By Phil Anastasia
Johnny Malatesta didn't know much about the Brooklawn American Legion baseball tradition when he joined the team.
He's learned fast.
Malatesta, a recent Vineland High School graduate, also has made a major contribution to Brooklawn's ever-expanding legacy of success.
Malatesta has been one of Brooklawn's most versatile, valuable players as the team has captured its fourth consecutive Regional title and advanced to the American Legion World Series, which starts Thursday in Shelby, N.C.
"It's been the best experience of my baseball career," Malatesta said Tuesday, as the Brooklawn players, coaches and support staff prepared to depart by bus for North Carolina. "I've had a great time."
Malatesta played for the Niners, a travel youth baseball program, last summer after his junior year at Vineland. Before that, he spent his summers as a swimmer.
He said he decided to join the Brooklawn program after Vineland played Gloucester Catholic in a hastily-arranged game in late May to serve as a state tournament warm-up for both teams.
Malatesta said GC coach Mike Rucci, a Brooklawn assistant, asked him to join the Brooklawn program.
He said he didn't know that much about Brooklawn's rich tradition when he attended his first practice. But he's learned during the course of another long season that has included the program's fifth straight state title and, as of Thursday, will mark the program's 16th appearance in the World Series.
"The kids nicknamed him 'Johnny Baseball' and it fits him," Brooklawn coach Dennis Barth said. "He loves to play. He's a throw-back kid. He fits right in with us."
Malatesta, who will attended the New Jersey Institute of Technology and play baseball while majoring in civil engineering, has handled a variety of positions as Brooklawn has fashioned a 49-7 record.
"I'll play wherever they ask me," Malatesta said.
Said Barth: "He's played everywhere but catcher and he's good at everything. I'm trying to find a position he's not good at."
Malatesta was at his best in the Mid-Atlantic Regional tournament at Campell's Field. He was 9-for-18 at the plate with six RBIs as Brooklawn battled back after a loss to Cecil County, Md., to win three consecutive games by a combined score of 32-0 and capture the crown.
In the title game Monday afternoon that served as a rematch with Cecil County, Malatesta was 2-for-4 at the plate and also pitched seven scoreless innings. He allowed just 5 hits with 5 Ks and 0 BBs as Brooklawn won 10-0 in a contest shortened to 7 innings by the mercy rule.
"I felt confident because my coaches gave me the ball in the regional final," Malatesta said. "I knew I had my defense behind me."
While Brooklawn remains a team filled with key players from Gloucester Catholic's highly-successful high school squad, the Brookers in recent seasons have received major contributions from players outside the program's traditional drawing area.
Last year's American Legion World Series champions featured top hitters in Nick Cieri of Rancocas Valley and Jon Gonzales of Winslow Twp.
Some athletes from Audubon have longed played for Brooklawn and this year's team has gotten a big lift from recent Green Wave graduates Eric Schorr and Kevin Terifay.
Brooklawn also has gotten big contributions from Collingswood rising senior Ray Taylor, who batted .429 in the regional, as well as Malatesta, who might be the first Vineland player to participate in the program's 53-year history.
"I haven't felt like an outsider at all," Malatesta said. "This is a great group of guys. They've made me feel welcome from the first day I got here."
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