When Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim star center fielder Mike Trout received his second MVP Award in January at a dinner hosted by the Baseball Writers Association of America, he acknowledged his home state of New Jersey. Whenever he steps on a major league field, he said, his thoughts drift back to his youth.
“I remember all-day Wiffle ball games in my backyard and on the beach,” Trout said. “Little League games down by the river when my mom would pack my fishing rod, so I could fish between games. My old high school field.”
Trout said he hoped aspiring players could learn from him the way he did from his family and Jersey roots. “I truly hope that I can pass along to young players around the country the same values.”
But New Jersey is more than just the home of baseball’s best player (Trout), it also has many well-regarded coaches and retired players who have made it their mission to guide aspiring players and keep the state’s pipeline of talent flowing.
“Personally, I love helping young players, especially in the New Jersey area,” Chicago White Sox third baseman Todd Frazier, a graduate of Toms River South High School and Rutgers, said. “It’s very satisfying to put a smile on their faces. We’re very fortunate to be professional players. I feel we need to give back as well, to your town, to young players.”
Frazier’s brothers, Charlie and Jeff, also played professionally. Although Charlie and Jeff didn’t have sustained success in the big leagues (Charlie only played in the Minors), they have helped turn Toms River into a training mecca for young players hoping to hone their skills. Charlie operates Frazier Baseball, Jeff runs Frazier’s Downtown Academy and, when his hectic schedule allows it, Todd works with his brothers at their centers and clinics around the state.
Mark Leiter Sr. sports a last name that probably rings familiar to tri-state region baseball fans. (Al Leiter, his brother, pitched for the Mets and Yankees and is a broadcaster for the Yankees.) Mark Leiter Sr.’s pedigree and coaching skills were on display as his star pupil — his son, Mark Jr., who pitched at Toms River North and the New Jersey Institute of Technology — was promoted to the Phillies on April 18 after more than four years in the Minors. Leiter Sr., a pitcher in the major leagues for 11 seasons, graduated from Central Regional High School in Bayville, and currently offers pitching lessons to players of all ages using the enclosed bullpen in his backyard in Forked River.
“The satisfaction for me is seeing a youngster who may not be so talented, but is loving the game with a passion,” Leiter Sr. said.
Former pros from New Jersey have become adept at coaching after years of studying the finer aspects of the game. Youngsters come from around the state for their insight, and scouts in turn flock to watch them perform.
Thomas O’ Donnell, otherwise known as T.J., played in the Red Sox’s system for three years before he decided to become a teacher. After O’Donnell finishes his day teaching at Raritan High School, he gives hitting lessons at The Cage, a baseball center he owns at a strip mall in Hazlet.
“Coaching is an extension of the classroom,” O’Donnell said. “It’s about getting through to the kids and presenting the information in a way they can comprehend it.”
Perhaps akin to tutoring a student struggling with material, O’Donnell will sometimes open The Cage on short notice to help a young player break out of a slump.
Mike Chiusano, a catching prospect in the Dodgers’ system in the late ’80s, is another in-demand New Jersey baseball coach. Chiusano shares his expertise at his Bullpen Baseball & Sports Academy in Morganville, where his days are full of thrills for his pupils — and himself.
“When you see the kids work hard and struggle to do something correct, then you see the light bulb go on in their heads, the look of satisfaction on their faces is most gratifying to me,” Chiusano said.
About the author: Joe Brescia is on staff at The New York Times and is the author of “Sports Interviews: Quick Chats With The Stars.”