Your eyes are not deceiving you. That headline is correct. It’s not blurry. There’s no need for the special reading glasses.
Snyder High School – yes, that same Snyder we’ve all tried to forget come spring time for ages — has a winning baseball team this year.
The Tigers own a record of 9-4. They stand in first place in the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League-White Division by almost three games.
If things stay according to current form, the Tigers will capture their first county championship before most of the people who currently work in Snyder were even born, back to the days of Dwight David Eisenhower being the President of the United States and Fonzie hanging out with Richie and Potsie at Arnold’s.
It was eight years ago when Alex Rodriguez — no, not THAT A-Rod, although he would like to believe he was the first one with that catchy moniker — decided to take on the unenviable task of becoming the head baseball coach at Snyder.
Rodriguez came from winning stock. He played baseball and football at Hoboken High School in the late 1980s for legends like Buddy Matthews (baseball) and Ed Stinson (football).
“When I grew up in Hoboken, we had a lot of support from people in the town,” Rodriguez said. “We had some good teams. I was proud to be a part of those teams.”
A teacher at Snyder, Rodriguez decided that he would give coaching baseball there a try. It was not going to be an easy task.
“When I took over the program eight years ago, the program was in shambles,” Rodriguez said. “They hadn’t won a single game in three years. They only had a varsity team with about 18 kids. I remember taking over the job and making a promise to the athletic director and principal that I would build a full-fledged program with a JV [junior varsity] team. Within three years, we had 30 kids in the program.”
Rodriguez kept a stiff upper lip and kept hoping and praying that he could turn things around.
“I knew it was going to be a challenge,” Rodriguez said. “Even though the school didn’t have a lot of baseball players, I knew that there were athletes. I told myself that if I could get these athletes out when they were freshmen, I could teach them the basics and make them viable assets to the program.”
Rodriguez started to deal with the kids even before they stepped onto the diamond.
“A lot of them didn’t understand the concept of being on a team,” Rodriguez said. “When you play baseball, it’s more than a team. It’s a family. You have to build togetherness and camaraderie. I implemented a lot of things outside of baseball to get them involved.”
Rodriguez had the players volunteer their time at the local Little League fields, like the Jackie Robinson Little League, giving the youngsters some guidance, even though in the early days of Rodriguez’s tenure, it’s safe to say that some of the Little Leaguers were better baseball players than the ones Rodriguez was coaching at Snyder.
“It took a lot of work,” Rodriguez said. “I had to get the kids to realize that high school is such a special time in their lives. It was up to them to make the experience of playing baseball special. It was something that was going to live with them forever.”
The Tigers started to win a handful of games here and there, but not enough to get excited about. There was nothing that was going to produce a buzz, a hum, come springtime. All the exciting times at Snyder came to a close when coach Shelton Gibbs put the basketballs in the gym closet in March, signifying the end of another hoops season.
Rodriguez had to do something to change that. He had to alter the culture at Snyder, make the kids realize that they could be successful if they truly put their minds to it.
Last year, there were major signs of hope. The Tigers were 11-13. Winning 11 baseball games at Snyder is reason enough to throw a parade, but Rodriguez knew that it just wasn’t there yet. So even though they had a chance to head to the NJSIAA Group II state playoffs, Rodriguez backed aside.
“We had a lot of freshman players last year,” Rodriguez said. “So I thought we weren’t ready for the states. I said, ‘Let’s hold off a year.’ I didn’t want to go until we were truly ready to showcase what we’re all about.”
Lo and behold, miracles can happen on Bergen Avenue, because the Tigers are winning ball games this year and might just win the HCIAL White Division championship.
“It’s a testament to the hard work that these kids have put in,” Rodriguez said. “I knew last year that if they continued to work, that this year would be the year. I’m not surprised at all. I knew we had something to build upon.”
Sure, he’s not surprised, but the rest of Hudson County _ not to mention, the entire state _ is.
The Tigers are blessed with a deep pitching staff.
Junior left-hander Dante Santana is one of the top Tiger hurlers.
“He is a phenomenal leader on the team,” Rodriguez said. “He bought into what we had to say and now professes it to the freshmen. The kid is like a second son to me. He’s a good pitcher and a solid hitter.”
Santana has a .400 batting average with 10 RBI and 20 stolen bases. He plays centerfield when he’s not pitching.
Junior Samjoe Nesmith is a righty who owns a perfect 4-0 record on the mound.
“He’d run through a brick wall for me if I asked him to,” Rodriguez said. “He’s all heart. He’s just learned to pitch and look at the results.”
Nesmith plays third when he’s not pitching. He’s hitting .324 with nine RBI.
Sophomore Richard Urena is another right-handed pitcher.
“He has a good curve and good control,” Rodriguez said. “He plays a phenomenal second base when he’s not pitching. He’s put in a lot of work to get better.”
Urena is second on the team with a .395 batting average.
Sophomore Titus Whitehead, the quarterback on the highly successful Tiger football team last fall, is the fourth member of the Tigers’ starting staff. He’s batting .425 with 12 RBI
“He’s our cleanup hitter,” Rodriguez said. “I envision this kid going off to college to play sports. He’s a good three-sport athlete [football, basketball and baseball].”
The catcher is sophomore Jorge Mejia, who according to Rodriguez is a “good solid defensive catcher.”
“He’s blocking balls and has a good arm,” Rodriguez said. “He can also hit.”
Whitehead and sometimes Santana share first base duties, with Urena and freshman Rahmel Gonzalez playing second base.
The shortstop is senior Swensean Chu, one of the lone seniors on the squad. Chu is the team’s leading hitter with a .463 batting average and 12 RBI.
Third base is shared by Nesmith and senior Peterson Dossious. Freshman left fielder Alfred Tavarez has been a pleasant surprise, batting .422 with team highs in homers (two) and RBI (15).
Santana is in centerfield and sophomore Jordan Heredia mans right field.
It has been a season to remember at Snyder, and it’s only half over. The league title is within grasp. They will make an appearance in the NJSIAA Group II playoffs this year and it should be interesting to see where the Tigers get seeded in the upcoming Ed “Faa” Ford Memorial Hudson County Baseball Tournament.
“We started from rock bottom and kept making strides forward,” Rodriguez said. “We have a nice group of kids who work their tails off, who listen and who do the right things. They want to win. To see us finally winning is great.”
And people are finally taking notice of Snyder’s baseball team.
“We’re now getting more parents to come to our games,” Rodriguez said. “We have more students getting excited and coming to see. We have the faculty and staff getting interested. This is really big.”
It sure is very big. It’s a winning baseball team at Snyder. It may be a completely novel approach and something so refreshingly new, but it’s something that was a long time coming. Snyder deserved to have something to be proud about in the spring, other than perhaps a few fleet feet on the track team. Move over, the Snyder baseball team is coming through — and it’s no joke.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.