By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
I’m an unapologetic baseball nut. Played in high school and college and spent a good portion of my youth battling my brother, Paul, in very intense Wiffle Ball games in the driveway. Baseball has been weaved into the fabric of my life through countless hours spent having a catch, playing pepper, or even sitting in the garage on a rainy summer night alongside my brother listening to Bob Murphy call Mets games on the radio.
There’s something timeless about the game, and generational. I watch the kids in the Atlantic Shore Babe Ruth program and think back to when I was 13 years old and try to compare myself at that age to some of the current A-Shore players. Certainly, there are many who are better than I was at that age, but I like to think I could hold my own if I were 13 or 14 years old today.
Covering high school baseball the past four spring seasons has been a great experience. I’ve written before about how we in South Jersey are in the midst of a new “golden age” of high school baseball, and all you have to do is look at how many collegiate and professional baseball players South Jersey has produced in the last seven or eight years to know that’s not just theory, it’s a fact.
In the past three years, I’ve been able to follow teams on runs to state championship games. Mainland in 2014 and Holy Spirit in 2015 went on Cinderella runs in which they entered the state playoffs with sub-.500 records before catching fire and winning titles. And this past spring, Ocean City captured the attention of South Jersey baseball fans by putting up more than 20 wins, capturing a South Jersey title and advancing all the way to the Group 3 championship game.
I’ve been impressed with the talent level I’ve seen during high school baseball, and watching outstanding players doesn’t stop in June. Not by a long shot.
The past two summers, Atlantic Shore has put on a show, and 12 months ago the 14-year-old all-stars brought home the program’s first world series title. This summer saw both the 14s and the 15s advance to their respective world series tournaments.
And catching games in the Atlantic County Baseball League’s championship series the past few summers has really been a treat. If you haven’t been to at least one championship series game in the past few years, you are seriously missing out on some great baseball players.
Lou Pepper of the Margate Hurricanes has been masterful on the mound for more than a decade, despite a rough outing in Game 4 of this year’s championship series. The guy has 131 wins during his career and less than 20 losses. Even a kid addicted to MLB The Show video game would have a hard time putting up those kinds of numbers.
And Hammonton has put together a really fun lineup to watch. Kevin Baxter, a former star at St. Augustine Prep and Rutgers University, is an absolute bull on the mound. Even when he doesn’t have his best stuff, you can bet he’s going to be out there for at least six innings and will give his team a chance to win.
And in this year’s championship series we saw the coming of age of L.T. Struble, a slick-fielding shortstop for Hammonton who has speed and a nice bat and plans to play at national champion Coastal Carolina this fall.
Even some of the older guys in the league, such as Jason Law, Kevin Fitzgerald and Scott Evangelist of Margate, can still swing it. Law and Evangelist have those great lefty swings that make you really appreciate good hitting.
As I was watching the final game of the ACBL championship series I was thinking to myself, hmm, maybe I can still hang with these guys. Then I realized I just turned 44 years old. But, I’m still trying to make my mark in the over-35 league. I plan to keep playing until I can’t hit a curveball anymore, so I think I have a few years left in me. After all, a summer without baseball isn’t much of a summer at all.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN