Brendan Mara may only be five years old, but he certainly knows what he likes.
When it comes to baseball, young Brendan loves his Yankees and his favorite player is All-Star outfielder Aaron Judge.
But even at a young age, Brendan knows that he has to become a better baseball player if he ever hopes to be as good as Judge someday.
So that’s why Brendan was among 50 or so other youngsters who attended the Kearny Kids Kamp last week at the Franklin School field.
“I feel like I’m a better player now,” Mara said proudly. “I learned out to catch this week and that’s important. This makes me want to play more. It was a lot of fun.”
That was the predominant feeling at the Kearny Kids Kamp. The kids had fun.
“I love hitting and I think I’m a good hitter,” said 6-year-old Michael Faulk of Belleville. “I had a lot of fun here and want to learn more about baseball.”
Faulk is also a Yankee fan who says all rise to Aaron Judge.
Maverick Michalski is 7 years old and he’s a first baseman/outfielder who also loves the Yankees and Judge. It’s becoming an epidemic.
“I liked pitching,” Michalski said. “I became a better pitcher.”
The Kamp also had a handful of girls who attended.
Alyssa Badia is seven and headed into the second grade in the fall.
“I felt like I had to get better if I wanted to play baseball,” said Badia, who also plays softball. “I think I got better.”
Emma Carson is 11 and a standout baseball player already, earning a spot on the Cali Carting team that just recently captured the crown in the Kearny Little League World Series. Carson is heading into the sixth grade at Schuyler School in the fall.
Carson doesn’t want to hear a word about softball. She’s a baseball player through and through.
“I like baseball better,” Carson said. “Softball, the ball is too big and hard to throw. I don’t like it. I like baseball, because it’s challenging for me.”
Carson doesn’t mind being one of the boys.
“I don’t care,” Carson said. “I just want to stay here and playing baseball. It’s a lot of fun. Being here encourages me to play baseball more. It’s a lot of fun.”
Jonah Menendez is an 11-year-old Roosevelt School sixth grader. He plays third base and catches.
“I learned how to take a lead the proper way,” Menendez said. “I play every sport. I play basketball and soccer as well. But I love playing baseball.”
So does fellow 11-year-old Peyton Kelly. Ask Kelly where he plays and you’ll get a straight answer.
“I play the whole infield practically,” Kelly said. “Oh, I’m also a catcher.”
Kelly is like that old Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs played every position against the Gashouse Gorillas.
“I learned how to take your time at bat,” said Kelly, another Yankee fan who loves Aaron Judge. “I feel like I’m a better player.”
Nicholas Stanzione of North Arlington is 11 years old and he’s one of the more accomplished players his age.
Stanzione is an aspiring pitcher and he learned one thing over the week.
“I learned how to throw a changeup,” Stanzione said. “It’s important if I want to be a pitcher.”
Stanzione pitches and plays shortstop for his Little League team. Learning a proper changeup, which the campers did from former Kearny High standout and current assistant coach Jeff Caputo, is essential, because there’s no stress on the arm.
Stanzione was also inspired by being a camper.
“It definitely makes me want to play baseball more,” Stanzione said.
Kearny High School head coach Dave Smart, the engineer of the Kearny Kids Kamp, was having a blast working with the younger kids.
“I do enjoy being with the little guys, because it brings the life back into you,” Smart said. “It’s a lot of fun working with them.”
Smart said that he’s at the age where a lot of his former Kearny High teammates have children who become campers.
“I had a lot of guys who I played with brought their kids here,” Smart said. “Just the number of little kids we had brings me a good feeling. They were like sponges, soaking up everything we were teaching them.”
Smart had a lot of help in the Kearny Kids Kamp this year, including former Kearny High head coach Jim Sickinger, former Kearny assistant Jason Scavalla, current Kearny assistant coach Doug Gogal, who is the resident guru of baseball in the town, as well as former Kearny great and current Harrison head coach Jairo Mendez. It was certainly an eclectic and educated group of instructors.
“Just having Gogal on the field is a plus,” Smart said. “He knows the game better than anyone. The kids were taking it all in when he spoke.”
Sickinger devised a game that fed off the recent World Cup soccer craze, combining baseball and soccer in the same game.
“It was World Cup batting practice,” said Smart of the game where the kids were hitting a bigger ball off a batting tee and trying to put it through a target on the soccer net. “They were eating that up. When you put Sick and Jay (Scavalla) together, you never know what you’re going to get. They’re like McGuvyer.”
Only there was no bubble gum and elastic band used in the bizarre World Cup batting practice contest.
“Having a crew like we had made it a lot easier,” Smart said. “They all come from the old school. They know baseball like the back of their hands.”
And as for Mendez and Caputo teaching the changeup to youngsters, well, that was nothing short of brilliant.
“That made me smile,” Smart said. “They concentrated on developing a fastball and a changeup. Both are low stress pitches on the arm. As a former pitcher, I know how important that is. It’s another reason why I like working with the little kids. Jeff (Caputo) said to me that he had teaching the changeup and that was all him. He worked a lot with them. That was the beauty of having these guys working with me here. I never had to worry about them and what they were doing.”
Smart said that he was encouraged to remind the kids that a former camper, Corey Sawyer, went from Kearny High to now pitching at Seton Hall.
“I’m very happy with the way the week went,” Smart said. “I was impressed with the way the kids were able to play different positions. A lot of them did that on their own, walking out to a new position because they wanted to learn. They were willing to go from the infield to the outfield.”
All totaled, it was a great week for the kids.
“I think baseball is alive and well in this town,” Smart said. “We had some good times.”
Just one problem. Too many Aaron Judge fans. Where are the Mets fans in Kearny?
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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer
Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.
It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.
In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.
In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.
He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.
During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.
Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.
Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”