On the West Haven American Legion baseball team website, there is a “huge thank you” to a long list of supporters. From Peoples Bank to Libero Jeweler, a grand total of 13 sponsors got prime real estate on the site.
That’s because last year at this time, there was no West Haven American Legion baseball. A staple in town, the team forfeited last season due to a lack of players and funding. It did not sit well with Westies.
“Most of the people in our town felt it was a shame,” said coach Fred Morgillo. “It’s been in place as long as it’s been and to let it go was not going to happen.”
Morgillo is now coaching the 19-U senior team, which is in the hunt for a playoff spot in Zone 2 at 7-9.
The coach said things turned around fast.
“When it started out we wanted to get a team back in, and shortly into the season we’re going from having a team to being competitive to trying to make the playoffs,” Morgillo said.
Fast? Yes. Easy? Not one bit.
John Velardi is the post administer for West Haven Legion. He has been involved with the program for over 20 years and is a Vietnam veteran. Difficulty aside, he said his mission was to get West Haven back on the field.
“I’m a Westie at heart,” Velardi said. “West Haven needed the team.”
But first it needed money. Velardi said the average cost to run a Legion team is about $5,000, which covers equipment, uniforms and umpires. He said the donors were generous.
“We came up with quite a bit of money to get us back into the league,” Velardi said.
He said he was able to raise about $3,000-$3,500 and a portion of the proceeds came from an advertisement book he has been running. He said local businesses took out full-page, half-page and quarter-page ads to help get West Haven back on its feet.
The fee for players was set at $250, and word started to spread that West Haven Legion was coming back. Instead of having a 17-U junior team, Velardi and the coaching staff opted to have a prep 15-U squad.
“We didn’t have the numbers,” Velardi said. “We decided to go with the younger group to bring them right up through the process.”
And it was John Cambino’s job to help the young talent progress. His ties to Velardi run deep — Velardi was Cambino’s coach in Little League. Cambino’s assistant coach is Mark Consorte, who at 45 is still playing in the West Haven Twilight League.
Cambino said the tryouts were nerve wracking but successful, as 32 players showed up to compete for a spot on the team.
“We wanted to give everyone a place to play baseball,” Cambino said.
Cambino and Consorte would have to be creative to keep all 32 players on the field. The team picked only 17 players, but sent the remaining 15 to West Haven Babe Ruth.
“We really didn’t want to turn kids away, and we’re just a feeder for the senior program,” Cambino said. “It was about keeping the kids together, bringing them all back here. Back home.”
Meanwhile, Morgillo had butterflies in his stomach during senior tryouts for a different reason.
“We didn’t know what we had,” he said. “We knew there were a select group of 19-year-olds we had to take because they had to be on the roster prior to graduation. The other guys were up in the air because of their work schedules.”
Luckily for Morgillo, things panned out and the team settled at 18 players.
“We had just enough pitchers to get a full roster,” he said.
And when West Haven hit the field, it was apparent that the talent in the town had not run dry.
“Once we started playing we saw how tough our pitching and defense was and we started winning games,” Morgillo said.
West Haven is fighting for its season again, but in a good way — trying to make the playoffs. Cambino is teaching his team the fundamentals and they are buying in. Financially the programs are just scraping by, but after the pain of not having a team finish the 2014 season, it will take a lot more to break the Westies’ spirits.
“We’re just about going to get by,” Velardi said. “But you know what? At least we got by the first year.”