By Michael Cohen
Courtesy of the CountySeat
The sound of baseballs hitting leather can be heard popping throughout Yogi Berra Stadium on a warm Monday morning as the New Jersey Jackals baseball team is busy preparing for the start of its 2014 season.
For pitcher Isaac Pavlik, a Parmaus, New Jersey native, and Seton Hall graduate, this Spring Training has been extra special for him. Last summer Pavlik tore his ACL while trying to cover first base on a ground ball to first baseman Chris Duffy, and was lost for the season. LISTEN TO JACKALS BASEBALL HERE!
For Pavlik, a guy who is the longest tenured member of the Jackals, this will be his 10th season with the club, owns many Jackals team records in wins (72), strikeouts (777) and games pitched (182). He called the injury a humbling experience he’ll never forget.
“I remember it like it was like yesterday,” Pavlik said while working out at Yogi Berra Stadium. “I got my hands on a video of my injury; it was upsetting to watch because I would make that same play 99 out of 100 times.
“That was the one time I didn’t make the play. I made a bad baseball turn and my knee basically suffered for it. It’s truly a humbling experience; I’m anxious to get out there again.”
While most of the baseball universe is already playing, the short-season Can-Am League begins play on May 22, with 96 games that run through early September. The league has seen its fair share of changes over the years, the number of teams has now shrunk to four in this division after the Newark Bears were extinguished, but even with the challenges, comes great enthusiasm for a new baseball season 11 miles from downtown Hackensack in Little Falls, NJ.
“I like our athleticism from top to bottom, and I think we have more depth this year and a better outfield this year,” manager Joe Calfapietra said, “We have 19 guys out of affiliated baseball, they have to get accustomed to what affiliated baseball is like. It’s a day to day process.”
The Jackals are coming off an incredible 55 win season in 2013, where they pushed their rivals the Quebec Capitales to Game 7 of last year’s League Championship Series before falling to the Caps on the final night.
This year’s squad, while with a complete roster facelift from last year’s team is not bereft of great stories, Pavlik’s story of course being one of them. Ed Ott, the former member of the World Champion 1979 Pirates, retiring from coaching after this year being another.
Pavlik spent nine months trying to come back from the injury working three times a week at Performance Physical Therapy and Sports Conditioning in Wayne where he rebuilt the strength and power in his legs through various strength and condition exercises.
“I’m doing the best I can to say to myself mentally, ‘I was never hurt.’ I want to be part of it all this year,” Pavlik said. Pavlik got his first crack at live hitters this week in an intra-squad game and pitched two shutout innings. Asked how he felt, Pavlik gave a big smile and thumbs up.
Meanwhile for Ott, this could very well be his last season in baseball. Then again, as he said with a laugh, “I said that last year too.” Ott enters his 42nd year in baseball, a career that spans both the majors and minor league baseball as a coach and player.
“42 years in the game, I think I’ve given it enough. I want to go out with manager Joe Calfapietra on top and try to win a pennant in our league this year,” Ott said.
Ott, who recently had his left knee replaced again, was a member the famed 1979 “We are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates who beat the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. Ott was a key member of the club as its starting catcher. In ’79 Ott hit .273 with seven homers and 51 RBI.
“Being on the same team as Wille Stargell was unbelievable. To win a World Series with him was an incredible moment for me,” Ott said.
After an injury ended his playing career in 1983, Ott went into coaching. Over the next 30 years he moved from the Pirates, Red and Astros organizations, coaching at the minor league level. He eventually went the independent league route in 1998 as manager of Allentown, before joining the Jackals and confidant Joe Calfapietra in 2007.
“Joe, I consider him my son,” said Ott. “When Allentown hired me, Joe was already there. I drove up from Virginia to Allentown, and Joe was invited to the meeting with the owner, and he said to me ‘Mr. Ott I will work as hard as I can for you.’ I told him, ‘We’ll see.’
“He’s said it before,” Calfapietra said about Ott, with a smile. “The big thing is he’s healthier this year, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. I’m not giving him a hug yet like it’s a swan song, because I don’t think that’s the case.”
The key to getting an independent team ready to play is a tricky one. It involves players putting their egos aside, forgetting about the statistics that will ultimately get them to an affiliate and focus on winning as a team. Calfapietra, Ott and Pavlik have traveled that road enough times together.
In his time as manager Calfapietra has sent 27 players to a MLB team affiliate.
“We will play as hard as anybody plays. We have to remember that this is independent baseball we are in this to give these kids an opportunity to get back to the major leagues. Nobody does a better job at that than Joe Calfapietra,” Ott added.
The Jackals home opener is May 27 at Yogi Berra Stadium. Game can be heard live on the Jackals Internet Radio portal, Stretch Internet, linked on the Jackals website.