Overhand: How Bethlehem and baseball have bonded generations

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Tony Rinaldi, ’88, never threw underhand to his son.

As local parents and neighbors stopped and awed at the then 3-year-old Anthony Rinaldi IV, now known as Ant, clubbing major league baseballs thrown overhand at the park, a second generation Lehigh baseball player was being born.

Mustering a backswing with an aluminum bat no smaller than he was, toddler Ant began to master his swing. It was that same cut across the plate, molded by dad, that landed him as a top high school prospect in New Jersey and eventually to a starting job in left field for Lehigh — the same school his father played for 30 years before.

The best way to understand how Bethlehem, baseball and the Rinaldis are forever intertwined is to start from the beginning — Secaucus, New Jersey, in the 1970s, where Tony and his father, Anthony Rinaldi Jr., played ball.

It was there that Ant’s dad played catch with his own dad. It was also there — for just one afternoon — that he was able to see firsthand the talent that was passed down to him. At 14 years old a friend of Tony’s challenged his father to a hitting contest, playfully jawing at what he thought was a glorified has-been aged by father time. Long past his playing days, Anthony Rinaldi Jr., a decorated cop, agreed to an old-fashioned derby. The community flooded the ball field to see what was left of the former Washington Senators prospect. For just one hour, Tony Rinaldi got to witness his father’s sweeping and powerful swing that would later be emulated by his son, Ant, in the batter’s box some four decades later.

“My father was hitting lefty, and he was hitting lefty like I’d never seen anybody hit righty,” Tony said. “He actually out hit the other kid who was around my age.”

On the left is Anthony Rinaldi Jr. up at bat in Weehawken, N.J. in the late 1920s. On the right is Anthony Rinaldi IV batting for Lehigh in a game at Bucknell in the spring of 2015. Rinaldi Jr. passed before Anthony was born, but his swing is mirrored through his grandson in his entire lower half, full extension and top hand on the bat.

On the left is Anthony Rinaldi Jr. up at bat in Weehawken, New Jersey, in the late 1950s. On the right is Anthony Rinaldi IV batting for Lehigh in a game at Bucknell University in the spring of 2015. Rinaldi Jr. passed before Anthony was born, but his swing is mirrored through his grandson in his entire lower half, full extension and top hand on the bat.

Guided by his father, Tony developed into one of the state’s most prized prospects at catcher. Named as a First Team All-State selection for New Jersey and First Team All-Hudson County – an honor later held by Ant – college and pro scouts lined the dugouts of summer tournaments to get a glimpse of the two-way catcher. The Los Angeles Dodgers, California Angels, Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates took interest and invited Rinaldi to their “free agent tryouts” at just 17 years old. Rinaldi impressed, but told the scouts he would not forgo a chance at an elite college education to pursue pro baseball. Inadvertently discouraging the scouts from wasting a draft pick on an academic-oriented player, Rinaldi went undrafted.

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The University of Tampa, Georgia Southern University and Seton Hall University were just a handful of the marquee baseball schools that desperately tried to lure Rinaldi to their diamonds. Yet just as baseball was instilled in him by his father, so was the art of engineering. A former Navy Seabee tasked with engineering responsibilities during wartime, Anthony Rinaldi Jr. was constantly building at home with his only child. When it came to find an academic discipline, Tony settled on engineering. Just like baseball, was already in his blood.

With that, Rinaldi arrived for fall baseball as a freshman catcher for the Lehigh University Engineers of the East Coast Conference in the fall of 1983. There he proved himself as a ball player and a student, later morphing his coveted mechanical engineering degree into his own successful firm, The Rinaldi Group, that designs and erects high-rises all over the country.

A four-year player and a two-time captain at Lehigh, Rinaldi’s career was highlighted by an East Coast Conference Regular Season Championship in 1984 and a 1985 season where he led the then-Engineers in RBIs and was second on the team in batting average at .393.

Above is a photo of Lehigh's 1984 East Coast Conference Championship Team. Dubbed as "The Lumber Company" for its deep and powerful offense, Tony Rinaldi is located in the first row and second from the right and was an integral part of the team as a two-way catcher as just a true freshman.

Above is a photo of Lehigh’s 1984 ECC Regular Season Championship Team. Dubbed as “The Lumber Company” for its deep and powerful offense, Tony Rinaldi is located in the first row and second from the right and was an integral part of the team as a two-way catcher as just a true freshman.

From unforgiving dominance in driveway 1-on-1 basketball, to batting practice in lieu of nap time as a youngster, to long-toss into the waning hours of the night, Tony has always doubled as Ant’s father-coach. So when the former MLB prospect and Division I catcher assured his son he could play ball at the highest collegiate level, Ant’s reassurance was validated. For the now 6-foot, 190-pound dynamic outfielder, a compliment on his game from dad has never been without merit.

“He’s always been my toughest critic growing up, and so I always knew whenever he told me something he meant it,” Ant said.

Like his father, Ant was heavily recruited, collecting scholarship offers from Seton Hall, Hofstra University and St. Joseph’s University. Batting .532 his senior year for St. Peter’s Prep in Secaucus, Ant batted his way onto the radars of many college programs that had initially written off the underdeveloped outfielder just two years prior. It was during those times, where Ant struggled to find his swing, that he turned to his father, who had been through it all before.

“Whenever I was going through a slump or maybe not hitting the ball well at some points, he’d always bring up a story from when he played and try to relate it what I was going through at the moment,” Ant said. “Through all that, I was like, ‘Man, my dad’s cool.’”

When it came time for Ant to write the next chapter of his own baseball career, his decision to square up in the same batter’s box as his father was organic. There was no pressure from home.

“The one thing I never wanted to do was steer him in any particular direction – I wanted it to be his choice,” Tony said. “I never really pushed Lehigh onto him.”

Captured by Tony, Ant squares up in left field for his first game at Lehigh in 2012. His father's 1984 ECC Championship banner hangs to his left.

Captured by Tony, Ant squares up in left field for his first game at Lehigh in 2012. His father’s 1984 ECC Championship banner hangs to his left.

For Ant, however, who grew up learning about the Lehigh baseball tradition and watching his father in alumni games on campus, the recruiting process was over with one acceptance letter.

“He came to me with his hat in his hand, and I loved him for it, because he knew the expense of Lehigh, he came to me and said, ‘Dad, I gotta tell you, all of the other places I could go, Lehigh is the only place I want to go,’“ Tony said. “And for me, that was a special moment. I told him that it would be the happiest check I’d write.”

After enrolling at Lehigh the following fall, Ant made the spring travel squad for the 2013 season, but a car accident left him concussed and caused him to miss six weeks of that season. After recovering and winning the starting job in left field as a sophomore in 2014, a broken ankle derailed almost his entire spring.

Ant cheated the premature death of his baseball career with a successful surgery. His ankle is now held together by screws, plates and a cable. After rehabbing in time to debut for 2015, Ant earned 29 starts his junior season and appeared in 40 games. That season was capped with a Patriot League Championship, almost 31 years to the date of his father’s ’84 title.

On the left is Tony's 1984 ECC Championship commemorative beer mug. Without the engravings, the cup is sold for $7.99 at the bookstore. On the right is Ant's 2015 Patriot League Championship with Rinaldi, 24 and LF etched on the side.

On the left is Tony Rinaldi’s 1984 ECC Regular Season Championship commemorative beer mug. Without the engravings, the cup is sold for $7.99 at the bookstore. On the right is Ant’s 2015 Patriot League Championship ring with his name, number and position etched on the side.

Ant and Tony both now stand as champions and have carved themselves into Lehigh baseball lore as one of the program’s most prominent duos, according to current Mountain Hawks coach Sean Leary.

“There’s never been a moment where the support from that family hasn’t been 100 percent behind Lehigh University and the baseball team,” Leary said. “I am very grateful and blessed that that’s what the Rinaldi family has been. They’re Lehigh, they’re team-first and they’re supportive of everything we’ve done as a program.”

You will never find Tony Rinaldi berating umpires or criticizing the substitution of his son. Never dreaming of imparting his baseball wisdom on the players or coaching staff without permission, Tony spends the nine innings scurrying around the diamond to take pictures of all the game has to offer. With the exception of muttering under his breath for Ant to get a bunt down on the first pitch thrown, or to wait patiently on a change-up, Tony retires from coaching when the game is being played.

“Anthony’s not the type of a kid who’s been a headache for the coach,” Leary said. “He’s just, ‘What do I have to do today? How do I get better?’ And I truly believe that comes from the parents, and we’re grateful for parents like his.”

The Rinaldis are as embedded in the fabric of Lehigh baseball as much as a family could be, but that doesn’t mean they will necessarily be finished on South Mountain come the conclusion of Ant’s career.

On whether the future Anthony Rinaldi V will be the third generation Lehigh baseball player, the possibility is certainly not ruled out.

“Hopefully not for a little while,” Ant said with a chuckle.

“Better not be for a little while,” Tony said.

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