Written by Dave Gil de Rubio Friday, 27 July 2012 00:00
On April 21, Bentley University swept a doubleheader against Southern New Hampshire (SNH), a Division II rival ranked sixth in the nation. The sweep was kicked off by a 3-1 win in the opener. Leading the way was Garden City High School alum, Rob Finneran, who went the distance in throwing a three-hitter with 13 strikeouts and one walk. In addition to nailing the win for Bentley and falling one strikeout short of tying the university record, Finneran arguably threw the best game of his college career. His timing couldn’t have been better as Tampa Bay Rays scout Tim Alexander was in the stands alongside a rival from the New York Yankees who came to check out the strapping, 6’3” righthander. By the end of the 2012 Major League Baseball Baseball draft on June 6, the Rays had picked up the Queens native in the 37th round. While the execution of his three-hitter couldn’t have been better timed, the road to Finneran’s ascension from amateur to professional athlete was a long and difficult one fueled by steely-eyed determination, sacrifice and hard work.
Rob Finneran started out life in the Queens blue-collar neighborhood of Middle Village, the middle child between older brother Brian, Jr. and younger sister Michelle. Sports was always a constant in the Finneran household as parents Brian and Dolores passed on their rabid devotion to the Yankees to their children while the former played basketball and baseball at Newtown High School in Elmhurst.
“I played basketball for three years and I only played baseball as a senior, when I went back to it. Omar Minaya, who was later the Mets GM, was the catcher and he was a freshman,” recalled the elder Finneran. “[He was] an outstanding freshman catcher and I was already by that time an over-the-hill senior pitcher.”
It was in this environment that the Finneran offspring grew up, playing baseball, basketball and roller hockey depending on the season. And with Rob being the younger brother, he wound up developing his athletic skills at a faster rate by virtue of his having to compete against older and stronger kids. Early on, baseball started out being Finneran’s first love, as evidenced by a photo of a three-year-old Rob posing with a wiffleball bat that his mother loves to show guests.
“[I’ve been playing ball] as long as I can remember,” he explained. “When I was really little, I always had a bat in my hand and was wearing a glove, playing with my brother in front of the house in Queens.”
Up until Finneran moved to Garden City when he was in sixth grade, he was involved with all the major baseball leagues/travel teams/programs in Queens—RGMV (Ridgewood-Glendale-Middle Village) Little League, the Midville Dodgers and Jack Curran Camps. It was these experiences that helped Rob experience plenty of success in his early teens that included winning a CYO championship in fourth grade. The good fortune followed Finneran when he moved out to Long Island.
Seemingly without missing a beat, Finneran continued with his winning ways.
“Our good friend Tony DiMasso, coached Rob on a 12-year-old Little League Garden City tournament team,” explained Brian Finneran. “He wasn’t his regular coach. They lost their first game of the tournament, so they went into a losers elimination bracket and they won nine in a row to win the district and the guy Rob beat was his travel team coach for that year. It was a typical Little League experience and you had a great time.”
But it was Finneran’s time playing under Garden City High School baseball coach Richie Smith who sped up his baseball evolution, something he readily admits to.
“[Playing at Garden City High School] was huge” Finneran admitted. “It helped me develop as a player and it was a lot of fun. You always look back at it with your friends. The teams we were on and the players that we had. We had a great team. It was a ton of fun and we only got better.”
With older brother Brian catching for the team, the younger sibling was on the radar but it wasn’t until his junior year that he caught the eye of Coach Smith. The timing couldn’t have been better as he wound up further beefing up a rotation that boasted the talents of Mike Petiton and Joe Cesarini, back-to-back winners of the Diamond Award, given to the outstanding high school pitcher in Nassau County. While Finneran may have been overshadowed by this higher-profile teammates, he played a crucial role that year, a fact Coach Smith is quick to point out.
“He meant the County Championship to us because we had two legitimate rotation pitchers, but to go where we went that year, you need a third pitcher in your rotation. And that’s what he gave us,” Smith said. “Back then, you played a three-game series against a team. To put him on the mound on a Thursday in the third game of the series, in our opinion was a mismatch, many times in our favor because most teams didn’t have this kind of a kid sitting in the third spot.”
And while Finneran helped anchor the rotation, his contributions as a power-hitting position player who could hit for average also made him a valuable commodity to his team. That, along with a dogged work ethic and unrelenting competitive streak that would serve him well later on.
“You just saw that he had something in him that would allow him to accomplish what he did,” Coach Smith proudly explained. “A quiet kid and a coachable kid; he would listen to you. He was a competitive kid. When he put the uniform on, you had to come to beat him because he was coming to beat you.”
Despite Finneran’s success at Garden City High School, his college choices were limited despite the fact that he was an imposing righthander whose hitting skills, defensive abilities and pitching acumen were top-notch. Schools either ended up being a good academic fit but poor baseball match (St. John’s), willing to politely handle inquiries but not do much more (Quinnipiac, Sacred Heart) or being flat-out disinterested (Hofstra). It was at Massachusetts business school Bentley University that Finneran found a perfect pairing of sport and academics.
“I liked the school, met the coaches there and thought they were great guys. It was the best combination of school and baseball based on the interest that I was getting,” he recalled. “I was actually in contact with a lot of other schools beforehand but I didn’t get any Division I scholarships. I was told that I could have played at Siena and schools like that, but I think Bentley was the best mix of school and athletics for me.”
His remaining cognizant of the need for a good education while trying to play college ball was what his parents were pulling for. The importance of getting a good education translated to Finneran skipping baseball in his freshman year to focus on getting acclimated to a college workload before returning to the diamond the following year. But after being converted to becoming a full-time pitcher and honing his baseball skills acutely during his sophomore and junior years, all those years of playing finally caught up to Finneran, who wound up getting Tommy John surgery and a subsequent 18 months of rehab staring him in the face.
“I went to the doctor I ended up getting operated on [who] said my elbow was completely clean. There was no tear or anything. The problems were stemming from my shoulder and mechanical issues,” Finneran explained. “So I had to do a ton of rehab before I even went to school and even then, it was still hurting. It was tough to try and throw through it. I tried doing that for a month and then I just stopped [before undergoing surgery].”
For the year-and-a-half that followed, the Garden City resident worked hard at returning to baseball, eventually enrolling in Bentley’s highly vaunted graduate school, taking his studies as seriously as his rehab. It’s a character trait that greatly impressed his Bentley coach, Bob DeFelice.
“He got into graduate school and was a little bit overwhelmed academically. He wasn’t a kid who went to graduate school so he could play, which tells you something about him,” DeFelice proudly said. “He would miss games in the middle of the week so he wouldn’t miss class, which we could have excused him for. He made a commitment to go to school, which speaks volumes. I can’t say enough about that. Most people will talk about how he rehabbed, pitched, signed and went [into the Tampa Bay minor league system]. There’s a lot more to this kid than all that stuff, which is why we’re so thrilled. So the day he signed, we all here said what a great story he was. He worked so hard for something and it worked out and he got his chance, and that’s what it all came down to.”
Impressed by his work ethic, athletic gifts, competitive drive and good-natured humility, Finneran’s Bentley coaches made a full-court press to get him a shot at getting a minor-league contract. Finneran’s impressive college accomplishments and awards went a long way towards helping them make their case. Not only does Finneran own the school records for ERA (2.92), winning percentage (19-8, .704) and strikeouts (216), but he’d also been named a 2009 second-team All-Conference honoree and a 2010 third-team All-NE-10 pick. All that on top of being named Pitcher of the Week in the Northeast-10 Conference after hurling that three-hitter against Southern New Hampshire in April.
With a number of teams showing interest in Finneran, the last two clubs left standing were the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays, both of which had scouts attending the aforementioned SNH game. Tim Alexander was Tampa’s representative, who couldn’t help but be impressed with what he saw that day.
“You have some certain level of expectations based on the background work you’ve done on an individual along with information that you’ve gathered from colleagues. Then when the kid throws a little bit better than your expectations, you’re pleasantly surprised, which doesn’t happen very often,” Alexander admitted. “Most of the time it’s the opposite way. He showed very good fastball command, his changeup was very good and he was pitching against the best team in the league and I think he had double-digit punchouts. He pitched pretty well, so he’s given himself a chance.”
With Finneran signed to the Hudson Valley Renegades, the Rays’ Short-Season A affiliate in the New York-Penn League, the challenges he faces are only starting to mount in an environment that is formidable at best.
“The speed of the game changes and it’s not just the pace of it. You can’t relax as much; it’s not like facing the number nine hitter in the Northeast 10. It’s facing the number nine hitter who is extremely athletic in the New York-Penn League or any professional club,” the scout pointed out. “There’s just a huge adjustment in the speed of the game and better hitters to face. He’s going to have to make adjustments on how he pitches guys and he’ll recognize weaknesses.”
As for his Finneran’s ability to adapt, the Tampa Bay exec is quietly optimistic.
“There are some kids that can’t make the adjustment. Rob is a very smart and intelligent kid. I give him every chance in the world to make those adjustments. But [I guess] we’ll find that out."