By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Staff Writer
Normally, I don’t have a horse in the race. I’m the guy standing on the sidelines during competition, taking photos and video and trying to think of what my post-game lead will be for the article I’ll write for glorydaysonline.com detailing that day’s action. Sure, it’s great when the team I’m covering wins a tournament or championship game, makes it much easier to get quotes out of players and coaches, and celebratory photos certainly move the needle when posted to social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
But it’s a whole different feeling when you are invested and have a stake in what takes place on the field. This summer, Mike Gill, on-air personality at 97.3 ESPN FM and head coach of the Atlantic Shore Babe Ruth 13-year-old all-star team, asked me to join his staff for the state and regional tournaments, as the teams were allotted a fourth coach this year. So I joined up with Gill, Don Myers and Steve Santiago in an effort to build a team that could advance to the Babe Ruth World Series in Mountain Home, Ark.
I figured I would show up a few days a week and try to pass along some of the knowledge I have gained in more than 35 years of playing competitive baseball. You learn a lot when you are working with more than a dozen rising eighth-graders and freshmen in high school. You learn that it’s much more than just a few days a week commitment, it’s something that basically consumes about half your summer — and your entire summer, if you are fortunate enough to advance to the World Series. The parents are equally committed, as they have to continually drive their kids to practices and games, and they come from towns stretching from Brigantine to Marmora in Upper Township. That’s a lot of gas money and trips to Wawa, and a lot of dirty uniform laundry!
You also learn that as a coach at this level, all the things you know — and want the kids to be able to do — sometimes they just aren’t physically ready to do. The 13-year-old level is a whole different ballgame. Singles aren’t always singles because outfielders can sometimes throw you out at first base. Often, they are playing very shallow, because not many 13-year-olds can drive a ball over their head. It’s the first year for these players on the high school, college and pro-sized fields, and most of the kids are about 120 pounds soaking wet. It’s a little bit like softball in that coaches have to play a lot of small-ball, such as bunting a runner over to second or third base, even if that bunt means you’ll have two outs in the inning. And first-and-third plays are still a challenge for most teams, simply because catchers at this level don’t have the arm strength yet to fire a throw to second base and keeping the runner at third simultaneously.
I also learned that it’s really cool getting to know these young men and their parents, younger siblings, grandparents. And, many times the perceptions you have about what a player can and can’t do change dramatically from the first practice until the season ends. The most difficult part about the entire process is making the initial cuts, as we had 25 players trying out for 15 spots, and even some of the boys we had to cut were solid players on travel clubs, so there was a lot of competition for those 15 spots. It took about two weeks of tryouts before we settled on the final roster, and even then it pained the coaching staff to have to tell 10 young teenage boys that they wouldn’t be a part of the team. You also learn that as difficult as it is, the right thing to do is to meet individually with each player who didn’t make the roster and be as honest and upfront as possible. And, like coach Gill said to many of those boys, not making the 13-year-old team doesn’t mean the end of their journey. In years past, players who didn’t make the team one year ended up making it the next, and even this year, a few of the boys we didn’t have room for were able to find a spot on the 14-year-old all-star team, which was short a few players.
The great thing about the 13-year-old age group is that they are eager to learn, and even if they can’t physically do all the things you are teaching them, they pick up a lot of the next-level type of stuff that will benefit them as the get into their high school careers. Another aspect of an all-star team such as A-Shore is that of the 15 players we selected, all of them are starters on their travel team, which means a half dozen of them have to learn how to now play a role that perhaps they’ve never been used to — being ready to come off the bench when they are needed.
Ben Funk was a kid who, when the state tournament began, was a reserve player, but when you have so many games in a short time frame, you have to have a lot of pitching, which means infielders and outfielders routinely are called upon to pitch. When that happens, guys have to come off the bench to plug the spot that infielder or outfielder vacated to go to the mound. Funk began being plugged into first base when Brandon Sharkey had to move from third base to the mound, meaning starting first baseman Nick Wagner had to go across the diamond to play third. Ben took advantage of his opportunity, and began playing so well that we couldn’t take him out of the lineup, and he became perhaps the team MVP for the regional tournament, which ended with a tough loss to Hamilton-Northern Burlington in the semifinals. His ability to take command of the first base position actually strengthened our infield, because Wagner, who has one of the best arms on the team, settled in at third base and Sharkey became the starting second baseman and one of our top pitchers.
A couple players missed some time during the regional tournament for an opportunity with the Perfect Game program in Florida, and that opened up a spot for Joe Sheeran in left field, and he played outstanding defense and contributed at the plate as A-Shore won four straight games to reach the semifinals after an opening loss in pool play at regionals. Manny Aponte, our starting shortstop, pitched for the first time all summer in the quarterfinals, and threw three innings to nail down the save against Sorensco, N.Y.
And one of the biggest highlights of the entire regional tournament came from Trevor Smith, who saw limited playing time but kept up a good attitude and came through when we needed him most. A-Shore trailed rival Atlantic West, 5-4, in pool play entering the bottom of the seventh inning, and we needed a win to keep our hopes of advancing alive. We ended up rallying to tie the game, and with one out and the winning run at second base, Smith launched a double to left field for a walk-off victory, earning Player of the Game honors in the process. That’s a highlight he’ll remember for a long time.
In the end, A-Shore didn’t reach its ultimate goal of advancing to Arkansas and the World Series, but we all learned a lot during this recent six-week stretch. Most importantly, these young men learned how to come together and play as a team, and earned the respect of their parents, opponents and the coaching staff.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays