Tri-State League Sets an Example to Follow — or Join

PETER WALLACE, Register Citizen Staff, 08/22/2008

Seven of us – Lou Fracasso, Jeff Dombrowski, Scott Arigoni, Tom Downey, Bob McCarthy, Lefty Simmons and I – were inducted into the second class of the Tri-State Baseball League’s Hall of Fame Sunday evening. Fortunately for those attending the ceremony at Fuessenich Park while waiting for Game 2 of the league’s best-of-three championship series to begin, there were no acceptance speeches.

Nevertheless, as a recipient whose main qualification is a long-term admiration for the league and its players, it’s an occasion for spinning out my view once again.

At heart, I see the Tri-State Baseball League – among the oldest continuing amateur baseball leagues in the country – as a microcosm of what’s right with this area, with the state and maybe even the country. How’s that for spinning?

Start with a Sunday view through the eyes of my longtime girlfriend, Kathleen, not a particular fan of sports, much less of baseball. She helped me define for myself what a remarkable honor this induction is with her willingness – eagerness, even – to cut short our attendance at a dinner/reception at a gorgeous indoor/outdoor restaurant on the beach at New Haven’s Lighthouse Point so we could make the trek back to Torrington in time for the 6 p.m. ceremony.

On a sparkling day, the trip was a tourist bureau ad for Connecticut . Don’t let anyone tell you New Haven can’t be beautiful; the harbor was full of sailboats and yachts. Many of you know the pleasures of Route 63 to Naugatuck once you leave the seamier side of New Haven . The trip from Waterbury to Torrington on Route 8 never runs out of scenic vistas. But, when we finally got inside Fuessenich Park , down to the spot on the third base line fence I’ve staked out as my own, Kathleen’s honest-to-God reaction of the view was, “Oh, wow, this is the real thing!” In an example of why our relationship works so well, her comment is my comment, in more concise words than I can usually command.

Because, in that short phrase, Kathleen, who’s never been to Fuessenich before and lives in Newington, took in the pristine park that’s one of the state’s baseball jewels, but also the friendliness and spirit of the small crowd that surrounded her as a complement to the players’ excitement.

Thomaston High School coach Bob McMahon’s dad, one of the most faithful sports fans in the state, loves to roar “country baseball” when he refers to Bob’s Bethlehem Plowboys, one of the league’s oldest teams. In more urban Torrington , the phrase still fits the spirit of the Tri-State League, certainly on this second day of the 16-team league’s best-of-three playoff final. It’s the heart of the league’s charm and its embodiment of broader values. They’re “just” playing baseball … with all their might.

The league embraces a wide range of talented players. At one end, it has talented youths like Winsted third baseman Chris Davidson, just graduated from Northwestern High School , and center fielder Bart Marchant, disappointed to miss American Legion baseball’s birthday cutoff date this summer, then welcomed by the Whalers to a permanent spot as their leadoff man.

On the other end of the spectrum are wily veterans like still-dominant left-handed pitcher Arigoni in his 40s, who we would be watching in the majors if he hadn’t shattered an ankle in the minors on his way up. Arigoni shows that much talent and determination when he plays. And he typifies many of his league peers.

“They’re really serious,” Kathleen said, early in the game, when Winsted pitcher Donny Crossman, himself approached by MLB scouts right out of college, wheeled for a pickoff try at second base. Intensity is a given in many leagues, many sports. This league stands out in routinely taking the next step – straight into passion. Nobody here is playing for a scholarship, for a contract or, last Sunday, anything more than the sheer honor of a championship. Nobody stays in this league without a share of that passion; many who finally feel too old or too slow move to the over-40 league for yet another chance.

All of them know exactly how Brett Favre feels – without the fog surrounding his decisions.

Maybe that’s the final charm of this league – that it’s serious enough to make Kathleen sit up and notice, while pure enough to leave room for the sheer joy of playing.

Let’s not whitewash it; its seasoned players can chew up an inexperienced umpire. All the more charming, then, when the joy breaks out, sometimes to the point of screwing up, but not. One could argue that Brass City ‘s Neil Janson won Saturday’s game for the Brew on just such a combination of strands. Blessed with great speed, Janson started out going the wrong way on the base paths through a misunderstanding. Then, through a combination of miscues, he ended up scoring the deciding run in a 6-5 game. While racing the bases, his demeanor was a combination of harried rabbit and greyhound running free through a field.

Get that close to a major league player sometime. In another, longer-range angle on the league’s purity, Brass City player/coach Sam Sirica skipped high school and college baseball thanks to his perception of politics at each of these levels. Then he found his home with the Brew. So, with the traditional verbosity of acceptance speeches, I feel the need to draw out the parallels between this league and the second chances our country, at its best, gives people for such success … of the melting pot nature of a league that has grown from six teams to 16 in commissioner Ed Gadomski’s six-year reign, not by “conquest” but because, under Gadomski’s firm hand, the league is so good there are more teams clamoring to get in. I want to write a long story about each of the 2008 classmates I know, as well as those I don’t. Instead, I’ll let Kathleen’s phrase do almost all of it for me again. “Oh, wow, this is the real thing!” What a privilege to watch this league from a spot on the third base line, much less claim a small piece of its honor.