Last year wasn’t the easiest for Tony Sammartano.
In February, his father passed away at age 82. Just months later, he publicly announced that after 15 years of volunteering, he was stepping down as president of Riverhead Little League. At the time, though, it wasn’t entirely clear who — if anyone — would fill his shoes.
After a few more months, the Waldbaum’s grocery store on Route 58, where he’d worked for 33 years, closed. Mr. Sammartano was left commuting to Howard Beach, Queens, to keep a job with the company. His family moved from Riverhead to Commack.
“I hope next year’s a lot better,” he said recently.
By the end of 2015, at least, things had started to turn around. Someone stepped up to fill his longtime volunteer position as Riverhead Little League president. He found a new job in West Islip and his family started settling into its new home.
“With everything going on with the move, and losing my job, that was a welcome breath of fresh air,” said Mr. Sammartano.
When he announced that he and his wife, Jennifer, would step down from the Little League board of directors, the board was already pencil-thin. Half of the positions were full — or half empty, depending on how you look at it — and with the Sammartanos’ resignations, it was going to be even thinner.
But the couple had given their fair share of time and, after close to 15 years as president, Mr. Sammartano decided it was time to take a step away from the game. While nearby leagues had folded in recent years — Flanders merged into Riverhead Little League, while Shoreham-Wading River joined North Shore Little League out of Rocky Point — Mr. Sammartano ran one that was able to stay on its own two feet, bringing the game to hundreds upon hundreds of kids during his tenure with the organization.
For his years of selfless volunteer leadership, Mr. Sammartano is the Riverhead News-Review’s Community Leader of the Year.
“It’s very hard to have the courage to step up and run something,” said Scott Wicklund, the league’s new president. “People have such an emotional tie to the league, if you make a mistake or enrollment drops — you’re messing with an institution.”
Mr. Wicklund, a Riverhead police officer, said he had a good idea that he might replace Mr. Sammartano when the resignation was first announced. The board now boasts eight members — the most it has seen in years.
Joe Cuccia, along with his wife, Sheila, had stepped down two years ago from the board after serving for eight years.
“I know last year, Tony ran that league with a skeleton crew,” Mr. Cuccia said. “When we left, he had a tough time getting people to fill in and now, they actually have more board members then they’ve probably had in the past four to five years.”
Mr. Cuccia, who runs The Cage indoor baseball facility on Osborn Avenue in Riverhead, said Mr. Sammartano typically had the next year planned out not long after each season ended. Organization had to be key, he said.
“I can honestly say, if you don’t love the game of baseball and kids, that being the league president is not for you,” he said.
“He was 100 percent for the kids. That’s the best way to describe Tony. And he always preached that Little League is more than just baseball. It’s a community event and a life lesson.”
Photo caption: Tony Sammartano spent 15 years serving as president of Riverhead Little League. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)
*The award was previously called Civic Person of the Year
2014: Thelma Booker
2013: Vince Taldone
2012: Georgette Keller
2011: Nancy Swett
2010: Rich Podlas and Chuck Thomas
2009: Tom Gahan
2008: Keith Lewin
2007: Open Arms and Bread & More Inn
2006: Mike Brewer
2005: Sid Bail
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2003: Jill Lewis
2002: Chrissy Prete
2001: Joe & Gloria Ingegno
2000: George Klopfer & Lt. Col. Anthony Cristiano
1999: Louise Wilkinson
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1989: Betty Brown
1988: Paul Baker