It was the shrill ringing of the phone at Mike Gibbons’ bedside that solidified the inevitable crossing of two young men’s baseball paths once again.
“Hey bud I’m coming to Lehigh,” he said. “No, no, I’m gonna be on the team.”
On the other line was Matt Ratner, who called Gibbons on that summer night to let him know he would be transferring from Columbia University to Lehigh, where the two would soon be playing baseball for the same team.
The two Lehigh pitchers, Ratner and Gibbons, first met at Newark Academy High School. Ratner was a year older and a year ahead in forming his Newark legacy.
“I had known (Ratner) was kind of ‘the guy’ on the team when I was coming in as a (high school) freshman,” Gibbons said. “He took me under his wing.”
Under Ratner’s wing, Gibbons stepped up to a pedestal of his own, and in those high school years their ambitious trajectories aligned — both with visions of playing at the collegiate level. The two also formed a lasting friendship and a competitive drive they’ve been building on ever since.
“We had an awesome competition (at Newark Academy),” Ratner said. “Every single time that I went onto the mound I wanted to beat (Gibbons’) last time out.”
Eventually, college recruitment season came around, first for Ratner, who committed to play for Columbia. Ratner was still dealing with the effects of Tommy John surgery — a common elbow injury for baseball players — which had sidelined him for his senior season and into his freshman year of college.
“A part of me, it just wasn’t there,” Ratner said. “I had to go to the field the same amount as everyone else, do the same amount of work, but I couldn’t play. It’s a different kind of workload. I did around 20 hours of homework a week at Columbia.”
Under that pressure, Ratner began to realize a university’s reputation had no right to take away his happiness.
At the same time, Gibbons finished his last season as captain at Newark Academy with the team recording an impressive 23 wins and a state championship appearance. Having caught the eye of Lehigh baseball coach Sean Leary, Gibbons signed to play college baseball with the Mountain Hawks.
Ratner’s phone call on the eve of Gibbons’ freshman year at Lehigh changed Gibbons’ future baseball career for the better.
Now, in their second year together as Mountain Hawks, the friendship that started at Newark Academy has proved invaluable.
“What really helped me adapt to Lehigh was the fact that Mike (Gibbons) was here,” Ratner said. “Honestly, I don’t know how I would’ve handled the transfer (if he wasn’t).”
Likewise, Gibbons, who was navigating his first semester away from home, had Ratner as a sounding board and someone who’d already experienced going away to college at Columbia. In practice the two knew each other better than anyone, down to their throwing mechanics and style.
Both athletes are pitchers, so because they’re never in the game at the same time, their relationship revolves around preparation, lifting together and throwing together with senior catcher John Scarr.
Coach Sean Leary has watched Ratner and Gibbons’ chemistry in practice evolve into something shared among the group.
“There’s a common bond, and I think it helps with fitting in,” Leary said. “If they feel comfortable with their environment, they have a chance to achieve more — that entire group even going beyond those two has created that connection. When they’re on the mound you can hear the energy from the other guys.”
After graduating from Lehigh, Ratner and Gibbons will have known and played with each other upward of eight years.
“I think it’s kind of impossible to separate our baseball careers at this point,” Gibbons said.