Many thanks to Peter Wallace (Register-Citizen) for his contribution to this write-up.
The Tri-State Baseball League is on the verge of its 77th season. “Good old-fashioned country baseball,” grins Gene McMahon every time he talks about his beloved Bethlehem Plowboys, a charter member of the 18-team league, spreading from Waterbury through Amenia, New York. Gene’s son Bob is a long-time Plowboy player, even though the McMahons’ roots are in Thomaston.
Look, this is good old-fashioned country baseball. For long-time resident athletes in Connecticut’s Northwest Corner and Dutchess County, New York, the roots, the lines, the feuds and the friendships are similar stuff to what they might be in the hills of Appalachia.
People don’t just play on these old fields; they love them; they honor them; they toil over them; they fight for them or find love on the other side just as we might imagine the love and allegiance to a certain hill or holler in east Tennessee. In the Northwest Corner, we could talk about such things as the pipeline from Thomaston to Bethlehem or the baseball family feuds and friendships that seem to go back through generations of players and coaches. Bristles rise or grins break out just at the mention of it sometimes. It’s good old-fashioned country baseball.
Chris Caron played here. He played for the Thomaston Spoilers, though he grew up in Terryville and lived in Bristol when he died late last month at age 40 — when they still hoped he’d come back to throw his fireball a few more innings in key spots. Chris played for Dave Post, who breeds and bristles at more feuds than anyone, who takes that ‘with me or against me’ attitude that makes you closer than you knew you could be to another guy, adopting you as a member of the family with him and Lucy.
This is good old-fashioned country baseball. You don’t know how to love baseball until you’ve grabbed your glove, had a beer, maybe come close to a fight with the best baseball players this area produces, some on the way up, some on the way down. They’re rooted to the league because they love to play baseball, they’re good at it and they live in an area that harks back to purer times.
Chris Caron was one of the best of those best. Everybody says so, especially Dave Post. “He came to me as a gangly kid in 1988; he was a dominating presence in 2003; he left me as a man,” Post mourns. “I learned how to be a person from him,” says Post, struggling, as we all do, for words to do justice to someone we love. For Post, it comes out in how great Caron was with children, how caring with his own two kids. The love flourishes because Chris Caron, Dave Post and several hundred other fans of Caron’s belong to the same fraternity, a fraternity that authorizes that feeling through good old-fashioned country baseball. “Why did he die? (A heart attack.) Because Opening Day was Sunday and God needed a good pitcher for his team. He got the best,” said Post.
Before Caron was a pitcher — a 6-4 masterpiece who threw in the mid 90s, so hard that veteran umpires preferred not to watch the plate on Caron day — before he was a monster pitcher, he was a monster hitter. He was the best — the league MVP in 1989, when the Spoilers were league champs. It’s an unspoken understanding in the fraternity: a man like Chris Caron represents everybody else in the league; he makes them proud to be his peer, to compete with him or against him. “We should have been watching him on TV,” says Post, musing at Caron’s talents as a centerfielder and a pitcher.
The story on that is Post’s: Caron lied about his age to go to a major league pitching tryout camp in 2002, where scouts troll for undiscovered talent. Caron got a call-back, then a call with an offer to report for AA ball. “If you’d called me 12 years ago, I’d have done it,” Post quotes then 32-year-old Caron saying. “I just wanted to know if I still had it.” He did; he always did. For his 16 fulltime years with the Spoilers as a centerfielder, his batting average was .355. On the mound, in six additional part-time years, he pitched a no-hitter as recently as 2007.
Now he’s gone. For all of us — this time for and with Chris Caron — it ends too soon. Post talked to ex-player Chris Caron about his own seemingly-impending death. Nobody expected that Caron, age 40, would go first. Nobody was hit harder than Dave and Lucy when it happened last month. For them, quite literally, it was a death in their family. For Dave Post, for hundreds of other guys who know how it feels to grab a glove on Thursday night or Sunday morning, to go out there to share magnificent efforts with those you’ve worked beside for years, there’s no replacing him. Now he’s one of the league’s legends instead. Those who treasure Tri-State’s baseball traditions can think of Chris Caron, then consider how lucky he was, and they are, to be on those fields where baseball — good old-fashioned country baseball — comes alive.
- Jay Lemere called his good friend and fellow umpire Rich Thomson to break the news of Chris Caron’s passing and they reminisced about the days of Chris on the mound. Jay stated “Do you remember all the times I got hit behind the plate by a Chris Caron pitch and it seemed like I always happen to be back there when Chris was pitching? Those black and blues would take weeks to go away.” Rich replied to Jay “I have a confession to make – you know how we always umpired a bunch of Tri-State games together – well; you weren’t back there by accident when Chris was pitching.”
Jim Mischke was a great catcher for Thomaston. Nothing got by him in the dirt, he had great hands, called a great game, and had a gun for an arm. But when Chris was pitching, he threw so hard and his ball had so much movement that a couple pitches per game would glance off the glove, get by the catcher and periodically nail the umpire.
Rich continued… “Whenever I saw that we were scheduled to umpire Thomaston, I would purposely leave the house early to get to the field first so that I could walk down to the dugouts just to see who was warming up in the bullpen for Thomaston. If it was Joe Deming then I would take the plate. Deming was a great pitcher with great stuff but he didn’t throw as hard as Caron. If Ed Gadomski was warming up, no problem, I got the plate. Gadomski would live and die with the slider. But if Chris Caron was warming up then I would turn and run, not walk, run back to my car and hurry to put my ‘field’ umpire uniform on (so I would be dressed to umpire the bases already) and sit and wait for you (Jay LeMere) to show up.”
When Jay pulled into the parking lot, Rich would get out of his car and say “Jay, big game today, they’re going to want you behind the plate”…
- Once a year it was grinder day for the Thomaston Spoilers. Chris’ parents would make home-made, foot-long grinders for everyone on the team and it was usually during an away game. These grinders had so much meat on them (with the works) that you could barely fit them into your mouth.
One year, grinder day happen to be at Fuessenich Park where the Spoilers of Thomaston played the Torrington Rebels. The Spoilers took a one run lead into the 9th inning and head coach Dave Post brought in Chris Caron to close out the game. Lou Fracasso was the home plate umpire. Chris was on fire that day and in typical Chris Caron fashion retired the side in order 1-2-3. Lights out. Game over. After the game, mom and dad Caron went up to the car and returned with two insulated coolers filled with grinders for the team.
We invited the umpires to join us for a grinder that day and they did. We were in a good mood and joking around while eating our victory grinders that we decided to tease Lou Fracasso a bit. “Lou, that 9th inning, it looked like you missed a couple of pitches.” Lou calmly put his grinder down, looked up at us and said, “I couldn’t even see the ball, (pause) he was throwing so hard that I couldn’t even see the ball.”
No player will ever-again wear Chris Caron’s #6 Jersey for the Thomaston Spoilers. His demeanor as a player and person constitutes it. Sure enough, from the day he passed away, it rained 6 consecutive days until the day of his funeral when the skies opened up and it was a beautiful day. We knew on that day that God had called Chris up to be the starting pitcher for his team in the Baseball Heaven League.
The Tri-State Baseball League will dedicate the 2010 season to the memory of Chris Caron and all games played opening day (May 16th) will hold a moment of silence just before the first pitch in Chris’ honor. In addition, Chris Caron will be inducted into the Tri-State Baseball League Hall-Of-Fame on Sunday June 6th at Doc Bartlett Field in Amenia, NY at 12 noon.