It’s safe to say that Ron Hayward is living a dream year.
After all, the Marist High School baseball coach guided the Royal Knights to the NJSIAA Non-Public B state championship in June, the first state title for the school in almost 20 years.
Soon after winning the state crown, Hayward, a Marist alum, was promoted to the role of athletic director to go along with his baseball coaching duties.
So when Hayward took his Jackie Robinson 18-and-under All-Star team to the RBI (Rebuilding Baseball in the Inner-City) World Series, a program sponsored by Major League Baseball and held in Minneapolis last week, it was just another great turn of events in Hayward’s great year.
Little did Hayward know that it was about to get even better.
The Jackie Robinson Mets won three straight games over the weekend, including a thrilling 8-7 come-from-behind victory over Bradenton, Florida, on Sunday to capture the overall World Series title in game played at Target Field, the home of the Minnesota Twins.
It marked the first time that a New Jersey team won the RBI World Series crown.
“I told the reporters at Target Field that it was big for our area,” Hayward said. “Our kids tend to get overlooked all the time. The other teams in the series had kids who were talking about going to [NCAA] Division I and Division II schools. All the big schools were being named. This definitely showed that our kids can play with anyone in the country. It was a big thrill.”
In the championship game, the Jersey City squad trailed 3-1, battled back to take a 5-3 lead in the fifth inning, then Bradenton scored four runs in the top of the seventh inning to take a7-5 lead.
Things certainly didn’t look good for the locals.
But Hayward, who was wearing a microphone for the MLB Network coverage of the finals, made a proclamation, much like he did to his Marist squad when they stormed from three runs down in the last inning to defeat Newark Academy in the state title game.
“The crazy thing was that I had the microphone on me,” Hayward said. “I had to watch what I was saying. But I said, ‘Let’s do it again.’ We had some of my players on this team, so they knew. But I didn’t know how contagious it was going to be. Their confidence level was high. That’s how motivated they were.”
So down two runs to start the bottom of the last inning, the Jersey City squad went to work. Danny Mirabel, one of Hayward’s players at Marist, drew a walk. After a pop out, Mike Doran of St. Peter’s Prep, who had a tremendous tournament at the plate, also walked. The rally was on.
Abe Groomes, the Hoboken standout, lined an RBI single that scored Mirabel, slicing the lead to 7-6. Mike Rodriguez of St. Anthony hit a pop-up that looked like it was going to be the second out, but the ball dropped in and Doran scored the tying run, moving Groomes to third.
Up stepped Will Rivera from University Charter. Hayward called for the suicide squeeze to get Groomes home. It was a gutsy and risky call, but hey, Hayward can do no wrong.
“I put the squeeze on and Rivera bunts the ball over the first baseman’s head to score the game-winning run,” Hayward said.
It just goes to show you that talent can be found anywhere; that the two players who had the key hits in the rally, Rodriguez and Rivera, play for programs that don’t get much recognition. Like the rest of the team, those two proved they could play anywhere.
However, Hayward definitely assembled an All-Star roster that carried the Jackie Robinson squad all the way to Target Field.
His pitching staff was impeccable, with people like the incomparable Kenny Roder of Hoboken and standout Mark Peralta of Marist.
Roder was both the Pitcher of the Year and Most Valuable Player on the Hudson Reporter All-Area Baseball Team in the spring. Peralta was the Player of the Year.
Roder pitched the first game of the World Series, defeating Chicago with a five-hitter, striking out 11. It was a typical Roder performance.
Peralta pitched the second game, striking out eight to defeat Houston. Mirabel got the save in that win.
“We were very fortunate to get the best pitchers around to have on the team,” Hayward said. “It was great for us that they chose to play for us.”
In the second win against Houston, Doran, known more for his pitching, slammed a three-run homer.
“He was killing the ball all weekend and led us in RBI,” Hayward said.
Mirabel was the winning pitcher in the Series clincher.
The catcher was Josh Delgado of Marist, with Josh Felix, a player from Elizabeth High School, at first.
Marist standout Derek Edge was the team’s second baseman, with Jose Gonzalez, a Marist grad now playing at the University of Rhode Island, at short.
Rodriguez, Mirabel and Peralta all shared time at third base. Andre Santana of Marist was the left fielder, with best friends Roder and Groomes sharing centerfield duties along with Marist grad John Journette and Rivera manning right.
It was a great run for the local team, achieving a title that no other New Jersey squad had captured in the 13-year history of the RBI World Series.
“It feels great,” Hayward said. “We had the people in Minnesota cheering for us. They remembered [former Minnesota Twins pitcher] Willie Banks was from Jersey City, so they were behind us because of Willie. This was incredible, considering the way we had to keep battling and coming back.”
It’s just all part of Hayward’s year to remember.
EXTRA INNINGS focuses on the best stories that come from local baseball and softball leagues throughout the area, from Little League action through travel leagues.
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Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.