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Paul Esposito: Razor-Sharp in the Infield

 

Paul Esposito was born to play baseball.

Paul, who was born and grew up in Middletown in Monmouth County, has lived his entire life in New Jersey. “Almost from the time I was born,” he says, “my dad would put me in front of the television to watch the games and he said I was riveted by it. I was born in ’77; that was when the Yankees - Red Sox rivalry was real big and there were a lot of big games. He said I was into it from the start. He brought me out to the backyard and I kind of had some skills with it. So it was really from birth that I started playing. I was in the newspaper when I was a year and a half [old], being able to hit the ball pretty good. It was kind of neat, I was kind of like a prodigy. I just really loved it. It just became my life really, at a young age. I played on all sorts of tournament teams, little league teams.”

Growing up, Paul played football and basketball as well as baseball. “You know how it is in New Jersey with the weather, in the winter you really can’t play [baseball] much, so I played a lot of [recreational] football; but then when I [started] playing with the schools I played basketball. So it was basically baseball and basketball throughout high school. I still enjoy basketball a lot.”

Paul is known as a “utility infielder” on the Bears, but he is not fond of that designation. “I feel like that’s a classification of somebody who’s a spare part, and I don’t really look at myself that way. I think it’s an asset to be able to play all three [infield positions -- second, short, and third]. But I’d prefer to play just one all the time. In this league, there’s so much turnover, so many new players, or somebody’s got an injury and they can’t play. I think I’m valuable to the team to be able to do that, but I don’t like to be classified [that way]."

Paul prefers to play second base. “I haven’t played much third in my life and I’ve played it a lot here. But I’ve kind of got into a frame of mind where I’m trying to make it all the same and I don’t prefer one over the other, because when you prefer something you play better at it I think. Some of the guys get a negative attitude [about playing a position] and then don’t do as well. I try to enjoy all three the same. I grew up a shortstop and then I started playing second in professional baseball and started really enjoying it.”

Before a game, Paul lifts weights to stay strong throughout the season, and…he likes to shave.

“Everybody always makes fun of me for [shaving]. I like to shave before the game, it gives me a sense of ‘all right, time to go to work’. That’s my way of getting [mentally ready], [getting] away from everything a little bit. The guys joke about it because we go outside and sweat and it’s supposed to burn. They’re like, ‘what are you doing?’ but it doesn’t bother me.”

So does he find that if he doesn’t shave before a game he doesn’t play as well?

“I used to think that way. I try not to be that superstitious any more. A couple of years ago I was ridiculous with it, [to the point that if] we had a night game, I’d shave before the night game, and then [I’d shave again before a day game the next day], and my face would get all ripped up. I’ve gotten to where I don’t have to do it every day, but I still like to do it as much as I can.”

One of Paul’s mentors was his high school coach, Richard Veth. “He was a huge influence on me,” Paul says. “He’s a legend down by us in Monmouth county [at Middletown North High School]. He just passed away last year from cancer. I had just loved baseball so much growing up, and [my passion for it] was kind of above and beyond [that of] everyone else I was with, and to run into somebody like that, as a coach, [until then] I found I loved baseball more than my coaches did. [Veth] was better than me in his dedication to the game -- he’d be at the park every day, before school, after school, raking the field, doing every little thing. He knew everything about the game. We had a great relationship; I adored everything about him and the way he went about [the game] -- he helped me out so much.  Besides my dad, he was the biggest influence in my baseball career.

“Since then, my college coach [at Fairleigh Dickinson] was very good, he helped me immensely, helped me learn how to prepare mentally for the game. Since I’ve been in professional baseball they’ve all been similar. I like Bill [Madlock], I liked Marv [Foley] last year. You know, you don’t develop [the same] kind of relationship [with every coach]. I was very fortunate [to have Richard Veth as a coach].”

Paul has been part of several championship teams: Newark in 2002, Somerset in 2001, and the Johnstown Johnnies of the Frontier League in 2000. What does he feel makes for a championship team?

“I think it’s really the approach of wanting it more for the team than for yourself.  My thinking is that [team] winning breeds success for individuals. If you work together as a team and win, then the individual accolades are going to come, like being able to go to an [affiliated] organization, or get a promotion; whatever your goals are, I think they start with winning. When winning happens, a lot of good things snowball from that; when you lose….

“To me, being an MVP on a losing team is nothing. What did you do for that team? You weren’t that valuable if the team’s losing! I think that I’ve been fortunate to be around guys that want to win. If [the Bears] can come together here and win, some good stuff’s going to happen. Look at Jimmy Hurst last year:  we won, he was the MVP of the league, and he got a contract in Japan.”

In the off-season, Paul still plays a little basketball. “The last two years I was fortunate to be able to coach [basketball] -- junior varsity two years ago, and eighth grade last year. 

“You know, I go into each off-season thinking that I’m going to do something different. [But I always seem to] come back to the same things, so [I hope that] this year I can do something in a little bit different direction. In past years, I would substitute teach during the day, and do [baseball] lessons at night. I’d like to do one thing, and be able to make enough money to do that one thing. I have a college degree [in business management], but it’s hard to say [to an employer], ‘well, now I have to go back and play baseball.’”

Among the dedicated fans, there’s definitely a sense of rivalry between the Bears and certain other teams, especially Somerset. What about the players?

“Trying to speak on behalf of the team,” says Paul, “I would say no, [but] on behalf of myself, very much because I played for both teams. I’ve talked to certain players, who say [they] hate this team or that team, they really want to beat them more, and when I played for the Patriots we felt that way about the Bears. Because it was that year that I played for them when you guys had [Jose] Canseco, and [Jim] Leyritz, and Lance Johnson, and Danny Kanell, and to us it was like, ‘they’re getting all the big name players, let’s go out and show them who we are.’ So that year I felt that [rivalry], but here, I don’t feel a dislike for them, except for a few people who have been in the league for a while. I feel it though, when we play them.”

So far the second half of the season has been very competitive, with the teams in the Southern Division separated by only two-and-a-half games. Paul feels the competition will continue, “because [although Camden won the first half], in past years, not last year but the year before, if you won both halves, there was a reward for that. Now there’s no reward for winning both halves, so Camden [will probably lose motivation]. It was the same with us last year -- after we won the first half, nobody felt any motivation to win the second half, because there was no reward for it. So we rested certain players in certain situations, taking it easy [because we were going to have to play the first round of the playoffs no matter what]. I thought it was going to hurt us going into the playoffs because I think it’s important to play [well] going into the playoffs, which we were able to do. Guys turned it on. I don’t know how we did it but we did it. The Patriots went to the championships three years in a row and lost, and I think that was a big reason why -- they kept winning all the halves and had the bye [and got cold during the first round].”

So what does Paul think the Bears need to do to get it together and take the second half?

“I would say stability. We’ve had a lot of turnover all season, and there hasn’t been one consistent lineup, one consistent anything. And that’s how it is in this league -- there’s a lot of turnover, players come in and players go out, and I think if we can develop a consistent lineup, a consistent team, and a consistent way about us, then I think we have the best talent.”

Paul hopes the team will settle down in the second half. “You can never tell, but I hope so. [Because] then you have a chance to mold and develop, and have that chemistry. With everybody moving in and out [in the first half of the season], it was like ‘the guy next to you is gone, there’s a new guy coming in.’ It was so much that it was tough to develop that winning atmosphere.”

Paul says he follows the careers of all the teammates he’s played with, but keeps in touch with only a few players in the off-season (Jason Torres and Jimmy Hurst among them). “I think it’s unfortunate,” he says, “because it should be more because you kind of bond. But in terms of following each other, when I go home tonight I might go [look at] a box score to see how somebody did, like Rickey Henderson, or [Jose] Lima, or anybody [I’ve played with].”

What could the fans be doing to make the players’ lives better? “Cheer for us, and keep coming out! I’m a huge baseball fan, and [our fans] don’t do it, but in the big leagues, you hate to see when somebody’s struggling they really [boo] you about it, especially in New York. [The fans seem to] think [the players are] not trying, [but that’s not the case].

“[Newark fans] are great. I say to everybody, we have the best fans in the league! I don’t care if we don’t draw as many as the Ducks or the Patriots, because you guys are loyal. You come to every game, I find that incredible!”

If there is one thing Paul wishes people knew about him, it is how much he loves the game. “I’m really not that good [naturally],” he says, “my will got me here! I’m serious -- I’ve played with many players who are better than [I am], in terms of talent. I’ve always willed my way, number one, because I have a strong will, [and] number two, because I love the game so much. I think that’s what carried me here. What people can’t see on the field is just how much I enjoy what I do. A lot of guys can’t say that. They went out to a field, hit a ball over the fence, and said ‘man, I’m pretty good!’ and they keep playing.  I hit the ball and I wasn’t that good. 

“[Not only me, but] all the guys here love it -- they’re not here for the money! I think they love it because they’re good at it, and they get satisfaction from it. I love the game whether I’m watching it or playing it! What I [said] before about the Red Sox and Yankees [when I was] growing up, I was a huge Yankee fan growing up, and that inspired everything. When I went to Yankee Stadium, I felt like, that’s where I want to spend most of my life -- and not as a fan, I wanted to make it as a player!”

 

Newark Bears News thanks The Newark Bears Professional Baseball Club, Inc. for facilitating access to Mr. Esposito for this story.

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