BRISTOL - Southington native Joey Tonnotti recently got a chance to play, and walk away a champion, in baseball’s spiritual hometown.
He took the field at Cooperstown Dreams Park in New York - famed home of the Baseball Hall of Fame - last week to compete in a tournament of 104 teams, one of a series of 13 such weekly tournaments the facility hosts for players 12 and under over the summer.
Tonnotti, who just turned 13 last month, suited up for the Jersey Storm of New Jersey. He was invited to join the squad when the team needed to add a player before heading to Cooperstown.
Finding out he was invited was news the 13-year-old will never forget.
“When my dad told me that, I was just like, ‘Damn, I feel special now,’” Tonnotti said. “[The Storm] could have picked so many players, and just the fact that they picked me, it’s just really special and honoring.”
Despite the early jitters of playing with kids he had never met before, Tonnotti said he got over it after just a few days of getting to know the players.
“When I first got there and I saw them, I was like, ‘Wow, this is the real deal,’” Tonnotti said. “Then I was just hanging around them for a bit and talking to them. One of them actually messaged me on Instagram. But after just talking to them for a little while, it was like we were all family.”
Tonnotti took advantage of the opportunity. In 12 games with the Jersey Storm, he hit 13 home runs and posted a 4-0 record as a pitcher. He led the Storm to an 11-1 record, with the team winning 11 straight games to win the tournament. He was the starting pitcher and pitched five of six innings in the championship game, which the Storm won 5-4.
“I just went there with a good mentality,” Tonnotti said. “I started a little shaky - I struck out in my first at-bat in the first game. But I just came back the second game, against some pretty good pitchers. I just got my pitches and put the bat to the ball, and it was a really good team. I’m lucky I got to play with them, and the fact that we won it all was even better.”
But for Tonnotti, the biggest part wasn’t his success, it was the fact that he got the chance to play against players from 104 different baseball teams from across the country.
“There’s some states where you’re just like ‘Wow, I’m playing against them,’” Tonnotti said. “Like when we played against California [Next Level, in the quarterfinals, a 19-5 win], that was really cool. You just see the talent from all around the United States and I’m just lucky I got to play in the same tournament as them, against good teams.”
Joey’s father, Joe Tonnotti, said the experience of being able to play at sites all around the country has been a key factor in his son getting his name on the map.
“We’ve been to five tournaments throughout the United States - starting with Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, USA New England,” the elder Tonnotti said. “So it’s exciting to see him grow, being with different teams and learning new fields and seeing his confidence grow. It’s an honor and a joy to be able to travel all over the United States and put him in front of the right people.”
Another man who knows Joey Tonnotti quite well is Lance Stevens, a trainer at Diamond Kings Baseball Academy in Bristol. Stevens has worked with Tonnotti since he was 9 years old, so he has had a chance to see the his growth.
“Joey is a baseball guy only,” Stevens said. “He doesn’t play any other sports, so he’s committed strictly to the game [of baseball]. When you talk about his work ethic and maturity level, it’s really increased the last, probably year and a half. He had a big growth spurt the last year or year and a half, too. Going along with that - getting stronger, getting taller, getting familiar with your body - next thing you know, you’re having a little more success hitting the ball farther.”
Tonnotti’s commitment to baseball began “when I was four or five.” He believes it stems from his father, who also grew up playing baseball.
“I really grew up into baseball because my dad, he was good,” Joey said. “I just grew up in it and that’s what I was around. He’s just taught me all the right things - respect on and off the field. Never be cocky, always be humble. He’s just been a really big part of my life. He’s always supported me with baseball. He’s driven me everywhere. He’s brought me to games, brought me to camps. I couldn’t ask for more.”
The younger Tonnotti’s dream is to one day pitch in Major League Baseball. In a perfect world, he will wear the pinstripes for the New York Yankees. But he knows he has a lot of work to do in order to make that dream come true.
“[I’ll work] as much as I need,” Joey Tonnotti said. “I’m going to go to tournaments and play against better kids than me. It’s just going to push me to work harder.”
But his father refused to look ahead that far. He knows there is one major step to take before jumping to professional baseball.
“I definitely see him as a Division I baseball player at a major college,” Joe Tonnotti said. “I think that his athleticism can take him farther than that. It all depends on him and his drive and his true desire to get past a Division I college. That’s where I think he’s going to make it.”
But regardless of how long the young player’s career in baseball lasts, Joey Tonnotti has been humbled by the chances he has already had.
“If I’m not outside playing, I’m inside playing,” Tonnotti said. “I can do that [at Diamond Kings]. I’ve played everywhere. I have personal trainers to help me fix my mistakes. I feel extremely lucky to have all of these opportunities. It’s just great.”
Tyler Roaix can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org