The Hoboken Little League Field looked much different in 2000. Back then, the infield was still clay, and the outfield was still grass. There were bleachers rather than stadium seating, and the clubhouse was dilapidated, not like the new one situated just behind home plate. A lot has changed, but all that change has been for the better, says Benny Rotondi, the longtime de facto head of Hoboken’s Little League who will step down from his post at the end of this month.
“I miss the grass, the natural play of the game it provided,” he said. “But this new field is probably the best thing we’ve ever done.”
Rotondi isn’t the local league’s official president. That honor is bestowed on the city’s clerk, James Farina, who handles all of the league’s dealings with the national Little League Baseball, Inc. and has been involved for decades. But the league’s day-to-day operations, including maintaining the facilities, writing a season’s schedule, deciding which kids will be placed on which team, and dealing with parents, all fall to Rotondi. Rotondi’s official title is head of the Hoboken Little League Players and Managers Association.
According to almost any player or parent you talk to, his contributions to the league have been incalculable, as is his constant presence on the field.
“I miss the grass, the natural play of the game it provided. But this new field is probably the best thing we’ve ever done.” – Benny Rotondi
Still, he remains modest.
“The league basically runs itself,” he said. “You go through the motions, everyone argues about everything and then you have to make decisions.”
First a dad, then a coach
Rotondi first became involved with the Little League when he was still a Hoboken police officer some 28 years ago. A fellow officer was coaching one of the local teams, sponsored by the Police Department. Incidentally, Rotondi’s eldest son, Keith, now 36, was drafted to that team. The coach asked Rotondi if he would help out as a coach, and so he did.
Rotondi continued to coach various teams for years, even after his other son, Benny Jr., now 22, graduated from the league. He coached Benny on three different teams, as a 9-year-old, a 10-year-old and an 11-year-old. But when the younger Rotondi moved onto the 12-year-old team, his father stayed behind.
“I realized I was missing other stuff,” he said. “Once you start worrying about an entire team of kids, it's easy to forget that one of them is your son.”
Plus, he said, being a coach of a team that includes a child is never easy.
“People say all types of things, that you’re playing favorites or whatever,” he said. “And I mean, deep down inside your kid’s probably always going to get the edge, so I stopped coaching.”
As the head of the Hoboken Little League’s Players and Managers Association, Rotondi oversaw some of the most significant changes in the league’s structure since its inauguration, and also heralded in some of its greatest successes. In 2003, he worked with the city, then-Mayor David Roberts, and the Department of Recreation to build the league’s new stadium. In 2008 he convinced the league to merge its two divisions in an effort to improve the city’s performance in regional competitions.
“We always said that if we merged the divisions we’d have great all-star teams,” he said. “Sure enough, we merged them and we had an all-star team that won two years in a row, as 10-year-olds and 11-year-olds.”
That same team, now as 12-year-olds, are currently working on another championship, as districtwide playoffs are currently taking place, said Rotondi.
Safety, as well, has been a major focus of Rotondi’s since he took over managing the league. In the 13 years that he’s been in charge, baseball safety guidelines, especially at the youth level, have tightened greatly. Rotondi said he’s done his best to make sure that Hoboken moves with the times.
“Every batter wears a face mask now, and all of our pitchers wear heart protectors,” he said. “We’re looking into whether we should be making every player wear one.”
Who’s on deck?
Rotondi said that he had the utmost confidence in the man who will take his place, Eddie Madigan, another longtime coach and league volunteer.
“Eddie and I have been great friends for a long time,” he said. “I kind of just talked him into doing this, but that’s how I got into it, too, so that’s how it works.”
Madigan, for his part, praised the job Rotondi did.
“I hope I can follow it,” he said. “He did a great job, we’ve got the most aesthetically pleasing field in the district, that’s for sure.”
And what do Madigan and Rotondi think about running Little League in the home of baseball itself?
“Oh, I think it’s special,” said Madigan. “Makes it feel a little bit like we’re part of history.”
Rotondi just hopes he’s been able to instill a love for the game in Hoboken’s youth befitting of the city’s history.
“We try to drill it into them, but they don’t always get it,” he said. “But we do our best to teach them the heritage of the game. That’s very important.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at email@example.com