By ROBERT LINNEHAN | The Cherry Hill Sun
Forty years ago this summer, the first young Little Leaguer picked up a bat and took his hacks in the inaugural season of the Cherry Hill Atlantic Little League. Forty years, several field expansions, a new snack bar, and a boom of young ballplayers participating every season later, the Atlantic League is looking forward to another 40 years of baseball in Cherry Hill.
It’s certainly gotten bigger since the first season in 1970, said little league President Charlie Miracola, as he looked back on the 40 years. Today the Atlantic League serves more than 700 boys and girls in their various divisions. The recent resurgence of the girls’ softball division in the league has done well to increase the numbers, he said.
In 1985, when Miracola first joined the league as a volunteer, he said the organization only had about 400 kids.
“We have over, including the girls’ softball, 700 kids in the league now. I remember going back many years ago and we only had a little over 400 kids in the league. Luckily we grew and there are still a lot of kids running around on our fields. They want to play baseball,” he said. “Sure we’ve had drop offs in past years because of interest in hockey, soccer, and other sports. But, with the popularity of girls’ softball, we’ve really picked up again. We have about 160 girls playing softball.”
A number of kids have gone on to play college baseball and a few even went on to play semi-professional baseball over the years, Miracola said. However, easily the most famous participant in the Atlantic League during its tenure was a young pitcher named Orel Hershiser, who played in the league for a summer before attending Cherry Hill High School East, Miracola said.
Hershiser of course went on to win more than 200 games in Major League Baseball, a Cy Young Award, and a World Series Championship with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988.
But what really matters are the kids, Miracola said. His biggest joy as a volunteer in the league has been to watch young athletes learn to love the game of baseball. Now, as the league gets older, it’s nice to see young athletes he coached come back to Cherry Hill and coach their own children, he said.
Greg Rubin, the current coach of the “A-Ball” Padres, grew up in Cherry Hill and participated in the league in the late 80s. His father, Howard Rubin, coached him when he was on the Cubs and now Greg coaches his own son, Nicholas, 7.
“I loved Little League. My father was my coach and it was a great experience. When I came over to the league, I didn’t think I was a very good player. But, after coming to Cherry Hill Atlantic, everything turned around with sports for me,” he said. “The kids there, we got along really well. I loved that league. I remember back then there was no snack bar, no bathrooms, and no working water.”
His father was the president of the league before Miracola, Rubin said, and had an intricate hand in helping to construct the current snack bar and restroom facility. He still comes to games to watch his grandchild play, Rubin said, and has continued on the tradition of buying the team hotdogs and sodas after each game.
The joy of seeing his own son run the base paths that he loved so much as a child has made him appreciate the league and the Cherry Hill community all that much more. Rubin lived in Egg Harbor Township for several years before coming back to Cherry Hill for the school system.
“When I came back last year, walking on the fields, walking around and seeing the banners and my old team’s banner still up in the field house, it was great. Now, watching my son come out in the same field, it’s absolutely amazing,” he said. “It’s amazing to give back to what was given to me.
“I love coaching and teaching the kids to love and learn the game of baseball.”
As long as there are still children out there looking to pick up a bat and a ball, the Atlantic League will still be there to teach them the fine art of a relay throw or a drag bunt.
Hot dogs and soda after each game isn’t too shabby either.