Paul Balestrieri, Matt McCann and Ben Ruta never wavered on their dreams, and those dreams came true.
The trio, who played together at all local levels—West Windsor Little League, Babe Ruth, High School South and Legion ball—were all picked by Major League Baseball teams following college careers.
McCann was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels and Balestrieri by the St. Louis Cardinals in last month’s draft. Ruta was drafted by the New York Yankees last year.
“Ever since I can remember, we talked about how we wanted to all play in Major League Baseball one day,” said Ruta, an outfielder.
That goal stayed the same as the three progressed to high school and then played on the WW-P American Legion team.
“We realized how much work we were going to have to put in to be able to accomplish those goals,” Ruta said. “That continued in college, and we were able to mature and grow our bodies and perform well at the college level and give ourselves a chance to get drafted. It ended up working out for all three of us, which is crazy if you think about it.”
Ruta, a year ahead of the other two in school but born during the same year, was chosen by the Yankees—his favorite team—in the 30th round, following a four-year career at Wagner College.
“It was a whirlwind day for sure,” Ruta recalled. “It was one of the most stressful days of my life. You’re sitting there and waiting and you don’t know when it’s going to be or if it’s going to happen at all. You’re seeing names being taken, and you’re waiting for it to be yours.”
Ruta said he was in the dugout getting ready to play a game in the Cape Cod League when found out he was drafted, which helped to take his mind the off situation.
Balestrieri and McCann were both home in West Windsor when they were selected this June.
McCann, a middle infielder at Fairleigh Dickinson University, went to Los Angeles in the 25th round.
Balestrieri, a right-handed pitcher from Cornell University, was picked one round later by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 26th round.
“Draft day was obviously very special for us,” McCann said. “It was just one round after another, which was pretty cool. He [Balestrieri] came over to my house right after, and we had a pretty cool moment.”
They had shared other moments through the years. In 2013, Balestrieri fought through a hot day to go the distance on the mound and McCann had a run and a sacrifice fly as 16th-seeded High School South beat top-seeded Montgomery, 5-3, in the Central Jersey Group IV state tournament opener.
Balestrieri’s four-hit shutout of Hamilton had propelled South to the Mercer County Tournament final earlier that year. And after their senior season finished at South, Balestrieri and McCann were on the Mercer all-star team that won just their second Carpenter Cup crown in 28 years.
All great memories, for sure, but nothing compared to being drafted.
“That was always what I wanted to do,” Balestrieri said. “I always wanted to be able to play pro baseball like a lot of young baseball players want to do. I’m really thankful to the Cardinals for giving me that opportunity.”
Ruta was quick to send congratulations when he heard his two former teammates had been selected.
In 2006, he was a part of the first West Windsor Little League team to win the district in 15 years, then he joined Balestrieri and McCann on the Little League team the next year. In 2012, Ruta helped the WW-P Legion team to its first Final Eight appearance since 1999.
“The day that they got drafted it hit home for me that we accomplished something special,” Ruta said. “It’s one thing for one of the three of us to get drafted. But for all three to get drafted, it’s pretty crazy. Especially coming from West Windsor.”
The town has never been known as a baseball powerhouse, and very few have gone on to play professional ball.
The three have stayed in touch through college and summers when they played beyond South.
It was easier for Ruta and McCann, who played against each other in the Northeast Conference. Now all three intend to keep close tabs on each other’s careers.
With a year in the minors under his belt, Ruta had some advice for his two friends.
“I try to tell them not to worry about the results too much but to really focus on what you can learn and pick up from other guys and what is working for guys and what is not working,” Ruta said.
He addded that the two now have to switch their focus to moving through the system and trying to get to the big leagues. “You really have to stay even keel if you want to accomplish that,” he said.
Ruta is playing with the Charleston RiverDogs, the Yankees’ Single-A affiliate. He batted .340 in May and was still above .300 at the end of June as a regular starter in the outfield. He’s already adjusted to the wooden bats and the daily grind of minor-league baseball and its tight schedule and bare-bones traveling.
“For me, it was great because now I finally had that reason to say I can focus 100 percent on baseball,” Ruta said. “I don’t have to go to class anymore, I got my degree, I don’t have any pressure with that, and there aren’t really any outside distractions.”
McCann is playing shortstop and second base for the Orem (Utah) Owlz, the Angels’ Single-A affiliate.
“It’s definitely more intense than college baseball,” McCann said. “The whole day has been spent doing baseball activities as opposed to going to class and then baseball.”
“I’ve worked my whole life for it to become my job,” he added. “You say it’s your job, but there’s no place I’d rather be and doing this now. It’s my job, but it’s not. It’s just me having fun.”
All three improved as prospects year after year. Ruta was a shortstop in Little League and at WW-P South who moved to the outfield in college to focus on hitting and using his speed more. He overcame a major injury to his non-throwing shoulder that cost him a year at Wagner and went on to become a two-time All-NEC selection.
McCann was a catcher in Little League, in part because West Windsor needed someone athletic who could catch Balestrieri’s pitching. Playing there helped develop his hands and helped him transition to the middle infield when he stopped growing. He found his way to the pros with a big boost from his speed.
He said that in his last year in college he started to find his niche, as a smaller guy who is a fast runner.
“I became pretty elite at running,” he said. “I worked very hard at being able to run better. I kind of learned how to steal basis senior year. In the very raw sense, I learned to be aggressive on the bases, and then when I got to college it became something I really fine-tuned and tried to perfect.”
McCann wound up breaking the all-time stolen base record at Fairleigh Dickinson.
He also focused on his hitting. “I worked pretty much every single day on turning myself into a good enough hitter where I could get on base a lot and then being able to steal bases because I knew that was a niche I could stand out in.
“Some guys hit for power, some guys hit really hard, I knew my speed could be my ticket to professional baseball.”
Balestrieri has been a stellar pitcher since he was in Little League, and was the ace for High School South in his final two years after losing a year to an injury as a sophomore for the Pirates. He came back strong over his final two seasons.
“I thought Coach Hutch was a fantastic high school coach,” Balestrieri said of Don Hutchinson. “I thought he always emphasized the right things and just playing the game the right way, not being flashy or showboating, but coming in and taking care of business.”
That helped in college, he said. Especially in his first year there. “Nobody really likes a hot shot freshman showing up. I didn’t feel like I acted that way.”
Balestrieri learned at Cornell to focus on the task at hand, never to use excuses and to do his job. That was especially important because he has never been a top guy coming onto his teams.
“I always had to work my way to be one of the better players on the team,” he said. “Even at Cornell, there were other kids recruited in my recruiting class who were bigger deals, were bigger prospects.”
He’s in a similar situation now. “I was drafted 26th round, which is by no means late, but it’s not that high,” he said. “So I’m kind of used to being almost an underdog coming in and succeeding hopefully.”
After 2.2 innings of relief work in his first two appearances as a pro, Balestrieri pitched the first three innings and did not surrender a run in his first start for the State College Spikes, the Class A affiliate of the Cardinals.
Balestrieri said that the sinker is his “bread-and-butter pitch” and he relies on getting batters to ground out.
“If I’m getting outs, if I’m getting in on guys’ hands and they’re rolling over and grounding out, I’m happy,” he said. I think that’s going to be the key to my success. You see big leaguers, guys that are throwing four-seam fastballs are throwing it 97-98 miles per hour. I don’t have a four-seam fastball that does that, so I have to sink the ball, work low in the zone and get guys to hit ground balls.”
Although all three are now focused on working their way through the minors and reaching their ultimate goal—the major leagues—they all still have time to stop and marvel at the fact that they all made it as far as they have.
“‘How crazy is it that the three of us would be drafted?’” McCann said he asked Ruta. “He made the comment back to me, ‘It’s not that crazy.’ That stuck with me through the draft. We all put in a lot of time and knew we wanted it for a long time. We all gave up a lot. We sacrificed a lot, and in the end I think we got the reward. It’s crazy, but at the same time, it’s not. We all stayed with it and we earned it.”