Our Town: Take me out to the ball game

Our Town: Take me out to the ball game
Former big league pitcher Chris Dragone working with kids at Baseball Plus

The morning immediately following Super Bowl Sunday reveals the following scenarios. Whether the Patriots win or lose, Tom Brady will awaken next to his beautiful wife and congratulate himself for having chosen wisely in love.

And every American sports fan will open his (or her) eyes, realize that football season is over which means that winter will soon be gone and that our attention can finally turn to baseball and to the sweetness of spring.

Baseball will always have a hold on the American heart because of its elegance, its leisurely pace, the green beauty of the diamond, our collective memory of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle and the fact that it is played in summertime.

We all have our childhood memories of baseball. One indelible memory for me was the first time my dad took me to Yankee Stadium. I still recall trudging up the dark and dank corridors inside the stadium until we reached the mezzanine section and then catching my very first glimpse of the infield of Yankee Stadium.

Alas, the shimmering green field under the lights was a shock to me and the most beautiful thing a young boy could see, like arriving at the Emerald City. Such is the magic of big league baseball.

So this week is the perfect time to get reacquainted with our great American pastime. I had noticed for many years a place called Baseball Plus on Duffy Avenue in Hicksville so I pulled into the parking lot last weekend and walked right in.

The building is an unimposing one-story structure which turned out to be 20,000 square feet of pure fun. When you enter you see a vast display of bats, balls, gloves and catchers equipment.

I walked to the front desk and met Anthony Morales who manages the place and is the founder. Anthony had an affable smile and easy manner and told me his history.

He grew up in the Bronx, in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, and that in the Bronx there was one sport and that was baseball. In 1992, he and his partner Angel Mangual opened up the first Baseball Plus right there in the Bronx and it was an instant success.

His dream was to build an outdoor field but settled for his indoor ball field with batting cages and a pro shop.

After eight years the lease ran out and he moved Baseball Plus to its present location in Hicksville. This place has a 70 ft. by 70 ft. infield which is used by elite baseball teams but also by soccer, lacrosse and field hockey teams.

The day I was there I watched as a former big league pitcher Chris Dragone coached a young elite travel baseball team through some infield drills.

Anthony told me he felt that the game of baseball was on the decline because of so many other sports being played nowadays but I’m not so sure he’s right. During the two days I was there the parking lot was filled to overflowing, the infield was constantly in use and every one of the 12 batting cages were being used by coaches, trainers and ball players.

I sat down to watch Dragone work with his team and struck up a conversation with two fathers who were sitting on the benches behind the nets. The first was Nitin Mariwalla who also happened to be a brain surgeon and researcher from Oyster Bay.

His son was in Friends Academy and only 7 years old, a year younger than most of his teammates but he already seemed to be a serious athlete. Nitin told me he liked the idea of providing his son with a challenging environment where he would not be the best on the team and also that he liked exposing his son to the diversity found at this baseball club.

The other dad was Brian Ferdinand, a real estate developer and his son also goes to Friends Academy and lives in Muttontown. And all this time I thought that baseball was a blue collar sport. Maybe not so much.

We began talking about the investment of time and money it takes to keep his children in all these three-season sports. Brian told me that his son plays in two basketball leagues, a lacrosse league, a travel baseball team and a football league. If you add up the costs it’s formidable.

The next question, of course, is why bother. Both Nitin and Brian outlined the very good reasons for all the investment.

They said they felt it taught discipline, the realization that to achieve anything takes hard work, and that sport teaches one to cope with failure. Serious sports involvement also places their kids on a winning track which involves fitness, good nutrition and socializing rather than video game playing, overeating or drug use. I could not have put it better.

Baseball has a long history. In 1888 Harvard educated Ernest Thayer wrote the poem “Casey at the Bat” about the sad day in Mudville when mighty Casey did strike out. Baseball also inspired the song, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in 1908, which is actually about a girl named Katie Casey that insists her boyfriend take her out to the ball game for some peanuts and Cracker Jacks.

That song is still played in nearly every professional ballpark during the 7th inning stretch.

We live in post-modern times with too much information, too much speed, too much confusion and too much fear.

Baseball provides wonderful slow moving rituals that unfold under the summer sun. The stability and the history of baseball will always be a great comfort to every boy, every girl and every parent in America so halleluiah to Baseball Plus and to Anthony Morales for fighting the good fight and providing a safe place for this American game to thrive.

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