POMONA — Well before most members of the announced crowd of 4,512 had made their way into Clover Stadium for Thursday night’s season opener between the hometown minor league New York Boulders and visiting Sussex County Miners, multiple Miners stopped while heading from the field to their clubhouse to shake hands with Boulders infielder Tucker Nathans.
This had nothing to do with the 33-year-old Warwick native making yet another professional roster.
By his count, well, he can’t count, the infielder said. There have been that many teams.
Rather, the warm smiles and multiple, “Hey, congratulations” had to do with Nathans getting engaged.
When you’ve played ball for so long, you get to know guys well, even those in the opposing dugout.
And some of the Miners extending their hands had also been teammates of Nathans at some point in his two winters of pro ball in Australia.
It doesn’t approach fair, but a guy with pop in his bat, a good glove and decent speed but a 3 as the first number in his age has long ago lost the “prospect” tag.
But somehow on opening day everyone seems to have a chance of moving up, of making it.
That includes a guy like Nathans.
He honed his play on the prep level at Connecticut’s Salisbury School before wearing the uniform of Division I Fairfield University (Class of 2011).
He rose the ladder from A to Triple A in the Baltimore Orioles system.
“Those were some of the best experiences of my life,” Nathans said.
But, then, many of his stops have been positive, even if they haven’t done anything to bring him closer to the Big Leagues.
“Every different place has been a unique experience. It’s the people that make it special,” said Nathans, who’s in his second season with the Boulders of the independent Frontier League.
These days, he still plays to advance but also enjoys helping teammates succeed.
“I try to take as much as I can from the game and I try to give back as much as I can to the game,” said Nathans, who played second and short Thursday night and recorded the Boulders’ first hit of the season and scored their first run in what would be an 8-4 loss.
Teammate Giovanni Garbella, also got off to a good start, singling in his first at bat.
Like Nathans, the 26-year-old San Diego, California native is no stranger to international play.
Garbella, whose parents are from Italy, started playing on Italian national teams at age 12.
After playing for DI Valparaiso University in Indiana, he played three pro seasons in Italy.
But while Garbella judges the competition level similar, Italian seasons last only 20-30 games, as opposed to the Frontier League’s 100, so he assessed he spent the last three years “basically practicing.”
And not in front of many people.
Thursday’s crowd was the second largest ever for a Boulder home opener, dwarfed only by the 6,317 sellout in the franchise’s first year in 2011, when the team was the Rockland Boulders.
It was huge in comparison to what Garbella had become accustomed in Italy, where, he said, he sometimes played in front of as few as 20 fans. The European championship, after all, might draw 1,000.
Garbella, an outfielder who DH’d Thursday, had no family on hand Thursday but noted his parents had signed up for a streaming service, so they can watch all his games.
His mom isn’t a fan of flying, so it may only be his dad who come east this summer to watch him play in person, he noted.
Garbella’s goal is to make the all-star team, get seen and maybe end up with a club affiliated with an MLB team.
Signing with a team belonging to an MLB club, is, of course, in the back of everyone’s mind, he said.
Multiple Boulders have made the jump to affiliated teams since the club’s 2011 launch as a member of the Can-Am League, which the Frontier League absorbed in 2022.
Two Boulders players have gone on to actual MLB clubs with outfielder Stephen Cardullo playing parts of two seasons with the Colorado Rockies and pitcher Justin Topa currently on Milwaukee’s roster.
Timing, Steven Figueroa, figures, is key.
Asked about the difference between the guys like himself playing indy ball and those on clubs directly affiliated with MLB teams, he said, “They were fortunate enough to play in front of the right people.”
But Figueroa, an infielder who lives in White Plains but grew up in the Bronx, playing for St. Raymond’s before going on to Westchester Community College, then D-III SUNY-Cortland, is hoping the fact the Frontier League enjoys an affiliation with Major League Baseball as a “partner” league will prove a plus.
He has been on five minor league rosters and this is his second time with Rockland, his first being in 2019.
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Alex Mack also sees hope in the MLB link that has resulted in Yakkertech, a high-tech, in-game analysis tool that provides the spin rate of pitches, batted ball launch angles and multiple other sabermetrics measures now sought, to the consternation of many baseball purists, by clubs to better analyze performance and predict potential.
Mack, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound righty pitcher, who hits 96 mph with his fastball, became a Division II All-American for local St. Thomas Aquinas after graduating from Cornwall High in 2015.
A medical redshirt (hamstring problems), he holds a Masters in sports management from STAC.
After the Boulders shut him down last season with shoulder impingement after Mack pitched for STAC, then, from May-July in the newly-launched MLB (pre-) Draft League, he’s both healthy and optimistic.
“If the team is good, the scouts will come,” Mack said. “And I know there are a lot of talented guys here.”
And so he and teammates like Figueroa play, fueled by hope.
“What makes it worth it is I feel I still have a dream worth fighting for,” Figueroa said.
Nancy Haggerty covers cross-country, track & field, field hockey, skiing, ice hockey, girls lacrosse and other sporting events for The Journal News/lohud. Follow her on Twitter at both @HaggertyNancy and at @LoHudHockey.