Like it did with everything else in the world, the COVID-19 pandemic had an adverse effect on minor league baseball this summer. That was particularly true amongst Hamilton players, as township residents Anthony Peroni, James Pugliese and Jake Alu each suffered in various ways.
The worst scenario occurred with Steinert graduate Peroni, who was one of numerous players in the Washington Nationals farm system released strictly due to budget issues.
The former Mercer County Community College standout never saw it coming.
“It was one of the more blindsiding events of my life,” Peroni said. “We released around 50 to 60 guys, and it was just all based on pay cuts. It really hurt for a while, now I’m trying to keep moving forward.”
Steinert grad Pugliese, a former Cubs farmhand now with the Somerset Patriots, felt sympathy for his younger friend.
“A guy like him was released for no reason other than the virus,” Pugliese said. “It wasn’t performance based. There were thousands of guys released because they’re trying to limit the minor league affiliates and cut the teams down so organizations are paying a lot less people. He was one of them, which is sad.”
Pugliese’s situation is only slightly better. Now 28, his window to make the Major Leagues is nearly closed.
After eight years with the Cubs, the pitcher was released in 2018 and signed with the Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. It’s an independent league, and while Pugliese is mostly playing for enjoyment, part of him still hopes to be seen by a pro scout who might give him one last shot.
“There’s still a chance, you never know,” Pugliese said. “There was a guy in our league who got picked up from the Bridgewater Blasters. I’m doing it for fun, I’ve got nothing else to do, I go down to the beach here and there. You never know, if it does happen where someone liked me, I would sign to play somewhere. Until then I’ll enjoy my time with the Patriots.”
It’s a sensible attitude for the newlywed, who just bought a house in Hamilton. He is taking things as they come while working toward a Health & Physical Education degree at Kean University.
But Pugliese feels for guys like Alu, a teammate of Peroni’s on Washington’s Auburn Doubledays Class-A short season team. The Princeton Day School/Boston College product was gearing for his second season after batting .257 with five doubles, two triples, a homer and 25 RBI in 45 games last year.
He was ready to build on that when the virus hit.
“At first I was kind of shell shocked,” Alu said. “I hadn’t done the no-baseball thing in my whole life. Now I’m kind of into that high school mode where in the off-season you just gotta get better somehow. There’s no coordinated team practices like in college. So you kind of go back to your old gritty days of high school and middle school and just do what you can.”
Alu had an interesting debut season at Auburn. He began by hitting well, only to discover that when the pitching got tougher to handle, changes had to occur.
“I definitely realized I needed to make adjustments, and that was hard because I was having success,” Alu said. “I was talking to the coaches and going forward I needed to change some things. So it was tough in my head to say, ‘Hey I’m gonna change this,’ when it wasn’t failing me. I had a little struggle in the middle, and then at the end of the year I started figuring things out and putting it all together. Hopefully it plays into next season.”
He was, of course, hoping it would play into this season. Anxious to keep that momentum going, Alu was suddenly put on hold with the rest of the MILB universe.
As a veteran, Pugliese feels the 23-year-old can still see his way through it.
“I think it does set him back,” Pugliese said. “But if you have a positive mindset and if you’re still with an affiliate, you still have to grid. You have to know how to overcome this, it’s something nobody has ever experienced before.
“It’s just the way that he approaches it during the summer and winter; to continue working toward his craft and just improving on his ability so he doesn’t miss a full year. If he still swings, still throws, hopefully he doesn’t have too much of a difference into that next season.”
Alu has done what he can. Upon arriving home after the season was put on hold, he took some swings and maintained the shape that he was in entering spring training. Once the season shut down permanently, he kicked it up a notch.
“I tried to take it to the next level,” he said. “I wanted to get a little bigger, a little stronger, a little faster and just go all in as if I was getting ready for spring training again but now I’ve got a bunch of time to get ready.”
And while it’s not the greatest scenario, Alu tries to put a positive spin on things.
“It’s definitely tough, it does set you back,” he said. “But a bunch of infielders got released ahead of me. So it could also play into my favor. When you get back down there you gotta perform. You lost a year but there’s less guys ahead of you.”
He is saddened, however, by the fact that one of the released players was his buddy Peroni.
“That hurt me so bad, the situation was unbelievable,” Alu said. “It was like a crapshoot, and he got caught in it.”
Peroni, also 23, got the news on May 29 while playing golf with his dad at Mercer Oaks East. Suffice it to say, it was a memorable day for all the wrong reasons.
“It was so random,” Peroni said. “It was the 18th hole, and it was already a bad day out there with the way I was playing. I’ll never forget it. It’s pretty tough to take.
“It hurt for a little while because the situation wasn’t based on performance, it’s just things that are going on with baseball right now and the virus and everything. It was weird, we’re in spring training, you’re all into it, ramped up and ready to go and then a couple days later you’re back home and kind of a letdown feeling.”
The letdown got even worse with his release shortly thereafter. The snake-bitten Peroni had several bouts of bad luck after being drafted out of MCCC in 2017. Shortly after reporting to the Nationals, he suffered a back injury that limited him to two at-bats that season.
He struggled with Rookie League pitching in 2018 and returned to Auburn last year, where he hit .216 with two homers and 13 RBI.
“My first full healthy year was a slow year, a lot of learning,” Peroni said. “I feel like my following year is when I really put my feet on the ground as a professional and had a good base of what I needed to do. This year, I felt I had a really good camp going. I felt I had a really good month. There was a lot of buzz so it’s disappointing.”
Peroni is not giving up. He talks every day with his agent to formulate a plan moving forward. After taking a few weeks off to clear his head, Peroni began working out and taking swings whenever possible. He also worked as a coach with the Hamilton A’s travel program.
“It felt good to be around the game again, talking to people,” he said. “We had a good time and it brought out that urge to play. That itch. It came back that week and now I’ve been itching to get back on the field.”
Pugliese has never lost that itch, which is why he is still making the 50-minute drive to Bridgewater just to play home games. His family and in-laws are regular spectators, and they got to watch Pugliese pitch several times this year as the league set up a 13-game season to be played on weekends.
He also stays in shape during the off-season, conducting pitching lessons while throwing against a screen out back or in his unfinished basement.
Pugliese is hoping he might still be signed and become a feel-good story. He knows that’s a long-shot, however, and is prepping for life after the diamond.
“Hopefully I’ll become a gym teacher somewhere local,” Pugliese said. “I’ll probably play one or two more seasons after this summer. I would give it that. I would love to play for the Patriots another two years, but if I got picked up I would love to play there, too.”
And while he was upset at not having a full season this year, Pugliese’s heart mainly went out to guys like Alu and, especially, Peroni.
“I really felt for the guys who were with an affiliate, who are playing with an organization and trying to make the major leagues,” he said. “My situation is different playing in an independent league. Obviously I still want to get to that point, but it hits a lot harder for guys who have worked their whole life to get signed to play pro ball in an organization and all of a sudden their career is cut short due to a virus. It’s not even performance-based. It’s completely out of their control.”