He doesn’t have “Wonder Boy” burned into his bat, he’s not pushing 40, sportswriters aren’t digging into his past and gamblers aren’t trying to get him to fix games.
But James Petagna sure does have a little Roy Hobbs in him.
For non-moviegoers, Roy Hobbs was the lead character in “The Natural,” a baseball player whose career got sidetracked before he emerged in a Major League dugout one day in his mid-30s and proceeded to become the league’s best hitter.
Petagna had not swung a bat in anger since his Pond Road Middle School days, but decided to come out for the Robbinsville High team in this, his senior year. Entering the Central Jersey Group III tournament on May 23, Petagna led the Ravens in hitting (.429), hits (27), RBI (14), doubles (5), walks (11) and stolen bases (7).
“I’ve never had an experience like this, where somebody just comes out of the blue,” Ravens veteran coach Tom Brettell said. “I keep saying to him, ‘Where you been?’”
Yes, James, where have you been?
“From the time I was 7 until high school, I played baseball nearly year-round,” Petagna said. “After little league ended, my love and passion for the sport began to fade. When middle school baseball ended, I was burnt out and felt that I wanted to pick up something new.”
It’s not surprising Petagna became a victim of travel ball burnout. He grew up playing in Robbinsville Little League and in the Hamilton A’s travel program. In the summer, he played all-stars and then more travel in the fall. He continued to play travel while in middle school before hitting the wall. It just wasn’t fun anymore.
‘Just having him one year, this is no exaggeration, he’s probably the most coachable kid we’ve had here in 10 years.’
Thus, he played lacrosse as a freshman, but left after one season to focus on soccer year-round in hopes of playing in college. Soccer coach Jeff Fisher fell in love with the player and the person, but during the winter of his junior year Petagna tore his ACL. He spent the spring rehabbing to get ready for soccer in the fall.
As all this was going on, Petagna was like the guy who realized he was starting to have feelings again for that girl he broke up with back in middle school.
“I decided to play again this year because I realized I missed the sport after not playing for three years,” said Petagna, whose last swing came in eighth grade.
In the process, he became one of the true feel-good stories in the Colonial Valley Conference this season.
“He’s been a pleasant surprise,” Brettell said. “Just having him one year, this is no exaggeration, he’s probably the most coachable kid we’ve had here in 10 years, and that says a lot because we’ve had some good guys. He just soaks it in like a sponge.”
Brettell knew of Petagna from attending soccer games, and he also heard about how good he used to be from some of his baseball seniors. But when Petagna showed up for tryouts this spring, neither coach nor player were expecting miracles.
“Baseball a tough sport,” Brettell said. “If you haven’t practiced it or been around it, it’s kind of tough to pick up right away. In the preseason, you could see that he could hit but he just wasn’t ready to hit. He just wasn’t ready to do the things he was capable of, just because he hadn’t played or had the experience. I saw he was working his way to figuring out his swing and timing.’”
Petagna admitted to being rusty and that his biggest issue was adjusting to high school level pitching—especially off-speed pitches.
He also had some defensive issues, noting that, “As an outfielder, I struggled early on tracking fly balls and knowing where to throw the ball in certain situations.”
Petagna knew he had to be patient, but it wasn’t easy. He listened to the coaches, but in four scrimmages he became frustrated at not getting a hit. It was at that point Brettell preached further patience.
“I began to think that I wouldn’t ever get a hit until Coach Brettell pulled me aside and told me to be patient and that the hits will come,” Petagna said. “He saw my swing and how I hit in practice and that gave me confidence at the plate during my future at-bats.”
Brettell saw Petagna’s athleticism immediately, especially running the bases. He put him at second base to start with, and then moved him to right field. As Petagna began shaking off the rust, he made himself worthy of starting. Eventually, he landed in center field “because he was the best guy out there,” according to Brettell, and he has settled in at the No. 3 spot in the lineup.
‘I just focus on taking it game by game and what’s ahead of us in the season and not thinking about my past.’
After going hitless in the Ravens first two games, Petagna went 3-for-4 with two doubles against Ewing and his banner season had shifted into gear.
“I felt comfortable at the plate after my first hit in that game,” he said. “That first hit was extremely important for me and lifted the weight and pressure off my shoulders.”
“He just started tearing it up,” Brettell said. “He’s just proven to be our most consistent hitter.”
Petagna admitted that this isn’t exactly what he foresaw when he returned.
“I have definitely surprised myself this year and didn’t expect to have the success that I am having,” he said. “Going into the season my goal was to just work hard enough to become an every day player and contribute in whatever way I could.”
The obvious question is, does Petagna wonder how good he could have been had he stuck with baseball? The answer is a bit surprising.
“To be honest, I haven’t really thought about how playing the previous years would have affected me,” he said. “I just focus on taking it game by game and what’s ahead of us in the season and not thinking about my past.”
If anything, Petagna thinks he might be this good because he did not play.
“I think taking a break from baseball helped me,” he said. “As my high school years went on, I began to regain my passion and love for the sport and that affects my performance on the field.”
Unfortunately, due to his ACL injury, Petagna’s dreams of college soccer were dashed. But don’t feel too sorry for him, as he is ticketed to spend his next four years—including snowy winters—at the University of Tampa.
Brettell, meanwhile, is still marveling at how things unfolded.
“The progression has been unbelievable,” he said. “If you came out to see him, you would never think he hadn’t played in high school before this. I just wish I had 20 like him.”
Or one like him for the last four years.