For years, local youth baseball teams have competed in the various leagues sponsored by the Amateur American Baseball Congress.
Local teams have played on the Cal Ripken, Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle and Connie Mack levels, depending on the age limits. It’s been a way for the aspiring Hudson County baseball player to continue learning and playing through the summer months.
Last week, three local teams earned berths in the Mickey Mantle (16-and-under) and Connie Mack (18-and-under) regional championships that begin this weekend in Troy, N.Y, on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
West New York won the New Jersey state championships on both the Mantle and Mack levels, earning the right to play at the Mid-Atlantic regional tournament in Troy.
The Jersey City Sharks earned a berth by finishing second in the Mantle state tourney, punching its ticket to the Mid-Atlantic regional.
It should have been a moment of adulation, a time for pride and honor for both municipalities.
Instead, all three teams were told by their respective towns that there was no funding available to send the teams to upstate New York.
Even though all three teams proudly wear the banner of West New York Recreation and Jersey City Recreation, they were told that they had to fend for themselves at the tourney, that there was no money in the respective municipal budget to send the teams to AABC regional.
Can you imagine? How in the world can these teams represent their respective recreation departments, yet be told they can’t go to a tournament that they earned the right to go, simply because there wasn’t money allocated for it?
First of all, how can any recreation department predict how a team is going to do in a state tournament? You can’t plan for a trip to Troy. You can hope that you qualify, but there are no guarantees.
Then, when the team makes it on merit, then you find the emergency funding that enables the team to go. It has happened at least a dozen times – with baseball teams from both towns – over the past decade. Under previous administrations, the West New York and Jersey City Recreation teams traveled all over the nation to play in the AABC regional and then subsequent World Series.
Heck, Jersey City was even the host of the Sandy Koufax (13-and-under) World Series for a few years and also hosted the Connie Mack and Mickey Mantle state championships in the past.
These are two towns that have known and realized the importance of the post-season tourneys and applauded their teams when they were fortunate to move on to the regional and national levels.
But Sunday, when the three teams punched their respective tickets to Troy, they were initially told that the teams couldn’t go because of funding.
However, the coaches and administrators for the three teams didn’t flinch and pestered local officials to acquire the sufficient funding.
“We were going no matter what,” said Mike Hogan, the head coach of the Jersey City Sharks. “We have been going to games in my van all summer. We got by in the past. We just wanted what became a necessity. Five years ago, we went to the regional in Waterbury, Connecticut and it was a great experience for the kids. Some of them had never gone away before.”
Through the persistence of Hogan and Sharks’ general manager Anne Marie Costello, Jersey City officials supplied the team with transportation and money for hotel accommodations.
The same went for the two West New York teams. As of Tuesday evening, the coaches of the two teams were told they couldn’t go. But again, some prodding changed the minds of administrators.
“When they told us no, we were very disappointed and upset,” said Eddie Morales, the coach of the Mickey Mantle state champions from West New York. “But it was resolved. What happened? I have no clue. But we’re going and I’m happy for the kids, because they worked so hard. I knew they had a chance to go somewhere.”
“There was talk we weren’t going, but then the town came through,” said Jonathan Diaz, the coach of the Connie Mack state champs from West New York. “They were able to find the money somehow.”
Diaz said that he was proud of his team, a group that he had worked with since they were 14 years old. WNY defeated Sparta in the state championship game Sunday.
“We never got passed the state tournament before,” Diaz said. “We always came up short in the past.”
David Baiza from North Bergen High School is the mainstay of the WNY Mack pitching staff, winning five games and losing just one during the summer. Michael Gonzalez of Weehawken, Jimmy Rodriguez of Memorial and Jose Roman of North Bergen rounds out the pitching staff.
Nelson Gonzalez of Passaic is the catcher, with slugger Ruben Rivera of Memorial at first base.
Deivi Suazo of Memorial shares second base with Michael Gonzalez. Victor Guzman of Memorial is the shortstop, with Rodriguez, a big-time player, sharing third with Jose Marte of North Bergen.
Giovanni Palos is the left fielder, with twin brother Mario in right. Both Palos brothers play at Memorial. The centerfielder is another Memorial product in Chris Gonzalez, who has had a great summer.
“He’s our top hitter and RBI leader,” Diaz said.
The designated hitter is former North Bergen slugger James Rangel, now playing at the County College of Morris.
Carlos Zuleta, Ransley Mendez, Anthony Baez and Joel Reyes are all Memorial products who play reserve roles.
The WNY Mickey Mantle team, coached by Morales, features a solid pitching staff, headed by Lazaro Lopez, Chris Rey, Daniel De La Rosa, Carlos Inoa and Kevin Mojica.
“These guys can definitely pitch,” Morales said. “They basically left their arms on the field.”
De La Rosa hurled a complete game three-hitter against Jersey City in the title game, winning 3-1.
Jose Baez of Memorial is the catcher, with Vishal Desai of North Bergen at first and David Fernandez of Memorial at second. Lopez and Rey share shortstop duties, with Orlando Dominguez, also of Memorial, manning third.
Ellery Fernandez is in left, with Noel Rodriguez in center and Andrew Montalvo and Joey Mitchell sharing duties in right.
The WNY Mantle team is slated to face a team from Canada in the first round.
Hogan, who is the veteran head coach at Ferris, loves his pitching staff that allowed just one run in three victories in the state tournament.
“The pitching came through,” Hogan said. “We played good defense, but you need good pitching to win three straight games 1-0, 2-1 and 1-0.”
Hogan’s ace at Ferris, Elijah Pereira, was a standout on the mound for the Sharks, along with Hudson Catholic lefty Mike Kiel, Edwin Garcia of University Charter, Frankie Campos of Hoboken and Joey Colon of Ferris.
Brandan Gomez of Ferris is the catcher, with Sean Saiboo of Ferris at first. Andrew Napolitano of St. Peter’s Prep shares second base with Colon, while Pereira is at short, with Colon playing there when the ace toes the rubber. Garcia and Campos share third base.
Markell Reyes of Lincoln is in left, with Kiel and Campos in center and Fernando Reyes of Ferris in right. Reynaldo Carpio of Ferris and Josue Roman of Hoboken are key reserves.
Hogan has also coached teams before on a national level, so he knows what the experience means to the kids of the Sharks, a program instituted by local baseball legend Ed “Faa” Ford, who died three years ago.
“We didn’t even know we were going,” Hogan said. “We learned Sunday night that the top two teams were going.”
It took some trying times, but all three teams head to Troy this weekend. It should have never come to last-minute finagling by local politicians getting involved. It should have been a given that the municipalities foot the bill for the teams. If they are truly local recreation teams, then it falls under recreation activities, much like the cricket, rugby and lacrosse programs that have been instituted in Jersey City. The kids deserved to be treated like the champions they are.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.