By JOHN HOWELL While football, or perhaps all the snow that was coming down, was on the minds of many people Sunday, Derek Asciolla was focused on just four seconds. He wasn't alone. He and a group of like-minded young men had just placed a
While football, or perhaps all the snow that was coming down, was on the minds of many people Sunday, Derek Asciolla was focused on just four seconds. He wasn’t alone.
He and a group of like-minded young men had just placed a double-or-nothing wager with John Mello, who along with Dave Stenhouse Sr. and Junior, Tony Pontacelli and Mark Cahill started the Rhode Island Baseball Institute 29 years ago.
Throughout the morning, Coach Mello ran catcher drills. The guys knew the routine. One at a time, they crouched at home plate as if to catch a pitch. Mello stood beside them. He’d drop a ball as if the batter had hit it in the dirt.
“Go get it,” he’d shout. The catcher would scramble, snag the ball and throw it to another trainee at the end of the facility, a warehouse-like building on Post Road in the shadow of the Green Airport people mover. After three or four pickups and throws, the line advanced.
Then, as the session neared the end, Mello brought out the stopwatch. The catchers were given four seconds to secure the ball and complete his throw, Depending on how much longer each of them took, Mello would add squats for the entire group to perform. The numbers kept mounting until they reached 110. They gathered about Mello.
“Double or nothing?” he asked.
The boys thought it over. About half of them decided to play it safe and do the 110 squats. The others put their faith in Derek and that he could make the pickup and nail the throw in four seconds or less. If he met the test, they could leave without performing a single squat. It was a gamble they were willing to make. Derek knew he’d be a hero if he pulled it off.
The pandemic has put a crimp in the business, says Roy, especially the extended pause when gyms and fitness centers shut down. With social distance regulations, the seats set aside for family to watch the workouts are empty. Occasionally, a parent or sibling will come in to catch the action.
But coach and office manager David Roy says COVID hasn’t affected the interest in playing baseball, whether they are candidates for Little League or collegiate play.
And what do the players love about baseball?
For Connor Pullen an eighth-grader at North Cumberland Middle School, the attraction is being a member of a team and teamwork.
“Put me behind the plate and keep the ball in front of me all the time,” says 14-year old AJ Escalera. AJ likes the unpredictability of baseball, which challenges players to make split decisions.
“It’s a game of chances,” he said, “you have to anticipate what’s going to happen.” His personal goal is to “always try to get better in the game.”
Rob Madonna has come full circle with the institute. Madonna started off as a player at the institute at the age of 10. Now 28 years old and a physical education teacher in West Warwick, Coach Madonna, as he is known, is a favorite with the players.
“He has a passion to help the kids,” Mello said.
A glance at the RIBI winter schedule shows the program for 7- and 8-year-olds sold out with some openings in the 10 to 12 league and openings in the boys hitting, intermediate and advanced pitching, boys catching and girls’ fast-pitching hitting. Prices range from $140 to $285 per 10-week session.
As for the four-second challenge, Derek, a Vets Middle School student who plans to play for the Police Athletic League this year, scooped up the ball and without delay fired it down to a catcher waiting at the other end of the warehouse. He had hit the four-second mark, but the throw was wild.
Remarkably, there weren’t recriminations from fellow players. Rather, the question was whether to perform the squats in multiples of 10s or 20s. They went for 20s and started counting.
Mello said it was the first time he had won the wager in several weeks.