By Jim Hague
It was the best kept secret in Kearny, a town where even the slightest whisper becomes major headlines.
But when long-time Kearny High School head baseball coach Jim Sickinger called his team together right before they faced Hudson Catholic for the final game of the 2011 season, he delivered the shocking message that was only known prior by Sickinger and his wife, Cathy.
“Right before the game, I told the kids that this was it for me,” Sickinger said, announcing his retirement as head coach after a total of 25 years, 16 as the head coach. “I was 95 percent sure before the season that this was going to be my last year. Now, I was definitely sure. So I told them.”
Sickinger never let on that he was going to retire. Not to anyone. Not to the players, the coaches, the administrators. It was his decision.
“I didn’t want to say anything, because I didn’t want it to become a distraction to them,” Sickinger said. “I just wanted the kids to have fun and not think of anything else.”
There wasn’t a “Win One for the Gipper” moment among the Kardinals. This team had been through enough already this season, having to endure the entire year playing on the road, a fact that has been documented several times in this column.
Now, the Kards were losing their head coach as well.
“I just told them that this last game has nothing to do with me,” Sickinger said. “I wanted them to win on their own. They had been through so much. They deserved it. They had a chance to walk off the field as winners and only state champs get the chance to do that. This was for them.”
So the Kardinals took the field at their adopted home-away-from-home, Harrison High School, took on Hudson Catholic and ended the year on a high note, winning 4-2, finishing the season with a more than respectable 15-10 record.
“I can’t say enough about the people of Harrison, people like (recreation director) Mike Dolaghan, (site coordinator) Tom Ferriero and (vice-principal) Alan Doffont,” Sickinger said. “They treated us outstandingly. They treated us like we were their own. We were like the guests that wouldn’t leave.”
After the win, Sickinger reflected on a quarter century, coaching baseball at his alma mater, coaching the team he once played for.
“When I sit back and think, I go back to all the great kids I’ve been fortunate to coach over the years,” said Sickinger, who collected the 250th win of his coaching career earlier this season. “I was very fortunate to have some great players. They just needed to have someone put them out there and make sure he spelled their names right on the lineup card.”
There were many fine teams, great moments, including winning the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV championship in 2003, heading to Toms River to play for the overall Group IV crown.
Sickinger definitely had his share of talented players, kids like Chris Mayo, Jairo Mendez, Jeff Gogal and former Observer Athletes of the Year Hugh MacDonald and Andrew Amadeo, just to name a few.
But he’ll remember this team, the one that was given the short end of the stick, told that they would have a home field to play on when they never did.
Sickinger never once got into a war of words over the Franklin School Field situation and didn’t again, when a prominent Star-Ledger columnist tried to approach the issue after the final game. Sickinger wasn’t about to say a thing.
“People don’t realize what those kids went through,” Sickinger said. “I feel bad for those kids.”
Sickinger said that his decision to leave had nothing to do with baseball, with this season, with anything else other than three people – wife Cathy and daughters Kathleen (age 11) and Lindsay (age 10).
“I love coaching baseball, but I didn’t want to miss any more school concerts or soccer games or softball games,” said Sickinger, who was being interviewed while watching his daughter play softball. “I’ve missed too many things with my kids. It was just time. That’s the main thing. It’s not a baseball thing. It was a family thing. It’s the right thing to do.”
Added Sickinger, “I want to be around to help Cathy with the kids. I want to be involved in their lives. I’m very comfortable with this.”
Sickinger recalls how it all began. After his fine career at Kearny High, graduating in 1983, he went to William Paterson and played baseball there. Former head coach at Kearny, Joe Rubeone, asked Sickinger, at the tender age of 21, if he would like to help out coaching the freshmen.
“I enjoyed it and stuck with it,” Sickinger said.
He eventually spent eight years as Rubeone’s assistant, then one more year with another coach before taking over the reins on his own.
Now, Sickinger will leave those duties to someone else, maybe his dutiful assistant, Frank Bifulco, who played on that 2003 state sectional championship team for Sickinger.
“I’ve really enjoyed it,” Sickinger said. “I got to work with some good people, some great assistants, like Jason Scavalla, Doug Gogal, former players like Frankie Bifulco. I was very fortunate to have good baseball people to work with. It’s been a lot of fun. All the great people I’ve met through the game of baseball. I loved going to the ballpark. People are doing all sorts of speculation as to why. I just know it’s the right thing to do. It is what it is.”
Sickinger was asked what it will be like when next March rolls around and he’s not running around like a chicken without a head doing 37 different things related to his baseball team.
“I really don’t know,” Sickinger said. “Cathy asked me the same thing the other day. She’s only known me as a baseball coach. But she’s very comfortable with this and so am I.”
Sickinger forgot his cell phone after the big win Wednesday. When he recovered it a day later, there were a bunch of texts and messages. See, word does travel fast in Kearny.
On a personal note, I’ve had the fortune to have worked with and got to know Jim Sickinger very well over the last 16 years, from my days at the Ledger through my days here at the Observer. And we’ve enjoyed a strong personal relationship, not just sportswriter to coach, but friend to friend. I’ll miss the “can you give me a few minutes” phone calls for an interview that turned into hour-long chats over baseball, even though Sickinger is a huge Yankee fan and I bleed orange and blue with the beloved and beleaguered Mets.
It’s good to know that “Sick” leaves with his head held high and on his own terms. The torch has been passed. It’s up to his successor to keep the winning tradition alive.
And hey, at least the new coach will finally have a spanking new home field to play on in 2012.