Woodstown's Ware on cusp of 600 wins

Woodstown's Stephen Pistoia leads the charge as the team's players run to Ware and slide into him before a game.This "Woodie Roll" is a ritual the players have done for 25 years, Ware said.
Woodstown's Stephen Pistoia leads the charge as the team's players run to Ware and slide into him before a game.This "Woodie Roll" is a ritual the players have done for 25 years, Ware said.
Posted: May 10, 2013

Lee Ware's teams at Woodstown have hit a few three-run home runs and generated some big innings.

It has been 40 years, after all.

But a typical Woodstown victory under the dean of South Jersey baseball coaches - as well as the area's soon-to-be all-time leader in baseball victories - involves more subtle aspects of the sport.

Take Wednesday's 2-1 victory over Glassboro.

In the 925th game of Ware's career, Woodstown scored both runs on suicide-squeeze bunts, including the game-winner in the bottom of the 10th inning.

"That's him," Delran coach Rich Bender said. "He's the Godfather of South Jersey baseball."

Ware, 67, is about to become just the second baseball coach to win 600 games in South Jersey history. He is 597-329 in his 40th season.

Ware also is on the verge of becoming South Jersey's all-time leader in coaching wins in the sport. The record is held by the late Russ Spicer, who went 603-287 at four schools, with most of his time at Haddonfield.

"It means I've been around a long time," said Ware, sitting in the cafeteria at Woodstown and wearing his blue baseball uniform, as he has on nearly 1,000 spring afternoons. "It's a round number."

Ware knows numbers. He was a math teacher at Woodstown for 38 years before retiring in January 2006.

He knows he has had 12 assistants in his 40 seasons. He knows perhaps his best pitcher, Craig Kugler, won 31 games from 1984 to '86.

He knows his teams qualified for the state tournament 33 years in a row. He knows his teams have won five South Jersey titles as well as the school's only state title in any sport, capping a remarkable tournament run in 1991.

He even knows the score of his first win back in 1974: 5-3.

"I guess I'm old-school," Ware said. "I like to keep it simple. I've been very blessed to have great assistants, great support from the administrations, and so many players who were willing to sacrifice for the good of the team."

Ware said folks in his family were "poor farmers" in Salem during his childhood. His mom and dad, Minnie and Preston, had two sons. His older brother, Clint, was a top athlete and longtime football coach at Woodstown.

"He was five years older than me," Ware said of his brother, who died in 2001. "I looked up to him so much."

Ware graduated from Salem in 1964 and played baseball under Mickey Briglia at Glassboro State, now Rowan University.

Ware said a lot of his philosophy came from Briglia.

"He would force the action, bunt and run, hit and run," Ware said.

After one season with the single-A Albany Twins in the New York-Penn league - "I retired a .300 hitter," Ware said - he began his career in education as a math teacher and assistant to his brother on the football squad.

He has been at Woodstown ever since.

"He's had an unbelievable influence," retired Woodstown athletic director Glenn Merkle said. "His teams take the field, and they expect to win.

"That's not easy to do at a little school like this."

Ware took over a baseball team that was 2-14 in 1973. His first team started 0-5.

His first win came against a Kingsway team ranked in the top 5 in South Jersey. Junior John Lenahan earned the victory.

"He was the same then that he is now," said Lenahan, now the Salem County prosecutor. "He has the same enthusiasm for the game."

Perhaps because his teams lacked overpowering talent, Ware developed a style of play similar to that used by Spicer and emulated by Bender. At Woodstown, "small ball" became "Woodie Ball."

"Pitchers throw strikes, make the routine plays, and scratch for runs," Ware said. "That's my whole philosophy."

Said Lenahan: "He knew he was coaching the St. Louis Cardinals, not the New York Yankees."

Bender, who has 585 wins in his 38th season, said early in his career he used to drive down to Salem County to watch Woodstown play Pennsville, coached by Ed Reiger.

"I would get on the sideline and just watch those guys," Bender said.

Ware has a hitch in his step as he makes his way through the hallways at Woodstown, greeting every maintenance worker and teacher. He has a pair of artificial knees as well as an artificial hip.

"The body is broken, but the spirit is willing," Ware said. "I still get fired up for every practice, every game."

Ware lets his assistants handle a lot of the details of the team. But he has no plans to retire.

He's still the guy who walks down the left-field line after the lineups are exchanged, then waits as his players race down to meet him in what's known as the "Woodie Roll." He's still the guy who delivers the pregame pep talk.

And he's still the guy who calls for a suicide squeeze in the bottom of the 10th inning.

"He's the last of the old school," said former Eastern coach Joe Hartmann, founder and director of the Diamond Classic tournament that bears his name.

Hartmann, 81, played for Spicer at Haddonfield in the late 1940s. He sees a lot of his old coach in the man who is about to break his record.

"He brings the old to the new," Hartmann said.


Contact Phil Anastasia

at panastasia@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @PhilAnastasia. Read his blog,

"Jersey Side Sports,"

at www.inquirer.com/

jerseysidesports

|
|
|
|
|