By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
The talent that South Jersey high school baseball has shown the past decade-plus — starting with Mike Trout, a 2009 Millville graduate, and up through today with Mainland senior Chase Petty doing what he’s doing as a potential first-round Major League Baseball draft pick in July — has made this area a hotbed for college recruiters and professional scouts.
Joe Bunting, owner of Bunting Family Pharmacy in Northfield and an avid baseball player and fan going back to his days at Mainland Regional High School and Furman College, thought that is was time Atlantic County had a league that showcased all the exciting high school and college talent the area has to offer. A longtime coach of the Northfield Cardinals in the Atlantic County Baseball League, Bunting decided to break away from the ACBL and form his own league this summer, calling it the South Jersey South Shore Baseball League.
The league is set to begin a 24-game regular season on May 24 and will feature 10 teams in Atlantic and Cape May counties, with the possibility of expanding to 12 teams in 2022. Bunting’s vision is that of a bustling league that attracts the best high school and college players from South Jersey while also creating loyal fan bases in various towns throughout the shore. He said he wants summer baseball games in South Jersey to be an event again.
“The talent is incredible around here from a baseball standpoint. I think I was the first person in about 15 years from Mainland to get a Division I baseball scholarship, and when I went to the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament a couple years ago — when you had St. Augustine Prep vs. Gloucester Catholic — they said there were 21 Division I commits between the two teams. So when you’re hearing we have all this talent, let’s keep the talent here,” said Bunting, who led the Northfield Cardinals to the ACBL championship a few seasons ago. “You have all these parents who are spending thousands of dollars on travel baseball and a lot of people can’t afford that anymore. Some of these parents, their electric might get turned off but they’ll be able to play in Myrtle Beach this summer. The thing is, the talent is here, why can’t we create something here to keep all the guys here while also getting the communities involved? Why can’t we make it something where it’s a night out, and have pride in that — and maybe that will spill over to where (after a game) people are saying, let’s grab pizza at Carluccio’s, or let’s get a bite at the Anchorage or something. Things like that can positively impact these communities.”
Bunting said the league isn’t just a fly-by-night men’s league, it’s legitimate baseball with college players and prospects, and even guys who have graduated from college but were standout players in high school and college. Bunting said each team will be outfitted with radar guns, accurate statistics will be kept and posted on the league website, and each team will be responsible for giving back to their respective communities in the form of summer baseball clinics for area youth. The ultimate goal is to get high school and junior college players noticed so they can have an opportunity to play college baseball.
“I wanted to run a league that was legit. You see it all the time where you hear about a kid throwing 92 miles-per-hour, and you go to a game and he’s throwing 82. What radar guns are they using? We want to try to legitimize it so that when we put out numbers, they are real numbers with real radar guns,” he said. “I wanted to create something where we’re keeping the best talent in South Jersey, which could spill over economically for local businesses, but we also want to make it worthwhile for the players. That’s why we’re going to be introducing things we haven’t had before, like streaming games and radar guns, the statistics on the website.”
Bunting also wanted to make sure he staffed each team with coaches who were longtime area baseball people and who could serve as mentors to the high school and college players on their roster. Guys such as Jeff Ball, an assistant coach at Atlantic Cape Community College who has played professionally, Junior Mejia, an assistant coach at Atlantic City High and one of the top players in the ACBL the past decade or so, Belford Rivera, whose son, Matt, was a former star at Holy Spirit and now plays at La Salle, and Ted Khoury, who led Ocean City to the ACBL title last summer.
“It’s important to me to have good managers and good baseball people involved. These teams will be successful not because of anything I’ve done, but by having good people there taking care of things and having pride in what they are doing,” Bunting said. “We want guys to take care of their fields, stay after games to clean up, be respectful and be better people beyond baseball. Sooner or later, their baseball career is going to be over, so hopefully we can help prepare them for the next stage in life. I think we have really good managers and I’m very confident they’ll do a good job and be great leaders and mentors for these players. At that same time, everybody wants to win, so it’s going to be very competitive. There aren’t too many leagues where you can look at the 10 teams and believe that seven or eight of them can win the championship this year.”
The league features the Ventnor BaySox, Somers Point Captains, Galloway Township Mustangs, Egg Harbor Township Eagles, Ocean City Water Dogs, Northfield Cardinals, Buena Blue Dawgs, Absecon Outlaws, Egg Harbor City Knights and the South Jersey Surf, which will play in Northfield at Birch Grove Park, along with the Cardinals. Several of the teams are coming over from the ACBL, including Ventnor, Ocean City, Northfield, Absecon, Egg Harbor City and the Surf (formerly Margate Green Wave). Expansion teams include Somers Point, Galloway Township, EHT Eagles and Buena.
“So far things have truly exceeded my expectations. We were hoping to have six teams and we could easily have had 11 this year. We have 10 and I can say with 95 percent certainty that we’ll have 12 next year. We want to be able to tweak some things. I’m really excited about the all-star game, I think that’s going to be a cool event, the home run derby will be really cool,” Bunting said. “We have about 20 college coaches who have already expressed interest in gaining access to our website, and with our website we’re going to create a coaches portal where they have to sign up to be able to have full access to everything, and that way we can track who is watching our players. I think that can be a very good recruiting tool. I think that adds a neat dynamic, to be able to get that kind of following from college coaches.
“I’m really excited. I take a lot of pride in everything I go into, and this is one of the most rewarding undertakings I’ve ever had,” Bunting continued. “The older I get, the less I remember me being a baseball player. Now I see myself as a coach and the president of this league, and there’s a tremendous amount of pride in developing this. We have great coaches who make things a lot easier for me to do something like this, and they are all volunteers. Nobody is getting paid to do this and we’re asking coaches to devote three nights per week for several months to this. But I think they’ll see it’s very rewarding. For the past nine years, every Sunday night I send out a text message to more than 20 young ballplayers to see how they are doing and following up with their lives. Their success is part of our success.
“We’re hoping these communities get involved, come out and see some excellent baseball. I don’t think they’ll be disappointed. We’re not a fly-by-night operation. We’ll be here for a long time, and hopefully these different towns will begin to feel a connection to their team and support us for a long time.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays