As he was officiating rec basketball this past winter, Jim Petersohn was also moonlighting as a baseball talent evaluator.
Petersohn reffed numerous games in the Bordentown Recreation League. One of the participants was Rees Pillik, who happened to also play on Petersohn’s Hamilton-Northern Burlington Babe Ruth All-Star team.
During last year’s 14-year-old season, Pillik was not a starter but still managed some key hits. During the hoop season, his manager got a better read on Rees where intangibles were concerned.
“I saw his work ethic and the way he scraps,” Petersohn said. “He fights hard and he’s just a real competitor. I learned a lot about him over the winter. I started to really respect a lot how hard he works. Even though it was a different sport, I could see I could utilize that in baseball.”
The manager/referee harkened back to the past in describing Pillik on the court, comparing him to a Los Angeles Laker from the 1980s.
“He’s a very good, scrappy basketball player; he’s like the Kurt Rambis of the Bordentown Rec League,” Petersohn said. “He’s an old school player. He did all the dirty work and I just gained a real respect for the athlete that he was overall.”
The qualities described by Petersohn are what a team likes to see from its leadoff hitter. And with H-NB losing its top three players in the order, there was a vacancy at the top of the lineup.
Pillik played for Petersohn’s Villa Mannino team during the regular season, which is when he was first put in the leadoff spot. He did so well, that he remained there for the Babe Ruth State Tournament at Switlik Park Aug. 6-12.
And while Pillik did not hit for a high average, he did what a leadoff man should do—got on base and crossed the plate. The rising Bordentown High junior led the team with eight runs scored, was tied for second with five walks, reached on errors a team-high three times and had a .348 on-base percentage. He was also fourth in the team with five RBI in helping H-NB reach the state final before losing to Atlantic Shore in the late innings.
“It was definitely a whole new mindset hitting leadoff,” Pillik said. “It was ‘Get on base and score for your teammates.’ I had instructions to get into long counts and waste pitches.”
Which led to a simple strategy.
“My mindset was to try to get balls in gaps and not try to crush the ball every time,” Pillik said. “Just get on base and score. I had pretty good contact almost every time.”
Indeed, his low average was somewhat misleading as Pillik crushed several balls right at fielders, which helped him reach on errors since they were too hot to handle.
“He made a lot of contact and had some sharply hit balls,” Petersohn said. “He made a lot of tough outs. He hit into a lot of tough luck. He was on the bases for most of the tournament. When he didn’t get on, he didn’t have too many non-productive outs.”
And while he doesn’t burn up the basepaths, Pillik possesses great baserunning instincts. Petersohn compared him to Hamilton West catcher Connor Luckie, a stellar leadoff hitter not too fleet of foot.
“He’s not the fastest kid, but he’s a very smart baserunner,” the skipper said. “Like a Connor Luckie, he’s not as fast but he’s smart, he runs the bases very well.”
He also proved to be a valuable defensive player, lending versatility at several positions.
“Second base was his position, but I put Franklin Peters there and he did well,” Petersohn said. “Rees played second, third, outfield. He’s played all across the infield. But typically it’s more second, third and outfield.
“Unfortunately, with our team dynamics, he had to play a lot of positions for us, but he always stepped up and did a good job. He’s a very athletic kid, and he’s the type of kid that could probably pick up any sport and do very well at it. I think he needs to find his niche when it comes to baseball as to what his position is.”
Like several of his teammates, Pillik also played in the Last Dance World Series Tournament with the team representing Bordentown High. As an underclassmen on a senior-laden squad, he didn’t get much playing time in the mid-July event, but enjoyed every minute of it.
“I was really excited to be able to play with my high school team and be with all these seniors that would never get to play with us again,” he said. “It was nice to get a few games in with them.”
Even nicer were the overflow crowds at Gilder Park, as Bordentown served as the host for the first two round robin games, and for the remainder of the consolation games in the Bordentown-North Trenton bracket. Folks starved to see baseball jammed the venerable park as cars were being parked wherever there was a slice of ground.
“I’ve been playing on that field for over 10 years and I’ve never seen the field that packed,” Pillik said. “All the energy. The parking lot was filled, the dump (in the outfield) was filled with cars. It was pretty crazy.”
It provided Pillik at least a few games to play with his high school teammates after the spring season was cancelled due to COVID-19.
“It was super crazy,” he said. “I was really excited to get my sophomore year of high school in. I thought I had a really good chance of making varsity this year. The day they were supposed to tell us if we made the team or not, is when the season got cancelled so we never found out.”
Making the Last Dance team was a nice consolation prize.
“Having no baseball was very boring,” Pillik said. “So having the chance to come out and play with those kids made a big difference.”
It also gave him a chance to get back into baseball mode prior to the Babe Ruth states. Even that was a disappointment in some ways, as the organization cancelled its regional tournament and World Series due to Covid concerns.
“It was still nice to get a few games in,” Pillik said. “Even though it was just five games we were able to get some games with a bunch of kids and get some playing time.”
He did not get much playing time last year, but Petersohn recalled “he had a hell of a hit for us last year in the regional semifinals. I put him in to bunt and he failed twice at bunting and then came up with a huge double in the gap against a very good Northern Bridgewater team. It ended up being the winning hit we needed to advance to regional finals. Every time I called on him last year off the bench he executed.”
Despite not being a regular, Pillik always prepared when his time came.
“Last year was a little frustrating but it was really fun to be with the other guys,” he said. “I always knew I had to be ready to go in at any time. I really capitalized on my chances of getting in.”
This year, he was in there all the time and made the most of it.
“As an underclassman in the Last Dance I didn’t get much playing time, but being one of the older kids in the Babe Ruth Tournament I was able to get a lot of reps and have a lot more fun,” Pillik said. “It was an amazing experience to be out with those kids for maybe the last time. It was a great team and we played very well.”
Starting with the guy who ignited the offense.