When he was a high school standout at St. Peter’s Prep, eventually earning Hudson Reporter Player of the Year honors in 2013 and 2014, T.J. Ward always had dreams of eventually becoming a professional baseball player.
Even when the school he first attended, Temple University, dropped its baseball program, forcing Ward to transfer to the University of Hartford, Ward never lost sight of the dream.
And even after Ward suffered a disastrous anterior cruciate ligament injury to his knee, Ward was determined to rehab the damage to the fullest and return to the diamond as soon as possible to keep the dream alive.
Well, these days, Ward is in Michigan, playing for the Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers, the defending champion of the United Shore Professional Baseball League. The league is totally independent of affiliated teams in Major League Baseball’s minor leagues, but it is certainly professional baseball, just like the New Jersey Jackals and Rockland Boulders of the Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball, also known as the Can-Am League, or the Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League.
Ward is an All-Star third baseman for the Beavers, hitting at press time .276, with three home runs and 14 RBI. The Jersey City native has played in all 28 of the Beavers’ games to date. The Beavers sit atop the league standings, currently with a 15-11-2 record. Yes, there are two ties. Don’t ask how teams get ties in the USPBL.
Ward played for the same team last year, so he decided to go back and give baseball in Michigan another try. Nick Campana, one of Ward’s teammates at Hartford, is also on the Beavers’ roster. He also happens to be a close friend to Ward. The two worked out together in the offseason to get ready for the 2019 campaign with the Beavers. Ward also worked out with another former teammate at Hartford named Dave MacKinnon, who is with the Anaheim Angels’ organization, playing Class A baseball with the Inland Empire 66ers of the California League.
“We all simulated things to each other,” Ward said. “I think it worked out well.”
Ward also spent a good portion of the winter and spring as the batting coach at Ramapo University. Ward liked his experience with the Roadrunners of Ramapo and may pursue a career in coaching college baseball, like his uncle Ed, who coached at FDU, NJIT and was the first-ever baseball coach at Felician College during his coaching career. Ed Ward also ran the highly successful Golden Falcon Baseball Camp and has worked as an umpire on both the high school and college levels.
“I think it was a great experience for me,” Ward said about coaching at Ramapo, where Vincenzo Sita, one of Ward’s teammates at St. Peter’s Prep, was an infielder. “The players all bought into what I had to say.”
But T.J. is not ready to give up his dream of playing baseball. He’s only 23 years old and he’s doing well in a highly competitive independent league.
“There’s legit talent here,” Ward said. “I want to keep playing, especially since I’m finally getting better after the [knee] surgery. My body feels the best post-surgery. I’ve worked with a trainer [Jerry DeFillippo] who has helped to transform my body.”
Ward followed a personalized strength program and worked on his speed. He also received physical therapy at Strulowitz and Gargiulo in Jersey City, under the watchful eye of Carl Gargiulo, who has treated hundreds of Hudson County athletes over the years.
Carl Gargiulo worked with Bobby Hurley after his horrific accident in 1994 that almost cost Hurley his life; current Hudson County Freeholder Jerry Walker during his playing days at St. Anthony and later Seton Hall University; Roshown McLeod, who had a great career at Duke before moving on to the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks, and Elijah Ingram, a McDonald’s All-American in high school who first went to St. John’s and ended up at New Mexico State, leading that program to the NCAA Tournament.
With all the training and physical fitness done in the offseason, Ward was definitely ready for the 2019 season with the Beavers.
“I got off to a good start,” Ward said. “I had greater success early compared to last year, when I struggled a little. I think the work I put in was definitely worth it.”
Ward also played 21 games in a winter league in California, which also helped him prepare.
As it turned out, the solid start out of the gate enabled Ward to get selected to the USPBL All-Star team. The All-Star Game was played at Jimmy John’s Stadium in Utica, with nearly 5,000 fans in attendance.
There were some special fans there – namely the Rutkowski family, who are Ward’s hosts that he lives with during the season that runs from May through September.
“My host family brought out cutouts of my head shot and posted them on sticks,” Ward said. “They were waving these heads around in a suite behind home plate. The whole extended family of the Rutkowskis had one.”
That cutout of Ward’s head might just be a collector’s item.
Ward continues to lead the league in doubles and is displaying more power than he did in Hartford. That should impress the MLB scouts who are constantly in attendance. Five players from the USPBL have signed contracts this summer. A total of 32 USPBL players have signed with big league organizations since the league was formed in 2016. So there is hope.
“I drew some interest from scouts when I was at Hartford, but then I tore the ACL,” Ward said. “I was never able to put it all together. My manager [Chris Newell] and my assistant coach [Alex Maloney] think that I can play affiliated ball. All I need is a shot.”
But Ward is enjoying himself. He’s playing pro ball and he’s an All-Star.
“Without a doubt, it has been great,” Ward said. “We play in front of fans who really appreciate us. Kids come up and ask for autographs. After the All-Star game, I spent about a half hour signing autographs, so that was kind of cool. Every day is like Opening Day with 3 or 4,000 fans. The only bad thing is that I’m four-to-five months away from home. But my family came out to visit me last week.”
Well, the Ward family got to see something new, as T.J. played second base for a few games.
“It was the first time I played second base since I was about 8 years old,” Ward said. “There’s a lot more moving around and a lot more to do, but it was a lot of fun. I’m really enjoying it. It’s kind of what I always dreamed about.”
Only one thing: It’s not the big leagues. But who knows? Maybe Ward will catch a break.
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 via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com