UNION, NJ — Craig Combs was tested in his first game with his new baseball team when he was forced to sprint, slide and stretch to snare a sinking line drive.
He used instincts, hustle and athleticism to make the highlight-reel catch. He didn’t, however, use a glove.
Combs is the centerfielder, pitcher and one of the newest and most exciting players on the Elizabeth Resolutes, a team that strives to play the game exactly as the original Resolutes did when they often ranked as a top New Jersey amateur team from 1866 to 1878.
When the team joined the National Association for a brief period in 1873, it became the first professional sports team in New Jersey.
This isn’t your father’s baseball team, however. More like your great-great-grandfather’s, considering members play by the rules employed in 1870.
Combs, a Union resident, and his teammates pay homage to a bygone era when the pitcher stood closer to the plate, the ball was not so tightly stitched, “base ball” was spelled with two words and the players didn’t use gloves. A batter is a “striker,” a pitcher is a “thrower” and cell phones aren’t allowed anywhere near the field.
Each member of the Resolutes is expected to take his role in maintaining historical accuracy seriously, even if a screaming liner comes in his direction — he’s expected to make every attempt to catch it.
“I don’t want to sound smug,” Combs said recently, “but when you’re really into a sport and you’re a ballplayer, you just kind of do it. You roll with it. You just want to win or be the best you can be while you’re playing the game. You’re just thinking, ‘I have to make this play.’ And you take it one play at a time, one pitch at a time.”
He said his hands sometimes get a little bruised from making catches, but it’s a small price to pay to be a member of the team and honor the game’s past.
Peeling back the layers of time and revealing the game that was beginning to capture the imagination of a nation recovering from the Civil War draws people like Combs to join the Resolutes, as opposed to joining local beer league teams, said Paul Salomone, a Westfield resident who founded and manages the team.
The Resolutes, based at Rahway River Park, play almost every Saturday in the spring and summer against the Monmouth Furnace, the Brooklyn Athletics, Flemington Neshanic and other historically authentic teams in the area.
“It’s a love of baseball,” Salomone said. “It can’t be any other thing. There’s just that much respect for the history of the game. You could go out and play modern baseball anytime without learning to play barehanded or wearing an ancient-style uniform that’s heavy. You wouldn’t have to worry about learning ancient sports. You wouldn’t have to worry about traveling to the extent that we have to.”
The Resolutes’ roster is stocked with retired postal workers, television reporters, musicians and others from various walks of life. Combs, who does audio and video work for J.P. Morgan in New York and is an audio engineer for recording artists on the side, said that once players slip on the uniform with the Gothic E, there’s an instant bond. Even players on opposing teams feel like friends.
“It’s kind of crazy to say it because when you play regular rec league baseball, that camaraderie isn’t really there,” Combs said. “When I meet guys for the first time in this league, there’s an instant bond. Good words are spoken between people. If you played well, someone will stop you and say, ‘Hey, you had an amazing game today. You were on base every single time you were up today.’”
That said, Combs was hesitant to join the Resolutes at first. He had a friend on the team who urged him to join. When he was told they play without gloves, Combs infamously said, “Hell no.”
But, he came to a game and fell in love with it, and by Wednesday or Thursday each week, he’s already thinking about Saturday morning’s game.
“And honestly,” Combs said. “it depends on who we’re playing. If we’re playing the (New Brunswick) Liberty, who we play pretty often, I’m running it through my head. I know I’m going to face Krawler and he’s a big hitter and I know I have to get back on him,” he said, referring to a slugger named Matthew Kouyoumdjian.
The Resolutes and Liberty — another team Combs also occasionally plays with — will play a doubleheader Saturday, Aug. 25, at noon at East Jersey Old Town Village in Johnson Park on River Road in Piscataway. One game will be played by 1870 rules, the other will be played by 1858 rules.
Combs’ best game to date came against the Liberty. He went 5-for-5 with four or five stolen bases. He’s also making strides pitching in the period-correct underhand fashion.
Combs was throwing during batting practice one day when Salomone noticed he had potential. He throws a fastball and a change-up, and his repertoire has expanded to include a knuckleball.
“You use the same exact grip as throwing overhand,” Combs said. “You just throw it underhand and hope for the best. I’m not shy of throwing that, but Paul likes to rein me in a little bit.”
For additional information, log on to https://elizabethresolutes.com/