Imagine getting a chance to play a baseball game at Yankee Stadium.
It’s something that most kids – and grownups as well – simply dream about.
But last Monday, three baseball teams from Jersey City got the opportunity to get on the same field that the defending World Champions grace every night.
It’s a feeling that won’t soon go away, for the players and their coaches alike.
“I was right there where Derek Jeter plays and where A-Rod [Alex Rodriguez] bats,” said Mike Martucci, the recent St. Peter’s Prep graduate who played shortstop for the 18-and-under Jersey City Recreation team in the Major League Baseball RBI Regional tournament, held over the weekend throughout Jersey City, with the finals at the hallowed halls of Yankee Stadium.
“It was really more of a moment for me this year, because I got a chance to play,” said Martucci, who was on the Jersey City 18-and-under team last year, but didn’t get in the game. “I was all hyped up. It was really exciting.”
Angel Paulino, who will enter his senior year at St. Mary’s in Jersey City in the fall, agreed. He was the starting pitcher for the Jersey City Recreation team in the final, ironically against another Jersey City team, the Jackie Robinson All-Stars.
“It was like a dream come true,” Paulino said. “Every kid wants to have that opportunity, to pitch in a game at Yankee Stadium. I felt like a pro. I felt like I was a Yankee.”
Paulino pitched a no-hitter against a team from Connecticut in the earlier round of the regional tourney, set up by MLB to Re-Build Baseball in the Inner-Cities, thus the RBI tag. In that game Friday night, Paulino threw 122 pitches, but was able to come back on just two days’ rest to take the ball in the deciding game against very familiar foes from Jackie Robinson.
“I was lucky that Coach [Kevin Wendolowski, the head coach at St. Peter’s Prep] gave me the ball,” Paulino said. “He asked me if I could go and I told him I was fine. I still wanted the ball. I wasn’t about to turn down a start in Yankee Stadium. He asked me how I felt and he took my word. No one wants to turn down a chance to pitch on the biggest stage, on the same mound that CC Sabathia pitches on. Not many kids get that chance.”
Not many get a chance to coach there either, especially when they grew up as die-hard Yankee fans.
“I felt like I was walking on hallowed ground,” said Wendolowski, who said he has been a Yankee fan since he was 7 years old. “But I said to myself, `We can’t be satisfied to just be here.’ You only go around once in life. Not many get this opportunity. It’s not every day that you get a chance to play in the greatest stadium in the world. I wanted to cherish the moment, but we had to play the game.”
Wendolowski knew that the Jackie Robinson team was going to be a tough competitor, a team coached by Marist head coach Ron Hayward and featuring former Marist All-Area standouts like Fabian Roman and Eddie Sorondo.
In fact, Roman, who was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 2009 MLB free agent amateur draft, was the starting pitcher for the Jackie Robinson squad.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, especially with a pitcher like Fabian on the hill,” Wendolowski said. “They also had Sorondo behind the dish. That was a tremendous team with a good coach. But we felt we had the best team in the tournament. We just had to go out and prove it.”
Sure enough, the Jersey City Recreation team, wearing the Yankee uniforms, proved to be the best team in the tourney, winning all four of the regular tourney games and then coming away with a 7-4 victory in the title game over Jackie Robinson. Paulino gutted it out and pitched five innings, with Nick Cordato of Bayonne pitching the final two.
“It’s definitely going to be something I always remember,” Paulino said. “I love the pressure of the big game and this was a big game.”
“In that last inning, my heart was beating so fast,” said Martucci, headed to St. Peter’s College in the fall to play baseball for the Peacocks. “I was thinking that this is what the Yankees have to do every night. It’s crazy. It was also wild that we usually play these kids in places like Pershing Field and Lincoln Park and here we were playing them in Yankee Stadium.”
With the victory, the Jersey City Recreation team now heads to the RBI World Series in Jupiter, Fla. beginning Monday.
It marks the third straight year that a Jersey City team will have earned a berth in the RBI World Series. In 2008, a team went to Los Angeles and last year, a team went to Florida.
It poses a bit of a problem for Wendolowski.
“I don’t fly,” the coach said. “But I’m going to make every effort to be there. For the kids, it’s a chance of a lifetime.”
The other Jersey City team to play at Yankee Stadium Monday was the Jersey City Recreation 15-and-under team, but that team lost to Boston, 3-2, in the regional finale…
In other news
For many years, if a local high school football player didn’t have either the funds or the grades to go to a four-year college, then they either headed to the hills to play junior college football or didn’t play at all.
That’s not the case any longer, and former Memorial standout lineman Martin Ojeda is proof of that.
Ojeda has signed on with Team Gattaca, a program headed by respected coach Manuel Galarza, which will allow football players to attend Mercer County Community College and play football for…naturally, the Team Gattaca. The Team Gattaca has already begun regular workouts at Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville, preparing for the fall season.
Ojeda’s parents are immigrants from Uruguay, so he didn’t have the funding to go to a four-year school. His former coach, Brian Meeney, set up Ojeda with a Brooklyn junior college program called ASA, but Galarza left ASA for Team Gattaca, and Ojeda followed suit.
“Coach Galarza called me and told me he was putting everything together for me to go to Mercer,” Ojeda said. “They’re giving us everything we need to succeed. I’ve been training for three weeks already and it really means a lot to me to get this chance. When high school ended, I didn’t know where I was going to go. I really loved playing football and didn’t want to stop. Without this program, I’d be home probably flipping burgers at McDonald’s. I’m thankful for the opportunity. If it works out, then everyone should know about this.”
Ironically, about a month ago, we wrote that Ojeda’s former coach, Meeney, was all set to become the new head coach at Marist. That has since changed, as Meeney has secured another job in central New Jersey. Former Marist coach and current athletic director Larry Arico, who had stepped down as football coach a few months ago, is now back in charge of the Royal Knights on the field as well.—Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.