© Peter Wallace – Register Citizen, 8/28/2007
Chris Clark, player/coach of the Tri-State League’s Torrington Rebels is giving up the coaching part of his title this year after seven seasons at the helm. His tenure features three championships in the last four years, including back-to-back titles this year and last. “I just want someone else to have the fun I’ve had for the last seven years,” said Clark, who passes the reins to veteran left fielder and assistant coach Brian Mongeau. Clark, like team founder (in 1990) Scott Arigoni before him, gave up the dual title “so he could just be a player.” He’ll still be around as a Rebel catcher (he was Arigoni’s battery-mate in Sunday’s title game with Bethlehem).
But, with another title safely tucked away in “Clarkie’s” belt, it’s a great time to talk with one of the League’s leaders about Tri-State’s recent history and its enduring lure as one of the country’s oldest leagues. “Scott called me to come and catch after I was finished with American Legion baseball in 1993,” says Clark . Like today’s young players, sprinkled throughout the league, special players are invited; other dedicated athletes are happy to wait for their playing time. Clark, an All-Berkshire League catcher at Lewis Mills, stepped in immediately because the Rebel catcher before him hung it up. Still, the main difference Clark sees, looking back, is a league in which older players “didn’t really cater to college kids. Over the years, teams have taken more college kids to make it more of a college league, like it is now,” Clark says. “Look at Bethlehem (this year’s league runner-up). Eight of their starters are college players.” Still, for players and fans, part of the league’s attraction is the combination of new, talented players and the familiar stars who return year after year. “At 32 years old, I’m still playing ball with my best friends – with lots more still to come,” Clark smiles. “It makes the winter go by much quicker because we have eight or 10 guys who get together to hit or sit around a campfire. Sometimes, when we lose, it’s not because we play bad, but because one of our guys is missing and we miss the chemistry because we’re so close.”
The “best-friendship” is an expanding entity within teams like the Rebels and the league as a whole. Clark and Rich Thomson joined the Rebels together in 1993. “Me and Shack and Billy Quatiero, Scott (Arigoni) and Rich Scott…we were always vying for the team lead in homers – to see who could hit the most or the longest,” Clark remembers.”But the best part, I think, was to get to catch Scott and Mark Magyar – and now Dan ( Livingston ) and Curtis (Anthony), and still Scott. Magyar threw exactly like Dan ( Torrington ‘s current ace) – with different arm angles, a lot of junk and a sneaky fastball. Catching Mark back then helps me catch Dan now.” The Rebels won the league title for three years in a row starting in ’93. Clark went off to a good Division III Moravian College ( Bethlehem , Pennsylvania ) team and bet his coach the Rebels could beat them. He was league MVP in 1995 and played with Thomson on a Tri-State All-Star team that played the Cuban Junior National Team (Tri-State lost 4-2; Clark hit two solo home runs). Then, with one more game left in the 1999 season, Rebel manager Doug Pergola said, “Give the equipment to Clark because he’s running the team next year.”
One of the first things Clark learned as player/coach was, “It’s almost impossible to catch and hit and coach (all at the same time).” He replaced himself with Jeremy Pesce for a few years, then Bert Malloy and, this year, John Noack, every other game. “Once John proved himself as a catcher and great hitter, our season came together,” Clark says. “It allowed me to step back into the coaching role I was used to.” That role requires a special personality in a league full of great athletes and strong personalities. “Not everyone’s going to agree all the time,” Clark reflects. “There are always different philosophies. But the more our team has played together, the more we know each other’s capabilities. That plays into our strategy.
“And, we always did things together in decision making. I learned a lot about the game in discussing them.” One of the biggest – and most successful – decisions for the league was the switch to wooden bats three years ago. “There are a handful of guys in the league who played in the minors,” says Clark . “This gave the other guys the opportunity to play baseball the way it should be played. I think it’s made guys much better hitters. If we had to go back to aluminum, I think the numbers would be scary.” Scary high, that is.
Meanwhile, “scary good” might be an apt description for what several hundred fans saw last weekend in the final two games of the best-of-three series between old rivals Torrington and Bethlehem . “For so long, outsiders have looked at it as a Sunday afternoon beer league,” says Clark . “I think what they saw the other night was two teams where our 20 guys and their 20 guys were as pumped as they could be.” That leads to great baseball – baseball you can count on with allegiances and rivalries – and, now, a steady flow of new talent. The mixture works for players and fans alike. “Darrin (Gould) has won a national championship on a team like ours from California ,” says Clark . “He says this is much more fun. This is Bryan Marchinkowski’s first year with us; he said this is the most fun he’s ever had. “They always come back; I’ve never once had to worry that we had enough guys. We’ve always had the guys. It’s been a great seven years playing with them – and not just on my team. “The other night (after beating Bethlehem for the championship), there in the parking lot is (Plowboys player/coach) Marc Beaudoin. In high school, we were bitter rivals; now we tip our caps and say hi. We took batting practice together before the game.” New players come; new coaches come. Almost all of them, along with the loyal fans they attract, agree that it’s a great way to age together without feeling the least bit old.