‘Last Dance’ baseball tourney gives locals hope of playing

Could it be actually possible? Could we see some semblance of high school baseball beginning in a few weeks?

That’s the idea that made its way around the baseball diamonds last week, a simple thought and plan that spread like a wildfire, especially among the elite programs in northern New Jersey.

Started by St. Joseph (Metuchen) head baseball coach and athletic director Mike Murray, Jr. and supported by brilliant baseball minds such as local baseball talent scout John Kroeger and Millburn head coach Brian Chapman, the idea of the New Jersey’s Last Dance World Series started to draw some major attention last week.

It went from a simple idea in the beginning of the week to having official nomination forms being filled out and sent in to the organizers by week’s end.

Murray, Jr., who was a great player in his playing days at Wake Forest and later a draft pick and product of the San Francisco Giants’ organization, heard of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s plan to lessen the restrictions on outdoor activities in the state and started the ball rolling with the possibility of having a tournament.

Murray, Jr. said that he wanted to give his players, especially his graduating seniors, one last chance to play together. That opportunity was wiped away at first by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic that cancelled the entire spring sports season.

Murray, Jr. has maintained that he will follow every stipulation and regulation that will be in place regarding the health, safety and well being of everyone come July.

But if Gov. Murphy further lifts restrictions and allows organized sports to be played, then the tourney can be held – even without the restraints usually held by the state’s governing body for high school athletics, the NJSIAA.

Since the Last Dance World Series cannot realistically begin until early next month, the NJSIAA will not hold jurisdiction over the tourney, much like summer baseball such as AAU, American Legion, Senior Babe Ruth and other leagues.

Murray, Jr. even went as far as to reach out to the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA), which organizes youth sports tournaments all over the country.

The USSSA, which makes its home in Melbourne, Florida, told Murray, Jr. that they would be more than willing to be the governing body for the New Jersey Last Dance World Series.

As the main organizer, the USSSA would provide team insurance, waivers for parents/guardians to sign regarding the COVID-19 virus, scheduling, site supervision and rings to the championship teams.

All of this will be provided for a fee of $125 per team.

The games will be played under the rules established by the National Federation of State High School Association (NFHS).

A similar tournament has already been scheduled in Ohio and will begin play as soon as that state lifts all restrictions for outdoor sports activities.

Murray, Jr. and Kroeger’s plan is calling for a tournament of 64 teams, the elite of the elite in the state.

Teams from all over the state have been sent informational forms to see if there is enough interest from the better programs to participate in the tourney. Once the organizers receive commitment from 64 teams, then a seeding process will take place. If there more than 64 teams are interested after the information forms are sent out, then there will be play-in games.

The original plan will include teams from 13 counties, namely the three counties in The Observer circulation area, Bergen, Hudson and Essex Counties, as well as Hunterdon, Sussex, Warren, Union, Somerset, Middlesex, Passaic, Monmouth, Ocean and Morris Counties.

It would be as close to a state tournament as can be found after a pandemic.

Beggars can’t be choosers here, so there will be no room for complaints about a Group IV enrollment school being paired against a Group I or a Parochial power facing a public underdog.

Once the seeding has been determined, then the organizers will decide on playing sites.

The first round of the tourney would be in pool play fashion, which will place four different teams at 16 sites around northern New Jersey. Each team would get three games in pool play and each team would have to guarantee that all of that team’s seniors would get a chance to play in the three games.

Sixteen teams will move on from the pool play action. Then the tournament will move on to single-elimination contests, moving from 16, to eight, to four to an eventual championship game over a three-week span of July.

Again, scheduling and location are to be worked out.

For now, two local teams with strong baseball backgrounds have been invited to participate in the possible tournament. Nutley from Essex County and Lyndhurst from Bergen County have received the informational packets to participate.

Nutley head coach Bob Harbison was ecstatic about the opportunity.

“Of course, it’s all in speculation right now, but I think it’s great,” said Harbison, whose Maroon Raiders were one of the favorites to win in Essex County in 2020. “It will give our seniors one last chance to play with their teammates. I think it’s a great idea. I think it also gives our juniors a chance to be showcased.”

Harbison said that he heard from long-time friend Chapman via a text last week.

“Chapman said that it was going to take some time to figure out,” Harbison said. “I heard rumblings of something going down and that they were trying to get something together in July. Even though it’s all tentative, it’s interesting. It’s all happened very quickly, like in the span of a week. Who knows how it’s going to evolve?”

Harbison likes the format of the tourney.

“I think the focus is more on participation,” Harbison said. “I think the word’s gotten out to our kids about the possibility. A couple of our kids know about it. I have to thank those who took the initiative to even talk about it and find the teams they want to participate.”

Lyndhurst head coach Pat Auteri was also pleased to receive the invitation.

“I signed my team up,” Auteri said. “We’re definitely interested. We have a lot of our kids lined up to play club ball, but I don’t think it will be a problem to get a team. It’s giving us an opportunity to play again. I think it says a lot about our program that we’re being considered. It’s an honor that they would think of us.”

The Golden Bears were slated to be one of the top teams in the NJIC this spring.

“I think our people would want to see our kids play, especially our seniors,” Auteri said.

Auteri was fairly confident that Lyndhurst could serve as one of the hosts for the pool play portion of the tourney, even though the Recreation Facility fields are slated to receive a new FieldTurf put down beginning July 1.

That means that Lyndhurst would have to turn to Breslin Field in the Riverside County Park facility to be a host site. Breslin Field usually hosts American Legion and Babe Ruth tournaments during the summer, but those organizations have already canceled their seasons.

“I think they would be willing to work with us,” Auteri said of the Bergen County officials who run Breslin. “Any way we can get back on the field, especially for our seniors.”

Auteri said that he’s also heard from some coaches who would want to schedule independent games during July and August if possible.

“Maybe we can get some great games this summer,” Auteri said. “Guys like Kroeger and Chapman are putting in the time to organize this. I think there’s excitement all around. We have a rich tradition of baseball in Lyndhurst. It’s really an honor to be thought of this highly.”

And as for Nutley?

“We’ll be ready,” Harbison said.

If you listen closely, you can probably hear the faint cry of an umpire bellowing, “Play ball!”

Well, that cry just might get louder in the weeks to come. Stay tuned.

Learn more about the writer ...

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.”