A monumental moment for South Jersey baseball

Posted: September 02, 2012

Most guys need to close their eyes to see their dream.

Mike Rucci just looks out the window.

Rucci can see Joe Barth Field from his classroom at Alice Costello elementary school in Brooklawn.

Starting in the spring, Rucci will be able to walk out of his school and across the center-field grass to his new job: as Gloucester Catholic's third baseball coach since 1976.

"I won't even have to move my car," Rucci said.

Rucci on Monday was named to replace Dennis Barth, who has resigned after a remarkable 19-year run as Gloucester Catholic's coach to take over the baseball program at Rutgers-Camden.

It was a seismic day for South Jersey baseball. Barth left Gloucester Catholic after winning nine state titles and establishing the Rams as one of the most respected programs in the state, in any sport.

And make no mistake: This move will have a major impact on Rutgers-Camden, which will be a Division III national power in a couple of seasons, if not sooner.

Barth already has been watching tapes of Marietta (Ohio), which has won two of the last three Division III national titles. He isn't going to Campbell's Field for the view of the Ben Franklin Bridge or to finish 25-15 and place third in the New Jersey Athletic Conference.

"I like to work backward," Barth said. "When I was in high school, I tried to figure out what it takes to win a state title. With Brooklawn [American Legion], I try to figure out what it takes to win the World Series.

"We've got a lot of work to do. But we're going to shoot for the whole ball of wax."

Barth's lifetime of baseball excellence and blunt approach - which is tempered with a whole lot more sportsmanship than you often encounter from coaches with a quarter of his resume - is what first inspired a 14-year-old freshman catcher back in 1998.

Rucci said he often imagined following in his famous coach's footsteps, taking over the signature sports program at the little school that sits amid the rowhouses two blocks from the Delaware River in the heart of Gloucester City.

"He taught me so much more than baseball," Rucci said of Barth. "He taught how to deal with so many situations, how to be tough."

Rucci, 29, has been the head coach at West Deptford for the last two seasons. He teaches fifth grade in Brooklawn's elementary school, which is adjacent to Joe Barth Field - home of the twin towers of the South Jersey spring/summer baseball seasons, Gloucester Catholic and Brooklawn.

Rucci played four Gloucester Catholic seasons and three Brooklawn seasons under Barth. Rucci is a 2001 graduate who helped Gloucester Catholic to three straight state titles and also led Brooklawn's Legion team to the 2001 World Series title.

He was the ideal catcher: earnest, hardworking, a student of the game.

"Like a coach on the field," Barth said.

Monday's move was typical for Gloucester Catholic: hiring one graduate to replace another.

"It's no secret here that at Gloucester Catholic, we like hiring [alumni]," Gloucester Catholic athletic director Pat Murphy said. "We like the people who've been through the system, are aware of the pitfalls but have the passion to continue on the success of our programs."

But Rucci isn't following just another Gloucester Catholic graduate. Barth took the program to another level.

This was a high school coach who made a 24/7/365 time commitment, and spent a lot of his own money, too. This was a high school coach with uncanny baseball acumen and a rare knack for getting the best out of his players.

Add in the advantages of owning a workout facility at Sportz Central in Bellmawr and coaching the Brooklawn program that he says is "joined at the hip" with Gloucester Catholic, and Barth was arguably the Rams' best coach ever, in any sport.

That 9-1 record in state finals speaks pretty loudly to that.

"I'll never fill Dennis' shoes," Rucci said. "But I'm going to give it everything I have and embrace the tradition."

Barth said he will stay involved with Gloucester Catholic, helping with a fund-raising campaign to build an athletic campus in Deptford. The project, which officials believe is vital to the school's future, is slated to include state-of-the-art baseball and football complexes and fields for other sports, too.

"When we get lights and a new field in a couple years, we'll be really good," Barth said.

Barth went 495-94-1 and won nine state titles and six Diamond Classic titles. I wonder what he means by "really good."

In typical fashion, Barth said he "failed for 19 years" because his big goal was to go undefeated. His 2000 team, which had Rucci as a junior catcher, came closest with a 33-1 record and a No. 1 national ranking by Baseball America.

"Mike's going to do that," Barth said of going undefeated.

The old coach wasn't trying to put pressure on the new coach. He was expressing confidence, the way Barth used to tell Rucci he was going to drive in three runs that day, or throw out two base stealers.

"It's like a family," Rucci said of the Gloucester Catholic program, which has won 16 state titles. No other New Jersey team has won more than eight.

"When you are part of this program, you have a bond with everybody else who was a part of this program," Rucci said. "I want to maintain that."

It's a dream job. And for Mike Rucci, it's right out the backdoor.

Contact Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223, panastasia@phillynews.com, or @PhilAnastasia on Twitter. Read his blog, "Jersey Side Sports," at www.philly.com/jerseysidesports

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