New Jersey is a state that experiences the seasons as accurately as they are portrayed.
Spring is brisk; Summer is hot; Winter is cold. Throughout those three seasons, the game of baseball goes on.
“(Weather) takes a huge toll on guys,” Trenton Thunder third baseman Eric Duncan said. “We don’t get to practice outside as much as the warm-weather states; that’s not a knock against us, it just makes us have to work that much harder.”
There are hundreds of players like Duncan playing professional baseball with connections to the Garden State. For most of them, they used Jersey baseball as a stepping-stone to where they are today.
Duncan, who grew up in Florham Park and played high school ball at Seton Hall Prep in South Orange, feels that baseball in the state is underrated. Having played Babe Ruth Baseball and with AAU teams, he had the opportunity to travel outside the region and see what baseball was like across the border.
“The players and style of ball was a lot different,” Duncan, who grew up in California until he was 12, said. “It’s definitely a good thing for kids to travel around and see different things.”
Duncan, the New York Yankees number-27 pick in June 2000’s amateur draft, is just one of several former first-round selections to have ties to the state.
Players like Jack Cust of Flemington and Corey Smith of Piscataway never made it to college, and like Duncan, were drafted highly out of high school and went straight to the pros.
“(Immaculata) was still playing in the state tournament and I was practicing with the team,” Cust said of draft day. “I was real nervous and all I was thinking about was the draft because my goal was to be picked in the first round.”
Cust, who still resides in Flemington, was selected 30th overall by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 1997 and has experience in the major leagues with three organizations.
Despite a .220 average in 141 major-league at-bats, he’s produced nicely during his career in the minors. Batting .289 with 142 home runs over eight seasons, the Immaculata High School graduate just finished this year with the Oakland Athletics’ Triple-A team in Sacramento (Ca.).
Smith, drafted 26th overall by the Cleveland Indians in 2000, has yet to make it to the big leagues. He has shown signs of power, but his consistency and fielding – he has averaged 40 errors per season the last five years – have held him back.
Another resident who currently plays in the state is Tony Gsell, who serves as a utility player for the Somerset Patriots of the independent Atlantic League.
Being raised in Hillsborough and playing his high school baseball at Immaculata, Gsell was the total athlete. Competing in football and baseball, he used the guidance of head coach Tom Gambino to rack up several awards, including a USA Today Honorable Mention.
One similarity that Gsell and Duncan have is neither had a desire to stay in Jersey to play college baseball. Gsell headed to Old Dominion and Duncan signed a letter of intent to play for Louisiana State before being selected by the Yankees.
Gsell’s reason: “At the time I was trying to play football and baseball at Rutgers, but I got a letter in the mail from Old Dominion and they offered me a 75-percent scholarship.”
“Plus, Rutgers was only 20 minutes from my house so I wanted to get away a little bit.”
On the other hand, Duncan just wanted to play baseball outside year round and although Seton Hall recruited him, there was no desire to stay close to home and play the game he loves.
After a solid college-ball career, Gsell was drafted by the Chicago Cubs and spent two seasons in their organization.
“It was different and I was rooming with three guys who were from the area and I was fortunate for that,” Gsell said.
The state does have several top-notch colleges, including Rutgers and Seton Hall. Both have produced dozens of current and former major-leaguers, including Rutgers’ Joe Borowski (Tampa Bay Devil Rays) and Val Majewski (Baltimore Orioles), and Seton Hall’s Craig Biggio (Houston Astros) and John Valentine (Boston Red Sox).
Borowksi even returned to the state in 2000 to play for the Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League, where the Patriots play as well. The former Chicago Cubs closer credited the Bears with his return to the big leagues.
“I couldn’t get a job with any major league teams,” Borowski said. “I am glad it was available, because if I sat out a whole year then who knows what would have happened.”
Another former Atlantic-Leaguer and Rutgers graduate was Darrin Winston, who relieved for the Philadelphia Phillies and Patriots. He considered himself lucky to play close to home and have his family around; in fact, while with the Patriots, he would often have his children with him at Commerce Bank Ballpark.
“That was a treat to have them around,” Winston said, who pitched in 34 games for the Phillies over his career. “I was able to be at home and play a game. There was always a great crowd and my kids still talk about it and me being part of the team.”
While there are hundreds of other stories and players that make Garden-State baseball what it is, there are more to come. Players like Flemington’s Tim Pahuta, who was drafted by the Washington Nationals this season after a career at Seton Hall, and Joseph D’Alessandro, a right-hander selected by the New York Mets out of The College of New Jersey, are the current hopes for special talent to come out of the area.
Although the weather might not be the best for baseball, it’s still Jersey weather. It’s why these players work harder and why so many have been successful.