By Jeffrey Reinhart
New Era Sports Writer
The New Era Midget Tournament has found a new home.
And here’s hoping Clipper Magazine Stadium will be the tournament’s home for a long, long time.
The gorgeous two-year-old stadium, which is the home of the Atlantic League’s Lancaster Barnstormers, hosted its first New Era Midget Tournament games Wednesday night.
And the first round of quarterfinals went off without a hitch.
“This is the best thing ever,” beamed outfielder Nick Zito, whose two-run triple helped Donegal get by Hempfield Black 7-6 in Wednesday’s thrill-a-minute nightcap.
“This is like a once in a lifetime thing. I still can’t believe we’re playing here.”
The New Era and the good folks at Clipper Magazine Stadium hatched this plan last November when the Barnstormers’ schedule was released.
And when a few days were open this month – and the i’s were dotted and the t’s were crossed – the Midget Tournament had a new home.
Tournament organizers – who will check on the availability of the stadium with the Barnstormers every November – hope the move is permanent.
After Wednesday’s big splash, so do the players and the coaches.
Zito and his teammates will be back at the Clip Monday to take on Manheim VFW, which rallied past Midget newcomer Lancaster Mennonite 9-6 in Wednesday’s opener.
For the players, it was easy to get sidetracked by the gargantuan scoreboard in left field. And the colorful scoreboard in right. And the skyboxes. And the banners. And the press box. And all of those seats. You name it.
But once the butterflies escaped and everyone’s nerves were settled, we saw some great baseball, on a truly great field.
“I told them that if they could not think about the grandstands and the billboards and all of the big signs and the scoreboards with their names on it … what do you have?” Mennonite coach Randy Gibson said.
“You have a baseball field. We told them not to let it awe them until after the game.” Donegal’s players were hardly in awe of the Clip. Perhaps coach Ryan Hamilton’s pre-game pep talk calmed them down.
Pretend the game was being played at Ephrata War Memorial Field, where past NET Midget games were contested.
“I told them that when they first hit the field to take a look around, see what’s going on around you and then go right back to thinking the game was in Ephrata,” Hamilton said.
“Of course, they all looked up and saw the scoreboards and the big outfield wall.”
But it didn’t phase Donegal’s players, who overcame Hempfield’s six-run fourth inning, scoring two in the top of the sixth and advancing to Monday’s semifinal round.
The announced crowd for the doubleheader was 1,250 – and with free parking and just $1 admission per family, it was a cheap night out to watch some baseball.
“It was definitely fun playing here in front of this kind of a crowd,” Mennonite shortstop Jordan Smucker said. “I mean, we usually have like 15 people at most of our games.”
Manheim catcher Mike Kemp tried to block out all the bells and whistles. But he admitted that he took a quick peek when his name was displayed in big white letters on the right-field scoreboard.
“I was like, ‘Whoa!’ said Kemp, who singled, tripled, walked twice, knocked in a run, scored three runs and stole a base.
“This place is pretty sweet. It was exciting to be on the field with everything going on. We had so much fun.”
Manheim coach Jeff Mummau took his team into the park early so they could get acclimated to the field and its nuances.
“I told them to stay focused,” Mummau said. “I told them it was OK to wave hello to their mom and dad, but not to wave hello to your eight buddies who were coming to watch.
“To look out there and see our lineup on the big scoreboard … that’s just neat. It’s really neat for the kids. I told them that I was just as nervous as they were. In fact, my stomach is still churning.”
Donegal designated hitter Nick Herbert gave Hempfield a bellyache.
“It was our goal right away to get to the New Era Tournament, especially when we heard it was going to be at Clipper,” said Herbert, who missed hitting for the cycle by a homer – he doubled in the first, tripled in the third and singled in the fifth.
“When I got my first hit I was like, ‘I just got a hit in the Barnstormers’ stadium,” he said.
“What an amazing night.”
An unforgettable night.
“We’ll never forget this,” Mummau said. “We could get beat by a 10-run rule in our next game, but we’ll never forget this. This was special.”
The New Era Tournament is a special event. The Clip is a special place.
The two came together for the first time Wednesday, and here’s hoping this relationship is a long one.