Every October, a local sixth- grade teacher gives a unique lesson on geography, meteorology and baseball. He has his students look up the birthplaces of the players on the World Series teams and check on a world map to notice how few come from towns above the 40th parallel. He explains that the season is shorter north of that latitude, making it harder for ballplayers to develop.
Harder, though not impossible. What the students learned last fall was that a glaring and growing exception is Long Island, where the climate is proving to be just right for producing major-leaguers.
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“Baseball is in the fabric of our lives,” said that teacher, Lou Petrucci, who also is the baseball coach at Ward Melville High School.
This past fall, his exercise on World Series Geography really hit home because Steven Matz of Stony Brook, Petrucci’s former ace, was among the players. Marcus Stroman from Patchogue-Medford nearly made the Fall Classic as well.
Both of them dramatically helped pitch their respective teams into the postseason, Matz with the Mets and Stroman with the Blue Jays. Each went 4-0 and came up big at intense moments. They became standard- bearers in what was a banner year for the Island: Nick Tropeano of West Islip and Stony Brook University went 2-0 in September for the pennant-chasing Angels. Craig Biggio of Kings Park was inducted into the Hall of Fame. It was the 60th anniversary of the no-hitter pitched by Bridgehampton High School’s Carl Yastrzemski in the 1955 Suffolk Division B title game.
All told, 2015 made a strong statement that, despite the cold winters, Long Island is a baseball hotbed.
“If I could play year-round, I would,” Matz said at Mets camp. “But I just wasn’t able to, all the time.” As for why the Island produces so many pros, he said, “I have no idea. I literally couldn’t give you an answer for that.”
That is what makes it so compelling. As Petrucci said, “It’s so hard, it’s so competitive, there are so many teams in the country. The fact that Steven and Marcus have made it as starters, from the same area, from the same high school league, is amazing.”
The bottom line is, baseball never is and never has been out of season around here.
“We shatter the stigma of playing in the Northeast by training hard indoors during the offseason so when the weather breaks, no one has a head start,” Stroman said. “You have to fully commit to this game and enjoy it to be successful. The Northeast weather can put you at a disadvantage, but you can’t allow that to stand in your way. So you work inside.’’
Neal Heaton, the former Sachem standout who became an All-Star in the big leagues, taught both Matz and Stroman since they were 9 years old and obviously was proud to see how they influenced the 2015 major league season. “But you know what? I just wasn’t shocked,’’ Heaton said. “I played in the major leagues for 11-plus years. I know what a major-league arm looks like. I just said these kids have the work ethic and they’re going to have a really good shot.”
So the two young pitchers are prominent proof that you can get there from here. There is a lot of “here” in their careers. They played Island-based summer ball together. They dominated Suffolk’s League I in high school while still studying with Heaton at the All-Pro Sports Academy in Bellport. That is a facility established by Paul Gibson, who signed with the Reds out of Center Moriches High School in 1978, had an eight-year major- league career and earned a 2015 World Series ring as an advance scout for the Royals (who beat both the Blue Jays and Mets).
ATTENTION PAID TO LI
“It’s completely rewarding. I didn’t have as much hands-on experience with them as Neal did, but I certainly saw them pro- gress and I worked with them on occasion. They’re both tremendous kids and I’m not shocked at all,” Gibson said last month, a few weeks after having signed former Bellport and Long Island Ducks pitcher Bruce Kern at Heaton’s suggestion.
From now on, no one will be surprised to see scouts converging on the Island, as they did on April 16, 2009, for the duel between Matz and Ward Melville vs. Stroman and Patchogue- Medford (Ward Melville won, 1-0).
Baseball people know the way to Stony Brook, too, considering that seven players from the university’s 2012 College World Series team were drafted and that four former Seawolves — six- time All-Star Joe Nathan, Tom Koehler, Travis Jankowski and Tropeano — were on major- league rosters at the end of last season.
“When you get a Matz and a Stroman, now the decision-making people pay more attention to that area,” Gibson said. “It has been a progressive thing. Scouting directors and other people who make decisions are spending more time crossing their T’s and dotting their I’s in the Northeast because there’s history now.”
In scouting terms, recent history is the one that counts. But the tale of Long Island baseball goes way back. In fact, the Baseball Hall of Fame says the first game at which admission was charged was here — on July 20, 1858, at what is now Corona, Queens for an all-star contest between New York City and Brooklyn.
Since then, Long Islanders have permanently etched their names on to some of the greatest moments in the sport’s lore.
Yastrzemski’s bat achieved the Triple Crown in 1967 in leading the Red Sox to one of the American League’s most unlikely pennants, only 12 years after he fired the no-hitter against Center Moriches. Al Weis from Farmingdale High was a World Series hero for the 1969 Miracle Mets. Frank Viola (East Meadow) was the 1987 World Series Most Valuable Player for the Twins. Gene Larkin (Chaminade) won the 1991 World Series for the Twins with a 10th-inning single of Game 7.
Even against that backdrop, Stroman and Matz stand out because they were so eye-catching. Stroman recovered much more quickly than expected from an apparent season-ending ACL injury in his left knee. Stroman tweeted last August that Dr. James Andrews was “stunned” by his progress. His return and his 1.67 ERA gave the Jays the equivalent of a major late-season trade.
Matz created Jeremy Lin-like fervor in New York as he completed his comeback from Tommy John surgery and became the final part of a stellar young rotation. Plus, he honed his cult-hero stature by going 3-for-3 with four RBIs during his debut and finishing the season with a .286 batting average and .643 OPS.
The two of them represent the crest of a new Long Island wave. Minor-league systems include the likes of Pat Cantwell (West Islip and Stony Brook University), a Triple-A catcher for the Rangers. College pitchers Matt Crohan of Riverhead and Anthony Kay of Ward Melville are expected to go early in this year’s draft. Scouting radar also has noticed Justin Dunn of Freeport, the closer for Boston College who started and threw a scoreless inning against the Red Sox last month.
DEFYING THE ODDS
All of them have defied the odds that come with being from a place that does not offer the warmth and exposure that Florida, Texas and California do. So the question is, how? How do so many Long Islanders get baseball contracts? How does Stony Brook knock off six-time national champion LSU to reach the College World Series? How does all the talent keep from getting frozen from November through February?
Reasons are as many and varied as the hamlets and incorporated villages from Little Neck to Montauk. The answers start with the fabric of the Island itself.
“Certainly I’m not a sociologist, but I think that the way our communities are built, a big part of Long Island has been Little League baseball and playing for your town. And that carried on to the school districts,” said Matt Senk, the baseball coach at Stony Brook for the past 25 years. “Although the landscape of baseball has changed quite a bit with travel teams, there are a lot of communities that have — and I mean this in a good way — that Little League mentality. That carries on despite the change that has happened in amateur baseball.”
Senk played for John Glenn High School in Elwood, then went to Cortland and came home to coach at St. Agnes and Kellenberg High Schools before moving up to college.
“Frankly, I felt as strongly about high school baseball here 26 years ago as I do today,” he said. “When I got here to Stony Brook, I made the decision that the foundation of my program here was to tap into homegrown talent. I think that was a big part of what laid the foundation for our program and has really carried us for a quarter of a century. Long Island baseball has been good for a long, long time and it’s great that so many guys now have gotten that professional opportunity, either out of high school or college.”
Former Suffolk Community College and Dowling coach John Davide remembers getting on his bike in West Babylon in 1958 to watch Yastrzemski and his dad play. Davide was impressed then, just as he was in 2009 when he was an assistant to his son at Longwood High School, seeing Stroman and Matz on the other side of the field. He says the commitment from parents and volunteer coaches still is strong, and it has been coupled with extraordinary advances in training and instruction. The result is that a Long Island prospect is not like some solo comet.
“John Curtis was head and shoulders above everybody else. He just glowed,” Davide said of the Smithtown kid who went on to pitch for the Red Sox and Cardinals. “When one guy out of 1,000 gets signed, it’s kind of tough. But now, when kids are seeing 10 or 15 guys sign, it definitely encourages them.”
Matz, who also played basketball in high school, said, “We have facilities all over Long Island that are open year-round. You can get your work in there . . . Any chance I could get, my dad would take me down there and I would hit, take ground balls, pitch, whatever I had to do.”
Besides, he said, after months of dark, icy days, “You can’t wait for the weather to get nice outside so you can get back out there.”
WILLING TO LEARN
From his scouting perspective, Gibson said that the more ambitious schedules of travel teams create more exposure for Long Island players. “They’ll go to a place in Georgia for a tournament and there are hundreds of recruiters and scouts around that see things,” he said.
Petrucci pointed out that the presence on the Island of big- league alumni such as Heaton, Gibson, John Habyan and Dave Lemanczyk boosts young careers tremendously. The other half of that, in Heaton’s view, is that the players are willing to take instruction and run with it. Of Matz and Stroman specifically, he said, “I was teaching them stuff when they were 13 or 14 years old that I didn’t learn until I was in Double-A. These kids work hard. You teach them the proper methods and mechanics and they run with it.”
Local baseball people point out that some parents on Long Island have the wherewithal and willingness to send their kids to lessons with experienced teachers.
Most of the top teachers are former pitchers, which helps explain why most of the draftees now are pitchers. On top of that, as odd as it may sound, pitchers actually might benefit from living in cold-weather country. Heaton said: “When I was at the University of Miami, Ron Fraser, who was my coach, always recruited kids from the Northeast because they were fresh. They weren’t burned out and they were tough. They didn’t have to have perfect weather conditions. It was just a different breed. Kids from here on Long Island are pretty tough kids.”
Gibson said that, in contrast, “Hitting is a repetition skill and the high school season [here] is 20 games long. You go to Florida and the season is 30 or 40 games in good weather every day. In the scouting industry, you tend to go with the more polished hitter.”
There is plenty of polish on Long Island baseball, and people in the industry do not see it tarnishing anytime soon. Attitude trumps latitude here. “We feel that, based on interest we’re getting from pro scouts, we’re going to have some guys drafted off this year’s team,” Stony Brook’s Senk said, adding that Tropeano and Cantwell spent most of the winter working out at their alma mater. “To have them around our guys, you can’t quantify what that means.”
Nor can anyone tell how many future Matzes and Stromans there are around here. But there is no shortage of kids who want to try.
“I have five or six kids now who are in the ninth grade who really have a shot to play professional baseball. I have an eighth-grader who’s throwing 82 miles an hour,” Heaton said. “We’ve got kids, we’ve got talent. All they have to do is keep working, stay out of trouble and they’ll be right there.”
And it is a proven fact that you can get “there” from here.
IN THE MINORS
These players with a Long Island connection were listed on the minor league register during spring training. (Player, position, LI high school and/or college, major league club affiliation)
Max Almonte: RHP, Holy Trinity HS, Cardinals
Steve Ascher: LHP, Mattituck HS, Rays
Tyler Badamo: RHP, Mount Sinai HS, Dowling, Mets
Danny Barnes: RHP, Manhasset HS, Blue Jays
Brendan Butler: RHP, Sayville HS, A’s
Patrick Cantwell: C-1B, West Islip HS, Stony Brook, Rangers
Keith Couch: RHP, Holy Trinity HS, Adelphi, Red Sox
Dominic DeMasi: RHP, East Meadow HS, Indians
Ian Dickson: RHP, Northport HS, Nationals
Jimmy Duff: RHP, Garden City HS, Mets
Nick Fanti: LHP, Hauppauge HS, Phillies
Charles Galiano: C-DH, Commack HS, Fordham, Brewers
Kyle Hansen: RHP, St. Dominic HS, St. John’s, White Sox
Brian Hunter: RHP, Port Jefferson HS, Reds
Tim Ingram: RHP, Clarke HS, Old Westbury, Rays
Alex Katz: LHP, Herricks HS, St. John’s, White Sox
Steve Laurino: 1B-DH, Carle Place HS, Orioles
Cam Maron: C, Hicksville HS, Reds
Ryan McCormick: RHP, Massapequa, HS, St. John’s, Rockies
Kyle McGowin: RHP, Pierson HS, Angels
John Mincone: LHP, Half Hollow Hills East HS, Suffolk CC, Mets
Dennis O’Grady: RHP, Floral Park HS, Padres
Joe Palumbo: LHP, St. John the Baptist HS, Rangers
Chris Pike: RHP, Southampton HS, Rays
Matt Reistetter: C-DH, Hauppauge HS, Hofstra, Nationals
Rob Rogers: RHP, Islip HS, Dodgers
Alec Sole: INF, Sachem North HS, Rays
Bryan Verbitsky: RHP, Hofstra, Padres
Max Watt: RHP, Babylon HS, Red Sox
(Projected June Rule 4 draft picks)
Anthony Kay: LHP, Ward Melville HS, UConn
Matt Crohan: LHP, Riverhead HS, Winthrop
Kyle Young: LHP, St. Dominic HS
Jack Parenty: OF-2B, Stony Brook University
Tyler Honahan: LHP, Stony Brook University
This story was reported by Mark Herrmann, David Lennon, Marc Carig and Gregg Sarra. It was written by Herrmann.