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Tim Ponto’s journey to achieving dream of playing professional baseball

Tim Ponto battled through injuries to become a key member of the New York Boulders.

Hailing from Pottstown, Pennsylvania, Tim Ponto always kept busy by playing sports year-round. Baseball in the spring and summer was followed by basketball in the fall and winter. Exhibiting a solid work ethic, Ponto would shoot baskets all day and late into the night that would cause a scene with neighbors.

“Baseball is a big tradition around there, especially the American Legion,” said Ponto. “Waretown was one of our rivals in the American Legion and one of the most storied programs in history. I would hear about growing up and upholding that standard from that area. That led me and my high school classmates to having a passion for baseball.”

“I always had the utmost support from my parents, whether it was driving me to and from baseball practices and helping me put up a basketball hoop/net. They are still supporting me through this journey right now. I never can repay them for that.”

Initially, it was Ponto’s dream to play collegiate basketball, but that outlook would change in his sophomore year at Owen J. Roberts High School. A growth spurt led to the option of being a pitcher on the baseball team. In his junior year, Ponto registered a 9-2 record with a 1.97 E.R.A. and 81 strikeouts in 74 innings. He followed that up with a dominating senior year by recording a 6-0 mark with a 1.87 E.R.A. and 70 strikeouts in 46 innings that earned Ponto First-Team All-State honors.

Ponto twice was named to the All-Conference First-Team and All-Southeastern Pennsylvania First-Team. Hurling a one-hitter in the opening round of the state playoffs, Ponto proved to be unstoppable coming out of the bullpen notching saves in the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds.

“I always had a good arm growing up. I played for a perennial powerhouse and high school program,” Ponto said. “We were a state championship runner up in my junior year and senior year. We didn’t return as many players but still had a couple of pieces.”

“I remember down the stretch of the (senior) season we had a ton of pitching. I remember having a conversation with our head coach and any chance to pitch, whether it was late in the game or the whole game. I was on a roll later in the year and wanted to throw every chance I could get. That’s the mentality I had always taken.”

Ponto accomplished another feat as a member of Owen J. Roberts basketball team as they won its first-ever league championship. “Coming from a history of a competitive basketball area right outside of Philadelphia, we played against schools that we’re stacked with Division I talent,” said Ponto. “All the stars were aligned that year. I was a sophomore at the time and we were undermanned as it is, but it made it special being the Cinderella team.”

With aspirations to play basketball long term, Ponto’s success on the mound led him to fall in love with the game of baseball. “I started talking to some high-level colleges and hearing from professional organizations for the draft,” Ponto remarked. “I realized 100 percent baseball was the route to go with my future and would have made the choice 100 times out a hundred.”

A Philadelphia Phillies fan, Ponto’s dreams of getting his name called in the MLB Draft came true when the Phillies selected him in the 39th round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft. “I knew I was good enough to be drafted but didn’t expect to,” said Ponto. “Getting the call from Eric Valent, their regional guy at the time, and now with the Miami Marlins, I thought I was dreaming and a prank. Just having the Phillies picking me, that had always been my team. It was super cool and something I will always have.”

Ponto decided instead to attend college with the vision of a college career that would eventually catapult him into a professional career. Looking at Penn State, University of Pittsburgh, Lehigh, and Saint Joseph’s University, Ponto chose Saint Joseph’s in the end. Standing at an imposing 6’8 and 215 pounds, Ponto enjoyed a successful freshman year where he led all rookies in appearances on the mound, including pitching a gem against Bucknell to earn his first career win.

“I got drafted coming out of high school and decided to go to St. Joe’s,” Ponto said. “My first game against East Tennessee State, I came out of the bullpen and a dream come true throwing my first inning against a highly regarded collegiate program.

Just when Ponto seemed to be on the trajectory upwards, an elbow injury shelved him for two years. “Missing the 2013 and 2014 seasons were really tough because that was supposed to be my draft year. That team (2014) we had was one of the best in school history and was in the Top 25. It was great watching my teammates succeed, but I wanted to be a part of that.”

“Missing back-to-back years were some of the most trying times of my life. It made me really appreciate the game of baseball for what it is. I really missed playing at the time. When I was cleared and overcame those injuries, it gave me an extra appreciation to be able to play the game I love.”

Fast forward to Opening Day at Loyola Marymount in 2015, where Ponto would make his after 33 months of inactivity. “Fritz (Hamburg) came up to me the week before the season started and wanted me to start on Friday in our opening game,” said Ponto. “I said it would be an honor to take the ball after missing two years. I don’t remember the first inning honestly. It was a blur. I remember walking to the dugout after the third out and saying what happened.”

“Coming out after four or five innings and sitting in the dugout, I was just super emotional of those two years of hard work and getting back on the field coming to fruition. It was a really big deal for me. That’s one of the moments of college I will never forget.”

Looking to build off the success of 2015, Ponto entered his final year in high spirits. That came crashing down like a ton of bricks when Ponto broke his ankle. Remarkably Ponto did not allow the injury to sideline him for the rest of the season, instead opting to finish it out.

“I started to find myself pitching-wise. Unfortunately, I ended up breaking my ankle in a freak scenario,” Ponto said. “I said what’s the worst playing through the injury. We had some other injuries on the team and thin on depth and said this is my last year.”

“I remember our last game down at George Washington in D.C. and actually threw the last inning of the season. I was the most emotional I ever had been personally. I remember after that game, my time personally was not great there strictly due to the injuries. I was never myself there and struggled with injuries that took their toll. Being at St. Joe’s for six years, remembering the ups and downs I had been through. I left there with a ton of new friends (Brian O’Keefe, Jimmy Yacabonis, Deon Stafford, Tim Brennan), two degrees and a lifetime of memories.”

“I couldn’t speak any higher of the St. Joe’s baseball program and school. Fritz (Hamburg) is one of the best in the game. I respect him as a coach and one of the best people I have had coming across. St. Joe’s, one of the best schools in the Atlantic Region, has a great business program, which is why I studied finance. One of the upcoming baseball programs in the Atlantic 10 Conference and they got a great baseball stadium and beautiful campus right outside of Philadelphia.”

Surgery on his ankle would sideline Ponto for 2017 and force him to make a critical decision on whether to continue playing baseball. “After my last year of school, I had talked to a few of the independent leagues, including the Atlantic League and American Association. Re-evaluating what my next steps were baseball-wise and whether it was time to step away and become a coach or grind through a rehab and get ready for the upcoming season.”

Fully recovered after two years and ready to resume his baseball career, Ponto found a home in the Can-Am League with the Rockland Boulders. “I had some connections with the Boulders in Joe Maloney and Justin Topa and how that connection started,” Ponto said. “I didn’t have a great knowledge of the independent baseball world, but hearing from Joe and Justin made me familiar with Rockland. I came in contact with Kevin Tuve, sent all my info there and they had me come up for spring training.”

Ponto’s first impression of Palisades Credit Union Park: “The first time I saw Palisades Credit Union Park, I was speechless for a second. It’s an A-plus ballpark, one of the best minor league ballparks I have ever seen. Combine that being in a great area, and it doesn’t get much better than that.”

Pitching for the first time at home would not wait until the regular-season opener as Ponto pitched in the exhibition game against the NYPD. “One of the coolest experiences of my baseball career, for a great cause and atmosphere in the stadium that night was something I had not experienced before,” Ponto said. “A really good warm-up for opening night. I remember running in from the bullpen. My heart was racing, but as soon as I touched the dirt on the mound, it was go-time like I did it a thousand times before.”

A memorable season for the Boulders concluded with clinching a playoff spot for the sixth consecutive year under first-year manager Kevin Baez before falling in the first-round against Sussex County. Rockland also hosted the All-Star Game between the Can-Am League and Frontier League, where Grant Heyman won the Home Run Derby.

“Last year, we had a special team talent-wise, but if you look around, every guy in the clubhouse was a legitimate baseball player and brought a lot to a table,” said Ponto. “The one thing about last year’s team was that I was never around a professional team that had so much chemistry and enjoyed playing with each other every day. We all hung out outside of the clubhouse and you don’t see that in professional baseball. You see guys every day on the field and get tired of them but that was not the case last year. Everyone really enjoyed the comradery.”

“Sussex County was a good team, but we looked around the clubhouse every day and we knew if we were healthy, we could go toe to toe with anyone. We came up a little short but hats off to Sussex. Their team is incredibly deep with talent and they executed when needed to in the series. We had nothing to hang our heads for. All 23 guys towards the end of the year laid it all on the line and gave every ounce of energy.”

“You couldn’t have scripted it any better with (Grant) Heyman snubbing in the last second for the Home Run Derby and winning it. We had six of our other guys in the All-Star Game. It was a really cool experience to see our guys competing on a big stage like that. Mid-summer nights when the sun is going down, that’s why I remember the All-Star Game so vividly. The sun starting to set and you are starting the ball game. There is not much of better feeling in the world with good weather in the Hudson Valley and having a ballpark in that setting makes for a great summer.”

After the season, not only did the Boulders organization, but the Can-Am League underwent significant changes. The team switched the first name from Rockland to New York, practically bringing in a brand new roster and the Can-Am League merged with the Frontier League. With new rules in place, including age restrictions and whether manager Kevin Baez would return for a second season, weighed heavily on Ponto’s mind. With the news of Baez returning and Ponto meeting the age requirements made the decision to return a slam dunk.

“I had no idea what was going to happen with skip (Kevin Baez),” Ponto said. “He has connections in higher places, a big name guy, but him coming back solidified me coming back. There is a ton of changes for the Boulders this year. Not a ton of guys coming back but we have a good core coming back. A lot of younger guys on the roster. It’s exciting because they are going to be super hungry to prove themselves in this new league (Frontier League).”

“It will be a way different dynamic this year because last year, I was the young guy learning the ropes, excited to pave the way for the younger guys. I am hoping to have an impact on these younger guys starting off their professional careers.”

“I think it was a great move to merge with the Frontier League. I’m excited to play some new teams and talent. Being in the Can-Am League and playing five other teams, you really get used to playing the same competition over and over and over. It will be cool to play some new teams, players, in new stadiums, towns and getting to explore a different part of the country. I think the name switch is pretty cool. Rockland is a great area, but to open us with the New York Boulders is a huge honor.”

Posting a 2-3 record with 3.74 ERA in 49 games along with 50 strikeouts, Ponto understands there is no downtime in the off-season. For him, training began once last season ended in September.

“To perform at a high level, you have to eat, sleep and breathe baseball and your routine has to follow suit,” Ponto said. “You just can’t pick up the ball the day before the season starts and be ready to go. It’s a 12-month process. Our typical season is May through September, but I’m in the gym the next week after the season ends and starting my throwing program for the off-season.”

“I wanted to be ready for working out in the winter. We do a bunch of live at-bats with the affiliated guys. I had some workouts with affiliated teams. Staying in shape and keeping the arm ready and trying to get better. I want to have a season this upcoming year than I did last year. I have plenty of room to improve, but I was very happy with myself last year. The biggest thing I took away last year I belong in professional baseball and that I can compete at this level.”

Due to the coronavirus, the start of the 2020 Frontier League regular season has been delayed. This has forced Pinto into different methods of training and keeping in shape. “It’s a crazy time right now. First and foremost, everyone’s health comes first. Being selfish, we want to play but we have to see how it pans out in the next couple of weeks. We had some hope because our season opens up late, but when all the news came out and how big of a pandemic is we knew that it was inevitable.”

“We’re just hopeful it can be contained to the point where we can start at some point this year. If we can get any games this year is a huge moral victory in itself.”

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Sunil Sunder Raj

Since July of 2014 Sunil Sunder Raj has been with In The Zone. Sunil has experience covering minor league baseball, high school and college sports. A beat writer for the Rockland Boulders for six years, Ramapo College men’s basketball for four years, NJIT men’s basketball and Seton Hall women’s basketball. Now focusing on feature articles about athletes, coaches and sports media professionals. A graduate of Ramapo College of New Jersey with a bachelor of arts degree in journalism.
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