The rigors of intense chemotherapy, the process to tackle a rare form of lymphoma, was getting to long-time Memorial High School baseball coach Tony Ferrainolo, but he was not about to let anything, especially that wicked foe known as cancer, try to stop him from occupying the place he loved best, coaching his Tigers.
Ferrainolo knew that he was approaching the record for coaching victories in the state of New Jersey, that he was approaching the long-standing record held by Harry Shatel of Morristown. He started the 2011 season needing 13 victories and he was determined to get those wins, even if it meant receiving treatment at New York Presbyterian Hospital for days at a time.
Ferrainolo earned that important win in mid-May, but he wasn’t present to enjoy the victory. He was home recovering when the Tigers defeated Marist to give Ferrainolo the state record that was owned by Shatel, who ironically passed away six days before Ferrainolo broke the mark.
“He left this earth with the all-time record,” Ferrainolo said. “Harry passed the torch to the next guy. I feel bad for Harry and his family.”
Little did he know at the time that Ferrainolo would also leave the world with the record. Ferrainolo died Monday morning at the age of 65.
While Ferrainolo wasn’t able to be there to see his team present that coaching milestone in May, the players made sure he was a part of it. They signed the game ball, then went on the team bus straight to Ferrainolo’s home in West New York.
“[Assistant coach] Jack [Nagurka] called me from the bus and said that the kids wanted to come to my apartment,” Ferrainolo said. “I told him then he was responsible for what they did to the apartment.”
One by one, the players filed into Ferrainolo’s home, with wife Anne nearby. They offered a handshake or a hug to their coach, then stood in a single line to hear their coach’s words.
“It was really good and really emotional,” Ferrainolo said. “I was filled with emotions. That’s the type of kids they are. To see them all walk in and act like that proved to me that these are great young men and I’m proud to coach them. They obviously learned something in life, hopefully from coaches like me. It really was an emotional time.”
Ferrainolo managed to finish out the 2011 season. He was in his familiar coaching box when the Tigers suffered a stunning loss to Hoboken in the Hudson County Tournament championship game. He had one more chance to collect the 15th county championship of his tenure at Memorial, but came up a little short.
Ferrainolo ended the season with 754 victories and continued the treatment to battle his illness. He had several rounds of intense chemotherapy, then planned to have a stem cell transplant surgery, using his own stem cells.
“I’m looking forward to getting back on the field,” Ferrainolo said. “I enjoy it so much. I want to be there. I love the game so much. I hope I get better, because I want to have a few more years to collect a few more W’s [wins]. I just loved the coaching. I loved the teaching. It’s what I had to do and it’s stayed with me for my entire career.”
It was February of 2010 when Ferrainolo discovered a lump in his chest that turned out to be a malignancy.
“I never said, ‘Why me?’ ” Ferrainolo said. “I was confronted with something serious and I had two choices, either to battle it or sit back and feel sorry for myself. I was going to do whatever possible to beat this. I always kept a positive outlook in all ways. I know that I had a lot of support from my family, my friends, other teachers. I plan to be around for a while. My coaches told me that I should take some time and relax a little, but having my team there every day got me through this. I enjoy being with them. I want to stay active and want to keep coaching.”
Ferrainolo hoped that his players drew some inspiration from his struggles.
“I try to let the kids see what I’m going through,” Ferrainolo said. “It lets them see that they have to battle, have to keep fighting, no matter what. Sometimes, things don’t go right and your backs are against the wall. But each day is a battle. I never thought of giving up. Maybe there’s a reason for it. I have to believe it happened to me for a reason. Whether it’s with my kids or someone else, something good has to come from this.”
The West New York athletic legend was honored in 2010 when the baseball field at West New York’s Miller Stadium was renamed as the Anthony Ferrainolo Field. It was a place where he grew up right around the block from and then spent more than 50 years playing and coaching.
“I’d walk out of my house when I was a kid and going to the park was the first thing I did,” said Ferrainolo, who has enjoyed a career as an athlete and later as one of the most decorated high school baseball coaches in New Jersey state history at Miller Stadium. “I remember going there as a kid and watching all the Memorial football and baseball games and saying, ‘I’m going to play here someday.’ I just wanted to be a player and a coach. That’s all I knew.”
Ferrainolo was a fine football, basketball, and baseball player at Memorial, graduating from the school in 1963. He earned All-County recognition in football as a wide receiver twice (1961 and 1962), then in basketball (1962) and baseball as a shortstop (1962). In 1962, he was also named to the All-Group IV team for football and was selected as the Hudson County Athlete of the Year. From Memorial, Ferrainolo went on to Villanova University, where he lettered in football (1964-66) and played baseball as a freshman (1964).
Upon graduation from Villanova, Ferrainolo went back to his high school alma mater, where he later became the head football coach for 20 years (1977-1996), winning two HCIAA championships and leading his team to the state playoffs five times.
But it’s as a baseball coach where Ferrainolo has gained his finest moments. He led the Tigers to the 1988 mythical national championship. His teams won an astonishing 14 HCIAA championships, easily the county record. The Tigers also won seven NJSIAA state sectional crowns and four overall Group IV titles, including that overall Group IV state title in 1988. He’s earned induction into several Halls of Fame, including the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame in 2002.
When he broke the state record, Ferrainolo had a chance to reflect a bit.
“All I wanted to do was to teach and coach at Memorial,” Ferrainolo said in May. “It was a dream for me and it came true. Word got out throughout the county and all the coaches in the county have been great, offering me well wishes. There was a time that I didn’t even want to mention cancer, but it’s fine now. I know a lot of people who have had setbacks and are battling something. Well, this is my battle. I honestly believe that being involved in Memorial sports all these years made me prepared for battles. I’m in a battle and I know we’ll win it.”
Added Ferrainolo, “I’m still around, and I expect to be around for a few more years. There isn’t a day that goes by without me thinking about some of great players and coaches I’ve worked with over the years. I’ve received so many calls, e-mails and texts, offering me congratulations about this. I’ve really gone through a wide range of emotions. It’s really unbelievable.”
Unfortunately, Ferrainolo’s quest to continue coaching ended with his passing Monday. The news of his death sent shockwaves through the Hudson County sports circles.
“Tony was a teacher when I was a student at Memorial,” Memorial athletic director and former West New York Mayor Silverio “Sal” Vega said. “I definitely evolved in my relationship with Tony. He was the coach. Of course, his greatest legacy is the number of wins he had, but I think what was bigger was how he understood the kids and how they evolved over the years. He was the right coach for the kids we had. He had the ability to know them. His dedication is something you don’t find anymore. It’s very difficult to see that kind of longevity and that kind of success wrapped around one institution.”
“To play for him is one thing,” said assistant coach Nagurka, who was a standout pitcher in his days for Memorial with Ferrainolo. “To coach with him is another. It was the biggest honor for me, to coach with my old coach. He had a passion for winning, second to none. He wanted to win more than anything. He was fantastic to coach with. The one thing I will always remember will be his ability to adapt to situations and that he was right most of the time.”
The coaches Ferrainolo locked horns with over the years also paid tribute.
“He got me with his 500th win and his 600th as well,” said veteran Bayonne baseball coach Phil Baccarella. “I told him he wasn’t getting me with another one and he laughed. It was always a great challenge to play Memorial. Every year, when I got the schedule, I’d circle two or three games that would either make us or break us and every year, one of those games was Memorial. We had some good battles over the years and most of the time, he got the best of me. His kids always came to play baseball. They were coached well and I respect him for that.”
Former St. Peter’s Prep baseball coach Joe Urbanovich attended Villanova with Ferrainolo, then later coached against him many times.
“We had some classic games against each other,” Urbanovich said. “I remember him saying to me once that it didn’t matter who won the game, the games were always great. Memorial was always the team you had to beat and you aspired to play them. In the ’90s, it got to be Prep-Memorial as the game you had to see.”
Both Baccarella and Urbanovich said that they were glad he got the coaching win record.
“I’ll remember his competitiveness,” Urbanovich said.
“As a coach, he was a winner and he would do anything to win,” said former Hoboken baseball coach Buddy Matthews, who defeated Memorial and Ferrainolo in the 2011 Hudson County Tournament finale. “He always had his kids prepared to play and they played hard for him. As a person, I always had a good time with him. We would bust each other’s chops. We always had a good time. It’s a shame.”
“I’ve watched him for a very long time,” said legendary North Bergen football coach Vince Ascolese. “My first year at Hoboken, we played against Memorial and Tony, so I remember him as a player. He was a really nice person, a nice guy.”
For the 25 years that this reporter knew Ferrainolo well, he was helpful, caring, considerate, and like the others said, a winner. No denying that. He cared about his players and demanded excellence and commanded respect. Many times, Tony would share personal feelings, including his battle with cancer. Everyone thought he was going to beat it. Cancer was the only foe Ferrainolo couldn’t beat.
Going into Miller Stadium and Anthony R. Ferrainolo Field just won’t be the same now with him not manning the third base coaching box. It’s another major loss in a year of major losses in Hudson County sports.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.
You can also read Jim’s blog, with more on the life of Tony Ferrainolo, at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com