Ernesto Polanco was 10 years old when his family left their native Dominican Republic for a new life in the United States, settling in West New York.
Just like practically every other kid – and especially mostly all 10-year-old boys in the DR, where they play two sports, baseball and baseball, all year long. Polanco was determined to make friends and thought baseball would be a great way to get to know everyone in his new home.
“I started playing baseball when I was about three years old,” Polanco said. “My Dad [Leonardo] would play with me all the time. He was a pitcher his day back in the DR. He was pretty good. He said he threw 95 [miles per hour on the JUGGS gun.] I have two brothers, one is older. We all played a lot together, but I learned a lot from my Dad.”
Polanco said that he intently watched his father play the game they both loved.
“I learned so much from him,” Polanco said.
Polanco also learned by always playing kids who would happen to be much older.
So when Polanco arrived in West New York, not knowing a single soul, he knew he had a very reliable friend right away in his new land. He had baseball.
“I got all of my friends through baseball,” Polanco said. “Baseball made it all easier here. I played a little football and basketball, but baseball is so important to me. I think baseball comes with life. Baseball teaches you how to be respectful of each other, how to be courteous. It taught me discipline. I had a good idea of what I wanted to do. I had to respect others and respect the game. It was all connected.”
Polanco said that baseball taught him a lot as he was growing up, every step of the way. He was a standout player with the famed West New York Little League program. When he was part of that program, Polanco learned about winning and losing in baseball, mostly winning. He carried that success as a slick fielding infielder and a strong hitter. It was in his veins, in his heart. Baseball evolved into his daily walk of life.
So it was only natural that when it came time to go to high school, Polanco would sign up with the famed historic Memorial High School program, the same Memorial that created the immortal football coach Joe Coviello and his respected assistant Warren Wolf, who would then go on to become the state’s all-time winningest football coach, surpassing his mentor. You can’t make up that stuff. It’s like a history lesson, much like the course that the late Wolf himself would produce in a book entitled Joe Coviello: Master Mentor a decade ago.
Memorial High School is also the place where the man who stood atop the all-time win total for high school baseball coached in the Garden State.
Tony Ferrainolo fought a courageous battle with cancer and coached right up until his passing in 2011. Ferrainolo was at the helm of the Memorial baseball program in 1988, when they produced the 1988 high school baseball national championship according to USA Today.
That’s right. The No. 1 baseball team in the entire country, Memorial High School’s Tigers, coached by Ferrainolo, a season we will never ever see again in Hudson County history, a magical mystical tour.
But things got incredibly better as a sophomore when Polanco batted an unfathomable .579 with 33 hits, earning All-State honors that season.
Receiving All-State recognition as a sophomore is an incredible achievement. Only two players in the entire state earned such honors that year as sophomores. Polanco was well on his way to having a great career for the Tigers.
Then, the coronavirus pandemic shut down everything for the 2020 season.
“Losing last year was really tough,” Polanco said. “We only get four years to play high school baseball and I’m losing one. But it wasn’t just about me and baseball. The whole world was being shut down. I learned that baseball wasn’t a priority. I just had to keep myself mentally prepared. Last year made me even hungrier to play this year.”
So when the 2021 season finally began, Polanco was more than ready.
“I wanted to play this year,” Polanco said. “I knew a lot of teams wouldn’t pitch to me. But now, I feel much more comfortable. Now it’s the right time to get it going.”
Polanco definitely picked the right time to kick his final campaign with the Tigers into full gear. He had 13 hits and 14 RBI in his last 15 at-bats, including a game against Snyder where Polanco had three hits, including two home runs, and seven RBI. In one game against Kearny, Polanco went 5-for-5, scored three runs and had two RBI.
So there’s little doubt that Polanco has earned The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
For the season, Polanco is batting a sizzling .551 (on 27-fo-49) with five homers, five doubles, one triple and 19 RBI.
Memorial head coach Danny Marroquin has seen a lot of great baseball players stroll through the halls of his school where Marroquin played and was a standout pitcher. It’s hard for Marroquin to find a better hitter.
“He’s on such a roll right now,” Marroquin said. “But he works so hard at his craft. He loves to hit. When he comes to the plate, I know he’s going to give us a chance to win. I see this kid every day, the way he focuses, the way he approaches every at-bat, the way he just does things. I think he’s the best player in the county. That is in my eyes.”
Added Marroquin, “He has big goals. He talks baseball all the time. A minute doesn’t go by where he’s not thinking or doing something baseball related. He doesn’t stop. It’s in his blood. I would not be shocked if we didn’t see him playing on TV someday. He has all the tools that the other Memorial greats had. When he makes contact, he crushes the ball. Every time he hits the ball, it’s a rocket. He finds a way of finding the good barrel of the bat on the ball.”
Polanco didn’t have to worry about where he was going to college. He had already signed a national letter of intent to attend Coastal Carolina University in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a school that won the NCAA College World Series title in 2020.
“I’ll be representing Memorial and West New York when I play there,” Polanco said. “I’ll always keep Memorial and West New York in my heart. Always.”
Marroquin believes that Polanco should have been a major college prospect, even higher than the winner of the NCAA College World Series two seasons ago.
“I think Coastal [Carolina] got a steal in getting him,” Marroquin said. “There should have been other schools in on him. He can run, hit, hit for a high average. He’s hit over .550 for two years. The numbers speak for themselves. He’s that good.”
If there is one regret, it’s the fact that Polanco has been battling a sore shoulder or he would have been contributing every fifth day or perhaps every other day on the mound. Polanco was all set to be a key cog in the Tigers’ pitching rotation, but not if it was going to jeopardize a promising career as an infielder.
Polanco didn’t mind. He just wanted to play.
“He’s a great player, but he’s definitely a better kid,” Marroquin said. “He’s always nice. He’s just a quiet, nice kid. He works hard on the field and works hard in the classroom. I don’t think there’s anyone who could say a negative thing about him. If there is one thing, he’s the quietest kid and there are times we need him to be more vocal. Maybe Coastal will get that out of him.”
Polanco knows that he has to be more of a vocal leader among the Tigers.
“I feel like I’m a leader,” Polanco said. “I know I’m not that vocal. But I see what I do and what I need to do. If I have to grab someone by the collar and tell him to stop doing things the wrong way, I’ll do it. That’s the type of leader I can be.”
Polanco is undecided about a major to study at Coastal Carolina. He more than likely major in business, but wants to keep his toes in the waters of baseball.
“I want to be a teacher and a coach,” Polanco said. “We’ll see how everything goes. I’m really excited. In the beginning, I didn’t think the [NCAA Division I] D-I schools were interested in me, but that sort of just took off. God has my plan in His hands. Wherever He wants me, then that’s where I’ll be.”
Polanco admitted to being a deeply religious guy.
“I’m always praying,” Polanco said. “I’m always thankful to God. He has given me another day to play baseball. I’m grateful for that.”
Frankly, so are Marroquin and the rest of the Tigers. We’re not so sure about the Tigers’ opponents. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com