The Perfect Summer

Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Robin Roberts and Richie Ashburn all had their respective weekends in Cooperstown, N.Y., when they were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

South Philadelphia’s Vito Cianci recently made his own bid for induction into the Hall by pitching a perfect game in the Cooperstown Baseball World 15-year-old national tournament from July 20-28.

The player, from the 2200 block of South Ninth Street, pitched the opening game for his Delaware Valley Baseball Club Vipers without a flaw. That’s zero hits, zero runs, zero walks, zero errors.

The St. John Neumann High junior said he approached the game against the Boston Bulldogs just like he would a regular match. By the fourth inning, however, the pitcher realized he had something special going, and no longer treated it like a normal game.

"I sat by myself after the fourth inning," Cianci said.

When the Vipers were batting, the entire team became superstitious about where they sat.

"We were basically afraid to say anything," recalled Sue Finkel, a team mom and assistant coach. "We thought it would bring bad luck. We all sat in the same seats."

Being the team mom, Finkel made sure Cianci knew his whole team was supporting his effort with flawless defense.

"When we were sitting on the bench, I said to him, ‘Don’t worry, you have everybody working behind you,’" she said.

Once the Vipers secured the victory, the silence turned into total chaos, and Cianci became the center of hugs, kisses and handshakes. The baseball from that game will never be pitched again, as the local athlete packed it in his suitcase.

"I am going to put it in a case and keep it forever," he said.

Cianci is an original member of the 15-and-under team that formed five years ago. The squad plays in weekend tournaments throughout the summer, with a trip to Cooperstown usually being the highlight.

The 13 players on this year’s team hailed from South and Southwest Philly, Center City and Atlantic City, N.J. Finkel started the team with head coach Tom Kleinman.

"We started it to give kids a chance to play something other than Little League baseball and travel," said the team mom.

Through their trips to Minnesota, Virginia, Baltimore and around Pennsylvania, the Vipers have grown together like a family. Finkel is one of the people with whom Cianci, 15, has developed a close relationship.

"She takes care of us kids on the team," he said. "She is always there when we need her."

Being there includes raising money for team trips. The Vipers had to collect $500 for each of the 13 players for the Cooperstown Tournament. The price included lodging and food at SUNY Oneonta, the home field for the tournament.

The Vipers, who play their home games at FDR Park’s Richie Ashburn Fields, finished second overall in the 10-team tournament. Their previous best came last summer when they finished third. Each of the teams opened the tournament with a five-game schedule against the other squads in their division. The Vipers finished first at 4-0-1 — the tie was a result of a time limit — and earned the top seed for the playoffs.

Cianci, who also plays second base, once again came up big in the playoffs with a one-hitter against the Hitmen. This time around, the high-school varsity prospect had a no-hitter going into the seventh inning, but with one out he surrendered a bloop single.

"I wanted to [pitch a perfect game] again," Cianci said. "I felt dominant."

The one-hit gem was still enough to help the Vipers reach the championship game, where they ended up losing to the North Carolina Sabres. The 5-foot-7 Cianci, who batted .571 with 15 RBI, credited the second-place finish to teamwork. "When you play as one, it’s easier to win."

The teen athlete is talking from experience, having spent most of his youth playing summer baseball with the Delaware Valley Youth Athletic Association. He made the all-star teams for his age group and eventually got recruited to play for the Vipers.

His father, Mike Cianci, is one of his biggest supporters, but allowed his son to make his own decision to play.

"I never force my kids to do anything," Mike said. "I am going to back you whether it’s sewing or whatever you are going to do."

These days, Cianci is very serious about making Neumann’s varsity baseball team. He practiced with the squad in his sophomore year but didn’t see any playing time.

Instead of sitting him on the bench, Neumann coach Gaeton Lucibello sent his future second baseman down to junior varsity so he could be an everyday player. Cianci said he was upset at first, but decided to make the best of the situation.

"I wanted to play varsity because I practiced with them the whole time," he recalled. "[But] I’d rather get playing time than sit on the bench and watch."

The varsity prospect now has even more momentum from his summer performance. The Neumann Pirates usually start off-season conditioning in the fall and spend time working out with John Marzano at his South Philadelphia academy. Cianci said training with the former Major League catcher was a worthwhile experience.

"He is a real good teacher," the junior said. "He would show you what you were doing wrong, and he wouldn’t give up until you were real good at it."

Lucibello said he’s confident Cianci’s recent performance in Cooperstown will carry over when the Pirates start their speed and agility drills.

"The experience can do nothing but help him," the Neumann coach said.

Lucibello is expecting Cianci to compete for the starting job at second base this season. But as for Phillies star-prospect Marlon Byrd, the timing has to be right.

"I eventually see him playing second base at Neumann in the future," the coach said. "All I ask is that they give 110 percent all the time, and he does."

And the dream doesn’t end there. Cianci wants to earn a Division I baseball scholarship and ultimately play professionally.

"Ever since I was a little kid, I dreamed about being a professional baseball player," he said.

Playing second base for the Seattle Mariners — his favorite team — isn’t going to be enough. This prospect wants to win it all.

"I always dreamed of coming up in the majors and helping a team win the World Series," Cianci said.

Then his life, like his game at Cooperstown, would be perfect.