Clarkstown North High School
Class of 1992
The late summer of 1992 proved to be a turning point in Will Cunnane’s baseball career. All spring he had waited for contact from a major league club, believing that his senior year stats at Clarkstown North would be enough to attract the interest of at least one big league team. After all, that season he had gone 6-2 with a 0.38 ERA, allowing just 3 earned runs in 56 innings while striking out 90 and pitching a no-hitter. But the MLB draft came and went and Will’s name was not called.
In the summer Will pitched for the Rockland-based OTB Pirates American Legion team. In mid to late August the Pirates played in a tournament in Binghamton, N.Y. Will performed well in a pitching assignment against a team from West Virginia. In the stands to scout the West Virginia team was Florida Marlins scout Ty Brown. Brown was so impressed with Will’s performance that he offered him a free agent contract to play for the Marlins. Immediately after that came a phone call from Jack Leggett, a coach for the Clemson Tigers, one of the top collegiate teams in the country. Leggett offered Will a scholarship to come play for Clemson. Now it was decision time. If he accepted the college offer and got hurt while playing there, it would surely jeopardize his chances of going pro. After considerable thought, he chose the Marlins.
And thus began a career that would encompass eight years in the major leagues – with the San Diego Padres, Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves – as well as 13 minor league seasons and four seasons of independent league baseball. Will Cunnane, the willowy 6-foot-2 right-hander from Congers, N.Y., etched his name into the annals of Rockland County sports history by making it to the major leagues. He stands alongside Rockland standouts of the recent past such as Walt Weiss, John Flaherty, C.J. Nitkowski and (currently) Patrick Kivlehan, and old-time stars Chuck Aleno, Bill Drescher, Fred Hahn, Bill “Lefty” Kalfass, Jim and Larry Eschen, and others.
Stardom in High School and Club Ball
Will got his start playing in the Congers Little League. He was a Yankees and Cardinals fan who envisioned himself as Dave Winfield or Willie McGee when playing with his friends. He is grateful that his dad, Joseph Cunnane, “never said no” when young Will asked to play catch. When Will got to Clarkstown North, he made the JV team as a freshman. His role model was Rams varsity pitcher Rich Wirchansky, whose work ethic and sense of purpose Will aspired to emulate. By sophomore year Will had made the varsity. He was coached by Nick Farese on the JV level, by Fred Bruntrager his sophomore and junior years and by Bob Bauer his senior year. During that final season, Will allowed only 2 extra-base hits (both doubles) and 26 hits total in 56 innings. His strikeout to walk ratio was almost 9 to 1 – 90 strikeouts and only 11 walks, two of them intentional. He was named Pitcher of the Year for League I-B, composed of the Rockland County large schools. He was also chosen All-League, All-County and All-Section 1.
Will’s career record at North was 16-6 with a strikeout to walk ratio of 4 to 1. He set school single-season records for shutouts with 2, in both 1991 and ’92; fewest earned runs allowed, 3, in 1992; and ERA, 0.38 He also holds school records for a career in strikeouts, 196; shutouts, 5; and ERA, 1.36. Will pitched a no-hitter against Scarsdale and a one-hitter in defeating North Rockland – the Red Raiders’ only loss in a 33-1 season that culminated in a NYSPHSAA championship. Although most noted for his pitching prowess, Will was also a solid third baseman who hit .335 for his scholastic career.
The Rams were competitive in League I-B, led by guys like Will, Chris Lemonis, who reached the Triple-A level with the Detroit Tigers, and Tim Casey. [Tim’s older brother, Dan Casey, was an outstanding athlete and “All-American” boy who Will idolized as a “superhero.” Sadly, Dan Casey was killed in an auto accident in 1993.]
Will also ran indoor track his senior year, competing in distances ranging from 200 to 800 meters. His best event was the 600 meters, in which he finished fifth in the Section 1 State Qualifier. Although Coach Bob Dillon had to share Will with the baseball team during the winter, he said Will was a hard worker and natural athlete who could have done quite well had he devoted himself to track earlier. “He was a pleasure to coach,” said Dillon, a former star distance runner for the Rams.
Will spent three summers playing for the OTB Pirates, a kind of Rockland all-star team drawing top players from Clarkstown North, North Rockland and Suffern. Will played alongside such marquee players as Keith Finnerty, Mike Sidoti, Darren Luzon and the Algozzino brothers, all from North Rockland, and Suffern players Jim McCarthy and Greg Murphy. The OTB Pirates’ coaching staff of Nate Salant, Nick Farese and Jay Bohnel was highly regarded as well.
By that time Will was starting to mature physically, filling out from 157 lbs. eventually to 195. He was also beginning to throw harder and break off his curveball more crisply. The curve was his “money” pitch at first, but as he got stronger his fastball emerged as his No. 1 weapon. He also used a change-up to polish off hitters when ahead in the count.
On A Path to the Big Leagues
Will spent four years in the Marlins’ minor league chain as a starting pitcher – one year each in Rookie and Class A ball and two years in Double-A. He amassed a win-loss record of 50-43, including an 11-3 mark in 1994 with a 1.43 ERA and 4 shutouts for the Class A Kane County Cougars of the Midwest League. After the 1996 season he was selected by the San Diego Padres in the Rule 5 Draft, for a purchase price of $50,000. Although still slotted as a starting pitcher, Will was soon to be converted into a reliever by the Padres. He made his major league debut on April 3, 1997 against the Mets, pitching two innings, surrendering two hits and two walks but no runs. He earned his first big league victory in a start against the Houston Astros, and also went 2-for-3 at the plate with a triple and 3 RBI. In his rookie season Will appeared in 54 games and notched a fine 6-3 record along with chalking up 8 saves.
Unfortunately, he was injured for much of the 1998 season, although he did post an 0.98 ERA with 54 strikeouts in 35 innings for the Padres’ Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas. The Padres went to the World Series that year and were swept by the Yankees. Will remembers being intimidated a bit when he joined San Diego, which was a veteran team of ballplayers such as Tony Gwynn, Wally Joyner, Ken Caminiti, Andy Ashby, Greg Vaughn and Steve Finley. But that apprehension did not extend to the pitching mound. “That was my mound,” he said. “When I’m on my mound, nothing bothers me.”
Shuttling Between Majors and Minors
Between 1998 and 2004 Will made frequent trips back and forth between the majors and minors. He was traded to the Brewers in December 2000 to complete a 2-for-2 player swap. In Milwaukee for that one season, Will appeared in 31 games and was teammates with guys like Jeromy Burnitz, Devon White, Curt Leskanic, Richie Sexson, David Weathers and Ray King.
In 2002 he signed as a free agent with the Cubs and went 1-1 in 16 games. Although Cubs fans are known to be among the most rabid in baseball, when Will was out of uniform he was barely noticed. He lived in a hotel during the season and took the ‘L’ train to Wrigley Field every day, drawing hardly a glance. “Nobody recognized me,” he said. Teammates on the Cubs for that one season included Kerry Wood, Sammy Sosa, Moises Alou, Fred McGriff, Joe Girardi and Mark Bellhorn. Late in the season Will committed a rare error while on the mound, and took out his frustration by punching a paper towel dispenser, fracturing his right pinky. The Cubs eventually released him and he was picked up by the Braves in mid-season 2003. A major highlight during Will’s two-year stint with Atlanta was filling in for injured closer John Smoltz. In the 2003 NL divisional playoffs the Braves lost in five games to the Cubs, Will’s team the previous year. The Braves star-studded lineup included Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Greg Maddux, Smoltz, Gary Sheffield and Javy Lopez.
In his eight big league seasons, Will fashioned a 13-12 record with a 5.26 ERA, 234 strikeouts and 12 saves in 274 innings pitched. On the Triple-A level he appeared in 325 games, gaining 19 wins and 26 saves. Injuries to his right arm loomed larger starting in mid-season 2004. All told, he underwent four surgeries – two for his shoulder (labrum, rotator cuff) and two arthroscopic procedures on his elbow.
For the Love of the Game: Independent Ball
From 2006 to 2011 Will continued to pursue his love of baseball by signing with the Bridgeport Bluefish and Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic Coast League. After a couple of years off, the baseball bug bit again and at age 36, Will re-signed with the Bears for one season, appearing in 12 games. In 2011 he again pitched for the Bluefish, compiling a 4-2 record in 28 appearances.
Will does not maintain any connections to professional baseball these days, but he occasionally runs into fellow Rocklander John Flaherty, his first catcher when he joined the Padres. Flaherty used to invite Will to work out with him and John Doherty, Flaherty’s teammate on the Detroit Tigers, in Eastchester, N.Y., the Westchester County town where Doherty resided.
For the past nine years Will has served as a Town of Clarkstown police officer. He had lived in Arizona and in Plainfield, Ill., outside Chicago, before moving back to Congers, where he lives with his wife of 18 years, Shannon; son Jace, an 18-year-old senior at Clarkstown North and member of the Rams’ Section 1 championship team last year; and daughter Teigan, a 13-year-old eighth grader at Felix Festa Middle School. Will, who is 47 and a Clarkstown North Hall of Fame inductee, also serves as the police department’s school resource officer (SRO) at Felix Festa. On a wall near the pool area of the school is a display featuring plaques of all the Clarkstown North, Clarkstown South and Congers high school graduates who have been inducted into the Rockland County Sports Hall of Fame.
Will has passed by that display often during his rounds as SRO at Festa. He was disappointed when the schoolkids told him they didn’t know anybody on the wall. He told them to just wait a few months. Then they would know at least one person on the Clarkstown athletic “Wall of Fame”: William Joseph Cunnane.