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Major League Baseball

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By Daniel Dunaief

Alyssa Nakken

For Lori Perez, Alyssa Nakken was a can’t-miss softball prospect. Perez was an Assistant Softball Coach at Sacramento State University, while Nakken was, at the time, a junior at Woodland High School in California.

“She was a no-brainer,” Perez said. “She was 5’10”, athletic, and played multiple sports [including basketball and volleyball]. She was home grown and had great family support.”

Indeed, when Perez saw Nakken, who was a pitcher during high school, he witnessed a player who was throwing 64 miles per hour at her father, Robert Nakken, a lawyer.

“Seeing her out there, grinding away, I could see her making an impact,” Perez said.

What Perez witnessed during Nakken’s four years at Sacramento State, which included two years as captain, was a player determined to push herself on and off the field. When Nakken was recently named the first female assistant coach of the San Francisco Giants, a team Nakken and Perez support as fans, Perez was delighted and thrilled not only for women, who have earned jobs men had held for years, but also for her former player.

Perez believes Nakken will be as successful through her contributions to the Giants as she was with softball teams she helped lead.

Nakken, who will not be in the dugout during games, will throw batting practice and will work on base running and team unity.

Nakken has a “great personality” and is “charismatic,” Perez said. The question, however, is whether baseball players will listen to her.

“She will prove herself, no doubt,” Perez offered.

Perez recalls observing Nakken watch videos, ask questions and put in considerable extra work.

“She went above and beyond to push herself,” Perez said. Nakken “put in long hours, knows the game well, understands how it’s supposed to be played and how hard and often you need to practice.”

The game of softball has numerous differences from its baseball cousin, including a smaller diamond, no leading, a bigger ball, and different starting point for bunt defenses.

Nakken, who has been working with the Giants since 2014, will be able to rely on some of the similarities to a game she excelled in as a player, while also tapping into a deep reservoir of energy and determination to contribute to a different sport, Perez suggested.

Megan Bryant, the head softball coach at Stony Brook University, said the fundamentals in the two games are similar.

“Fielding skills and arm angles [for throwing] are similar,” Bryant said.

Perez said middle infielders in both sports drop their left leg after they field a ball to throw to make a side arm throw at the start of a double play.

Perez recalled how she was holding her young daughter one day and was looking for a diaper while Nakken was taking batting practice. Nakken hit a ball that flew at the Perez and her infant daughter Caroline. At the last minute, Perez turned so the ball hit her arm and her daughter’s leg.

“She felt terrible,” Perez said, laughing about the incident now. “I knew I shouldn’t have been standing there. You think in terms of family connections and how close you get with these players. It’s huge.”

Indeed, Perez believes Nakken was fortunate to continue her softball career after she was in a car accident in which her vehicle flipped over.

“I have no idea how she walked out of that car accident alive,” Perez said. “She must have had an angel looking over her shoulder that day.”

Nakken had a storybook ending to her senior year. During senior day, she crushed a home run to left field in her first at bat. In her second time at the plate, she hit another home run to right field. The third time up, she crushed a ball to deep center field that the outfielder caught. Nakken ended up going two for four with three runs batted in during a game Sacramento State won 12-4.

“She was the kind person that people took a step back because of her presence,” Perez said.
Photos courtesy of Bob Solorio/Sacramento State Athletics

Alyssa Nakken is the first female coach on a major league staff in baseball history.

By Daniel Dunaief

There may be no crying in baseball, as Tom Hanks famously said in the movie “A League of Their Own,” but there is, thanks to San Francisco Giants and Alyssa Nakken, now a woman in baseball.

Last week, for the first time in the 150-year history of the game, a woman joined the ranks of the coaches at Major League level.

The hiring of Nakken, 29, follows the addition of women in the National Football League and the National Basketball Association.

While it may seem past time that America’s pastime caught up with the times, members of the Long Island athletic and softball communities welcomed the news.

“I hope that it becomes more of the norm rather than the exception,” said Shawn Heilbron, athletic director at Stony Brook University.

For Megan Bryant, who has been the head softball coach at Stony Brook since 2001 and has collected more than 870 career wins, Nakken’s new job creates a path that others can follow.

“For the Giants and Major League Baseball and women in sports careers, that’s a big deal and is a step forward,” Bryant said. “It will open other doors for other women.”

Bryant said teams can and should recognize the wealth of coaching talent among men and women.

“If you’re a great coach, it shouldn’t matter the gender of the athletes you’re coaching,” Bryant said. 

Lori Perez, who was an assistant softball coach at Sacramento State University when Nakken played and is now head coach, said the news gave her “goose bumps.”

The hardworking Nakken, a two-time captain at Sacramento State, once asked her coaches to stop a low-energy practice so the team could refocus and flush their negative energy, Perez said.

Nakken’s parents had “high expectations for her but, even better, she had high expectations for herself,” which included doing well academically and helping out in summer camps, Perez said.

Patrick Smith, athletic director at Smithtown school district, believes these first few female hires in men’s sports are a part of a leading edge of a new trend.

“We will see more and more [women joining professional sports teams] as time goes on,” Smith said. In Smithtown, women constitute greater than half of all the athletes at the high school level.

Among the six senior women on Stony Brook’s softball team, three members are considering a career in sports after they graduate, Bryant said.

While the Women’s College World Series softball games have drawn considerable fan attention, attendance at women’s college and professional sporting events typically lags that of men.

The Long Island community can provide their daughters with a chance to observe and learn from role models at the college and professional levels by attending and supporting local teams.

“It’s frustrating that the women’s games aren’t drawing close to what the men’s teams are,” said Heilbron. The Stony Brook women’s basketball team, which includes standout junior India Pagan among other talented players, is currently 18-1. This is the best start in program history.

“I hope people will come” support the team, Heilbron said. “If you come, we believe you’ll come back.”

As for women in high profile roles, Bryant, who is looking forward to the addition of six new players to her softball squad this year, believes each step is important on a longer journey toward equal opportunity.

“Whether it’s in sports, science or politics, we’re making strides,” Bryant said. “But we still have a long way to go.”

Perez, who has two children, is thrilled that “women can dream of things they couldn’t dream of before,” thanks to Nakken and other female trailblazers inside and outside of the sports world.

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Ward Melville graduate makes noise, gets in record books in first start with New York Mets last Sunday

Steven Matz smacks a double past outfielder Billy Hamilton in his first MLB at-bat. Photo by Clayton Collier

Steven Matz was a hit in more ways than one.

Before even throwing his first warm-up pitch — just half an hour into the fan shop being opened at Citi Field — every piece of memorabilia with the 24-year-old southpaw’s name on it was sold out.

“He came out of the bullpen and got a standing ovation — who gets that?” Matz’s Ward Melville High School head coach Lou Petrucci said. “New York has 100 guys that have gotten the hype, and how great is it that Steven Matz lived up to it? And he didn’t just live up to it, he exceeded it — and that’s what’s so great about this.”

But it may not have seemed that way from the start.

The first pitch Matz threw, a 96-mph fastball to the Cincinnati Reds’ Brandon Phillips, was wild, as it nicked catcher Johnny Monell’s glove and traveled to the warning track behind the plate.

Steven Matz hurls a pitch from the mound. Photo by Clayton Collier
Steven Matz hurls a pitch from the mound. Photo by Clayton Collier

In that same at-bat, Phillips hit a game-opening home run, and all Long Island fans could do was hold their breath and hope the local star, who had only made his Triple-A debut just one year ago, could turn things around. And he did.

Matz had finished his season 7-4 with a 2.19 ERA and 94 strikeouts over 90.1 innings for Triple-A Las Vegas, and he wasn’t going to sweat the small stuff.

After shaking off the opening at-bat jitters, the side was retired, and it was smooth sailing the rest of the way.

“A lot of people would have just cracked under the pressure, but that just ignites Steven’s fire,” former MLB pitcher Frank Viola, who pitched for the Mets from 1989-91, said in an interview with Seton Hall University’s radio station WSOU. “He’s more than just a baseball player — that’s secondary. He’s just a wonderful person, terrific kid; you root for people like that. The world needs more people like Steven Matz.”

The left-handed pitcher limited Cincinnati to two runs in the Mets 7-2 victory. The Reds’ second was another solo home run, this time off the bat of Todd Frazier. But Matz struck out both Phillips and Frazier in their next at-bats, and ended his 7.2 innings with a 2.35 ERA on five hits while striking out six and walking three.

What may have been even more impressive though, was his historic debut at the plate.

Everyone knew Matz could hit — he finished AAA with a .304 batting average, but no one could predict he would go 3-for-3. Just six innings in, the 999th player in Mets history found his way into the team record book by being the first player at any position on the team to have four RBIs in his MLB debut.

“It’s like a movie script,” Matz’s father, Ron of Stony Brook, said. “Aside from the home run in the first inning, where everyone was a little nervous, it was amazing the way he could shake it off and continue doing what he does. He’s always been a good hitter, but I never realized that at the major league level he’d be the star. He was a one-man show.”

Steven Matz has always had his own piece of fame since senior year of high school.

In the Three Village community, he had a sandwich named after him at the Se-Port Deli in East Setauket after being drafted by the Mets in 2009. But now, everyone across the Island has heard the 24-year-old’s name after he was called up to The Show last Thursday, making his official debut Sunday afternoon.

Steven Matz winds up. Photo by Clayton Collier
Steven Matz winds up. Photo by Clayton Collier

“I first got the phone call from Steve and he just said ‘Dad, I’m going to the big leagues,’” Ron Matz said. “I got pretty emotional. To see what he’s been through over the years, with the Tommy John surgery and all of that stuff and him battling back and doing what he did to finally get to the point where he is, it was a pretty proud moment.”

The father recalls his son’s younger years in the sport, and cannot believe how far he’s come to get to where he is today, although admitting he thinks it’s strange to see his name on everyone else’s back.

“Steve used to always come out with one of his older brother Jonathan’s uniforms on that would hang down past his feet,” Ron Matz said. “He was out there playing with the 5-year-olds when he was 2, and I always knew he had something special, and now everyone was rushing to the store once we heard there was a Matz jersey available. The line was out the door with people buying these things. His memorabilia was sold out within the first half hour.”

And everyone knew he had what it took to play in the big leagues.

“I’ve been coaching Steven since he was 9 years old, and when he was about 10, I told his father ‘Your son’s going to pitch in the big leagues one day,’” former MLB left-handed pitcher Neal Heaton said. “He thought I was full of it.”

But Petrucci saw it, too.

“He’s a complete baseball player, a complete athlete, terrific listener and he is extremely focused, and that’s what makes it so easy for him,” he said. “This kid is a product of all of the people who have touched him throughout the Three Village community: coaches, players, family members. How do you not root for this kid?”

Matz joined a young Mets rotation with the likes of Matt Harvey, Jacob DeGrom, Noah Syndergaard and the injured Zack Wheeler, which Mets manager Terry Collins said is a staff to be reckoned with.

“I think it sends a message to our fan base that the future is now,” he said in a press conference following Sunday’s game. “We’ve been talking about down the road, next year, next year; the future is now. They’re here, they’re going to pitch, and it’s going to be exciting to see them grow from start to start.”

Matz was also the first Mets pitcher with at least three hits and four RBIs since Dwight “Doc” Gooden in 1985, and Doc thought the way the southpaw handled himself on the mound after the opening pitch said a lot about his character.

“Giving up a home run to that first guy, it probably didn’t bother him as much as it would some other guys because of what he’s been through to get to that point,” he said. “That can go a long way in showing his character and mound presence when it comes to pitching against tough teams and big games come September.”

Matz’s former high school coach said he sees the pitcher going far.

“Every level Steve has gone up he’s only continued to get better because he’s more determined than ever and he’s dedicated to being the best pitcher that he can be,” Petrucci said. “Is he going to go 3-for-3? I don’t think so. But is he going to get his share of base hits? You bet he is. Will he win some games? Oh, you bet he is. The bigger the stakes for Steven Matz the higher he rises up to the occasion. This is more than just the beginning. This is the start of something special.”

Clayton Collier contributed reporting.

Three Village’s Ron Matz and Hauppauge’s Nick Fanti Sr. are recognized for the impact they had on their sons’ careers

Lori, Steven and Ron Matz on the Ward Meville baseball field. Photo from Ron Matz

By Alex Petroski

Being drafted by a Major League Baseball team is a massive accomplishment.

The journey from tee-ball to the big leagues is one that weeds out just about everyone along the way, but the select few who actually make their way into a professional lineup all have a common denominator: a strong support system. Though they’ll never take the credit away from their hardworking sons, Nick Fanti Sr. and Ron Matz deserve some recognition ahead of Father’s Day.

Nick Fanti Sr. and Nick Fanti Jr. pose for a photo together. Photo from Nick Fanti Sr.
Nick Fanti Sr. and Nick Fanti Jr. pose for a photo together. Photo from Nick Fanti Sr.

Nick Fanti Jr. played baseball for Hauppauge High School. He was selected in the 31st round by the Philadelphia Phillies in the  2015 MLB Draft last week.

“I don’t know the words,” Fanti Sr. said in a phone interview about his son being selected by Philadelphia.

Pride was the word Fanti Sr. settled on after some deliberation.

“It brings tears to your eyes, even now thinking about it,” he said.

Fanti Sr. gained experience in being a supportive dad of his athletic children over the course of his four daughters playing careers, all of which are older than Fanti Jr.

“You realize there’s nothing you can do. … I enjoy just watching and possibly talking to him afterwards,” Fanti Sr. said about how hands-on he is as he juggles his role as a dad, coach and fan of a talented son. “You hope you’ve given them all the tools.”

With Father’s Day quickly approaching, Fanti Jr., who went 7-1 with a 0.67 ERA, a 0.63 WHIP and 87 strikeouts in 52 innings, knows how much having a supportive dad over the years means when you’re trying to follow your dream of making it in the big leagues.

“He was never hard on me about the results of the game like most parents,” Fanti Jr. said about his dad. “He is most concerned with if I respect the game — running on and off the field, and having a good attitude. When he does critique how I played, I listen because he’s been through it.”

Fanti Sr. said he knew his son was special at an early age.

“When he was 10 or 12 he said to me, ‘Dad, Mickey Mantle’s soul went into my glove,’” Fanti Sr. said. “That was his idol.”

Their talented son now wearing a Phillies uniform does not faze the Fantis, who are lifelong Yankee fans.

“I’m just so happy for him,” Fanti Sr. said. “He’s going to make it anywhere he goes.”

His son has to decide if he wants to report to the Phillies or play college ball at Marist College. Fanti Sr. said that he’ll offer his son guidance, but it’s ultimately his decision.

Fanti Sr. was hesitant to take any credit for his son’s success, though he did mention some people that helped along the way, but he does credit his wife Laura with preparing her son a five-course breakfast everyday.

“It’s not only myself, but all the people that I surrounded him with growing up,” Fanti Sr. said, listing Long Island baseball stalwarts Neil Heaton, Matt Guiliano and Sal Agostinelli among others.

Lori, Steven and Ron Matz on the Ward Meville baseball field. Photo from Ron Matz
Lori, Steven and Ron Matz on the Ward Meville baseball field. Photo from Ron Matz

Steven Matz was one of the others that Fanti Sr. listed as having a huge impact on his son’s high school career. He called Steven Matz one of the best kids you could ever meet and said that Ron Matz, his father, reached out to congratulate him when Fanti Jr. was given the Carl Yastrzemski Award, which is awarded to the player of the year in Suffolk County. Both Steven Matz and Fanti Jr. were recipients in their senior seasons.

Steven Matz was selected by the New York Mets in the second round of the 2009 MLB Draft after graduating from Ward Melville. He is presumably just weeks away from making his debut in Flushing with the big league club with 2.3081 ERA, 1.149 WHIP and 81 strikeouts over 78.1 innings with Triple-A Las Vegas this season.

“He always had a chance to be good,” Ron Matz said of his son and his chances of going pro one day. “We probably didn’t even think about it until really his junior year [of high school].”

Just like Fanti Sr., Ron Matz was quick to dismiss the thought that his son’s success is in any way a credit to him and his wife Lori, rather than his son’s hard work and dedication — although he did admit it wasn’t always easy satisfying his son’s desire to play the game.

“Any time he wanted to have a catch or go to the field, take batting practice or pitch, I couldn’t say no,” Ron Matz said. “Before my foot hit the ground it was ‘Dad can we go?’ I was tired from working 11-hour days, but I couldn’t say no.”

Steven Matz has been a household name for Mets fans for a few years now, and living in Stony Brook, Ron Matz said it’s hard to avoid hearing or reading about his son.

“It’s very, very exciting,” he said. “It’s a little nerve wracking. It’s out there, so being a New York guy, and Steven’s a New York Met, it’s hard to avoid it.”

Ron Matz said that he’s very calm when he gets to watch his son in person but added that it’s much harder trying to follow his son’s games when he’s not there. Steven Matz has been playing for the Mets’ various minor league affiliates in Port St. Lucie, Binghamton and Las Vegas since he signed with the Mets organization in 2009.

Steven Matz suffered a torn ligament in his elbow in 2010 that required Tommy John surgery, which involves a lengthy and strenuous rehab process, but after recovering he’s come back stronger than ever to prove he has what it takes to move into the Mets’ rotation.

Both fathers had a hard time hiding how proud they both are of their sons. Although Ron Matz and Fanti Sr. both deflected questions about their impact on their sons’ careers, they were always strong support systems for their sons.

“It’s going to be pretty exciting,” Ron Matz said about the day his son finally dons a Mets uniform. “With all the setbacks and bumps and valleys, it was a trying time seeing what he went through, to continue to work hard — it will be nice to see him finally achieve his dream.”