Stormy weather failed to dampen the enthusiasm of those who had gathered for Hart High School’s annual alumni baseball game on Sunday.
Several generations of Hart Indians and their families visited the school to take part in the yearly tradition, although the rain forced the game to be reimagined.
“Today is a little bit different because of the rain that we’re dealing with,” said Hart Baseball Dugout Club President Chris Frithsmith. “So we’re not able to play a game on the field. So what we’re gonna do today is we’re actually going to go play a wiffle ball game with a lot of the old alumni players in the basketball gym.”
Still, the event’s attendees were excited to take part.
“I think they’re actually really excited,” said Frithsmith. “I mean, you talk to most former players, and they’ll tell you, ‘I’m just a big kid,’ right? I’m an adult, but I’m actually a big kid and I love playing any type of baseball, whatever it is.”
One of the stars of the gathering was Hart baseball head coach Jim Ozella, a community fixture who’s affectionately referred to as “Coach O” by his players.
“[The] alumni game’s always a cool time of the year because players return,” Ozella said. “It’s been our tradition here to kind of follow up, program to program. I’ve been the head coach for 25 years. The head coach before me, Bud Murray, he’s here today.”
“Everybody within this community has come to Hart, and so there’s a lot of closeness and a lot of family that gets passed along through this whole deal,” Ozella continued.
The ages and graduation dates of the various event attendees varied greatly, with some of the oldest alumni present having graduated in the 1960s.
“Coach Ozella has been coaching here for 25 years, so you’re about a history of probably at least 25 years, but it looks to me that we have probably, potentially 40 years of generational players here,” Frithsmith said.
“There’s a guy here from 1963, I think,” Ozella said. “We got some guys here from back in the old days. Way before my time.”
While the main draw of the event was the game featuring Hart alumni, the organizers also used the occasion to add three more names to the Hart Baseball Wall of Fame: 2015 graduates Paul Richan and Jack Ralston and 2018 graduate Cole Roederer.
“It’s great,” said Richan, who retired from professional baseball after tearing his rotator cuff. “I mean, if you look at the history of this program, it’s filled with extremely good professional baseball players even current and past, so it’s a real honor to be added to it like this.”
“It’s awesome getting added with two guys I’ve played with,” said Ralston, who currently plays professional baseball with the St. Louis Cardinals. “It’s good to see all these guys, and it’s a great history here, so it’s a good honor.”
“It really is an honor,” said Roederer, who plays with the Chicago Cubs. “When you look back at all the history of the guys that have been here before us and still playing, it’s good, and even the support you see now with all of the people that come back, you can tell that this program has changed a lot of lives.”
The event was especially notable for Arizona residents Richan and Roederer, who had never attended an alumni game before.
“I’ve been to all of them, I think, or most of them,” said Ralston. “This is the first one in the cafeteria, though.”
The game was preceded by a lunch in the cafeteria, with fresh hamburgers and hot dogs provided to attendees. Hart Indians apparel was also available for purchase, with Frithsmith noting that Sunday might be guests’ last chance to buy Hart merchandise with the “Indians” branding before the name is changed in the future.
After lunch, event attendees moved to the basketball gym, where they were greeted by Ozella and Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Santa Clarita, wearing Hart apparel. Garcia had thrown the first pitch during the 2023 Hart Alumni Baseball Game, but he was unable to do so this year due to the weather and him needing to leave to another event. However, he still found time to joke about his lighthearted rivalry with Hart as a graduate of Saugus High School.
“As a former Centurion, it’s hard to put the Hart hat on and be in Indian territory today like this,” Garcia said. “I obviously am a little more biased towards Saugus when you guys play them, but I know you guys (have) got a fantastic heritage here, and baseball really is a great unifier.”
“Regardless of what team we’re on, I just want to remind everyone that we’re all on the same team,” Garcia continued. “We’re all Americans. We’re all fighting for the right thing, and we’re all blessed to be able to be part of this beautiful experiment called the United States of America.”
Ozella went on to introduce the various coaches and players of past and present, giving each one a chance to introduce themselves, before presenting Richan, Ralston, and Roederer with their addition to the Wall of Fame.
“Coach Ozella’s really changed all of our lives in so many different ways,” said Roederer. “He taught me right from wrong at a very young age, always held me accountable, and going into real life, it really does help.”
The wiffle ball game began soon after, with a group of 12 alumni split into two teams of six. The game was played purely for fun, with no scores kept.
Just before the game started, though, Ozella gave an emotional thank you to all who had attended the game, including his family.
“I really appreciate the turnout today,” Ozella said. “It’s heartfelt on your part. I’ve been here since 2000. Let’s be honest with you, alright? And this is for all of the people who are here. Your impact on my life has probably been more meaningful than mine on yours. Thank you. I appreciate it.”