Gianni Zayas and Kenny Roder were born just five days apart in 1994. Zayas was born on April 18, Roder on April 23.
The two would eventually become high school baseball standouts; Zayas for North Bergen High, while Roder carved his niche as perhaps the greatest high school pitcher in Hoboken High School history.
Their roads in baseball would take the pair of Hudson greats down two totally different paths. Zayas first went to North Carolina State, then Seminole State College in Florida before heading back to the NCAA Division I ranks at Florida International University before getting drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 35th round of the 2015 Major League Baseball draft.
Roder, the 2011 and 2012 Hudson Reporter Pitcher of the Year and Most Valuable Player, bounced around a host of different colleges in Texas and Florida, hoping to get a shot at organized baseball.
Incredibly, the two have ended up together playing professional baseball this summer as members of the Sussex County Miners of the Canadian-American Baseball League.
This is the same Can-Am League that has been the home of the New Jersey Jackals for decades.
The Sussex County Miners, managed by former Mets relief pitcher Bobby Jones, the left-handed Bobby Jones who hails from Rutherford, play in Skylands Park in Augusta, the former home of the New Jersey Cardinals, who played there from 1994 through 2005.
So it’s a professional homecoming for the two former Hudson County greats.
“I was in Miami, waiting for the major league draft,” said Roder, who last played in the spring with St. Thomas University in Florida. “Nothing happened. I got no calls. I was a little disappointed. But I received a call from Bobby Jones who said that he wanted me to throw a bullpen session for him.”
Roder went to work out with the Miners, ironically at Yogi Berra Stadium, the home of the Jackals.
“That was on a Saturday morning,” Roder said. “Later that day, I got a call from Bobby, saying that they had seen enough and wanted to sign me to a contract. I really didn’t care about the money. I just wanted the opportunity to play. I’m just hoping to get noticed by one of the other clubs.”
The Sussex County Miners are not affiliated with any major league organizations, so it means Roder is a free agent to sign with another big league team if one calls.
“I really don’t care, as long as I’m still playing,” said Roder, who has pitched in five games, four of which were starts, and has a 2-1 record with a 3.75 earned run average. Roder defeated Quebec and Trois Rivieres before falling to Ottawa in his last start.
In his first game, Roder fanned the brother of Mets’ super slugger Yoenis Cespedes, en route to a 7-2 win.
Zayas knew that his chances to make it in the big leagues took a damaging blow when he was released by the Mariners at the end of last season.
“There are very few closers in the game, so I asked for my release,” Zayas said. “The Mariners started to get rid of people and I was on the chopping block. I really didn’t get my full chance to compete. I’ve seen guys my age turn it completely around.”
After being released from the Mariners, Zayas was on a path to nowhere.
“I wasn’t given a full opportunity,” Zayas said. “I only pitched 15 innings. But after I got released, I didn’t feel like I was wanted.”
Zayas met a guy named Luis Santana who was acting as a player agent. Santana agreed to help Zayas get a contract somewhere.
“I was working with a personal trainer at Frozen Ropes in Pine Brook,” Zayas said. “I was working out three hours a day and felt I was on the right track.”
A full year away from pro baseball, Zayas then signed with the Miners in the spring.
“Bobby gave me another opportunity,” Zayas said of Jones. “My brother [Gil] once played in the Can-Am League, so I was familiar with it. Gil always spoke highly of the league. It was a chance to learn while playing.”
Zayas said that he put in a good word for Roder. The two now room together on the road and have their lockers situated next to each other in Skylands Park.
“All we needed was a chance to show them that we could pitch,” said Zayas, who has a 2.74 ERA in 14 games, five of which are starts, and has a 5-4 record with just 35 hits allowed in 42 innings pitched. “I feel now like I can keep throwing forever.”
The two have become close since they have become teammates.
“He took me under his wing right away,” Roder said of Zayas. “He feeds off me and I feed off him. It makes what we’re doing even better, two Hudson County guys, pushing each other. He’s made me feel more comfortable here.”
And the two will make a leisurely drive up to Sussex County well worth it before the season’s end…
Kudos to NJ.com and reporter J.J. Conrad (formerly of the Bergen Record) for putting together the list of possible Union City candidates for the organization’s Top Four Athletes (Mount Rushmore) of each town.
Just reading the accomplishments of people like Harry Brooks and Nick Galis made it a memorable trip down Memory Lane, including the inclusion of my favorite St. Peter’s College basketball player of all-time Bob Fazio.
I vividly recall sneaking into the Jersey City Armory to watch the Peacocks and Fazio play. I admired Fazio’s relentless style and work ethic on both ends of the floor. It was a thrill for me in later years to become friends with Fazio, now the acting principal at Don Bosco Prep.
The results are in and the winner? None other than former Emerson great Bruce Naszimento, who will be a volunteer assistant football coach once again this fall at Secaucus High School with his old friend Charlie Voorhees.
The winner of the popular vote was former Union Hill basketball standout Wilmer Torres, who may have been the shortest guy on the ballot. Melissa Beyruti was second to Torres in the voting. It was clearly a labor of love by Conrad, who had to compile the biographies of all the nominees. That alone was some work…
In closing, we would like to pay tribute to two people who were lost over the past week. Neither were athletes, but both had a huge impact on local athletics for ages.
The first was retired Jersey City Police Department member Joe Coyle, who died suddenly last week after suffering a heart attack doing what he loved to do most, playing golf.
Coyle would have been 66 years old next month. He had a great career in the JCPD, becoming a motorcycle police officer and was a baseball coach in the city and in Kearny, where he resided. His son, Kevin, now a New Jersey state trooper, was a fine catcher at St. Peter’s Prep and DeSales University.
In later years, Joe was the director of security at St. Peter’s University, a job he was born to have. He loved taking care of the students, including the athletes, but every single student who walked through the halls of Harvard on the Boulevard.
“I’m in total shock,” St. Peter’s head men’s basketball coach John Dunne said. “He was just in our building two days ago and we had a great conversation. He really cared about the St. Peter’s community and definitely the men’s basketball program. He always had the students’ best interests in heart. He was always able to lend a helping hand in everything we needed. We’re going to miss him. He was a fan, for sure, but he loved coming to our games, always giving words of encouragement. I certainly got to know him well over the past decade. He was just a good guy who cared about people.”
The second loss was Mary Anne Ulrich, who was the matriarch of Secaucus athletics, considering she was the mother to former Secaucus volleyball coach Sheila Rivera, and the grandmother to former Hudson Reporter Athletes of the Year Cory Roesing (the current volleyball coach) and Danielle Roesing, as well as Secaucus wrestling coach Ed Roesing. No single woman had a bigger impact on Secaucus athletics. Mary Anne Ulrich was 72 years old. Both will be sorely missed. – Jim Hague.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.