by Gabriella DePinho & Michevi Dufflart, Editor-in-Chief & Senior Writer
Excitement is growing in the Bronx near 242nd Street and Broadway. As the sunlit hours of the day grow longer and the temperatures slowly climb, there’s a long-awaited return for one group of Jaspers.
After four seasons of traveling over 60 miles to every home game, the Manhattan College baseball team is ready to call Van Cortlandt Park home again; and hopefully this time, it’s for good.
Third Time’s A Charm
The last time the Jaspers played at Van Cortlandt was the 2014-2015 season. The next four seasons were then played at Dutchess Stadium, a minor league ballpark in Wappinger Falls, NY. However, this was not the first time the team played outside of its familiar Bronx territory.
When the college moved from its downtown campus to its cozy corner of the Bronx, the Jaspers’ home field, Manhattan Field, was located right on campus, where Draddy Gymnasium now stands.
As war time encroached, the fields were razed and barracks for engineering and other educational purposes were built. The Jaspers were homeless for the first time since Manhattan Field was first opened.
For a few years, the Jaspers bounced around. At some point in the mid-1940s, Van Cortlandt Park became the Jaspers’ home. This lasted for a little over 30 years.
“Since leaving Vannie in 1978, Jaspers traveled from John F. Kennedy High School to Newburg for their home games,” wrote a reporter for The Riverdale Press in the story, “Jaspers are Happy to Call Van Cortlandt Park Home,” that was published on March 26, 1998.
After leaving Van Cortlandt in 1978, there were internal discussions in 1979 to demote the Division I team to Division II. Ultimately, that plan was never acted on and the team remained in the Division I league.
In the 80s and the 90s, the team played their home games at Roberto Clemente State Park, which is now known as Riverside Park. A story published in Newsday by Joe Stevens on March 20, 1998, “Manhattan Comes Home” also detailed that the team had played home games at Breslin Field in Lyndhurst, New Jersey and at Fleming Field in Yonkers.
The Jaspers made their first return to VCP in 1998, making it the first time the team had a home field in the Bronx in 20 years.
Van Cortlandt’s field was magic for the Jaspers. The team won the 2006 MAAC tournament against La Moyne – which is now a Division II team – and then went on to play in the NCAA tournament.
Despite the magic, the field fell into disrepair and the team left for Dutchess County. The team’s third, and hopefully final, return to the park was the work of several people, including Marianne Reilly ‘82, Director of Athletics at Manhattan College. Getting the team back was her number one goal upon her arrival in 2016. In fact, when she first met the team, she recalls telling them this exact goal. Now, three years later, this goal has become a reality for her and the athletes who were traveling thousands of miles in a season.
What’s In A Homefield Advantage
Junior catcher Matthew Padre expressed how much he enjoyed playing in Dutchess Stadium because the facility was nice, but as the season went on, the travel wore him and his teammates all out.
“It was a good place to hit. Turf was fast. Found a couple of base hits when maybe you shouldn’t have. But as far as getting up there, it was kind of tough at times,” said Padre.
The team was hit hardest on the weekends with a doubleheader on Saturday and another game on Sunday. Early Saturday morning, the Jaspers would sometimes leave campus at 6 a.m. to travel to their home game slated to begin several hours later.
Head coach Michael Cole explained how the schedule played out on such a weekend.
“We would have breakfast on the bus on the way up [on Saturday.] Then [we’d] play a doubleheader which usually doesn’t finish until 5 or 6 o’clock and then we would drive back and [we’d] get stuck in traffic on the Tappan Zee [Bridge]. So we’re pulling into [Draddy Gymnasium] at 9 o’clock from a home game,” said Cole.
By the time the team arrived home, it would be less than 12 hours before they had to get on the bus and repeat the same procedure for their Sunday game. Cole expressed that at that point almost every game was like an away game for his team.
So while Dutchess provided the team with a temporary home for the past few years, these athletes are excited and ready to come back. However, the end of the long bus rides is only part of the reason why.
Graduate student and infielder Richie Barrella says that playing in VCP is a dream come true for him.
“Ever since my freshman year I’ve heard about this magical place called Van Cortlandt Park where the Jaspers don’t lose baseball games. So like just thinking … [about] getting back on that path is just ideal and exciting for me being a fifth year,” he said.
A true home field back in VCP means that these Jaspers will be traveling a whole lot less and spending more time with their peers and the community as well.
“The opportunity for our guys to just kind of walk across Broadway to play a place that they can call their own, I think is huge for everybody in the program and for our school and for the students to come and watch games,” said Cole.
Students also share similar excitement to cheer on a team that has been gone for so long. Since the Jaspers will be playing in a New York City public park, games will also be open to Bronx locals trying to catch some college baseball.
“I would probably say we are the only Division I baseball team that will play in a New York City public park. And I think there’s something special about bringing baseball back for the convenience of the players and for the team, but it’s also for the community of people who want to go over to the game, whether it’s a student or resident of Riverdale,” said Rob Walsh, strategic advisor to the college’s president.
While every team loves having the home field advantage for the fanbase and familiar playing grounds, Van Cortlandt offers different advantages.
“It’s definitely got to be one of the best home field advantages in the country. You think any team is going to pull up the Van Cortlandt Park and want to play on that field? They’re going to walk into the stadium thinking like what is this place? They’re going to hear the subways, they’re gonna smell all whatever you smell,” Padre said.
What It Takes to Slide to Home Plate
But what does it take to get a Division I baseball team back in the Bronx? The team already had a permit to practice on the VCP fields in the fall but moving from practices to NCAA games is no easy task.
One of the first steps for Reilly was having a partnership with the New York City Parks Department. As the new athletic director, she knew she had to develop a good relationship with them.
“I met with the parks department and there were things that they wanted us to do [like] make sure that we trimmed grass, the weeds. We kept the back looking nice, so that’s our partnership,” said Reilly.
The next step was to invest in renovating the field.
“The investment so far is about $100,000. And we probably have another $100,000 that we have to raise over time to make sure that we keep the field maintained that we’re sharing with other groups. And I think that’s neat. I think that’s pretty special,” said Walsh.
The school has the long-term dream of building a $2 million collegiate stadium in Van Cortlandt with the support of the Parks Department and with the understanding that it is a community stadium. For now, the Jaspers are just happy that the necessary renovations to the field are being made.
“We reskinned the entire infield, which 85 percent of the game takes place in the infield, so that was really important and that was done top notch,” said Reilly.
Part of the reskinning included pitching and leveling the entire area so water would not pool, as well as resodding the area. The dugout will also have an overhang. Other renovations include redoing the mound, the home plate area, the bases, and mending and installing new fences. The additional fences were provided to assure that the public would not walk through the dugouts, making the focus the actual game.
Reilly once thought that having a private facility would be great, but then she thought about the impact of having a public field.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we now take our facility for our student athletes and we start to infiltrate the community? Now the community comes and sees a game that you normally would see on campus, right in their backyard, and to me, that might be more powerful,” said Reilly.
Cole has high hopes for the team and the coming season in VCP, noting that the talent level of the current team is compatible with the potential of the Manhattan teams from 2006-2012, which played in the park. With the consistent talent level and the new comfort of the home field, things are looking good for the Jaspers this season.
“It’s not a pro setup. But again, it’s ours. And our guys, I think relish playing at home…we don’t need the greatest thing in the world to be a successful team,” said Cole.
Cole, Padre and Barrella are all in agreement that the environment of VCP is different from other stadiums in the conference and they are ready for the mix of magic, hard work, and excitement to get the season started.
“Before I even got here all those guys talked about the grind of VCP and how you really have to take hold of that and really love that and really love the field because you know, it’s not going to be the best. It’s not going to be the greatest thing ever, but it’s yours and you got to take pride in that and wear that,” said Barella.
Gone are the days that students and community members could not enjoy Manhattan baseball in their local park; in are the days when everyone can walk down across Broadway to enjoy a game of baseball.
The first home game is a double header against the University of Albany on March 7th. The first game starts at 12pm, followed by a game at 3pm.