It was the cruelest 12 months in Long Island high school baseball history.
The coronavirus pandemic canceled the 2020 spring season. It compressed this 2021 season into slightly more than a handful of weeks. And three baseball coaching legends died, two from complications of COVID-19.
Those three coaches — Carmine Argenziano of Deer Park, Bob Ambrosini of Connetquot and Bill Batewell of Sachem and Bellport — were honored this weekend as the Town of Brookhaven hosted the Coaches Memorial Opening Weekend with 55 Suffolk public schools playing their first league games of the season. Batewell, who was 79, was still the Bellport coach when he passed away.
Neal Heaton was a member of Batewell’s 1979 county champion at Sachem before becoming a first-round MLB draft pick, starring at the University of Miami and then playing a dozen seasons in the big leagues. He called the event “a great idea” and “an outstanding thing.”
“Those three guys right there are the icons of Suffolk baseball,” Heaton said. “Look at what they accomplished. Look what they did to enhance the future of so many young players here. It’s the right thing to do here and now.”
“It’s a great honor that they’re doing this.” Anthony Ambrosini, one of Bob Ambrosini’s three sons, said. “And after all we’ve been through, to have it associated with the return of baseball is very cool.”
The event needed the blessing of Section XI, the governing body for public school sports in Suffolk, to get all the schools on board. Some of the current coaches had to weigh giving up a home game. And because the games were played at five Brookhaven complexes — Moriches, Eastport-South Manor, Medford, Yaphank and Diamond in the Pines — every school had to arrange team transportation.
Before each game, one of the coaches addressed the fans to say: “Today’s opening day is dedicated to coaches Bob Ambrosini, Carmine Argenziano and Bill Batewell. These three legendary coaches dedicated their lives to coaching high school kids and amassed over 1,600 wins between them” before observing a moment of silence.
Argenziano coached 30 seasons at Deer Park, won 474 games, including three county titles and three Long Island championships and the Falcons’ home field now bears his name. One of the hallmarks of his coaching style was an emphasis on discipline and detail to all the fundamental aspects of the game.
“Those are now the cornerstone of how I coach,” said Ryan Argenziano, who is coach at Deer Park. “He wanted his players to do all the little things right, like running the bases. He also wanted his players to know the game and have a high baseball IQ because he felt it was teachable.”
Argenziano tested positive for COVID-19 on April 19, 2020, and passed away at the age of 74 six days later.
Ambrosini coached 33 years at Connetquot and won a county-record 602 games, including seven county titles, four Long Island championships and state titles in 1989 and 1995. The Thunderbirds’ field is named for him. Asked to describe his father’s coaching style, Anthony Ambrosini replied: “He asked for maximum effort because it was the most you could do. He taught how to get every ounce out of your body and your mind.”
“He told me that when you play, you play for the team and you play hard. It’s all anyone can ask of you,” said Dominick Ambrosini, another of his three sons. Both Dominick and Anthony Ambrosini went on to play baseball professionally. Dominick has that phrase, “Play Hard,” emblazoned across the deck of his boat in Florida.
Ambrosini died on Dec. 15, 2020, at the age of 69.
Batewell coached for 41 years at Sachem and then Bellport and won 558 games, including a pair of county championships. Sal Mignano, the Town of Brookhaven baseball director, said “Batewell’s coaching and the arrival and success of Neal Heaton elevated the sport in Suffolk.”
“He was never the kind of coach to yell or scream; that wasn’t his demeanor,” Heaton said. “When I played for him, he was a young man and very competitive . . . But later on, he seemed to get more out of his players by encouraging them.
“And he never embarrassed you on a baseball field. If he had a problem with someone, he always took him to the side and explained to you what he thought and what you should be doing. That’s a very good quality.”
Batewell died on Jan. 22, 2021, from complications of COVID-19 at the age of 79.
Mignano, a longtime coach at Shoreham-Wading River until 2014, said the idea of an event like the Coaches Memorial Opening Weekend had been batted around by him, Brookhaven Parks and Recreation commissioner Ed Morris, county coaches association president and Patchogue-Medford coach Anthony Frascogna and several others. The return of high school baseball after it was halted by the pandemic and the chance to honor the trio of renowned coaches made this the right moment to make it happen.
“Of course there were some hurdles, but Section XI already had made the schedule,” Mignano said. “Most of it was the logistics of getting everyone in the right places at the right times. Team transportation. The fact that it’s for these three coaches makes it special for those who now coach and knew them. They did what’s best for Suffolk.”
Ryan Argenziano had always thought of his father as a great coach and teacher. However, he said the impact Carmine Argenziano made on so many didn’t begin to come into focus until he started teaching at Deer Park.
“His players and his students kept coming back and I realized the impact he’d had on them and on the game,” Argenziano said. “And it was [amplified] even more when he died.”
“My father touched every person he came into contact with . . . You can ask any of his players,” said Dominick Ambrosini, who wears his father’s No. 13 on a chain around his neck. “I was one of his players and I loved every day, every practice, every moment. He was my idol.”
“There was absolutely no question: If you were on his team or in his life, he affected you and he changed you for the better,” Anthony Ambrosini said.
After his big-league career ended, Heaton returned to Long Island. His youngest son played for Batewell at Bellport and he served as an assistant coach.
“It made me think about all the people he made a difference to, all the people he helped get into college,” Heaton said. “He made baseball his life and baseball is better here because of him.”