By BRIAN CUNNIFF
WILDWOOD — Junior Hans of the Wildwood Warriors rocketed a hit into the gap in right-center field during his team’s baseball game Sunday morning. On a normal baseball field, he would had at least a double, possibly a triple.
This, however, was no normal baseball field.
His team playing on a field made out of sand, the ball Hans hit landed in a soft spot and never traveled further. The outfielder from the Lower Bucks Prospects team from Bucks County, Pa., hustled to the ball and tossed it into the infield, holding Hans to a long single.
Welcome to the Baseball on the Beach Tournament, Wildwood style.
In its third year, this weekend’s first installment of Baseball on the Beach drew 20 teams competing in five different age groups from 9U through 13U. Games were played on fields carved out of the vast expanse of sand located on the south side of the Wildwoods Convention Center.
The tournament came about through a savvy idea hatched by Marc DeBlasio, a travel baseball coach with the South Jersey Sandsharks who also happens to be the engineer for the City of Wildwood and the Borough of Wildwood Crest.
After DeBlasio traveled to Aberdeen, Md., for his first tournament with the Sandsharks at the Ripken Experience, named after former baseball star Cal Ripken, he began wondering if a beach tournament in this area would be possible.
“My first time away with the Sandsharks, we went to Ripken Aberdeen and I thought it was just phenomenal the way the whole thing was set up,” DeBlasio said. “After having had that experience and being the city engineer here in Wildwood, we were doing some beach amenity planning here at the time and I thought, Why not try to do a baseball tournament here on the beach?”
DeBlasio, the Baseball on the Beach tournament director, said a “pilot game” was held four years ago to gauge just how baseball on the beach might play. Then, two summers ago, the first tournament was born, held on a weekend in August involving the 9U through 12U levels, with four teams at each level. The event became so immediately popular that last summer Baseball on the Beach expanded to two separate tournaments over two different weekends. This year, there are again two weekends of Baseball on the Beach, with the second installment set for next weekend. This year, a fifth age level — 13U — was added for both tournaments.
Nearly all of the teams in the tournament come from travel baseball organizations. Local Wildwood teams, mostly made up of the island’s Little League all-star teams, played in three of the age levels last weekend.
For the travel teams coming from all across New Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania, it’s a welcome experience that’s different from the sometimes high-pressure world of travel baseball.
“We just love it,” said Derek Fogg, head coach of the Bloomfield Nationals 12U team, whose club participated for the second straight year. “It’s all about the kids. It’s a lot of fun for them. This tournament isn’t so much about winning but having fun. Not everyone gets to say they’ve played baseball on a beach.
“We love being on the sand and we get to play teams we normally don’t play. And then the kids get to play in the pool, go to the boardwalk — all that other good stuff you can do here. We love being a part of it. We really enjoy it.”
With the players in full uniform, sans cleats (most players wear sneakers for better traction in the sand), parents and fans sit in small bleachers behind the plate or in beach chairs along the baselines. Four of the fields are built out from a central point, with the backstop of each field backing up into a common area covered by a large tent, under which fans can get an easy view of four of the five fields.
Teams are guaranteed three games. There are two games of pool play on Saturday and a playoff game Sunday morning. Playoff winners in each age division then meet for the championship Sunday afternoon.
“The reaction we’ve consistently gotten from the parents, players and coaches is that this is phenomenal,” DeBlasio said. “They recognize that this is a little bit of a novelty. It doesn’t play like a true baseball field.”
DeBlasio gets lots of help in executing the tournament. Employees from the City of Wildwood public works, recreation and fire departments, all help with field maintenance. Perna Finnigan, a demolition and excavation company based in Vineland, also donates equipment and manpower to the maintenance efforts.
After each game, fields are watered down, rolled, raked and relined. Wildwood mayor Ernie Troiano Jr., also a volunteer firefighter, helped water down fields in between games on Sunday.
“This is the perfect example of sandlot baseball,” Troiano said with a laugh. “They all seem to like it, because the same teams keep coming back year after year and they’re going out and telling other teams about it, too.”
It’s no surprise that the tournament has also proven to be a boon to local tourism.
“We’re getting heads in beds and that’s what it’s all about,” Troiano said. “It’s nice that we can show people what we have in our community here. Everyone has opinions of different things but everyone seems to understand how great this is. This is one of the most family-oriented events that we have here in town.”
There are those who complain that Wildwood’s beaches are too wide. Without that width, however, hundreds of kids and their families would never be able to enjoy Baseball on the Beach.