Copyright By Rick Wilson
Litchfield County Sports Magazine
The hawk knows. He was there in early spring, March of 2020. He was there the day tragedy invaded the Bunnell world. He is still there, a soothing balm over a wound that will never fully heal.
“(The hawk) is always there on the telephone wire, in a tree or near the house,” says Helen Bunnell with a teary smile. “He was around the house on the 23rd of this year. He is watching over us, making sure we do it right.” March 23rd. It has an enduring pain to it now for Rick and Helen Bunnell and so many others. The kind of pain that eats away at you and forces you to find a piece of yourself that you never wanted to have to go search for.
Joe Bunnell died that day. A son, brother, partner, friend. Animal lover, farm guy both with the family and with Arethusa, baseball player. At the age of 35. A give you the shirt off his back type of guy with a big smile. The guy who could coax a smile out of Scrooge and make liver and onions feel like a lobster feast. It was a tragic accident, crushed by a piece of farm equipment called a skid steer.There is no rhyme or reason here, no sense of fairness. No justification. No, “well he had a nice long run.” He didn’t. He was 35 freakin’ years old. Too much of the road to go. More to live and more smiles to give. It takes a toll.
“We were all at the hospital and when he died, I stormed out,” said his brother Coleby. “I didn’t know what to do. My body shut down. It was disbelief.” “I got a call from Coleby and my wife was with me,” remembers teammate Dan McCarty. “I thought it was about baseball. I broke down and cried. I dropped down to the floor in the living room.”
Fifteen months later, time has erased the immediacy of the pain but there is no cure for a love lost. The absence is always present, a palpable, immense sting. “It’s been hard, work keeps me going,” says Joe’s younger brother Coleby. “Joe was an incredible worker, he worked from 3 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. The work keeps me with him. We were best friends; he was at all my sporting events, and we hung out together.”
It always weighs heavily on you,” said McCarty. “Opening day (Tri-State baseball season) is just not the same without him. He was always there.” But if reminders bring the inevitable tears, they are also a way to stay close. You can’t hold a memory in your arms, but you can always keep the connections in the head and heart.
Joe and a group of his friends were into archery and every Thursday they would shoot in the Bunnell barn. Helen told the guys to come back after Joe’s death. So, on most Thursday nights, friends like Landon Gardella, Scott Gelormino, McCarty, Robert Lee and Bill Bongolatti keep the tradition going. “I look forward to Thursday nights,” says Helen combining a smile with the mist.
Joe was a mainstay in the Tri-State with the Tri-Town Trojans. He was original with the team, there at the beginning in 2005. A 2003 graduate of Litchfield High where he was a solid baseball player, the Trojans were a natural next step. A first baseman, Joe could play, but while you remember the baseball, it is the guy that sticks with you.
The guy that was the first to come and the last to leave. The guy who tried to dive through the latter ball and didn’t quite make it. You could talk about Joe’s first base skills, but even more fun was hoisting a beer with him and just talking about life. Smiles and memories through the baseball life. Coleby will always have this. “In the championship game in 2018, Casey McDonald got hurt and I went out to third base,” he remembered. “The last out was hit to me. I threw to Joe for the last out. The brother-to-brother connection.”
Tri-State is often called affectionally, “Good Old Country Baseball.” But Tri-State and Ed Gadomski are as much about people as they are about baseball. After the game shares equal time with the game. Gadomski and the league knew what was lost with Joe’s death. More than a good player but a good guy.
Opening day at Community Field in Litchfield on a warm Saturday in May was about Joe. Oh, they played baseball, but it was secondary. The Bunnell family was there with a passel of friends. Joe was inducted into the Tri-State Hall of Fame, 10 balloons (Joe’s number) were released, all the family threw out ceremonial pitches. In one classy act, opposing team, Blasius Chevrolet all wore jerseys with Bunnell and his No. 10 on the back. When the Trojans ran out to the field, they left first base empty. It was a painfully great day.
“The outpouring of support has been unbelievable,” said mom Helen basking in what has been, struggling with what has transpired. “The continuing support shows how good people are.” “It’s been hard,” said dad Rick his voice breaking. “Friends and family have gotten us through this.” Covid-19 prevented any kind of celebration of Joe’s life last season. Many of the Trojans played in the Connecticut Twilight League instead. The camaraderie was helpful – “It was good to be together, most of our guys had never played without Joe,’ said McCarty.
But there was also the frustration of not being able to do something for Joe right away. The Tri-State ceremony with time having eased some of the right-away pain allowed for equal smiles with the tears. Tears and smiles. Tears for what has been lost and what won’t be. Smiles for what was and an enduring love. Nobody can tell you that 35 years was a long run. But everybody will tell you this 35 years, Joe Bunnell’s 35 years was a great run. Indisputable.
Gone but never forgotten. You made your mark Joe.