Snow was still on the ground and the temperature was freezing, but Joseph Gerena couldn’t help but imagine the possibilities come spring.
Mike Turo, the longtime Monroe baseball coach, had just informed him the starting catcher’s job was his to lose. Senior Carlos Sierra had continued to struggle in his classes, drawing Turo’s ire.
Gerena simply smiled, unable to express his joy, other than to assure Turo he wouldn’t let him down.
“It motivated me to work harder and become a leader,” he said.
Finally given a starting role after two frustrating years of waiting his turn, Gerena has made a name for himself as the Eagles’ cleanup hitter. He was fifth in the city during the regular season with 25 RBIs, scored 15 runs, bashed three home runs and hit .468, striking out just twice.
“I feel pride,” he said. “I’m surprised about the numbers.”
Said Turo: “The kid is absolutely crushing the ball. Everything he hits is a bullet. When he hits the ball, I stay back in the (third-base coach’s) box.”
As a result of his breakthrough season, Gerena has received significant interest from NAIA school Wiley College in Marshall, Texas and Division III SUNY Old Westbury on Long Island, where teammates Abel Guerrero and Ranser Reyes are headed.
The 5-foot-10, 215-pound catcher corrected previous bad habits such as being pull-happy and swinging at almost every pitch he saw. Last year, Turo recalled, Gerena would pull dozens of pitches into the parking lot, well beyond the third-base bag.
“He wanted swing to harder than the pitcher would throw the ball,” Turo said. “Once he realized he didn’t have to over swing and hit the ball where it was pitched, he became a much better hitter.”
Of course, there was less pressure to perform every at bat this spring. He knew he would be in the lineup the next day, whether he failed or not. He gained confidence just by being out there.
The best example came in one of Monroe’s two league losses, a 5-1 setback to rival Clinton May 15. Ali Wagas, a right-handed control specialist who succeeded by keeping the opposition off balance, shutdown the Eagles’ potent lineup. Gerena, Clinton assistant coach Felix Villalon said, was the lone Monroe hitter on Wagas. He had one hit, a single to the opposite field on a breaking ball, but hit the ball hard each at bat.
“He’s developed his game very well,” Villalon said. “The kid has become one of their best hitters.”
Gerena grew frustrated his sophomore and juniors seasons on the bench, saddled behind stars like Sierra and Gabby Molina. Gerena would talk to Turo a lot about his lack of playing time. The two grew close; Gerena spent the last three years playing on Turo’s summer ball team, the Long Island Blue Jays.
The coach would stress he could be a star at a lesser school, but would develop better at Monroe and eventually find his niche.
When Turo advised Gerena he was in line to start, he did say he needed to see him improve defensively. If not, he would receive at bats at first base and the outfield. Gerena desperately wanted to catch, so he relentlessly worked on his quickness and agility blocking balls in the dirt, shortening the time it took him to throw to second base and calling games.
Gerena’s senior season isn’t done yet. Tuesday, he will lead the sixth-seeded Eagles in the PSAL Class A quarterfinals against No. 3 George Washington. The only way, he said, to top his regular season would be by winning a city title.