It all began innocently about 16 years ago or so, when a quartet of talented Jersey City youth baseball players were brought together to play on the same baseball team.
Back then, there was a local team called the Jersey City Stars of Tomorrow, a program run by dedicated people like Harvey Zucker and the late Ed “The Faa” Ford and sponsored by Jersey City Recreation, that selected players throughout the city to form one team that played in tournaments all over the state, country and even internationally.
At that time, these four teenagers from different backgrounds and geographic regions in the city were selected to play on the Stars of Tomorrow 15-and-under team. The four teenagers were Danny Suarez, Jack Baker, Ron Hayward and Alberto Vasquez.
Suarez was a slick fielding infielder, with Baker the ace of the pitching staff. Hayward had the ability to run down anything in the outfield while Vasquez was the best defensive catcher around, way ahead of his time. Together, they formed a perfect bond and comprised a winning combination, as the Stars of Tomorrow won state championships on both the Mickey Mantle and Connie Mack levels of the AABC (Amateur American Baseball Congress).
“I thought they were an especially talented group,” said Rich Nisbet, one of the coaches of that team and currently the athletic director at Dickinson High School. “It was very clear when we were coaching them that they were going to be successful in baseball and that they had a future in the sport. What that equated to, I didn’t know.”
Nisbet coached that team, along with another Jersey City native, Vin Bello, who has now moved on to become the highly successful head coach at Pope John in Sparta.
The quartet went on to become standouts at their respective high schools, all earning Hudson Reporter All-Area honors. Suarez was a two-time All-County player at the now-defunct St. Mary’s. Baker was a two-time All-County pitcher at St. Peter’s Prep. Hayward was a three-time All-County honoree at Marist, while Vasquez also earned All-County honors three times as a catcher for Hudson Catholic.
Their time together as teammates also formed a lasting friendship as they all went on to play college baseball and two even went on to play pro ball. Three of them (Suarez, Hayward and Baker) ended up playing college baseball together at William Paterson University. Vasquez played for the legendary Fred Hill, Sr. at Rutgers.
“Of course, we all played good baseball in our time,” Suarez said. “We were all good players and all had good baseball savvy.”
“Sure, we had talent, but a lot of it goes back to being around the great coaches we had,” Vasquez said. “We had coaches who knew what it took to get to the next level.”
Hayward remembers the camaraderie that came about with being teammates at a young age.
“They were more like brothers to me than anything,” Hayward said. “I didn’t come from much, so I would live sometimes with the Bakers and with Danny Suarez’s family. They all meant so much to me growing up. It was all like being part of a family. Having them around back then, growing up with me, helped me to become who I am. Being with a team like that really helped me, because I learned so much and played so much good baseball. It meant a lot to me.”
“Thinking back to those days with the Stars of Tomorrow, we learned so much about baseball,” Baker said. “It seems like yesterday when we were playing and looking up to those great coaches we had. They showed us how to do things the right way.”
Now turn the clock ahead to 2012 and it’s amazing what has transpired. Those four teenage friends have now turned into successful men. And incredibly, they’re all head high school baseball coaches in their old stomping grounds of Hudson County.
Suarez has the most head coaching experience, going from Hudson Catholic to now Dickinson. Vasquez is the head coach at his alma mater Hudson Catholic. The same can be said for Hayward at his alma mater, Marist. And Baker took over the program at Hoboken this season.
Here are four 15-year-old teammates and good friends now coaching against each other in the same county. It’s quite remarkable.
“I think it’s great for all of us,” Baker said. “When we were younger, the Faa would always tell us that we had to come back and coach the younger kids. We did that through high school and into college. It was always great to be able to give back. Now, look what has happened.”
“I’m not surprised we’re all head coaches,” said Hayward, whose Marist team won the Hudson County Tournament title this year and will face Newark Academy for the overall NJSIAA Non-Public B state championship this weekend in Toms River. “We definitely watched a lot of good coaches and we learned from them. I think we all had it in mind that we would become coaches. Of course, we wanted to still be playing at this point, but we wanted to coach.”
Vasquez believes that their solid baseball acumen is the reason why they’re all coaching today.
“It’s amazing all the great coaches we got to know and play for,” Vasquez said. “It’s the same concept they taught us. We learned from them and we had to give it back. That always stuck with me. Now that we’re all coaching, it’s pretty impressive. We had to learn the game from some place. We all played in high school, played college ball. Baseball has been my life and it’s taken me a lot of places. It’s up to me to pass it on. I know they all feel the same way. We’re all doing well.”
Vasquez enters the Jersey City Police Academy next month and will become a police officer, giving even more of his life to others.
Suarez and Hayward have now also already coached county champions. Suarez won it all with Hudson Catholic in 2007 and Hayward this year at Marist.
“We had been there as players and now with Ronnie winning this year, we’ve been there as coaches,” Suarez said. “We do what we do best. We win.”
But it’s more than winning.
“We want to help kids become better players and better people,” Baker said. “Who knows? Maybe some of the kids we’re coaching now will become coaches along the way.”
“I think it’s a reflection of their character and what they learned,” Nisbet said. “I think it’s great for the game that they’re all doing so well. I think it’s the ultimate tale of giving back.”
“It’s our turn to carry the torch for Hudson County coaches,” Baker said. “I remember being at Prep and seeing all the coaches in the county. They were all legends. They pretty much set the standard of what a Hudson County baseball coach should be. We have to keep it going and make the sport better.”
However, don’t for a second think that it’s all hugs and kisses when they meet during the regular season.
“Oh, we definitely want to kill each other,” Baker said.
“When we played each other in high school, you couldn’t dare lose, because you wouldn’t hear the end of it,” Hayward said. “It’s definitely still there. We may be all friends, but we all want to win. Right now, it feels good to be the champion, because I can mess with them, at least for the next year.”
For now, they’ll all hope that Hayward gets one more win and brings a state championship home this weekend. That would be the ultimate achievement of this fine foursome of close friends who are doing what they were groomed to do from the age of 15.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.