Courtesy of MyCentralJersey.com
This season was supposed to be one of promise for a once-storied Edison High School baseball program, whose varsity team was expected to contend for a Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament championship.
The construction of a new playing field with a state-of-the-art artificial surface mirroring the school’s red and gold colors was underway, and a veteran team that one day earlier completed its NJSIAA required sixth practice was scheduled in the middle of March to board a bus to Elizabeth for its first scrimmage.
Hours before the team was to depart that Friday afternoon, principal Charlie Ross informed head coach Vinnie Abene all after school activities had been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Abene met with his players shortly thereafter, informing the group Edison Township Public Schools would be closed for at least the next two weeks, never thinking at the time he might not get a chance to see his players in person again for the remainder of the season.
As distance learning ensued district-wide, Abene routinely met with his players through Google Hangouts, an online video conference platform that enabled members of the baseball program to stay connected, talking about the game they love, but more importantly, perhaps, sharing their thoughts and feelings.
Sensing his players were becoming increasingly dejected as the global health crisis escalated, Abene invited nationally renowned motivational speaker Lee Rubin, who addressed the ballclub earlier this year, to speak with the team again during a virtual meeting at the end of last month.
“At the end of the meeting, Lee said something that inspired our seniors,” Abene said. “In a time like this, when everyone is down, and you feel like you’ve lost so much, what can you do to help others?”
Shortly after the video conference, several inspired seniors told Abene they wanted to conduct a food drive to benefit township families. The initial plan was for one upperclassman, adhering to social distancing guidelines, to drive around the neighborhood, safely collecting nonperishable food items from family and friends of the baseball program to be distributed to those in need. Abene and his staff embraced the concept of helping community members, but proposed an online fundraiser in lieu of a hands-on approach that might put a player or others at risk of contracting or spreading the coronavirus.
The players, who did not want public recognition for their philanthropic efforts, agreed and established a Venmo account through which others could donate money online. Team members, who privately solicited donations exclusively from family and friends, raised $600 for supermarket gift cards, which Ross has purchased for distribution to families in need on the south side of town.
“It was important to the seniors that they really didn’t want to be recognized for this and it was important that they were doing it out of the goodness of their hearts,” said Abene, who still felt compelled to share their tale of benevolence.
“I just thought this is a story during a time like this that would be a good thing for people to hear. It’s off the charts, the fact that they didn’t want to be recognized and wanted to make sure the money stayed within the community. They have what they need. They are fortunate. They wanted to do as much to help other people during this time that they can.”
Abene said a public fundraising request obviously would have generated more money for the cause, but his players wanted to be respectful during a time in which a state record 206,000-plus New Jerseyans filed for unemployment insurance in the week that bridged the end of March through the start of April alone as mass business closures, banned gatherings and a stay-at-home executive order were enacted to abate the spread of the coronavirus.
“We didn’t go outside of the (baseball) families,” Abene said. “We didn’t want to sound like we were begging people to help.”
As the principal of one of two high schools in the state’s fifth largest school district, one whose 16,000 students are ethnically and socioeconomically diverse, Ross said he has been in contact with dozens of local families in need.
“The story I hear over and over is ‘I’ve been laid off,’ or ‘they cut back my hours,’” Ross explained. “Some of the people are on the edge. They are in danger of falling all the way off.”
Ross praised the baseball program, whose members have traditionally participated in a myriad of community service projects, including the assistance of veterans, fundraisers for local nonprofits and helping others in need through their annual participation in the Autism Awareness Baseball Challenge.
“It’s a group of young men that just wants to help people,” Ross said. “This isn’t the first time they’ve come together to do things, and it’s never about ‘Look at me.’ It’s just about reaching out a hand and taking time out of their lives to try to make other peoples’ lives better.”
Abene said his players, disappointed as they may be, have life perspective and understand baseball’s position in the universe amid the global pandemic.
New Jersey ranks second in the country with more than 71,000 coronavirus cases and second nationally with 3,156 coronavirus-related deaths. According to a chart Gov. Phil Murphy unveiled last week, COVID-19’s impact on the state projects to reach its apex sometime between April 19 and May 11.
Those numbers are the only vitals in a statistic-driven sport Abene’s players are focusing on at the moment, while still holding out hope that a once-promising scholastic baseball season can still be salvaged.
Edison returned eight key letterwinners, including a couple of front-line pitchers, from a team that ended last season ranked seventh in the conference.
“I think everybody was curious to see what we could do,” Abene said, noting his players are distraught over not having an opportunity to compete. “The emotions are very up and down to say the least. It’s been like a roller coaster. The kids have had hope and are trying to stay positive throughout this whole process. When it comes crashing to an end, it’s a tough pill to swallow. Selfishly, in a baseball-only sense, I would have liked to have seen this team get out there and compete on the field. I still would. But, unfortunately, we are under order right now that we can’t do anything as a team and we are not playing.”
Ross personally witnessed the commitment and dedication this offseason of the baseball program, which won a remarkable eight conference tournament championships during a 12-year run from 1990 through 2001, and which ended the 1993 campaign ranked fourth in the entire country.
“I’ve seen them show up and do their workouts at 6 a.m. through the whole winter months,” Ross said. “I’ve seen them get to the school the same time I do and just be ready to work. They want to add to the legacy of Edison baseball, and they had a good shot to do it.”
Ross feels the pain of his baseball players and all student-athletes statewide, who may learn the fate of their spring sports season at the end of the week, when Murphy is expected to provide an update regarding the status of indefinite public and private school closings statewide.
“These kids faced with losing all their senior activities and all their rights of passage, as well as the enjoyment and the camaraderie of a team, still asked, how can I help people who are less fortunate than me,” Ross said. “They are a group of kids that truly deserve an opportunity to be up at the top of the GMC and make a good run at the states. I still have my fingers crossed that we can get in some type of division schedule and give these young men an opportunity to compete and reap the fruits of their labor.”
“They want to get up to bat. They want to throw that pitch. They want to make that play. That’s the moment they want.”
And the moment, Abene said, his generous group deserves.