To a young baseball player, the calendar year seems to be defined by the game. The weather turns cold and fall ball turns to winter workouts. School lets out and the spring schedule turns to summer season.
That’s also true for Matthew Weiner, the pitching coach of Hartford’s American Legion team, but baseball is just one part of a demanding calendar of his own. As an assistant state’s attorney, Weiner spends his days representing Connecticut in criminal appeals, trying cases in the state’s highest courts against convicted kidnappers, robbers and murderers.
For the past five years, since he left private practice for the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney, Weiner has juggled his caseload with Hartford Legion baseball, giving city teens the opportunity to practice and play six months out of the year.
“I couldn’t really think of a better way to be able to put the work down, at least for a certain period of time, and do something that’s fulfilling in a much different way,” said Weiner, who played two years of baseball at Amherst College.
At times, the commitment has Weiner starting 12-hour workdays at 6 a.m., so he can make it to the baseball field for practice the same night. And while the Connecticut Supreme Court and Appellate Court are closed in July and August — when Legion’s summer schedule ends and its fall season begins — those months are still filled with research and preparation for cases.
In the summer of 2015, his slate even included two death penalty cases, some of the last working their way through appeals after the state abolished capital punishment in 2012 but before the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled to spare those already sentenced to die.
That season, Hartford finished 12-12, securing third place in its conference and the team’s best record in at least a decade.
“He can do so many things that are demanding so well, simultaneously,” said Rob Scheinblum, a senior assistant state’s attorney and Hartford Legion fan. “That would have taxed any normal person before you to get to their (extracurriculars) and he was able to do both without you noticing any different.”
Connecticut American Legion finished its 90th season in July before the tradition rolled on with its less competitive schedule, which lasts from August to October.
In the playoffs Oct. 14, a humid, 70-degree day, Hartford faced Newington away at Legends Field off New Britain Avenue. When a Newington player’s bat sent a foul ball flying backwards into the parking lot, it was a boy in Hartford orange and blue that, after waiting a beat, chased it down.“Really?” a Newington coach yelled to his players standing idle in their dugout.
But Weiner is used to that kind of thing from his kids. They know they’re ambassadors of the city and take it seriously, he said.
And they’re proud despite the less-than-welcoming comments they endure by some teams or parents outside of the greater Hartford region.
At one game, players joked that Hartford kids are used to stealing and running, recalled 19-year-old Marcel Diaz, a former player and Classical Magnet graduate.
At another, supporters of a team from the Connecticut shoreline made race-tinged comments about the Hartford players, who are nearly all Hispanic and residents of the city’s South End, Weiner said.
It’s something the coach says he didn’t expect only because it didn’t cross his mind.
“It was clearly audible,” he said. “That was definitely the low point of my coaching these five years.”
“To our kids’ credit,” he added, “they found it much less disappointing and upsetting than I did.”
Far more often, the team feels support from other players and fans in its conference, by companies like Aetna that contribute to Hartford Legion’s shoestring budget and from its coaches, who make up the difference.
Weiner and coach Jared Kupiec often dive into their own wallets to pay empires, book fields, host team breakfasts and cover players who can’t afford the $100 fee to join the team.
But mean-spirited comments still sting, said Diaz.
“Hearing those kind of things takes a toll on you as an individual. You think, ‘Is that who I’m supposed to be?” he said.
So at times, when teammates seemed to squander their opportunities, Diaz took it personally. He watched players show up late, skip practices or act out in the dugout during games.
He got down on himself, particularly when he was sidelined by a Tommy John surgery his sophomore year and couldn’t do more himself to contribute.
But Weiner noticed, Diaz said, and pulled him aside. They talked about leadership and the ways Diaz could and could not help the people around him.
Weiner’s words shaped the Diaz’s idea of what a leader could be, said the 19-year-old, now a sophomore infielder at Springfield College.
His freshman year, he batted .304 and scored 10 runs over 11 games. And then he came back to Hartford to play his last season of eligibility.
“The Legion program is really that last opportunity where they get to play repping their hometown,” Weiner says. “One of the most important things for them is getting to play with the Hartford name across their jersey and getting to represent the city they grew up in.”
But Diaz said Weiner’s coaching helped make the experience something more. This summer, the prosecutor took note of Diaz’s interest in criminal justice and arranged for the undeclared student to shadow a trial attorney at court.
“He noticed something in me I didn’t notice myself,” Diaz said. “I realized I wasn’t just playing for myself to have the name Hartford across my chest. It means something — giving people the opportunity to grow.”