Cops win baseball title for fallen brethren

Eighteen active Philadelphia Police Officers are huddled together in front of the dugout at LaSalle High School’s state-of-the-art Ward Field on a humid Sunday afternoon in August. Most of the players are hunched over with their hands on their knees and listening intently as their manager below them, resting on one knee in the dirt, looks up at his team with his circular-framed eye glasses and reminds them that they were good enough to reach the championship game, and are good enough to win it.

Meet the Philadelphia Police Blue Sox: an amateur baseball team composed entirely of Philly’s finest, ranging in age from 22 to 50. The team is preparing to take the field against the Cherry Hill Phillies in the championship game of an 18-and-older, New Jersey-based, independent baseball league for working class heroes with a hobby. A league full of weekend warriors.

“Where’s Cappy?” The Team Manager Bill Stephan, celebrating his 30th year as a cop, asks while scanning the players faces. From the back of the group, along the protective fence on the dugouts rim, a wide man with a sweat-stain halo forming around the crown of his cap speaks clearly, slowly and in a low tone.

“Same things he just said,” Joe Gillespie, 42, the ace starting pitcher begins. “Make this guy throw pitches… lay off the umpires… you know, just stay in the game. The whole game. No clowning around, no talking in here about work. We have the rest of the afternoon to talk about that. We can hit this guy, we proved it last time we played them. Let’s just give it everything.”

“Nine innings, 27 outs,” added PAL officer and three-hole hitter Tony D’Aulerio, 50, clapping his hands together.

“Let’s go play hard fellas,” Timmy Stephan, 24, says with black war paint outlining his high cheekbones.

“Alright guys,” the skipper regains the group’s attention with a direct tone, then lowers it. “We dedicate this year to all the fallen cops, OK? Dedicate the playoffs to everybody, OK? We play this game for them…do it for yourselves, and do it for them…Let’s get it in.”

Both players and coaches, in their matching gray and blue uniforms, all join hands at the middle of the huddle.

“Listen to me, and repeat after me, OK?”

Repeating after the skipper, the team shouts in unison.

“SKERSKI! CASSIDY! MCDONALD! NAZARIO! LICZBINSKI! SIMPSON! PAWLOWSKI! HEROES!”

The Blue Sox in front of the pitchers mound at Ward Field after mounting a come-from-behind victory against the Cherry Hill Phillies for the NJIBL championship. Photo by Tom Rowan.
(The Blue Sox in front of the pitchers mound at Ward Field after mounting a come-from-behind victory against the Cherry Hill Phillies for the NJIBL championship. Photo by Tom Rowan.)

It’s all about fundraising and having fun.

Billy Killian is walking on the seat of the aluminum dugout bench and grabbing at the ceiling, trying to explain.

“It’s an out for these guys, you know what I mean?” Killian says. “The s— we see everyday. Deal with everyday. Everybody here loves baseball, that’s why we’re here. You know, if we can have some fun along the way, why not? Take your mind off the job a little bit, you know, have fun playing baseball.”

Killian, 31, is the team coordinator and first base coach. By his own admission, though, he’s just a cop who loves the game, Stephan’s the baseball man. Killian is the contact guy. He makes the calls, organizes all the fundraisers, orders the uniforms, “that’s all me,” Killian says. “Everything on the field, that’s him. I don’t step on his toes, he don’t step on mine.”

This is the first year the Philadelphia Police Department is fielding a baseball team. Prior to the Blue Sox, the department would only support softball and tackle football teams. After having so much fun participating in a charity softball tournament last year, raising money for the survivors fund for families of fallen officers, Killian said to Stephan, “You know what? We already have a Football team, why not a baseball team? Let’s keep this going.”

Killian partnered with the coach of the The Philadelphia Police & Fire Football Club, the Blue Flames, to build the baseball club.

First, the Blue Sox first found a home in the NJIBL, or the New Jersey Independent Baseball League. The wood bat league is located in southern New Jersey and is open to all adult residents who live in the southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey area. The league hosts four divisions, with four teams in each, playing 18 games between April and July with the playoffs battled out in the dog days of August.

Killian then hung flyers up on message boards in every department across the city looking for talent, and out of 70 recruits, 16 were chosen to join the club. Each of the 16 players were asked to raise $500 through sponsorship and raffles to get the team started, with a portion of the team’s budget set aside for donations.

After all, The Blue Sox want this team to be a vehicle for fundraising. And that mission continued with a charity baseball game this past Saturday, as part of the annual Irish weekend festivities in Wildwood, NJ, against the New York City Correction Officers at Maxwell Field. All proceeds benefited the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. The goal was to raise $2,000 toward a national museum in Washington, DC, to honor fallen officers from across the United States. The team has already made donations to organizations like the Police Athletic League, which received $2,700, and Autism Awareness, which got $250.

For being such a relatively new endeavor, Killian sure has this team running like a well-oiled machine. Only weeks after the season ended, Killion enrolled the team in a Fall baseball league, participated in all star games and is researching a team trip to Cities in Texas or New York to play in nation-wide tournaments. These players dedicate a lot of time to their teams, which can become a burden on family and friends. Killian, for example, drove three hours from his family vacation in Maryland so he could be there for the championship game. Then drove back after the game was over.

“A lot of these guys all got good personalities, always having fun, always joking around, very likable,” Killian says. “I see that and it makes me want to keep going, you know what I mean? No one’s fighting, no one’s bickering about dumb s—.”

Killian pauses.

“If we can afford to keep playing in these leagues, and help others, and everyone has fun, I’ll do it the rest of my career. That’s fine with me”

***

Sitting on the bleachers before the game, watching his team take fielding practice, Bill Stephan looks nervous.

“I am nervous,” He says. “These guys played hard all year, and they deserve to win.”

Stephan fears the youth movement on the opposing bench, “most of those guys are college players,” he says while sizing-up the Phillies lineup. But the Blue Sox played this team earlier in the season, and Stephan believes the team’s veteran presence will keep the playing field even.

Take, for instance, his best hitter, “Tony [D’Aulerio], there, is the epitome of a baseball player,” Stephan says, staying positive in making note of his best hitter. “I’ll tell you what, he knows situational ball, he coaches for PAL, hell, he’s been coaching all his life. He played in the Penn-Del league, he played centerfield and led off for their team. I mean, the man’s seen it all.”

Stephan has been a SWAT officer for the past 25 years, now working with new officers as they assimilate into the role he knows so well. In baseball, he has occupied a similar role, coaching both his sons from the time they were little leaguers, until now as they play for the Blue Sox. You could say the man knows his team.

Too well, possibly, seeing as his fears weren’t irrational. An hour and a half later, it seems as though his team needed a few innings to warm up.

Manager Bill Stephan talks strategy with veteran players Tony D’Aulerio (16) and Joe Gillespie (12) between innings. Photo by Tom Rowan.
(Manager Bill Stephan talks strategy with veteran players Tony D’Aulerio (16) and Joe Gillespie (12) between innings. Photo by Tom Rowan.)

The Cherry Hill Phillies scored one run in the top of the first inning, and four more in the fourth, while the Blue Sox could only muster two runs and four extra base hits in the same time frame.

On the mound for the Blue Sox, 42-year-old Gillespie, who had to this point, put on a solid performance for the remaining four and a 1/3 innings, would begin to unravel. The former Catholic League Champion with his alma mater North Catholic, would give up four more runs, and allow two base runners that would eventually score. He was taken out after he and the home plate umpire heard a pop in his throwing shoulder.

The score now stood at 11 to 4 in favor of the Phillies.

“Come on fellas, let’s get moving!” Timmy Stephan yelled as the team returned to the dugout after reliever Jose Medina recorded the third and final out of the inning. “Time to get moving here, let’s go!”

The team would respond with four runs of their own in the bottom of the sixth inning, but the Phillies would respond with an insurance run at the top of the seventh.

Then the fireworks came.

***

That’s how dramatic this game is, the scoreboard freezes.

In the bottom of the eighth, Mike Copestick, with a low .219 batting average for the season, started the inning with a lead off single. Mike Checherio would follow with a single of his own, and Timmy Stephan would bring both players home with a bases-clearing triple. George Higginson would bring Stephan home with a single, and Higginson would score off of a single from Stephan’s favorite clutch-hitter, Tony D’Aulerio, tying the ball game at 11 runs a piece.

“He’s just a clutch, clutch player,” Killian says about D’Aulerio after his eight-pitch at-bat, swinging his arms over the dugout-fence’s railing. “Smartest freaking baseball guy. He can play right field if we ask him to but he just bats, thats what he likes to do. If the game came down to one guy, I would want Tony to be that guy.”

In the NJIBL, you can substitute any fielder in the batting order with another player on your roster as long as the batting order stays the same throughout the game. Stephan bats D’Aulerio third in the lineup, the spot usually reserved for the team’s best hitter.

Neither team would score another run in the ninth inning, sending the championship game into extra innings, although the spectators would have trouble keeping track, as the scoreboard froze before the tenth inning could begin. “That’s how dramatic this game is,” Timmy Stephan adds.

The Phillies would muster only one baserunner past reliever Jose Medina at the start of extra innings.

For the Blue Sox, Checherio leads off the inning with a single, Diaz followed with hard hit ball to third, but was beat out by the throw to first.

One out.

Timmy Stephan comes to the plate and scorches a ball to the left of the second basemen who makes a remarkable stop, and flips the ball just in time to beat the baserunner at first.

Two outs.

Higginson comes to the plate and works the count to three balls and one strike. The pitcher decided to come inside with a fastball, but misses his target, mailing the batter on his left wrist. He advances to first.

Up comes D’Aulerio.

The man Killian and Stephan refer to as “Mr. Clutch,” glares out from underneath his oversized batting helmet with his orange-tinted sunglasses shielding his eyes, hunches down to shrink the strike zone, wiggling his bat in the air as he waits for the pitch. The man lives for this.

He works the count to one ball, and two strikes. The next pitch comes into D’Aulerio down and in. Mr. Clutch fights off the pitch with the handle of the bat, sending the ball up the middle, and bringing home the winning run.

The dugout erupted.

Just like Killian hoped, D’Aulerio delivered. The Blue Sox, a bunch of cops from Northeast Philly, had taken the the New Jersey baseball league title from the Cherry Hill-based team’s grasp.

The players jumped the dugout-fence and mobbed Checherio at home plate, then tracked down D’Aulerio running for his life outside the base-paths. The catcher running at him with a full Gatorade container.

“Win or lose, you guys were in my heart,” Killian says exacerbated from the exciting ending as the team gathers at thew pitchers mound.

“Way to pick me up, fellas,” Gillespie adds.

“I know we had old guys on this team for a reason,” Stephan says with a tired laugh, then regains his stern tone and teams attention. “You guys did a hell of a job. You held your own, you can hold your own in any league, you proved it today, you just proved it…but, let’s keep in mind, none of this would have been possible without Killian.”

The team starts clapping and hollering for their coach, coordinator and friend.

“I could not do my job without Bill Stephan, whatever decision I made he was right behind me, supporting me, and I would do the same for him” Killian said, “He will never step on my toes, like I will never do to his. And you guys won the game, and this is why we do it, and to get our minds off the job as cops–”

“And don’t forget who we dedicate this too,” Stephan adds, removing his cap, and lowering his head.

This story was written by Northeast native Tom Rowan, who is reporting for NEast Philly as part of our partnership with Temple University’s Philadelphia Neighborhoods.

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