Passing stories from generation to generation is an inherent human trait, I guess. Whether the tales are exaggerated a little or a lot, history is built upon their foundations.
The desire to weave yarns seems to grow as a person ages.
I remember sitting on my grandpa’s knee listening to him spin anecdotes of his childhood in the Ukraine, how a Cossack on horseback swept through his town brandishing a sword and left a gash on his father’s neck. Great-grandma stitched it up with a needle and thread.
But before I digress as I’m prone to do, allow me to relate a West Hartford tale of my very own, which of course revolves around my beloved game of baseball.
The story begins Monday afternoon, May 2, at the first high school game I ever covered at the nicely maintained Hall High School baseball field in the far corner of that sweeping complex.
Hall, in its injury-depleted state, was hosting Newington, the details of which are available elsewhere within these pages. The Warriors’ Stephen Ranieri had a career day, logging a strong start on the mound and blasting a home run. Even in the wake of the hard-to-swallow extra-inning loss, it was hard for him to be too forlorn as he and his teammates did some groundskeeping.
With participation in baseball dwindling at the high school level, I found it particularly important to let Stephen – his mom stresses intently that it is not to be spelled Steven – know that I appreciated his effort. As I began to recognize his love for the game, I decided to tell him about the first time I covered a baseball game at the Hall complex.
First, I went into my wallet and extracted a baseball card of myself when I was general manager of the Eastern League’s Glens Falls Tigers in 1988. The card, thinned and frayed at the edges by more than 20 years on my person, displayed a scrawled autograph across the bottom still very visible.
I asked Stephen if he could identify the autograph. That wasn’t fair. A 17-year-old baseball fan lives in the land of Derek Jeter and Big Papi, far different from the one I lived in when I was a teen awestruck by the game. I would have recognized the autograph in a heartbeat, with that bulbous “P” at the front of the first name and the equally bulbous “R” beginning the last name.
Well, the game that day wasn’t baseball in its truest form.
I was working for the Bristol Press at the time. My days working as an administrator in the Eastern League were over. My attempts to find myself professionally hit a few dead ends so I decided I wanted to go back to my roots. Sportswriting was something I wanted since I sat on grandpa’s knee.
Bristol sports editor Keith Freeman had given me a few freelance opportunities when he saw that Pete Rose was coming to West Hartford to participate in a benefit softball game organized by the late, great sports promoter Syd Conn. West Hartford is well outside Bristol’s jurisdiction but Keith knew how much I loved Rose and the Cincinnati Reds, so he gave me the chance of a lifetime. The date was August 25, 1991.
The game was played in a roughed-out diamond fanning out from the southwest corner of Chalmers Stadium. There he was, larger than life, aptly decked out in a red jersey. His playing days had ended in 1986 and his managerial reign three years later. He was a little thicker around the middle, but still looked like he could step up to the dish from the right or left side and rifle a base hit into a gap.
The indomitable Rose pride was evident in his actions and his words but it was his showmanship which provided the gathering with another perspective of Major League Baseball’s all-time hit leader.
At one point, his team – Conn’s Kings – being waylayed by Peter Pan Café, Rose blurted out, “Where’s (former Reds closer and Southington native Rob) Dibble when I need him?” When a youngster dropped a ball he had just autographed (at no charge), Rose quipped, “Hey kid, do you eat with those hands?” Vintage stuff.
Rose’s banishment from Hall of Fame induction by late Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti because of his gambling addiction was in the news. His words that day reflected what has since become public knowledge, but at that time he was denying he bet on baseball. His confession came years later in his book, “My Prison Without Bars.”
“I believe deep down that the Commissioner of baseball (Fay Vincent at the time) understands that I made some mistakes,” Rose told me. “He’s a fair man, an honest man. I’m totally convinced of that in my mind.
“There’s no personal vendetta that the Commissioner has lodged against me. I just did some things I shouldn’t have done. I shouldn’t have bet on those other sports. I did it. I admitted to it and that’s why I was suspended from baseball. I think the Commissioner of baseball will be a fair man, though.”
Stephen listened to my abridged version of the story intently. His open-mouthed reaction to what I told him was of great reward to me. I learned that when you can no longer stroke a baseball like Stephen can, you have to resort to the only means available to an old sports writer – the stories. Grandpa, I know how you feel.