As writers of high school and amateur baseball, we connect with players ever so briefly and often never see them or hear from them again. They make their impressions and get on with their lives.
In June of 2012, this writer interviewed a mature-for-his-age senior third baseman for a Don Bosco Prep team just a couple days shy of playing in an NJSIAA state final.
That state final against a powerhouse Gloucester Catholic team would not go Don Bosco’s or the third baseman’s way. Grant Van Orden remembers it this way, “They scored a lot and we scored a little. You really want to rehash that?” Van Orden chooses to cherish a game earlier that season in which he and his Ironmen teammates defeated the Rams on a walk-off home run by Joey Purritano, who would have a terrific career at Dartmouth.
“I’ll never forget it,” said Van Orden, who went on to experience some bigger things, such as four years at West Point and the prescribed service requirement after graduation. Hold on. Van Orden wants to get back to baseball.
“You can still watch highlights of that game,” he said. “I had a bunt that was the best of my life. I got on first base then Joey hit that home run.” The game was played at the home of the Rockland (N.Y.) Boulders and, if memory serves me correctly, there were inning-by-inning updates via multiple media sources during the game. The crowd was literally on the edge of its seat throughout the state.
“It was so wild,” said Van Orden. “I will forever remember that game being the most fun I’ve had with my friends. Everyone on that team was so stellar. I remember some regular guys doing some big things that season.”
Van Orden is one of those regular guys, just with an array of talent that had him earmarked for success early.
It is refreshing to chat about a game that was played 10 years ago while its details remain fresh for those who played in it and watched it. “I’ve done some crazy stuff in my life, but playing games like that with my friends was some of the most fun I’ve had,” said Van Orden.
Van Orden has a much different perspective about life now at the age of 29, having already completed the active part of his career in the military, gotten married and is thoroughly enjoying his new status as the father of a baby girl named Kennedy Grace who just turned four months old on Tuesday.
As a matter of high school baseball perspective, 2012 was Mike Rooney’s first year as head coach of Don Bosco Prep. He didn’t win a state title in 2012 and his 2015 team fell to Christian Brothers Academy in the Non-Public A state final. But Rooney, as respected as they come in the Garden State high school coaching ranks, did get his first state title this year as the Ironmen defeated St. Augustine Prep, 5-0, in the Non Public-A state final on June 15.
“If I could play for Mike Rooney every year, I’d still be playing,” said Van Orden.
The influences and the memories do tend to stick.
“I look back at the articles from back then and the interviews I did,” said Van Orden, “and it’s funny to read the quotes from me in high school. You are still immature at 17-18.”
But Van Orden came off as anything but immature. The story published in The Star-Ledger (see below), recalled Van Orden’s memory of September 11, 2001 and how he never truly let it go. He was eight years old on that horrific day but he kept going back to footage of the attack on our country as he got older.
“Watching people jump from the buildings shocked me,” he said in 2012. “It lit something up inside my head. I wanted to help people. I realized at that point I wanted to be in the military.”
Van Orden says, now in 2022, “That stuck with me. Looking back, I’m amazed by the honesty that came out of me when I was that young. It all rings true today. My entire military career was shaped by what happened that day.”
Less than a month after Don Bosco’s loss to Gloucester Catholic in the 2012 state final, Van Orden was at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., his childhood dream in full bloom.
But as much as Van Orden was driven toward a military career, baseball was still very much in his blood and he would continue to play it with joy at Army. “It was a blast,” he said. “We went to regionals my freshman year after winning the Patriot League.” He was a starter both his freshman and sophomore seasons, first at third base, then second base after a shoulder injury.
But the carousel of head coaches Van Orden played through would eventually wear on him.
“From my freshman year at Don Bosco Prep to my junior year at West Point, I played for six different head coaches,” said Van Orden. “I played fall ball my junior year and I just stopped having fun and my focus changed toward my military career.”
That wasn’t exactly a negative, considering the heights he would reach as an Army captain and the absolute joy that remains in his heart about his baseball experience. Van Orden left baseball behind at a time he was ready to fully embrace a military career that was quickly becoming a reality.
“Academics are critical at West Point because your class rank determines your choice of post and branch of the military,” said Van Orden. “So, I focused more on academics so I could get what I wanted. And I did. It was easy to adapt my lifestyle to what was going to be my future.”
Van Orden admits, though, there was a lot of self doubt during those first two years at West Point, which, obvious to say, was a much different college experience than his Bosco teammates were having.
“If you talk to my wife or parents, they will tell you there were open conversations about my struggles,” he said. “It wasn’t too hard, it was just a different norm. I had to adjust to that. It just took me two years to be comfortable in situations I was put in. There was never a doubt I could make it through. It was me being a little immature and unwilling to sacrifice and make something of myself.”
Van Orden graduated from West Point as a Second Lieutenant. “Basically as you serve your time, you get promoted. The top whatever percent gets promoted.” Following the completion of Air Assault School, he attended Army Ranger School.
He would spend much of his career at Fort Campbell, which sits on the Kentucky/Tennessee border. “I was with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) my entire career,” he said. “The 101st is a high-speed unit. I didn’t get to do anything too crazy. Prior to that I was stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, training to become an infantry officer.”
His Battalion (2-327IN) is known as “No Slack” for its history in Vietnam.
Army captains have varied responsibilities depending on their assignment, but, generally speaking, captains may work as staff officers at the Battalion level or command company-sized units (62-190 soldiers).
Van Orden finished his five-year active duty tour at Fort Campbell from 2017 to 2020. “Fort Campbell is an hour outside of Nashville,” he said, where he has chosen to settle with his wife, Kate, and baby girl.
His ability to hit with runners in scoring position or to snare a hot grounder may not return the dividends it used to for Van Orden, but the team-first experience he had with his Don Bosco boys certainly continues to do so. And all those years of leadership experience in the military has, understandably, proved an attraction to employers.
His latest career turn is as a Program Manager at Amazon.
“It’s been a pretty good transition from the Army,” Van Orden says. “I worked in Amazon operations for a year and a half, but I wanted to pursue a corporate role. Any transition from military to corporate life can be difficult. But, I think, going from an operational role to a corporate role made it easier for me. I was always in operational mode in the Army.”
Van Orden’s first role at Amazon was in operations at Sort Center BNA5. “I used a radio, which I was used to from the Army. It was basically Army OPS. My brain is wired a little bit differently, so it worked for me.” He later advanced to the corporate role as a program manager at BNA12.
What is working for Van Orden, more than anything else 10 years removed from his days with that closely knit Ironmen’s team, is his family. He and Kate met at the Jersey Shore his freshman year at West Point with an assist from his childhood buddy Alex Nickles, a baseball player, too, but at Ramapo High. Grant and Kate married in 2019 and three years later, baby made three.
“I’ve never been happier,” he says. “A baby brings you back down to earth.” Grant grew up the youngest of three boys (in Wyckoff, N.J.), so a baby girl is certainly an eye opener for him.
And now, removed from his active military career and several years since he’s done little else in regard to baseball, other than to reminisce, Van Orden finds himself in a coaching role.
“I’ve started giving hitting lessons for the 12 year-old daughter of a friend,” he said. “I enjoy it. It’s nice to get back in the swing of it. I’m starting to remember what I forgot in baseball. I learned a lot more about baseball than I can remember. I got a bit out of touch. Every coach and player wishes he can play baseball again.”
Baseball and softball runs through the Van Orden family like blood through a vein. Kate Van Orden, nee Kate Perrine, pitched for West Windsor North in high school (2012) and Lafayette College. She gives pitching lessons in softball.
Coaching, or should we say being coached, is where it began for Van Orden, in a sense.
“The majority of the people we were surrounded by during my senior year at Bosco were strong people,” said Van Orden. “Our coaches at Bosco are incredible men, coach (Mike) Rooney, (Jim) Wladyka, (Lou) DiChiaro and (Mike) Dwyer. You can say the military is selfless service, but so is coaching. Our coaches literally did anything they could for us.”
Van Orden’s eyes and ears sure seem tuned in again to the sights and sounds of baseball. As the phone interview progressed he mentioned, “I can hear the crack of the bat in the background there,” he said about the cage work in progress at Diamond Nation just below the writer’s office.
“The success we had as younger kids translates to us as older men,” says Van Orden. “Our high school coaches were a lot of really good dudes. If not, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. They were people who willingly made sacrifices for me. I hope I made them proud.”
He has. In fact, Van Orden reached out to Rooney a couple weeks ago when he realized he needed some hitting resources and drills.
“We knew Grant was one of our leaders from our first team meeting,” says Rooney. “Mike Dwyer and I met the players and asked them what they thought the meaning of our motto was. Grant was the only one to raise his hand and he nailed it.”
That motto, “A standard higher than that of victory,” has remained Don Bosco baseball’s rudder in every storm. “We’ve kept it since the first day Mike and I arrived,” said Rooney. Dwyer and Wladyka remain on the Don Bosco staff 10 years later. DiChiaro retired then returned to the trade to join Tim Byron on the Old Tappan staff. All that staff did last spring was roll to a 26-5 record and win the Bergen County Tournament championship.
“Our coaches are good role models for young men and good baseball people,” said Rooney, whose staff has remained connected to Van Orden over the years. “We like to stay in touch. Grant is a character and a good guy.”
Wladyka, who runs one of the outstanding travel ball clubs in the Garden State, Wladyka Baseball, recalls very well the impact Van Orden made as a ball player and a leader on that outstanding 2012 Don Bosco Prep team.
“Grant rose to the occasion,” said Wladyka. “Mike (Rooney) did an incredible job creating a culture in his first year and he knew he needed Grant on his side if we were going to win.
“Grant exemplifies leadership. He was mature beyond his years as a high school athlete. I was only about 27 myself, so I didn’t fully appreciate then how mature he actually was at that age. What jumps out at you was that he was truly mentally tough. He knew what he wanted in life at that point, too, and it was to serve his country.”
It would be hard to find a better teammate or fellow soldier than Grant Van Orden.
NOTES: Van Orden played for head coaches Greg Butler, former Yankees reliever Mike Stanton, Mark DeMenna and Rooney during his four years at Don Bosco Prep, not to mention two more head coaches at Army in his two-plus years on the Army baseball team.
… Butler was the Don Bosco Prep coach in 2008 and ‘09. Butler’s 2008 team was 33-0 and No. 1 in both New Jersey and the nation. Butler left after being named the athletic director at Northern Valley Demarest in 2008, beginning a 13-year reign that lasted until his retirement in 2021. Stanton and DiMenna each coached a single season at Don Bosco before Rooney began his, thus far, 11-year stint.