Downtowners knock off city’s baseball dynasty


By Lori Haught

The Gorilla coaches and players had their doubts going up against the renowned Youth Service League, even if their opponents were only 10 years old.

“[Youth Service] was a team that was not supposed to lose,” said Damien Gray, who helps coach the Gorillas, a Lower Manhattan team of 10-year-olds, mostly from Tribeca.

Everyone had prepared the Downtown team for a loss Nov. 18 against the Brooklyn-based team. How do you compete with a program that pulls the best players from all over the city, launched the Major League careers of Manny Ramirez and Shawon Dunston, and produced over 60 professional ball players? Yet, with the help of Damien’s son, Wyatt Gray, at bat, right-fielder Robbie Martino, pitcher Will Merrill and the rest of the team, the Gorillas did indeed beat the Blue Devils, 5-1.

Merrill pitched a three-hit complete game with nine strikeouts over six innings, giving up no earned runs. He also allowed only three walks.

“Our game plan was to start a pitcher we knew could throw strikes and wouldn’t walk a lot of batters,” said Ken Burns, manager of the Gorillas, in an e-mail after the game. “Will Merrill pitched an absolute gem.”

“I have to admit, I was very nervous and I thought we might lose before the game,” a poised Merrill said in a telephone interview. “I was really happy [about the win] and I couldn’t believe it because I knew they were really, really good.”

Merrill, a southpaw, said he couldn’t have done it without the help of his teammates.

Wyatt Gray said it was easier once the game got started.

“At first we were like, this team is going to be really hard to beat, but we think we’re strong enough,” he said. “We started to get our heads in the game and the Youth Service League started to make a lot of mistakes and we caught them.”

Gray hit a three-run homer straight over the centerfield fence at the indoor diamond at the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club in the Bronx. While his homer made it into his top moments of the game, his friend Martino’s catch of a sinking line drive to far right field came in a close second.

While the team includes more players, only 10 were present for the Y.S.L. game. All had outstanding moments, Burns wrote.

“Michael Klusendorf also homered and doubled and played a terrific third base, including an outstanding play to end the game,” said Burns. “Jonathan Lane went three-for-three and made a great catch in centerfield. Bryan Burns was on base twice and played a flawless shortstop, including a tough play with a runner crossing in front of him to end the fourth inning and kill a rally; Lee Perry worked out a walk in a great at-bat in the first inning and then stole second base and scored our first run (which wouldn’t have scored without his stolen base).  Chris Baumann was on base, scored a run and played an amazing first base that included several stretches that (hurt me to watch but) saved a few infield throwing errors and got some clutch outs. Jake Kiehl and Zak Kraehling had great at-bats and were all over the outfield, backing up every play and keeping everything in front of them.”

Ken Burns told Downtown Express he was not surprised by the maturity and ability the team showed. The team has been playing together a long time. It was only within the last few years that they started playing summer, fall and winter ball outside the spring Downtown Little League season, however.

“If we don’t give the kids that opportunity, we can’t keep up with the kids who do play all year round,” he said. The Bronx tournament features 14 teams from New Jersey and New York City. The teams were divided into two divisions and then the top two teams from each division go on to face off in the championship. Burns said Saturday’s game would decide whether the Gorillas would be going to the big game. The team does not know yet who they will be playing Saturday.

Teammates Gray and Merrill were both looking forward to the next game, although Gray expressed some doubts.

“This is a really important game,” Gray said. “We don’t really have a good chance of making it in.” But that sentiment echoes the same one they had going into the game against Youth Service.

“They felt in their hearts they had nothing to lose,” coach Gray said. “They played their best game as a team yet.”

The team will be playing in tournaments until the end of the year. Burns said the Gorillas don’t have teams at every age level because of interest. They have two 11-year-old teams and one 12-year-old team along with the 10-year-old team. If anyone is interested in playing on the teams, Burns said he can be reached by e-mail at KenB@sigulerguff.com.

“There have been some obvious hard times and some good wins,” he said. “We had an opportunity to play one of the best teams in New York City. It felt great for the kids to have that opportunity.”