WALDWICK – Nick D’Annibale remembers being scared.
“Really scared,” said the Waldwick freshman left fielder.
But what 11-year-old wouldn’t be after being told he had leukemia? It was a life-changing moment, and the start of a four-year battle that just ended in February with a final treatment.
“It was a long recovery, and the first year was tough,” said his father, Joseph, a retired Waldwick police officer. “But he never complained. He just did what he had to do.”
That included playing freshman basketball for the Warriors last winter, even though he still was undergoing treatment. D’Annibale followed that by claiming a starting job on one of North Jersey’s premier Group 1 baseball teams.
“I couldn’t have imagined that a year ago,” said D’Annibale, who’ll be hitting No. 9 this morning when the 14th-seeded Warriors face No. 3 Bergen Catholic in the second round of the county tournament at Lyndhurst Recreational Field. “But I was hoping for it. I was working towards it.”
The 5-foot-7, 163-pound D’Annibale is hitting .323 (10-for-31) with 11 RBI and nine runs scored in 14 games for a Waldwick team ranked No. 9 in The Record baseball Top 25. That includes eight RBI in his past five games, including two in Wednesday’s 11-1 opening round tournament win over Lyndhurst.
Along the way, he’s made a big impression on the tight-knit Waldwick baseball community.
“You see a kid like that, you think about all he’s been through and what he’s doing now, and it’s just awesome,” said Waldwick coach Frank Clark. “He doesn’t feel sorry for himself, and he has the heart of a champion.
“He is the school nickname. He is a warrior.”
And while D’Annibale, 15, remembers well the sick days and having to spend a year being home-schooled, his battle with leukemia also has provided some good, lasting memories. Especially the day two years ago this month when he and his family were invited to Manhattan to visit the MLB Fan Cave.
After spending some time touring the facility and playing a video baseball game, D’Annibale was invited outside to play a little Wiffle ball in the street. While he was taking some swings, an ice cream truck drove up and stopped in front of him.
Much to his surprise, out came then-Yankees star second baseman Robinson Cano, D’Annibale’s favorite player. Cano gave him a big hug and signed the back of the boy’s No. 24 Yankee jersey: “To Nic: God Bless. Your biggest fan, Robinson Cano #24.”
The two shared some ice cream, and Cano spent some time pitching to D’Annibale. The video of that moment has been viewed more than 112,000 times on YouTube.
“He said, ‘See you in the big leagues,’” D’Annibale said, smiling at the memory. “That whole day meant a lot to me.”
It’s not uncommon for freshmen to play key roles at Group 1 schools, and D’Annibale has earned his playing time. He’s a strong defensive player, and Clark was impressed by a catch he made in the first inning against Lyndhurst on a ball drifting away from him with two runners on base.
“I haven’t been around him long, but he’s amazing,” said Waldwick senior center fielder Mike Salmonese. “I love that kid. He went through all he went through, and now he’s a freshman on varsity. What’s better than that?”