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Great plays but greater sense of community and normalcy for fans as Boulders baseball returns

Lohud.com, Westchester County logo Lohud.com, Westchester County 5/28/2021 Nancy Haggerty, Rockland/Westchester Journal News

POMONA — John Thompson had never missed an opening pitch. So, Thompson, the New York Boulders’ man of many titles and boundless enthusiasm, excused himself for a second, maneuvering his now-electrified wheelchair so he could better look out onto the field Thursday night.

a group of baseball players standing on top of a dirt field: Players take the field for warm-ups prior to the New York Boulders home opener at Palisades Credit Union Park in Pomona on Thursday, May 27, 2021. © John Meore/The Journal News Players take the field for warm-ups prior to the New York Boulders home opener at Palisades Credit Union Park in Pomona on Thursday, May 27, 2021.

Former North Rockland High and Pace University pitcher Danny Wirchansky, making his first appearance in a game since Tommy John surgery, delivered an outside-corner strike.

Thompson, the Boulders’ 28-year-old former intern and now disability liaison, team historian, ambassador and sometimes clubhouse assistant, responded with a satisfied smile.

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Life was as it should be. Baseball was being played.

A few pitches later and the crowd — or as much of it as had wandered in by then and wasn’t lined up for food and beverages — roared its satisfaction.

Major League Baseball’s controversial — some might say heartless — decision to consolidate operations, cutting minor league teams throughout the country, cost Milton Smith his job.

He was a .305 hitter two years ago with the short-season, Class A NY-Penn League’s Batavia Muckdogs, a Florida Marlins affiliate.

But that upstate New York team was axed and, in turn, so was Smith, who hit a robust .326 over two seasons in the Marlins organization.

During the height of the pandemic, with almost all minor league baseball suspended for the spring and summer, the Mississippi native was back home working two jobs, including one with his uncle’s air conditioning repair business.

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And, yeah, he was making “way more money” than he’s pulling in now, playing for the Boulders in the independent Frontier League.

“If it was about the money, I wouldn’t be here,” he’d later say, grinning, his dirt-covered uniform speaking about the mix of fun, talent and dreams that has brought him to suburban New York this spring.

Smith’s talent was obvious from the first inning. The poorer but happier, now-former air conditioning repairman, took to the air, doing his best Superman impression, in robbing lead-off hitter Demetrius Moorer of at least a double.

a baseball player throwing a ball: New York Boulders pitcher Danny Wirchansky (29) delivers a pitch during the New York Boulders home opener at Palisades Credit Union Park in Pomona on Thursday, May 27, 2021. © John Meore/The Journal News New York Boulders pitcher Danny Wirchansky (29) delivers a pitch during the New York Boulders home opener at Palisades Credit Union Park in Pomona on Thursday, May 27, 2021.

His full-extension, diving grab while running back toward the outfield wall was good enough that Boulders team officials would later copy the video to send to ESPN’s SportsCenter, hoping it made the airwaves.

As special as that grab was, it may not stay in everyone’s memory banks. Nor probably will first baseman Ray Hernandez’s diving stop of a one-hop scorcher, that from the ground, he turned into a force at second, and his diving/falling grab of a wind-blown pop. And certainly not the charging, pretty bare-handed pick-up and peg to first by third baseman and Warwick native Tucker Nathans for another out.

They, along with the final score — New Jersey Jackals 4, New York Boulders 3 (via an eighth-inning sac fly off the bat of another local, Yorktown’s Jason Agresti) — will probably get lost in all the scores and memorable plays that springs and summers at a ballpark provide.

Thursday’s return to baseball was more about a continuation of what might be called the feel-good that baseball provides.

a person playing a game of baseball: New York Boulders Milton Smith (1) slides head first into second during the New York Boulders home opener at Palisades Credit Union Park in Pomona on Thursday, May 27, 2021. © John Meore/The Journal News New York Boulders Milton Smith (1) slides head first into second during the New York Boulders home opener at Palisades Credit Union Park in Pomona on Thursday, May 27, 2021.

Tony and Lisa Carrozza of Suffern have been coming to the Boulders' stadium (now called Palisades Credit Union Park) since the then-Can-Am League/the  Rockland Boulders’ inaugural opening day in 2011.

For these season ticket-holders, the Boulders are their “stay-cation,” explained Tony, who, like his wife, wore a Boulders shirt — Tony’s with the old "Rockland Boulders" logo.

And the Boulders are also, in a sense, extended family.

Lisa recalled the club’s first game and a player proposing on the field to his girlfriend.

“It was really nice,” she said.

The couple, who are Facebook friends with many former Boulders, recalled the club's first opening day. They were seated behind left fielder Vic Buttler. He quickly became a crowd favorite and the next game the Carrozzas arrived with a sign reading, “The Buttler Did It.”

Buttler now lives in California and works as a plumber, noted the couple, who were at Thursday’s game with friends and family.

The group was among an announced crowd of 2,499.

a baseball player swinging a bat at a ball: Boulders pitcher Danny Wirchansky (29) delivers a pitch to designated hitter Demetrius Moorer (3) during the New York Boulders home opener at Palisades Credit Union Park in Pomona on Thursday, May 27, 2021. © John Meore/The Journal News Boulders pitcher Danny Wirchansky (29) delivers a pitch to designated hitter Demetrius Moorer (3) during the New York Boulders home opener at Palisades Credit Union Park in Pomona on Thursday, May 27, 2021.

Also included, and sitting near the Carrozzas, was Gordon Williams of Monsey.

He was there with a friend, former Yankee all-star second baseman and ex-Mets manager and Yankees coach Willie Randolph, who lives in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, about 30 miles away.

Randolph, who has worked for years as an infield spring training instructor for the Yankees (he didn’t this year due to COVID) wasn’t at the game in an official capacity.

Fifteen of the 24 Boulders on this year’s roster were on MLB-affiliated clubs pre-pandemic with most off rosters due, as with Smith, not because of a lack of talent but because of team cuts. Many may return to affiliated ball.

But Randolph wasn’t scouting.

“I’m hanging out with my buddy,” he said, noting the pandemic had had him “all cooped up” and he simply was there to enjoy the game like the rest of the crowd.

“I’m just everyday people,” Randolph said, noting he’d recently watched a local college game at the park and, for years, had watched former Yankee teammate Sparky Lyle coach his independent-league Somerset Patriots in New Jersey.

Randolph and Smith sat behind home plate.

Up over the third base line was season ticket-holder Richard Fernandez, 53, of Stony Point.

With Little League about his top rung, he was never close to being in Randolph’s league as a player.  But his love of the game might be as deep.

Of coming out to the park, he said, “It’s a local community feel. It’s invaluable — kind of a hometown feeling.”

And he loves his team’s effort, even late in games long-since-lost, when few fans  remain to watch.

“What has always impressed me is the players’ hustle," he said. … Even if they’re losing and know they’re going to be thrown out, they give it their all. … (Sometimes) no one is here. It’s drizzling. There’s no scouts — nobody but maybe myself and 150 people."

Fernandez talked of bringing as many as 16 family members to a future game, cashing in on unused vouchers given for the games he’ll no doubt miss.

a man riding a skateboard up the side of a road: A young fas has her ticked scanned prior to the New York Boulders home opener at Palisades Credit Union Park in Pomona on Thursday, May 27, 2021. © John Meore/The Journal News A young fas has her ticked scanned prior to the New York Boulders home opener at Palisades Credit Union Park in Pomona on Thursday, May 27, 2021.

“It’s just a nice family atmosphere,” said Julianne Malone, who was walking along the concourse with concessions in hand with her fiancee, Kevin Ferrelli, both of Pearl River.

The couple spoke warmly of Boulders staffers recognizing and greeting fans like themselves who regularly attend games.

Smith spoke warmly just of getting to play again.

Wirchansky was also happy to be back on the mound, although, while feeling “pretty good” physically, he was not nearly satisfied with his own performance, despite not giving up an earned run over four and two-thirds innings of work.

But of, course, there will be many more games for Wirchansky, Smith, their teammates and their fans — something that couldn't be said last year.

This year's opener was about a return from a pandemic — a return to baseball after a year's absence — a return, as Tony Carrozza put it, to an “escape.”

The score was secondary.

“It’s so great,” said Thompson, the man of many Boulders’ hats. “Everybody is back where we belong.”

Nancy Haggerty covers cross-country, track & field, field hockey, skiing, ice hockey, girls lacrosse and other sporting events for The Journal News/lohud. Follow her on Twitter at both @HaggertyNancy and at @LoHudHockey. 

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Great plays but greater sense of community and normalcy for fans as Boulders baseball returns

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