet him as he came to the plate, but our spirits just weren’t there; our enthusiasm had worn off. We tried to stay as positive as we could, but there was nothing that could be done. We lost.
After it was over, I watched from the dugout as Palisi celebrated. Crushed, I saw them get their picture taken for the local newspapers. My coach sat us down on the bench and told us not to feel bad about anything; he told us that from day one he loved coaching us and that we made a huge stride, coming from a fifth place finish to a second place finish.
I felt a little better when I found out that, despite our loss, we were getting rewarded for finishing second. We were going to receive the runner-up trophy and we were going to be a part of the trophy presentation ceremony.
“Ladies and gentlemen, your 2001 runner-up, K of C!”
Standing at the edge of the dugout, my name was announced first.
I jogged out to the area behind home plate and I was given my trophy. I shook my coach’s hand as he looked at me. With a reluctant smile he said, “Hell of a season, pal.”
The trophy presentation made me feel a lot better. It’s almost as if I forgot we had lost. It didn’t feel like a loss when I left the ballpark that day. I felt as though I had been a part of something special and I was honored to play with such a dedicated and hard-working group of players.
To this day I look back on that season and wish I could live through it again.
The final year I played organized baseball was bittersweet. I saw a good amount of game action, especially at second base, being that it was my final year and I was a team veteran. We had a decent year and again we made the playoffs.
But it was BPBA’s turn to feel what we felt; their opportunity to play in the championship series. They beat us in the single elimination first round game and I watched them celebrate as my Babe Ruth career came to a close.
But it wasn’t exactly over just yet.
After that loss I had one more game: an end-of-the-year battle between the departing veterans and the coaches. The league designed this so that all the players who were leaving could have one last game and go out in a good way.
Against the coaches I had a single, a walk, a stolen base, and two runs scored. We wound up losing count of the score, because we were beating them by such a wide margin. All in all, it was a fun night but I also understood that I would be closing a chapter in my life.
While I was playing in the Babe Ruth League, I wanted to try out for my high school team. In my first year in high school, I wanted to make the freshman baseball team and eventually work my way up to the junior varsity team, and if I was lucky, make the varsity team in the ensuing years as an upperclassman.
I attended a few open gyms during the off-season and got to know a lot of the players. The open gyms were intense; a lot of running, suicides, long toss, and fast-pitch batting practice. But I knew that, if nothing else, the workouts would prepare me for the Babe Ruth season.
Lady Luck was not on my side as a high school freshman, though. I struggled both academically and personally throughout the year and as a result I was placed on academic probation, prohibiting me from trying out for the freshman baseball team. I knew that if I couldn’t play in my freshman year, I probably wouldn’t be able to play at all for my high school, at least not without enormous competition for a roster spot.
So in a nutshell, although I played in the Babe Ruth League for two years while I was in high school, I never did get to play for my high school’s team.
And yes, I regret it. Had I had an easier time in my freshman year, and maybe pushed myself a little harder academically, I have no doubt in my mind I could have played for my high school and kept my baseball career alive.
I am not saying I would have continued to play in college, but it could have happened for me. I would have loved to go through the experience of facing other schools and possibly winning a few more trophies.
These days it’s nice to just go to the park on a spring day and put on my baseball glove. And when I do, I think about that base hit on the Beacon Little League Field that drove in a run for my first RBI.
I think about all those bunts I laid down in my second year of Little League.
I think about how special I felt when I was awarded the game ball.
I think about how I felt looking at the Babe Ruth Field for the first time.
I think about that Willie Mays-like catch I made to rob the best player in the league of extra bases – and how he exacted his revenge on me, and how I refused to leave the game when I was hurt.
I think about that home run Brian hit, and how awesome it felt to round the bases with him.
I think about the championship series, and how good I felt, even though we lost.
I think about the trophy presentation and how it felt to have my name called.
I think about how fun the game against the coaches was.
I think about how I wish I had played for my high school, and even though I didn’t, how fun the open gyms were.
I think about all these things…and wish I can have them back.