When it rains, it pours (Baseball that counts in the heart)
© Register Citizen 08/22/99 (Peter Wallace)
To play or not to play, that was the question Saturday morning, after it rained all night, the clouds were glaring and the forecast was for more. Understand, please, that a Tri-State Baseball League championship game is a very serious issue, in spite of the fact that the good ballplayers here are not playing for money, scholarships, or even a trip to some higher plateau. “We just want to play baseball” reiterate both of the coaches squaring off for the second game in the best-of-three series that Bethlehem leads 1-0 after a 3-2 win at Thomaston last Sunday. Ahhh, but that’s the very end of the agreement, because, for a nonpartisan fan (or maybe even a rabid one), it’s much more fun than that. They’re here to play hard-nosed baseball, but, by the time you’ve been around this 90 year old league as long as Bethlehem ‘s coach Gregg Hunt and Thomaston coach Dave Post have, you’ve come up with a grudge or two as well.
“We haven’t agreed on anything since I played for him in ’83-’84,” says Post. That’s when Post walked off to start his own Tri-State team in Thomaston – the Spoilers – and they’ve been playing there ever since. And disagreeing with Hunt and his Plowboys. On everything, including the weather, most significantly on Saturday morning, for a scheduled 1 p.m. start for Game 2 at Bethlehem ‘s Gallup Field. By 11 a.m., Post was grumbling that he didn’t think they should be playing. By 2:25 p.m., when the game was called for rain, he’d moved up, oh, maybe a bazzillion levels. “Coming out here to play today was the dumbest baseball move since the Red Sox traded Babe Ruth,” he said.
Coach Hunt: “If he had said at 9:30 a.m. that he didn’t want to play a playoff series game under iffy weather conditions, we’d have called it off right then. But he didn’t, so we spent two hours getting the field in shape so we could play.”
Isn’t this fun. In fact, the field was in excellent condition by 1 p.m. The puddles were gone, and the base paths looked better than some untouched by rain for weeks. “You made the right decision to take the field; it was playable,” plate umpire Jay Lameire said to Hunt. But, wait; this isn’t just a coach’s feud. Two of the Thomaston players were holding out at
1 p.m., when it was drizzling. Down one, with the threat of annihilation in one more game, they weren’t about to risk a slip in the rain. Lameire was firm: stick to those guns and you’ve lost the championship by forfeit. “Whether it’s us or Thomaston, these games are important to us,” said Hunt. So, the Thomaston Spoilers took the field, grousing about the Highway Department’s piles of sand and gravel just past the deep outfield, plus the old cars parked beyond right field. Oops. Don’t start about this field. “This field is a dedicated memorial,” says Hunt. In fact, it’s named for Gordon Gallup, a talented Bethlehem Babe Ruth ballplayer who was killed by a car in the early ’70s. Hunt is only warming up to the subject: “This is small-town baseball,” he starts. “It’s not a stadium, they’re fields. We used to play in Amenia (before Amenia Park was built), where it took a half-hour to go over ground rules. Before Lakeville switched to Hotchkiss’s playing field, there was a railroad tressle on one side of the outfield, and a playground in the other. In Thomaston, there’s a softball field that’s in play. On our field, the piles are in the same spot for both teams.”
And if you don’t love small-town baseball by now – even just for all of this – well, then, you never would have liked a good fistfight on the playground over the Dodgers and the Yankees, much less the mention of the Red Sox. These guys care, and they can play baseball. In the very first inning, once the game begins, “the piles” come into play. Thomaston goes down with only a spectacular deep, deep flyball off pitcher Chris Caron’s bat, and an even more spectacular catch of it by Bethlehem center fielder Keith Harkness. The first two Bethlehem Plowboys are out on a grounder and called strike three. Marc Damelio rockets a ball right over the Highway Department piles. Thomaston center fielder Kevin Campbell drifts after it, momentarily forgets that a ball that hits a pile is an automatic homer, but one that goes over is “only” all you can get. Damelio remembers; he’s motoring. Campbell remembers, rifles a major-league throw to Tim Hamel, the Spoiler shortstop, who wheels, fires to catcher Jim Mischke with Damelio only halfway down the third base line, intent on home. Aaah, a long spectacular third out. And you’d have missed it all, seeing that same play on television, not standing on the side of Gallup Field, with or without the rain.
To be a Plowboy, you have to do more than wear the uniform,” chuckles Gregg Hunt, from a deep store of Tri-State lore. “You can throw a ball at a real Plowboys head, and he’ll never move. We used to have a couple of guys who threw the ball back and forth at each other’s chests without a glove.” Ahem… rain, what rain? The weather controversy took some serious swings. It stopped drizzling in that first inning. Gregg Hunt smiled. In the top of the second, Thomaston’s Joe Deming singled Izzy Lugo home for the game’s first run. Did we mention that eight Thomaston residents play for Bethlehem? And that Thomaston’s catcher, second baseman, shortstop, third baseman and pitcher today are from Terryville? In the bottom of the second, it starts to rain. Bethlehem ‘s Jay Rocca and Brian Grabherr shoot off consecutive line drives up the middle and Kevin Pettit walks to load the bases. One of Bethlehem ‘s best hitters, Ben Power, from Torrington, is up, and the rain is back in force. “I didn’t want to take the bat out of their best hitter’s hands,” said umpire Lameire. “That wouldn’t have been fair to Gregg.” No matter what, Lameire was going to stop it after Power.
“Stevie Wonder could have seen that we were not going to get this game in,” said Post., who then relented that, with 12 years of high school umpiring under his own belt, Lameire had made all of the right calls. “If I get to the field and it was in that condition, we were going to play,” he said. The league, reputed to be the oldest organized league in Connecticut , has not had a president in two years. “We offered it to Dave, but he wouldn’t take it,” says Hunt. “I want to keep this league alive,” says Post. “It looks like there’s going to be no choice. I’ll probably end up doing it next year.” In the meantime, if you have any small town romance in your soul, or any love for real baseball, move into the sunshine, drive to Bethlehem…just behind the firehouse…and revel in a championship match that really counts. It the teams can agree, it will start at 1 p.m.