Islander learns – and teaches – life lessons through sports
As head baseball coach for the last 11 years at Salve Regina University and head of Jamestown’s Cal Ripken baseball league, Steve Cirella knows that sports – whether it’s baseball, football or volleyball, college or Little League – are about much more than simply winning and losing on the field.
Instead, he said, sports are about personal growth, facing challenges and developing good values.
Although Cirella’s life has been one of many changes, the one constant has been sports.
His involvement with sports has allowed him to attend college on scholarship and form deep bonds with his own children.
Sports were also vital in his victory over depression and loneliness after a devastating injury.
In 1993, while working as the athletic director at Coventry High School, Cirella fell into a coverless manhole, fracturing his lower back. The injury forced him to retire in 1995.
He was 40 years old.
“It was devastating…I didn’t have anything to go to,” he said. “I was sitting around the house all day long. I didn’t have the patience to be a painter. I didn’t know how to bang nails. I was very depressed with nothing to look forward to. I’d walk four, five, six hours a day because I had nothing to do. They called me the walking man.”
In 1997, a friend threw him a lifeline.
Andy Andrade, at the time head baseball coach at Salve Regina, asked Cirella if he wanted to become an assistant coach at the college.
It was the beginning of his resurrection.
“I’m a people person. I like and enjoy meeting people,” Cirella said. “What keeps me [at Salve] is the fact of having something to do.”
It didn’t hurt that his son and his daughter were notable athletes at Salve Regina. “It is a family affair,” he said.
In fact, Cirella had the pleasure of coaching his son, Eric, an All-American player two years in a row, and an academic All- American.
“It’s great to be able to see my son play his college games,” he said.
Cirella describes himself as a tough coach, but compassionate.
“I put the pressure on them, but after the game, I’ll put my arm around them,” he said. “They don’t know what challenges are until they get out into the real world. I try to prepare them for that by teaching them good values and staying sharp.”
Cirella knew at an early age, during his years at Bishop Hendricken High School, that he wanted to be a teacher and a coach. After graduating from Hendricken in 1974, Cirella went to URI on a football scholarship. A neck injury in his senior year forced him to stop playing. Still, he earned a B.S. degree in physical education and health.
“There were 27 physical education graduates from URI at the time,” he said. “I was the only one to get a job.”
In the last 30 years, Cirella has held various positions. At Hendricken, he was head of the physical education department, as well as the assistant football and baseball coach. He was athletic director, head baseball coach and assistant football coach at Coventry High School. For the last three years, he has been head of Jamestown’s Cal Ripken league.
The local Cal Ripken league is much like Little League, but with slightly different rules. According to Cirella, typically, smaller communities like Jamestown take part in the Cal Ripken program because they can’t compete with towns like Lincoln and Cranston.
In fact, fielding enough teams to compete has always been a challenge in Jamestown.
The program is comprised of four categories: T-ball for ages four and five; the rookie league for ages 6 and 7; the minor league for ages 8 to 10 and the major league for ages 9 to 12.
To date, 38 kids have signed up to play, but Cirella would like to have around 175.
Through March 27, the cost of participating in the program, which includes uniforms, equipment and insurance, is $50. After that deadline, the cost goes up to $75. The season begins the last week of April and runs through the end of June.
“Even in today’s economy, we have not gone up. We’re still a great bargain,” said Cirella, adding that other towns charge up to $125.
If the cost of the program is too steep for some families, Cirella encourages them to sign up anyway.
“If the fee is a hardship for any family, we will absorb the cost,” he said. “People shouldn’t be afraid to say they need help. If there is a hardship, we’re not going to turn people away.”
Cirella is hoping for a strong turnout and a successful season, but change is on the horizon.
This spring will be his last as head of the Jamestown Cal Ripken league. Eric Bush will soon take over as president of the league.
“He’ll be a great president,” Cirella said. “I’ll help him. I won’t leave him stranded.”
Cirella is moving on, he said, because his 12-year-old son, Steven, will join the Babe Ruth league next year and Cirella wants to take part fully in that experience.
“It will be a treat to sit and watch him in the stands,” he said.