Part of being a successful baseball coach is having a good memory. A coach is expected to recall specific situations in a game and either repeat them for success or make changes to improve upon mistakes.
Coach Ray Lozada has a good memory, but for him, it’s easy to remember the magical run that his baseball team had in 1994.
Lozada, a former parishioner at Visitation B.V.M. Church, Red Hook, coached the 18-and-over Brooklyn Youth Service team that won the All-American Amateur Baseball Association (AAABA) national wood bat tournament on Aug. 20, 1994 in Johnstown, Pa.
The AAABA tournament is an annual summer tradition at Johnstown’s Point Stadium. To qualify, Youth Service won the Parade Grounds League and represented the Eastern Region at the tournament. This team is the last from Brooklyn to ever capture the championship title.
“Twenty years later, I’m still thinking about that, especially when August comes around,” said Lozada, who most recently coached junior varsity baseball at the now closed Bishop Ford H.S., Park Slope. “It brings back memories like it was yesterday.”
What’s so unique about this team is that eight of the nine starting players eventually signed MLB contracts, with three making it all the way to the big leagues. In its 60-year history, the Youth Service League has had over 70 players sign, but eight of nine from one team is simply unheard of.
The most notable names are second baseman Julio Lugo, a 12-year big-league veteran drafted in 1994 by the Houston Astros, and starting pitcher Nelson Figueroa, who was drafted by the New York Mets in 1995 and spent parts of nine seasons in the big leagues. These players were named co-M.V.P.’s of the Johnstown tournament.
The team’s first baseman John Rodriguez, who was drafted in 1998 by the New York Yankees, went on to be a member of the 2006 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.
Right fielder Roberto Vaz III (Oakland Athletics, 1997), shortstop George Carrion (Texas Rangers, 1995), left fielder Alexis Zapata (Detroit Tigers, 1996), third baseman Jose Nunez (Arizona Diamondbacks, 1996) and catcher and John’s brother Mike Rodriguez (Toronto Blue Jays, 1996) all spent time in the minor leagues.
The only player not drafted, center fielder Mo Ballard, now runs a successful organization called Bringing Back Baseball, which encourages youth participation in America’s pastime.
At the AAABA tournament, the team played five of its seven games in front of a packed house of 10,000 fans at Point Stadium. The atmosphere was nothing like these young men had ever experienced, but that didn’t stop them from rattling off two decisive wins to open the tournament.
However, Youth Service then ran into a tough team from Altoona, Pa., which had the home crowd on their side en route to a 12-1 victory over the Brooklyn boys, knocking them into the loser’s bracket.
From there though, Youth Service won two straight games to reach the championship against Altoona. Since Altoona hadn’t lost yet, Youth Service needed to win two games because it was a double elimination tournament.
Brooklyn was up to the challenge, earning a 9-5 win in Game 1 and then returning the next day for a statement 12-2 victory to capture the title. As a result of winning the tournament, a Youth Service jersey and hat were placed in the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y., for one year.
On the ride home from Johnstown, Lozada and his assistant coach Mel Zitter pulled into a rest stop to have one last team meeting. The coaches told the players how proud they were, and it wound up becoming a very emotional time.
“We kind of knew that it would be the last time that we were all going to see each other,” said Lozada, who played in the Youth Service League for three years from 1976 to 1978. “I think everybody broke down, including me. I told them that I will never forget them, and to this day, I will never forget that time.”
And 20 years later, Lozada has remained true to his word.[hr]Contact Jim Mancari via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.[hr]