For years, Babe Ruth senior baseball teams have provided an organized format for many players who either don’t make — or choose not to try out for — their high school varsity teams.
But this season in Ridgefield, the 16-18-year-old Babe Ruth team is embracing change. A rebranding has given the squad a new name, the Rays, along with snazzy MLB-inspired uniforms. And for the first time, the team is augmenting its traditional Babe Ruth League regular-season schedule with games against AAU opponents and also competing in area tournaments.
Most important, the senior team has hit the refresh button on its squad size, going from around 15 players last year to 26 this season. So robust were the sign-ups that officials decided to form two equally balanced squads, with players routinely switching between the two.
“The goal for senior Babe Ruth has always been to give high school age kids with varying talent a chance to play,” said Ray Piniella, a Ridgefield resident who has coached the 16-18 team the past three seasons. “We would rather have two teams than tell some kids they can’t play.”
The on-field results have been encouraging: Combined, the Ridgefield teams had a 25-11-1 record through Monday’s games. That includes two wins in three games during the senior team’s first-ever appearance at a tournament.
Ridgefield has already clinched the second seed for the upcoming league playoffs, in which the Rays will field just one unified team.
Besides the opportunity to compete against AAU and other non-Babe Ruth League opponents, the Ridgefield senior program aims to accommodate.
“We try not to schedule the two teams on the same day,” said Piniella, a second cousin to former MLB player Lou Piniella. “We also flip and flop players to cover for others who are on vacation or ASP (Appalachia Service Project) trips.”
Bob Alicea, the longtime president of Ridgefield Babe Ruth and the driving force behind the renovations at Ciuccoli Field (home of the Ridgefield High varsity team), says that Piniella deserves much of the credit for the senior program’s renaissance.
“Ray has really done a great job of getting kids to play and also helping them develop,” said Alicea. “He loves baseball, and that love of the game rubs off on the kids.”
Piniella, a two-time All-State selection at St. Joseph High School in Metuchen, N.J., who went on to play at the University of Bridgeport, says his players shape the Babe Ruth senior team’s direction.
“I tell them that they can make the program what they want it to be,” he said. “They wanted to play some out-of-network teams and also compete in tournaments, so we are doing that. Next year we are going to dial up one team so there is more of an A team and a B team.”
Piniella speaks glowingly about his team’s performance at its inaugural tournament, a wood-bat event in North Branford.
“We finished third in our division out of 14 teams,” he said. “Some of the other teams were really strong, but we held our own. That showed me a lot about the progress we have been making.”
As the 2016 season winds down, Piniella says he and the team have one more goal
“We’re hoping to get to 30 wins,” he said.
Notes: Players on Ridgefield’s roster this season have included Adam Kelemen, Chris Campanaro, Collin Hughes, David Goodman, Devon Hammer, Dylan Chelednik, Evan Coco, Jimmy Green, Joe Signorelli, Michael Piniella, Nick Duda, Ross Andrei, Adam Bigelow, Brandon Wong, Brian Wheaton, Chris Sacchi, Dillon Hammer, James McCann, James Piniella, Jordan Gilchrist, Michael Hermann, Nick Squiteri, Nick Tyrell, and Ronan Townsend.