They stood, five and six deep, listening as Ken Frank thanked them for their support. Former players, parents, fans, as well as close friends and family, all crowded around the home dugout at Ken Frank Baseball Stadium, waiting to hear him speak.
“This feels like a wedding,” Frank said, as he acknowledged the crowd at Toms River South's home field, thanking them for their support.
Truth is, it was equal parts wedding and Grammy Awards ceremony, with Frank playing the role of rock star. Frank, Toms River South’s head baseball coach, had certainly earned this moment in the spotlight, even as he made sure to thank every single person who’d ever been a part of the journey that had brought him to this moment that was 35 years in the making.
Before those fans, those family members, and those former players, Ken Frank’s Toms River South baseball team recorded the 755th victory of his career, making him the winningest baseball coach in New Jersey history. With the 7-1 victory over Southern Regional, Frank moved ahead of Tony Ferrainolo of Memorial High School of West New York, with whom he had been tied at 754 wins since Monday.
“I thought it was just a number,” Frank said, “but I guess it means more to me than I thought.
“This,” he said, gesturing to the crowd that just seemed to keep growing in the minutes after shortstop R.J. Devish snared a line drive for the final out, “is fabulous.”
“Right now I’m a little numb,” he said. “I’m a little bit stunned.”
“South baseball is Ken Frank baseball,” said Ellen Burstein, whose sons, Jeff and Shaun, played for Frank in the 1990s. Jeff, a star pitcher on the 1994 state championship team – one of eight NJSIAA sectional titles the Indians have won under Frank’s tutelage – is memorialized at the stadium, the only Indians player to have his number retired, in honor of a young man whose life was cut short in a car accident in 2001. When Jeff was killed, Ken Frank was there to help comfort the family – because they were still a part of the Toms River South baseball family.
“He teaches the kids the meaning of sportsmanship and family,” Ellen Burstein said. She said she hasn’t missed a game since Frank achieved his 300th victory during Jeff’s sophomore year, and served as president of the Diamond Club, the team’s booster club, for 11 years.
“When (these boys) leave here, they can’t find a college team that has the tradition” that South baseball has, she said, a level of tradition that is respected by his players, whether they just recently finished their careers at the school or have been gone for a while.
“South’s legacy is men like Ken Frank,” Burstein said.
His current crop of players got off to a bit of a shaky start on Wednesday night, nerves apparent on a night laden with meaning for each and every one. A couple of mishandled balls and drops allowed Southern (1-3, 0-3 in Class A South) to score the game’s first run.
But the Indians (4-1, 3-1) responded with a run of their own in the bottom of the inning, when Rob Cashin reached on an error and came around to score on a wild pitch. They added a run in the third when Andrew Hourigan drilled a 3-2 pitch between second base and the second baseman for a single. Hourigan then scored when Russell Messler’s high fly ball to left field got lost in the low-hanging ceiling of clouds.
That turned out to be the winning run, though Hourigan added insurance when he drove a three-run home run to deep center that hit off the façade of the school that overlooks the field.
Meanwhile, on the mound, pitcher John Leiter – nephew of former Major League pitchers Mark and Al Leiter – shook off the first-inning jitters and went on to strike out 12 Rams to earn the victory.
“They wanted this game,” Frank said. “Especially John. He was on a mission.”
The mission was to add to the successes of years past, and bring his coach this shining moment.
Success breeds success, and in Frank’s case, it’s bred a lot of it. He still remembers the first win of the 755, in what turned out to be his only losing season as the Indians’ head coach.’
“Mike Garrity pitched,” he said. “He called me this morning.”
As did many of Frank’s former players, who couldn’t all be in attendance. But they were there in spirit and via text message, Facebook and other media.
“This is what Toms River South baseball is all about,” Frank said. “You look at this, and it’s touching. You don’t know where the time went.”
“Some day I’ll wake up and miss this,” Frank said. “Not yet, but someday.”