By: Evan Wechman
The Denville Baseball league is viewed by the residents of the town as being very special and inclusive. The volunteers who help the league run smoothly are dedicated to fostering growth for all players, regardless of skill.
Mark Stein, who is the past president of the league and now serves as an advisor, states “we try to focus on all the players, not just the stars. We want the kids to feel included and not left out.” As a result, Denville Baseball, unlike other ultra-competitive youth leagues around the nation, doesn’t cut any players. Rather, the children are grouped in different divisions based on age and experience. This ranges from tee-ball for the little tikes at approximately 4 years old to hardball for those in their early teens.
Stein also likes to point out that also adding to the sense of community, he rarely sees any verbal exchanges between parents on opposing sides. Rather, the parents’ come together to serve as an example of the great bonding power the national pastime could be for friends and family.
Unfortunately, on Sat. April 13th, the children who were eager to grab their bats and gloves to play their favorite game were forced to wait a few more days due to the rain that cancelled the opening day games. However, just like their professional idols in Major League Baseball, the kids did get to enjoy the myriad of opening day festivities.
Stein also spoke of the league’s desire to make the ceremonies not only special, but very personal as well. For instance, over the loudspeakers, each one of the approximately 300 children who participated had their names announced for everyone to hear, just like their heroes on the Yankees or Mets.
Also bringing that special Major League Baseball feeling to opening day was the unveiling of a special logo. This logo was painted by Denville resident Kevin Healy, who performs work for the New York Yankees and has been painting beautiful logos at their stadium in the Bronx since 1996. This includes an All-Star game, the World Series, and a Yankee opening day.
In addition, there was a heartfelt scoreboard dedication to the late great Ron Lockwood. According to Stein, the Lockwood family is “still involved and has strong ties to Denville Baseball.” This tireless volunteer who gave over 30 years of service to the league was spoken about by Bob Ranft who coached alongside Lockwood. Ranft mentioned how Lockwood was dedicated to the overall development of the children as both players and people. Equally as touching was Ron Lockwood Jr, who not only spoke of his father, but showed his very first baseball hat from Denville Baseball that his father had held onto all these years.
Similar to professional baseball, opening day would not have been complete without the singing of the National Anthem. This was performed by Anna Staltari and Jessica Stein, students at Valleyview Middle School who will be appearing in the school presentation of Grease in May.
There was also the ceremonial first pitch, despite the poor weather conditions. The youngsters got to see one of their own baseball youth players, Christopher Kaiser, toss the ball to his older brother Michael Kaiser. Michael is a senior on the Morris Knolls Varsity Baseball team. Also participating in the honorary first pitch activity, was when Denville Softball’s Kieran Gibbons threw the first pitch to her older sister, Hailey Gibbons from the Morris Knolls Softball team. Stein points out that the overall purpose of this was to show the “relationship of our two rec programs to the Morris Knolls High School teams.”
Stein who is very proud of the baseball league and the community at large spoke at length about all the work the volunteer parents and different town departments performed, despite the dreary day. He commented that the weather did not destroy the enthusiasm of the children who are trying to improve their game, but the opening day festivities would not have happened had not the Denville Department of Public Works worked tirelessly to make the field usable for the parade. Stein also applauded the Denville Fire Department for bringing the hook and ladder truck down and hanging the American Flag from the extended ladder above the field.
All of this, Stein says, is to give the kids a big league feel while still preserving the personal touch that the volunteers of the league give to its players. The volunteers who maintain the fields, run the snack bar, or coach the children all have one singular purpose in mind. Stein repeats that the mission is simple. He wants ” all the kids to continue to play the game and come back next year.”
The past president and advisor left the congested highways and crowded malls of Bergen County for the beautiful open space of Morris County some twenty years ago but has absolutely no regrets. Here, he has coached his own children as well as those of his friends’ in other leagues such as PAL Basketball.
However, in a time when society is shifting to faster, less deliberate sports such as football, the love of baseball remains in the hearts of both Stein and the children he helps mold. “Baseball is definitely my favorite sport,” states Stein. Though the rise of other sports is increasing, Stein chuckles when asked if he thinks baseball will remain America’s pastime. “I have concerns, but I think baseball will survive.”