For high school students looking forward to another season of baseball, quarantine and social distancing have thus far thwarted their plans. In response to this disappointment, over 220 high school teams have assembled efforts toward a baseball tournament styled like an NCAA World Series.
The NJ Last Dance World Series, presented by RWJBarnabas Health, is the brainchild of former MLB player and current athletic director at Saint Joseph High School Mike Murray, who in 2017 was named the Greater Middlesex Red Division Coach of the Year. Murray formed the idea in late April when the spring season was cancelled, enlisting the help of friends like Brian Chapman and John Kroeger to organize the tournament.
Excited by the idea of a cross-state tournament, the team worked persistently to make it a safe reality. Murray remarked, “We contracted with sports medicine professionals, researched the best practices from other states and followed the guidelines we were given from various organizations to try to run the tournament with every detail covered.”
When Rabbi Richard Kirsch, athletic director at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, first heard about the tournament back in June, he initially doubted the odds of securing a spot for the school. As he said, “We were late in the game and I really didn’t think we’d have a chance to get in because so many schools reserved spots.”
Nonetheless, he made the case to Kroeger, who had witnessed Kushner’s victory at the 2019 Ezra Schwartz Memorial Baseball Tournament and countless other league championships. Kroeger found the team worthy of the competition, and Kushner was granted a spot. RKYHS remains the only yeshiva day school competing at the Last Dance Baseball Tournament.
After two months of preparing and contacting New Jersey high schools, news of the tournament gradually swept across the state and the number of participating high schools eventually swelled to over 220. However, as these numbers increased, so too did the risks for health emergencies, and measures were planned to ensure constant sanitizing, temperature taking and symptom checks for each participant. Every player, coach and umpire will be subject to health screenings and other regulations, as established by Governor Murphy and the CDC; most importantly, safety will revolve around the larger community making smart choices.
“I also think outdoor baseball has a large element of distancing in its structure to allow for this safety,” Murray asserted, noting that the “half innings are good markers for sanitizing and cleaning.”
The tournament was named “Last Dance,” a clear nod to the seniors and their reclaimed final chance to showcase their skills in high school. While a complete senior-year experience may have been lost for many, Murray and his group of dedicated organizers aspired to end the year off in the most memorable way possible.
“If a player can get their picture in a uniform and get to be around their teammates, I view it as a win,” he said. “We recognize baseball isn’t the most important thing in the world, but I think a little escape from all of the real-world stuff these kids have been dealing with could be helpful.”
In a surprise that brought excitement to many participating players, the ceremonial first pitch will be thrown by Dwight Gooden, former pitcher for the New York Yankees and New York Mets.
In addition to enjoying a fun and distracting opportunity, those with a keen interest in playing baseball professionally will be excited to see scouts from major league clubs and college coaches from around the country. These attending scouts will take advantage of this competitive play to evaluate performances and recruit unique players.
Split into northern and southern regions, schools will begin with pool play, in which each team will play against two others in its quad, and a third team from a different quad as a crossover game.
Pool play will determine the winners of each regional division, where subsequent games will be single elimination until candidates in both the north and south narrow down to the Sweet 16, Elite Eight and semi-finals. Games played at these independent and minor league baseball fields will require a small entry fee; this payment will contribute to a more meaningful gameday experience, with operations staff preparing the venues. The championship match will be held in Trenton at Arm & Hammer Park at 7 p.m. on July 31.
Despite the excitement, preparing for this tournament has proved difficult, especially considering the months of lost practice time due to COVID-19. However, Ani Ramos, Kushner varsity baseball coach, remains confident in the team.
“The players were all excited to be back on the field for practice,” he said, “particularly after working in the gym during the winter and then having to fully stop. This team is blessed with good chemistry and I expect them to compete intelligently and professionally the entire tournament.”
After boasting young prospects over the past three seasons, this year’s varsity baseball team is unprecedented in its level of maturity and experience. Led by senior captains Josh Shapiro and Nathan Orbach, this season was supposed to outshine the preceding ones, and the pandemic nearly put an end to that plan.
Ramos said, “It is difficult to think that we would have experienced a cancelled baseball season. I have no doubt that playing a season would have challenged us as a team. However, my good friends Michael Murray, John Kroeger and Brian Chapman put this entire state tournament together and I am happy for the seniors that get to represent Kushner one more time.”
With nearly a dozen practices under its belt this past month, the team readied for its first game against Mounties-Errico Baseball Club in Nishuane Park, Montclair.
Josh Gindi is a graduate of Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston and is interning at The Jewish Link this summer.