By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Mention the words “City Series” in the Atlantic City area, and the first thing most people probably think of is Yankees vs. Mets. But if you travel about 30 miles west along Route 40 you will come to Vineland, where “City Series” takes on a much more important – and personal – meaning.
In Vineland, everyone knows what the City Series means – Vineland vs. Sacred Heart. There are many storied rivalries in sports:
Yankees-Red Sox, Celtics-Lakers, Ohio State-Michigan. On a South Jersey high school level, it’s tough to match the tradition and intensity of the Vineland-Sacred Heart rivalry. Perhaps Holy Spirit-Atlantic City is a good comparison. If you play any sport at Vineland, you can go zero-for-the-season, but if you beat Sacred Heart, well, you can at least sleep a little better at night. The same holds true for student-athletes at Sacred Heart.
On Friday night at Morie Field in Vineland, the Vineland vs. Sacred Heart rivalry came to a close as the baseball teams from each school squared off for the final time in the last game of the season for both the Fighting Clan and the Lions. Sacred Heart is scheduled to close at the end of this school year, and all other sports teams had played their final rivalry game or match.
The tension was palpable even in pregame. Fans were setting up camp an hour before the game. Select junior varsity and freshman players were in uniform, the coaches giving them a taste of the rivalry they had heard about growing up but had never experienced before as a player. The field was in pristine condition, as Sacred Heart had spent the last year transforming Morie Field, once a rough-and-tumble senior league outpost, into one of the finer baseball diamonds in the Cape-Atlantic League. Eye black was painted on, even though the sun was beginning to fade over the right-field fence. Hey, Vineland had won 20 games wearing the Bryce Harper signature war paint. You don’t mess with a good thing.
What makes any rivalry special is not only what it means to the players, but what it means to the fans, the town. Guys who
graduated decades before were on hand, remembering the City Series games they played in. What also boils up the intensity in a rivalry is when it gets personal. And make no mistake, the Vineland vs. Sacred Heart rivalry is personal. Parents are neighbors, some players grew up competing against each other in Little League, or even were teammates, and now found themselves wearing different uniforms in – for some – their final high school baseball game.
Vineland senior Don Money III (yes, he’s the grandson of former Phillies and Brewers player Don Money) had spent the afternoon swimming alongside Sacred Heart senior Kevin Allen. No doubt there was some trash talk going on, although maybe not that much. Money’s own mother has a hard time getting a word out of the soft-spoken senior. In the seventh inning, it was Allen on the mound, facing Money, who lives two doors down. Vineland coaches Jim Hague Sr. and Don Money II pointed out Sacred Heart players. “Yup, I coached that one in Little League. And that one, too.”
There were many stories inside the game. Sacred Heart’s Steve Steigerwalt turned in a gutsy performance for the Lions (7-16), striking out seven in 6 1/3 innings while throwing 134 pitches. Don Money III was going for his ninth pitching win against just one loss for the Fighting Clan (21-7). Vineland coach John Malatesta wanted that 21st victory, which would tie a school record for wins in a season. The Sacred Heart players were looking for the Hollywood ending to a disappointing season, riding off into the night with a victory in the final game in program history. They would be denied, as Vineland claimed a 6-2 victory.
And it’s no surprise that in a game of this magnitude the most unlikely of heroes turned the tide in Vineland’s favor. Tommy Rodriguez had hopes of being a three-year varsity starter at catcher when he was a sophomore. He didn’t win the job, as current junior Jimmy Hague emerged as a standout backstop. Rodriguez shuffled through his junior year playing DH, a little first base here and there, warming up relief pitchers in the bullpen. When the 2013 season started, coach Malatesta told Rodriguez that he wouldn’t see much playing time as a senior, but that he would have an important role and would like Rodriguez to accept that role. Rodriguez could have quit, and who would have blamed him? What
player wants to go through his senior year as a pinch hitter and occasional DH? But Tommy Rodriguez is no quitter. He comes from a solid family that supports him at every game, and to quit the team would be quitting on them. So he accepted his role and never complained, according to Malatesta.
And baseball is a funny game like that. It rewards hard work, patience, and the willingness to never give up. In the top of the fourth inning Friday night, with the score tied at 2, Rodriguez strode to the plate, his second at-bat in a spot start as the Fighting Clan’s left fielder. Steigerwalt had been cruising after a shaky start, and there was little indication that his 1-1 pitch would change the outcome of the game. But it did. Rodriguez launched a change-up high and deep over the left-field fence, giving Vineland a 3-2 lead, a lead it would not relinquish. It was the first and only home run of Rodriguez’s high school career.
In the end, Vineland had won. Malatesta got his school-record tying victory. Money III had gotten his ninth pitching victory. Rodriguez got the game ball, and a reluctant hug from assistant coach Travis Amstutz. Steigerwalt, for his valiant effort, didn’t get much more than a giant ice pack on his depleted left shoulder. Those things may not be remembered in years to come, but what might be is how the players conducted themselves after the final out. It wasn’t a normal handshake line. Players from opposite teams embraced,
acknowledging the efforts of their opponents.
They may have stepped between the white lines as fierce competitors, but after the game they looked more like brothers having competed in a sandlot game. And, maybe, in a weird way, they kind of are brothers. At the very least, they joined the brotherhood of true baseball players. The brotherhood you only gain entry into by leaving everything you had that night out on the field for the sake of your team, your school, your town.