DANVERS — Kneeling by the batting cage at his alma mater, St. John’s Prep, Matt Antonelli was starting a new chapter in what has been a baseball-rich life.
Cradling an iPad in his hands, the 28-year-old recently retired minor leaguer was filming batting practice sessions of young players trying out for his December-to-August program, Antonelli Baseball, that will compete in the New England Elite Baseball League.
He does so with a sense of fulfillment.
“When I wake up, I don’t say ‘I want to go out and play’ anymore,” said Antonelli, who played eight seasons of pro ball after he was selected 17th overall by the San Diego Padres out of Wake Forest in the 2006 First-Year Player draft.
“Now when I wake up, I say, ‘I can’t wait to go coach today.’ ”
The Peabody native had always wanted to teach the game and upon officially retiring in late June, he wasted no time in starting up his own travel club.
“I’ve wanted to start my own organization basically since I started playing,” said Antonelli, who in past offseasons would volunteer with local travel teams. “I like teaching, I like coaching, I could just never have my own team because I’ve been playing; but now since I’ve stopped, I can have my own team.”
Antonelli, the state’s Player of the Year in football and hockey (and runner-up in baseball) as a senior at Prep, appeared to be on the fast track to the big leagues with the Padres. But injuries derailed his dream, forcing him to spend about half of his career on the bench.
After being released by the Indians on April 28 — his fifth organization in eight seasons — Antonelli expressed interest toward numerous minor league clubs. But after receiving offers only from independent teams, he decided it was time to retire.
“Minor league baseball is a grind and after eight years of doing it, I’m just tired,” said Antonelli, who made his Major League debut on Sept. 1, 2008, with the Padres. “I always said if I don’t think I have a legitimate shot at [going back to] the big leagues, then I’ll go coach.”
Now, he will do just that, alongside his 54-year-old father, Jack, who has coached at America’s Pastime on the North Shore for the past two decades.
“I’m excited to be able to watch how Matt develops the kids,” said Jack Antonelli, who coached him in Little League and leads the freshman team at St. John’s Prep. “The type of kid he is and everything that he’s learned, I think he’s going to do a lot of good for them.”
Antonelli believes that he absorbed a great deal of knowledge over eight pro seasons, largely because he was a part of five different organizations.
“One of my favorite things about going to five different teams is that I saw five different ways of doing things,” said Antonelli, who in addition to his time with the Padres and Indians, was also with the Nationals, Orioles, and Yankees, respectively.
“I was able to see what I like about these organizations and I had so many managers and coaches, that I just learned a lot and picked out what I liked.”
All along, he kept his future coaching aspirations in mind, constantly taking notes on drills that he enjoyed to words of wisdom from coaches.
And now he’s back where he claims his baseball career really took off: as a part of a travel baseball club, when he suited up for Lightning Baseball of New England, an AAU club.
It was there, from age 13 to 16, in which he believes he truly developed as a player, as the organization took keen interest in his individual growth, rather than focusing on winning. He plans to take the same tack.
“Some organizations have 20 teams . . . and you just kind of run them through drills and let them go,” said Antonelli, who lives in Georgetown. “But I want to take it to a level where we have a folder on every kid and it says exactly what he needs to work on, and when we go in every day, the kid knows what he needs to work on, and him and all of the coaches are [on the same page].”
He added: “I don’t care about helping a kid winning a trophy, I care about getting that kid to get where he wants to play. If I can do that, then we’ll get more kids; if we get more kids then we’re going to develop, so that’s how we’re really going to grow.”
That type of mentality attracted Nick Lepore , a 14-year-old pitcher entering his freshman year at Malden Catholic.
“What he says all the time is that it doesn’t matter how many games you win, it matters what you learned at the end of the year, and that’s really all it comes down to in the end,” said Lepore, who previously had played on Jack Antonelli’s travel team.
Though Antonelli is motivated to get his program running as soon as possible, he has faced a few challenges.
Close to 70 players attended two tryouts, plus a number of individual sessions, but filling the rosters for three teams (14-, 15-, and 16-year-old squads) will not be easy, especially with a month-old organization.
Sam Blizard, a 15-year-old incoming freshman at St. John’s Prep, made the squad. Initially, however, he wanted to wait until the rosters were filled to make his decision. “It just became clear that I [can’t] turn down a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play with a [former] pro as my coach,” said the Ipswich resident, a center fielder.
“With his experience and where he’s gone in life, I think he knows what he’s talking about and I would want to be coached under the best.”
Once his teams are stocked (he will also offer private tryouts), he will hire a staff. The cost for the December-to-August experience will range from $2,400 to $2,800, though he plans to fund raise to defray the cost for those in need. He has a board of advisers, which includes Wade LeBlanc, a pitcher for the Houston Astros, Stoneham’s Mickey Wiswall, a prospect with the Seattle Mariners, and Shawn Wooten , who won a World Series title with the Angels in 2002.
Sosa aims for Majors
Lawrence High grad Ruben Sosa is in spitting distance of reaching his lifetime goal: to play Major League Baseball.
The 22-year-old infielder/outfielder, who attended Greater Lawrence Tech and Lawrence High, is soaring for the Houston Astros’ Class AAA affiliate in Oklahoma City.
Sosa, selected in the 23d round of the 2011 draft by Houston, was hitting .299 for the RedHawks, while playing solid defense in the outfield and at second base.
With September call-ups around the corner, the former Oklahoma City University student could be in line for a promotion to a club that has compiled an American League-worst .235 batting average.
At Lawrence High, the 5-foot-7 Dominican Republic native was a starting defensive back and sprinter. In his senior track season, he was fourth at the New England Championships in the 55-meter dash, with a 6.52 mark. That spring, he hit a Ted Williams-esque .406 for the Lancers and knocked in 17 runs.Taylor C. Snow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @taylorsnow.