August 27, 2017, story and pics by Darren Clarke
Burger Park baseball field, Welland, circa early 1980’s . The scoreboard lights toast into the summer night displaying 21 runs for the Home team and 0 for the Visitors. Beneath the tall park lights I stand in right field sporting a green Thorold shirt, white baseball pants and a green hat with a foam front and mesh back. My position allows me a spectacular view of Spalding baseball after Spalding baseball soaring high into the night sky above me over the outfield fence into the darkness of the factories beyond.
The Welland team we were playing that night featured such prominent athletes as future NHL’ers Yvon Corriveau and Adam Creighton. My team featured a couple future members of the Thorold Volunteer Fire Department.
At 21-0 we were all pretty much waiting for the fifth inning and the Mercy Rule to be invoked when a beer bellied, wild eyed, drunken man, stumbling around down the left field line starting yelling at our team, “You are fucking terrible! Fucking horrible! You guys suck!”
Manning left field this night for us was Jeff Dawson. Jeff was a good ballplayer trapped on a bad team. I once witnessed Jeff strike out four hitters in an inning and, thanks to our catcher Ross, still only have two out. Jeff was also not one for suffering fools gladly or mincing words.
The drunk played on, “It’s twenty-one NOTHING! You are fucking terrible!”
Finally Jeff snapped, turning towards the drunk and yelling decisively, “WE KNOW!!!!”
I believe the score ended up 32-0 before the mercy rule ended the game. As intensely competitive as I could be I remember being in awe of the scale of this particular defeat. We lost so much that season that I had almost become a connoisseur of losing, an expert in the myriad of ways, both clear-cut and nuanced, to not win. That regular season we did not a single game. Not one.
So that’s the back drop for this story. A group of twelve to thirteen-year-old ballplayers representing Thorold that was collectively very bad at the game. But, while we weren’t very good, our baseball field, McMillan Park, was actually quite beautiful.
When I was a kid and I imagined heaven, I would whimsically dream of it being a never ending series of pickup baseball games all played at that field. McMillian Park has a gorgeous, immaculately maintained grass infield, the outfield ebbing into the distance in freshly cut waves. At that point in time the field was huge too. 350 Feet down the lines with the green frost fences running straight out to center field where the largest part of the ballpark measured 494 feet. In the early eighties McMillan Park still held an ancient wooden scoreboard that sat unused in left field becoming a spot for younger siblings forced by their parents to attend the games to sit. Behind the left field fence sat Thorold’s, “Big Pool,” an outdoor swimming pool which many of the players would use late at night after it was closed. Over the right field fence sat the back yards of the houses on Chapel Street. One of those yards often had a lovely young girl our age sunbathing in it and as such made playing right field (as I did) a wonderful thing. Beyond the marvel of sunbathing in right field was the fact that Lock 7 of the Welland Canal was essentially a little over a block away from the right field fence so quite often in the summer you could see the top of a ship gliding by the peaks of the homes and trees on Chapel (see the pictures attached to the article as I managed to get a few shots with a ship in the background).
As far as my team went it should be noted that Thorold was predominately an Italian town and thus largely a soccer town. We were the misfits, the lost, the stoned, the awkward, the estranged, the ten to eleven guys that would show up every game. But what a team it was. Pete Gentry was our coach. Mr. Gentry was a nice guy but he knew little about baseball. What we knew at the end of the season was exactly the knowledge we’d shown up for try outs with plus any observations we might have made on our own over the course of the summer.
Despite not winning a game all through the regular season we still made the playoffs. Everybody made the playoffs. Even better, our first-round matchup would be against a team that we had come close to beating a number of times- Pelham.
Before we get to the playoff series though allow me to introduce you to some more of my teammates.
Carlo was our centerfielder. Carlo was big, scary, a bit overweight, with a commotion of long wiry hair that fell well past his shoulders. There were many things that set Carlo apart from the rest of us but more than anything the fact he chose to wear a leather vest adorned with a Molly Hatchet patch over his polyester green THOROLD shirt certainly jumped out. Carlo wasn’t fast nor was he a particularly great fielder yet for some reason he was our centerfielder. I have a great memory of Carlo trying to steal second and employing a head first slide as he approached the bag. The problem was he ended up five feet short of the bag, his belly pressed in the dirt, his outstretched arms and legs hovering just above the infield as the second baseman walked over to tag him out.
We had two primary starting pitchers: Reggie and Donnie.
Reggie was skinny, had about seventy ear rings and sported thin, whitish-blonde, hair that fell well down his back. Reggie was late seventies, early eighties, cool, appearing entirely disinterested in anything beyond sex, drugs and rock’n roll. In the wake of the onset of puberty, as we struggled to figure out who we were and what we believed in, Reggie had an almost intimidating heir of decisive detachment. But pitching wasn’t something he was great at. Reggie started the bulk of our games that year and I bet his neck has never been the same since. Just that 32-0 game at Burger Park alone must cause him a tweak now and then on damp fall mornings.
Donnie loved to play the game. The only problem with Donnie was that he had peaked at age nine. If the world had stopped in 1976 Donnie would have been the premier baseball player of his age in Canada. But time moves on and Donnie’s velocity didn’t. Neither did the early break on his curveball.
In fairness to our pitchers the remainder of the team wasn’t giving them a lot of love.
Our shortstop continually told us that he was being scouted for a baseball scholarship by a University in Nova Scotia which was pretty much like saying you were being scouted for a frisbee scholarship by the University of Iceland. Our shortstop also had a significant playing glitch in that, while he could cover a respectable amount of ground and had a strong arm, once he got a ball it took him forever to throw it. After corralling a grounder our would-be scholarship recipient would perform a series of nervous taps of the ball in the palm of his glove before throwing it. You’ll see major league ball players similarly tap the ball in their glove to set before throwing when they know they have the time to do it and still get the out. But if they do it they only do it once. Our shortstop took it to another level in terms of how elongated each tap was and how many times he would do it. The equation was this: Routine ground ball, he corralls the ball in the webbing of his glove, begins his pivot and transfers the ball to his throwing hand, taps the ball in the palm of his glove once, steps, taps ball in his glove a second time, steps, taps ball in his glove a third time, steps, throws to first. Batter is safe.
Ross. Ross was ever enthusiastic, hyperactively so. Ross’s boundless enthusiasm at times manifested in collisions and stumbles of words but, having played hockey with him since the time we were six, I can tell you it mostly manifested in him putting his team offside on a regular basis. He was that kind of guy: Likeable and offside. He pitched once, at MacMillan Park, starting against the powerful Welland team. I caught for Ross while he warmed up before the game. Every pitch he threw was intended to be a curveball. After each slow, straight, attempted curve, Ross would excitedly ask me, “Did that move?” Me replying each time, “I think so.” Needless to say, it was a dangerous day to be sunbathing in a yard over the right field fence. Ross also had a brilliantly pretentious quirk that he applied to every plate appearance. It began with a dramatic entrance into the batter’s box, Ross holding his right hand up to call time. Ross would continue to hold his hand up as he took forever to methodically dig a deep hole in the dirt to plant his back foot in. We would all watch this from the dugout with varying degrees of amusement (I believe Jeff was more angered by it) and wait to see him unconsciously remove his foot from that hole once the pitch was in the process of being delivered. Ross never once took a pitch or swung at a pitch with his back foot in the hole he’d so meticulously dug.
Chuck was on our team. Chuck wasn’t a great player but he was a great guy, Chuck was the kind of great guy that is constant, timeless. You can’t help but know that Chuck was the same kind of great guy when he was three and he’ll still be that exact same kind of great guy when he is ninety-three. Unlikely as it was Chuck got the only hit off Yvon Corriveau and his legendary 80 miles-an-hour fastball that game where Ross’s would-be curveball got knocked all over and all out of McMillan Park (That same game the Welland team, in a show of dominance, in case we weren’t sure what our 32-0 loss weeks earlier indicated, pulled its’ outfield off the field and played a scoreless inning with just their infield). Chuck being on the team also meant that not only did we have a couple future Fire Fighters amongst us we also had a guy who would in the near future almost die outside a Billy Idol concert due to passing out drunk in a snowbank. Thankfully Chuck escaped dying of hypothermia and ended up with mere alcohol poisoning.
Barrington Williams. Barry was a bundle of energy with a baritone voice. He was strong, he was fast, he was raw, he was at times indifferent to order and rules. A favourite memory of Barry was a game in Merritton with Barry on first base, one out and Jeff Dawson at the plate. Jeff launched a pitch to right center that had Barry immediately burning up the base paths. The only problem was the center fielder managed to catch the ball near the fence while Barrington was about to round third base. Alerted by the third base coach that he had to get back Barry immediately chose the shortest distance between two points shortcutting the infield via the pitcher’s mound to get back to first. The umpires didn’t see a thing. The Merritton coach on the other hand did. I can still see the Merritton coach yelling and pointing at foot prints on the mound to no avail while we sat in the dugout trying not to make our amusement too obvious.
Justin. “J.” Nobody looked the part of the classic baseball player like J did. Great chin, athletic frame, a sublimely Mom, apple pie, and Easy Like Sunday Morning, countenance. But my friend J wasn’t much of a player. Looking like a player however meant that he usually batted fourth in the lineup and got to pitch on occasion despite consistently underwhelming results.
Mal Romanin. Mal has the easiest and most eager laugh in the room. He’s rooting for you. That’s Mal. In his usual intense way Jeff Dawson once said to Mal, “You should be running this team, you know more than Gentry.” And he was right. Mal, a huge Yankee fan who idolized Thurmon Munson, was our baseball nerd, our second baseman, and Mr. Gentry’s designated bunter. Mal was a ballplayer. To that point, Mal made the most beautiful play I’ve ever witnessed by a second baseman. He made it in the last rays of the sun setting on Merritton field one night while I was sitting on the bench keeping score. The ball was scorched along the ground just past our immobile, cement statue-like, first baseman, Monster, for what appeared to be an easy single. But a single it was not to be as Mal swiftly eclipsed the gaping hole between himself and Monster, gliding across the distance in the blink of an eye, skimming across the tangerine painted grass to gracefully handle the skip of the ball off the infield and quickly toss it to Monster (who likely would have been amazed if that was something he was inclined to do) for the out. Mal could also hit, but the evidence for that would be hard to find that season as Mr. Gentry concluded that Mal’s smallish stature meant a full season of bunt signs in much the same way Carlo’s leather vest seemed to equate to him playing center field every game he showed up to.
Runners on, nobody on, first inning, seventh inning, Mal got the bunt sign. Each time, every time.
There were also guys whose names and accomplishments I struggle to remember. We had a guy named Herb who looked like an adult. He grew into his 40-year-old with a wife, kids and mortgage, face real early. Herb didn’t get a hit one year. I swear. I remember one practice he crushed a ball down the third base line that was almost fair. We were shocked. I think remembering a 220-foot foul ball from batting practice 35-years ago in and of itself tells the tale.
And there was me. Tall and skinny I could run but struggled to steal bases. I could hit but was prone to slumps and losing confidence. I could cover a lot of ground to make a catch but I could also cover a lot of ground and not make a catch. I would also at times wear one running shoe and one cleat. I can’t remember why I did this now but remember that I had concocted some kind of silly rationale for it. I would often sing in the outfield doing my best to entertain my second baseman friend Mal. Old MacDonald had a farm was on high rotation that summer if I recall, “Old MacDonald had a farm e-i-e-i-Ohhhhhhhhh!” What I did best was pitch. I had a snap-crackle-pop fastball, a real tight, late breaking curve and screwball I learned watching Fernando Valenzuela provide a tutorial on This Week in Baseball. At his wedding, Mal mentioned in his speech that I was, “The best pitcher nobody ever saw.” That was because every year I showed up for try outs and said I wanted to pitch and every year I was told that maybe they’d look at me pitch later. They never did. I played the outfield and was given the steal sign every time I reached first even though I wasn’t great at stealing bases, Carlo Cecchini played centerfield in his leather vest even though he was one of our slowest guys, Reggie pitched even though he routinely got hammered, J batted cleanup even though he rarely hit and Mal bunted, even though he could actually hit. That was the natural order of things. Thus, I didn’t get to try out for pitcher. My pitching accomplishments, like Mal’s hitting accomplishments, would be limited to the glory that we found playing stickball against the back of the Prince of Whales school gymnasium wall all summer.
It bears mentioning that despite our eccentricities, our Island of Misfit Toys diversity, our lack of success, our team actually got along. Playing on this team was more resignation than angst. We were a bad baseball team void of any kind of leadership but we enjoyed playing the game, we enjoyed playing baseball and I think on some level we sensed our shared tendency to dance in the margins so to speak.
Finally, there was our manager, Mr. Gentry. Mostly I remember Mr. Gentry’s glasses which were rectangular with blue-ish lenses and I remember his one area of supreme focus and elaborate conception: Signs. As a team we struggled with the most basic of fundamentals yet we had the most elaborate set of coaching signs ever. Including a sign for the Triple Steal.
Back to the Playoffs.
Game One of the series was played in Pelham on a nameless, barely maintained, field well behind a local school. It was terrible. Pelham’s baseball field was a weed infested dirt infield surrounded by a bumpy, potholed, weed infested outfield. There was no outfield fence, rather at a certain point the weeds went from intermittent and ankle high, to being a chest level wall of unkempt, prickly, green. I wasn’t going in there for a ball, nobody was. But the lousy field wasn’t really our main problem for Game One as we surrendered a slim lead late in the game due to our usual combination of bad pitching and bad defence and lost.
My most vivid memory of the game was being at the plate and sneaking a look back at the catcher’s signals to see a classic one-index-finger fastball sign. I got myself geared up quick as the pitcher entered his delivery only to have him deliver an Eephus pitch (I’m assuming they were on to my sign stealing ways), a high arcing lob of a pitch that didn’t even have the distance to make it to the plate. Uncoiling for an expected fastball I was ridiculously ahead of the good-ship-lollipop delivery and ended up desperately tossing the aluminum bat at the ball which, while it managed to make contact, resulted only in a ground out to the second baseman. 4-3.
On to Game Two. Back to Thorold, back to beautiful McMillan Park. One game away from playoff elimination, one game away from a winless season.
It was a Saturday, it was the end of summer. It was end of August lamplight dusk and cool breezes that whispered forebodingly, “Back to School.”
For the moment though the summer held on. And so did we.
Our games were seven innings long. In Game Two we would endeavour to play our best game of the season with a shockingly respectable six and half innings allowing us to enter the bottom of the seventh tied. I lead off the bottom of the seventh and worked a walk. Following my walk Monster reached base on an error and our shortstop got on via another walk. Just like that the bases were loaded with none out. Just like that, after a whole summer of losing we were 90-feet away from winning our first game.
Mr. Gentry coached third base and began giving signs as Bobby Weir stood outside the box about to hit. In my Thorold uniform, baseball socks knee high, wearing a big, blue, well worn batting helmet that dwarfed my young head, I watched the signs with one cleat on the overly cushy, dirty white, third base bag.
Then it happened. The Triple Steal Sign.
I was immediately petrified. For a lot of reasons. First, I wasn’t sure why we would do this. There was nobody out, the bases were loaded and Bobby Weir was a decent hitter. Second, Bobby Weir was a right handed hitter meaning he’d have his back to me as I came home. Third, I was pretty sure Bobby wouldn’t recognize the Triple Steal sign which would mean potential danger for me should he swing at the next pitch.
Regardless of my concerns I would follow the direction, disobeying a coach wasn’t something I’d consider. I took a healthy lead.
The pitcher was right handed. He set then paused. The moment his front foot moved I was gone, bolting towards home.
I ran about half way home with my head down before looking up as I continued my sprint. Bobby Weir’s back was to me. Behind Bobby the catcher and umpire focused on the path of the incoming pitch. Then the worst case scenario happened: Bobby’s body began to coil preparing to swing. With my momentum propelling me towards home plate I panicked. Not only had Bobby not seen the sign he was about to violently swing his 32-ounce aluminum bat in the same location I was heading for. I tried to hold up but faltered into a stuttered brake which morphed into an awkward limbo like staccato slide that ended with me flat on my back in the grass less than ten feet from home plate.
Bobby Weir swung through the pitch.
The catcher quickly strode over to where I lay prone in the grass tagging me out.
We would not score a run that inning.
We would lose the game.
We would end the season winless.
In the wake of being tagged out I got up, took the big blue batting helmet off and walked back to the dugout. Loping down the dugout steps I looked at my friend Mal and asked, “Please tell me somebody else ran?”
Mal smiled the genuine smile of a man who had just witnessed a crescendo of fate, circumstance and abject failure that at its’ apex bloomed into something perfectly tragic, perfectly comedic, perfectly true, “No, just you. That’s what you get for being the only guy that knows the signs.”
(Overhead shot via Google Maps)