By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Most youth travel baseball tournaments are pretty similar — families spend entire weekends at some location they’ve probably never been to before, sitting on hard bleachers or in the grass down one of the baselines on their well-worn lawn or fold-out chairs. Maybe grab a soft pretzel from the snack stand after the fifth inning of the first of three games that Saturday, or try to find a convenience store nearby to pick up a couple of sandwiches.
There aren’t many tournaments where moms and dads can sit back, put their toes in the sand, feel the ocean breeze, look out at the waves, enjoy an adult beverage and watch their son or daughter play baseball while advertising planes buzz by overhead.
In fact, there’s only one, as far as Marc DeBlasio knows.
There’s a huge baseball complex in Delaware called Baseball At The Beach, but it’s a good 15 miles from the shoreline. Nobody’s playing baseball ON the beach — except for a few weekends every August in Wildwood.
Wildwood is known for its expansive beach that features hard-packed sand for several hundred yards before beachgoers can get to the water. About seven years ago DeBlasio — who runs engineering firm DeBlasio & Associates and also is an engineer for the City of Wildwood — was looking for ways to utilize the area of the beach nearest the boardwalk. He wanted to find something that could attract a lot of people to town, but something different than a standard beach bar or tiki hut.
That’s when he had an idea that seemed so crazy, it just might work. Baseball On The Beach.
“I was highly involved with travel baseball with the South Jersey Sand Sharks. I’m coaching my son and we go down to The Ripken Experience in Aberdeen, MD. We played at that facility, which was a phenomenal experience for me — they have a field that looks just like Camden Yards (in Baltimore). We get there that night, we check in, I’m running around the field like an idiot because I’m just happy as a kid. So we play and it was a fantastic experience,” said DeBlasio, a Galloway resident and bonafide baseball junkie whose son, Michael, was the star pitcher this past spring at Absegami High before graduating and moving on to Rowan University. “I’m actually the city engineer for Wildwood. Wildwood has a huge beach. We were working on trying to find ways to better utilize the size of that beach and we were going in for permitting on beach bars and all kinds of stuff. And I thought to myself, ‘how cool would it be to actually try to build a baseball field on the beach and play a game?’ So I was investigating using Astroturf but that wasn’t economically viable. So then one day my friend and I go down there and the backside of the Wildwood Beach — when it rains and all the water lays in the back it packs the heck out of the sand. We were back there and threw a baseball, and it hit the ground and kind of skidded. We’re like, ‘hmm.’ So then we hit a ground ball on it and we’re like, ‘you know what? Maybe we don’t need to put Astroturf down. Maybe we can just do this on the beach if we pack the sand down.’ So we go and play a scrimmage on the backside of the beach with my Sand Sharks team and it worked pretty well.
“So the following year the mayor came to me and we were talking about it and I said, ‘the Sports at the Beach facility (in Delaware) is actually 15 miles from the beach, right? How about baseball ON the beach?’ So in 2016 we launched it and built four fields,” DeBlasio explained. “We had the fire companies down there spraying down the field, we start playing, and everybody loves it. So from 2016 to now, the thing just keeps growing in size. We went from four fields one weekend to four fields on two weekends. Then we built a fifth field that’s regulation size (for 13-to-15-year-olds) and this thing just keeps mushrooming. I’m bringing in palm trees and vendors and all kinds of stuff.”
What started as a crazy idea, and with just a handful of teams one weekend in 2016, has ballooned into a two-weekend event that features about three dozen teams in age groups from 9 all the way up to 15. This year, the tournament has even gone international, as a hockey team from Canada decided it would be a cool thing to break out some baseball gloves and bats and come down and play. In 2020, the event became a for-profit venture and was taken over by Brendan Sciarra, owner of a couple of Wildwood restaurants, including Mud Hen Brewing.
“It’s a great event. It’s a great thing for the city and the kids, it’s a family event that brings a lot of people in (to Wildwood). It’s a great thing for everybody and we’re happy to be a part of it. Marc and the city started it and I’ve kind of just kept everything going. Griffie (Clark) does a great job as our tournament director,” Sciarra said. “We’ve put more infrastructure in place and every year we try to do a little something different. We see teams coming now from all over and it’s great to see new faces in Wildwood. We may try to grow it (next year). We’ll go back to the drawing board and try to figure that out. It’s been a great event. We’re happy to be able to bring people into town so they can go to restaurants and see everything Wildwood has to offer.”
So, wait, you mean kids play actual baseball, on the beach? How is that possible?
The key to success for this event is water and steamrollers. Before each game, the infield area of each of the five fields is sprayed down with water and then steamrolled, creating a flat, fast surface similar to artificial turf. The only caveat is that the players can’t wear cleats or spikes, they must wear sneakers, because cleats would tear up the sand too much and make the field unplayable. Other than that, the complex is much like any other youth baseball complex. It has temporary fencing for each field, including dugouts, the fields are lined before each game just like at any other tournament, and there is even a makeshift “boardwalk” that runs between all the fields that fans can use to go back and forth to the food and drink vendor trucks.
“I’m an engineer, so I’ve actually designed and built sports complexes. So, on our C.A.D. drawings, we actually drew the field layouts, and then my guys go out there and actually stake it out for the city and they built it off of our stakeout,” DeBlasio said. “This was, start-to-finish, an idea in my head that actually happened. Of course, a lot of people helped along the way. And it’s cool to know that nobody else has done this before.”
“The teams are always amazed that we’ve been able to do all of this. The foundation is the beach and we’re able to build on that by incorporating the rollers and the water that our field maintenance team uses. We also work with people from the Wildwood Public Works Department to help us with lining the fields,” said Tournament Director Griffie Clark, a 26-year-old from Absecon who works for Mud Hen Brewing as an events coordinator. “The families are shocked that we can do all this. They love the presence of the palm trees, just walking up to it and seeing real baseball fields on the beach — it’s really amazing to them. They all bring their beach chairs and tents, they’re putting on their sun block, but they are also watching their kids play baseball, and at the end of the day their kids are having fun playing here and using the wristbands for the water park. We’re basically showcasing all that Wildwood has to offer.”
Clark said the Hans family, including Wildwood High baseball coach Rich Hans, has been instrumental in the success of the event.
“Gary and Rich Hans have been a great help. Rich Hans has been kind of like my ‘Baseball Commissioner.’ He’s helped me understand the game better, with scheduling, with rules. And we’ve also been working with the A.C.U.A umpires and we’re grateful for them for working with us and being so helpful,” she said. “We want this to keep getting bigger and better. We’re trying to add new things every single year, changing things, becoming more organized and synced up. I’m learning more about baseball all the time and trying to figure out what works best. We’ve been lucky that in the last three years on the weekends we’ve held the tournaments it hasn’t rained at all or had any other weather pitfalls. But every new challenge is just a learning curve so we can get better next year.”
“The city is really happy that we’ve been able to keep it going and all the effort we’ve put into it,” Sciarra added. “It’s great to see the kids and families coming together and seeing all these different types of people coming to Wildwood. We want to make people happy.”
DeBlasio said that if anybody decides to stop by next August to check it out, they’ll be just as amazed as he is every year.
“What’s really cool about this is I don’t think this has ever been done anywhere else. So it was kind of cool to be a trailblazer and actually do it. People thought we were crazy. How can you play on the beach? But then you see how we wet it down and compact it. The infield plays almost like a regular infield. And what is also cool is we do the home run derby on Friday nights. It’s one of the coolest thing I’ve ever been associated with. These kids start launching balls onto the boardwalk and you have a whole crowd of people, the tram car stops. Kids are catching the balls, throwing them back in. To the kids it’s the coolest thing,” DeBlasio said. “Baseball is a passion for me, and this was a way to give back to the sport and to do something totally unique and cool. I tried to get MLB involved and I guess for whatever reason it didn’t float their boat, but we have Under Armour as a sponsor. They do the T-shirts and it’s just been a really cool thing to see teams who start at 9 years old and they play all the way through to age 15. It’s a cool thing and I’m proud to be associated with it.”
Clark said the tournament has gotten so popular that teams are coming from all over — and some aren’t even traditional travel teams, but rather groups of friends who enjoy it so much they are forming teams just for this tournament.
“I think it’s really cool that we had our first international team, from Quebec. I’m really happy they were able to come here. It’s so cool to be able to interact with the players and coaches, learning the back stories,” Clark said. “The group from Philly is known as the Misfits because they are just neighborhood kids who got together and wanted to play in this tournament. The Canadian team is a hockey team that decided to play baseball because they thought this was cool. And we have local teams from Wildwood. A lot of teams are happy that we’ve expanded our age groups so they can continue to play here.”
“Once a team comes at 9 years old they want to keep coming. The kids love it so much because they get paired up with the water parks and the rides. I think it just continues to grow (in the coming years). You’ll probably start to see us adding some more tournaments, so maybe it goes to three weekends. I would love to see MLB get involved in this somehow, someway,” DeBlasio said. “The kids get the their brothers and sisters running around, there’s activities for them, too, and they’re digging in the beach and it’s all good, man. It’s good old-fashioned Americana. It makes your heart feel good. It’s just been a great, great experience for everybody.”
DeBlasio said he always knew this could be an idea that not only worked, but would continue to draw interest year after year.
“I didn’t have any doubts,” he said. “I think once we saw how we can get the infields compacted, and then we started to use our brains — like we don’t let the kids wear spikes because it chews up the sand, they have to wear sneakers. Once we once we got that first tournament done that first year, we’re like, ‘this thing is going to explode.’”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays