Those practices on the parking lot Connors State’s baseball team was subjected to this season due to an infield under construction throughout took some adjusting for both players and coaches.
For Chris Mondesi, it reminded him on those days growing up on the streets of Brooklyn playing waffle ball.
“It’s actually funny you’d ask that,” he said. “I remember being 5-6 years old and we’d be run into people on the sidewalks and they’d stare at you like ‘c’mon little kid.’ It was all fun and games for us.”
Mondesi and the Cowboys have had fun and games all spring. Particularly fun for Mondesi was his grand slam in the eighth inning of Sunday’s South Central District championship game against Delgado (La.). It broke a 10-10 tie as part of a six-run inning, and the Cowboys would need every bit of it as they held off a rally by the Dolphins in the ninth to win 16-14 and punch their first NJCAA World Series berth since 2013.
It’s been a long journey to Warner for Mondesi, whose uncle, Raul Mondesi, a two-time Gold Glove winner and 1993 National League rookie of the year who played 14 years in the majors, mostly with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He has a cousin, Adalberto Mondesi, a Kansas City Royals infielder who made his debut in the majors in the 2015 World Series.
Chris Mondesi played his first year of high school baseball at Grand Street Campus High School, then moved to Florida to attend Elev8 Baseball Academy his sophomore and junior year before moving back to Brooklyn to finish high school at Grand Street.
“A host family wasn’t the same thing as being home and everything there, trainers, food, being comfortable in your own bed,” Mondesi said. “I went back there and focused on getting ready for the next option, whether it was a four-year school, a junior college or getting drafted.”
A former Connors player, Freuny Parra, who Mondesi trained under in New York, first told Connors State coach Perry Keith about him. Parra is a native of the Dominican. That’s where Mondesi’s family hails from even though Mondesi himself was born in New York.
“He came to me about 8 or 9 and was soon competing against kids 5-7 years older than him and turning heads,” Parra said. “He was a little overweight at first and went right to work getting in shape. His work ethic has always been unbelievable.”
His own father, Christian Mondesi, played in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., as a kid. A group including he along with his father and coach never returned home, choosing to stay in the United States.
That search for a better life for Mondesi included the choice to attend Connors, where this year, the third baseman hit .292 in 212 at-bats with 17 doubles and 62 RBIs with a .940 fielding percentage in 182 chances. His grand slam was just his fourth home run.
Warner’s a far cry from the culture of New York, but it’s been an easy fit for Mondesi.
“It’s been a good fit, not difficult at all,” he said. “It’s a family environment, people know each other more, and everyone knows Coach Keith and a lot of them are connected to the team. It really feels like family and it was the best option for me to develop.”
Keith had also heard about him from another former Cowboy, Benny Castillo, who also works a baseball academy in Florida.
“Chris does everything really well – he’s an excellent infielder with great hands and a good arm and good release, a good hitter who is going to grow into power, everything is there,” Keith said. “Laterally he’s got great range. The only thing that has hurt his draft stock is his home to first speed. I’ve had scouts tell me he’d never made it to campus if he ran well.”
Parra shrugs that flaw off.
“There’s plenty of guys in the majors right now who don’t grade out as 5-2 guys,” he said, referring to those who have the compete tools of hitting for average, hitting for power, baserunning skills and speed, throwing ability and fielding ability. “There’s room for improvement there and he has. But my thinking is you have to first hit the ball to make it to first and he has proven what he can do there.”
Keith said he plans on experimenting with Mondesi behind the plate next season as a means of further enhancing his stock.
“A lot of people I’ve talked to are interested in drafting him and converting him to a catcher, so we’re going to give that a go,” Keith said.
But first, there’s this trip to Grand Junction, Colo., and a shot at a national championship. The Cowboys (48-11) get Iowa Western in the second day of the junior college World Series on Sunday.
Getting there, and a season’s worth of road games, has been a journey in itself.
“It’s been a long journey for sure,” Mondesi said. “I feel like all those little things that have happened have made us closer, and we’ve had to overcome all of it together.
“Coach Keith has always said we can use it as a crutch or as motivation and we’ve used it as motivation. It’s pretty amazing to be where we’re at.”