baseball ’Hawks’ Peterson has big dreams
When a young baseball player needs advice about hitting or fielding, he usually consults his coach or teammates. The player then tries to translate the advice to his own game, hoping to improve upon it in some way.
In the case of Todd Petersen, a shortstop at Newtown High School, his 6-foot-6 stature would mean the future at his position isn’t long. There are few people qualified to have an opinion on this subject.
But perhaps one of the best at the position to ever play the game? Well that’s a different story.
Petersen, now a senior, has experienced what most baseball junkies dream of during his lifetime. From running around Enron Field in Houston — when that was a thing — to taking batting practice on the same field — now dubbed Minute Maid Park — prior to this spring, Petersen has received next-level treatment during his baseball rise.
His father Chris remains best friends with Baseball Hall of Fame selection Jeff Bagwell; the two were teammates at the University of Hartford. Manchester High grad Chris was an All-New England selection in college and played at Fenway Park as part of a college All-Star Game.
When Bagwell was inducted to the Hall in 2017, Todd met Cal Ripken Jr. and the two had a long conversation. Ripken was one of several — including UConn coach Jim Penders, who got Petersen to commit there — who believed Petersen can thrive at the position in college.
“Who in their life gets to meet Cal Ripken? It’s crazy,” Todd said. “And not just meet him but have a 15 minute conversation about fielding. If I’m going to study and mold my game after someone, he’s probably the one to do it as one of the taller shortstops. He had a lot of good mechanical tips; it was all really good information you wouldn’t think about unless you’re a professional.”
Six-foot-six shortstops are a rare breed. Ripken Jr, also a Hall of Fame member, stands 6-4. With the average MLB shortstop standing 6-foot-1 per a 2017 analysis, most players of Petersen’s height are syphoned to the corners. Regardless of where he lines up in the field, Petersen’s bat speaks for itself. He entered the program as a freshman at about 6-foot-3 and was a first-team All-SWC selection last year. He’s upped his game so far in 2019, batting .458 while leading the team in RBIs.
“You can tell he was lankier in a good way, and he is stronger now,” Newtown coach Ian Thoesen said. “He has quick hands as a hitter and you can see his footwork in the infield. Everyone says: ‘Oh he’s 6-foot-6 at shortstop.’ I say no this kid has ridiculously quick feet, and he runs about a 6.6 60 (yard dash), too.”
He learned a thing or two from Bagwell, who was with the Petersens for about three hours while Todd and his younger brother Jack hit earlier this year. It’s not a bad launching point for what Todd hopes is a successful jump to the next level.
“Bagwell told them what makes a good hitter is controlling your thoughts in the batter’s box,” Chris said. “If you are yelling or screaming as a coach it’s not going to work. We’re similar because we had the same coaches.”
Aside from being around major leaguers from the time he was born, Todd had the best possible teacher at home. Chris was a three-sport (soccer, basketball and baseball, captaining all three) standout at Manchester; he was inducted to that school’s Hall of Fame in 1998.
Though he didn’t force Todd down a certain path — Todd played the same three sports growing up; he only gave up soccer in 2017 and played basketball through this winter — baseball was always going to win out given his early experiences.
Chris taught Todd and most of his Newtown classmates from a young age the same lessons he learned growing up near Hartford. Chris has been able to watch virtually all of Todd’s development from both the dugout and behind the fence.
“I think it was for different reasons,” Chris said. “I never thought I’d play Division-I baseball, but I did. In our generation a lot of the dads were gone working. All you did 24 hours a day was play. Todd always wanted to be a Division-I player and had that goal in mind. I had 6 kids in my family and only two went to college.”
Both carry a laid-back style, which prevents conflict; disagreements are few and far between.
“We’re a baseball family,” Todd said. “I’ve loved it since I was a little kid; that’s always been my thing. Without my dad pitching to me every day or taking ground balls; I owe everything to him, seriously.
“Knowing Bagwell is also very cool.”
In the age of AAU showcases and ridiculous travel schedules, Petersen represents somewhat of a throwback Division I player. He spent his entire baseball upbringing playing for Newtown’s Babe Ruth teams on the fields at Fairfield Hills, though the first time he stepped onto the big field a ball was introduced to his tooth, Chris said.
“That was always the thing with my dad being a baseball guy,” Todd said. “Everyone would say AAU, AAU at a young age, but my dad would say if you’re good they’ll come see you. I stayed with Babe Ruth; I loved playing with those guys. Why am I going to go to AAU if I love the guys I’m playing with? (College) coaches came to those games.”
He finally made the World Series — he was named MVP of the New England tourney — with his dad and best friends at 15U after losing in New Englands for five straight seasons. He was still on the college radar with the help of his best recruiting ally and will join a Huskies program that is consistently in the AAC hunt.
“We just played Babe Ruth and trusted the process,” Chris said. “There were three or four colleges that we were comfortable with, and the coaches came out to those games, which is unheard of.”
His play this year has helped the Nighthawks to an 11-1 start this year with big goals in mind. Newtown hasn’t reached a state final since 1985 and it’s almost been that long since the school has reached the semis. A 1-0 loss to eventual finalist Ridgefield in last year’s quarters capped a 21-7 season.
“A dream since freshman year is to get a state ring, and I think this is the first year we have a legitimate shot,” Petersen said. “Starting off this year 11-1 is great, we just have to keep it rolling.”