Baseball changed me from a damn Yankee to a Southerner

My father didn’t marry my mother until he was four days from his 30th birthday. Prior to that he enjoyed life as our country was recovering from the “Great Depression” working as a welder at the General Electric plant in his hometown of Schenectady, N.Y. and playing semipro baseballon weekends.

I can vaguely remember as a toddler saying good-bye to Dad when he was leaving the house decked out in an old uniform on a Saturday or Sunday morning. His catcher, Chuck Esmoke, would pick him up in his old car and they would be off somewhere to play a game.

This routine didn’t last too long because both my father and Smokey (as Esmoke was called) were getting up in age and couldn’t risk getting hurt.

After his playing days were over, Smokey became a scout in the Eastern New York area for the Pittsburgh Pirates and my dad continued his baseball by focusing on teaching me the fundamentals of the game in our backyard.

He had a big old catcher’s glove he had gotten from Smokey that he used while I practiced the pitching delivery motion that he so patiently taught me. He also smacked grounders to me in the yard that was not nearly as smooth and even as a baseball infield. 

I wore bruises on my legs, arms and chest from early spring until late summer. But I did learn to keep my head down and watch the baseball go into my glove on those scorching ground balls he hit me.

I went on to successfully play Little League, Babe Ruth League, high school baseball and Connie Mack League while growing up. 

But that wasn’t enough for me. I also was fortunate enough to play on what today is called a “select team” that played all over eastern New York, Pennsylvania and western Massachusetts, mostly on weekends.

This team was coached by Smokey and consisted of several players who were sons of my father and Smokey’s old teammates plus some professional prospects that Smokey was courting and hoping to sign some day soon.

Smokey used to play in the minor leagues as a young man and had some teammates who went into college coaching after their playing days ended. He had connections to McNeese State and Mississippi Southern (now Southern Miss) and sent several athletes from the Northeast to those two schools.

Two players who were at McNeese while I was finishing my senior year in high school were Ronnie Sheehan and a behemoth slugger name Howard Schmitt that everyone called “Herky”. Also on our team was a dazzling shortstop from Zanesville, Ohio, a Polish kid named Richie Mozjieko, who played for Mississippi Southern.

One Sunday we were playing at a tiny community of Vail Mills on the Sacandaga Reservoir in Upstate New York which was about the size of Gist. The team we were playing had a Polish guy bigger than Herky, who stood at about 6-4. We watched him taking batting practice, launching missiles on this fenceless baseball field. Every time he would come to bat during the game a woman’s voice (probably his mother or grandmother) would holler “Hit the ball Stanley.” Our outfielders played him beyond where a fence would be and three times he hit long fly balls that would have been home runs in any ball field with a fence, that were caught for long outs.

We were beating them pretty badly, but when he came up for the last time the same voice “Hit the ball Stanley’ was heard. Stanley launched a drive that sailed over the right fielder’s head and into the woods, probably around 450 feet. The voice was heard saying “Stanley, you finally hit one.”

Smokey somehow set us up with a game at Comstock Prison near New York City which was quite an experience. He also entered his team in the All American Baseball Tournament at Johnstown, Pa. where we played against Joe Torre and Joe Pepitone of the Brooklyn Cadets.

In August of 1959, I was ready to go to college and Smokey made one phone call to Reed Stephens, the baseball coach at McNeese.  In 10 minutes I had a full baseball scholarship. A few days later I hopped on a four-propeller-driven airplane headed for Lake Charles, La.

I wanted to play baseball away from the cold weather of Upstate New York that usually lasted until May. But what I didn’t realize was that the baseball season at McNeese began in February when the weather often-times was colder than New York in April or May.I was called a “Damn Yankee” at McNeese and a “Carpet-Bagging Southerner” whenever I came home for the summer in New York.

Luckily I’m not called a “Damn Yankee” much anymore.

KWICKIES…The Nederland Bulldogs somehow kept their three-year winning streak alive in district football games by hanging on for dear life to edge past the up-and-coming Central Bulldogs 39-36. The controversial “goal-line stand” by Nederland as time ran out Friday night preserved the streak on fourth down and less than a yard proved effective, although many onlookers thought the Jags had scored. Coach Toby Foreman could have elected to take the chip-shot field goal and taken their chances in overtime, but chose to go for the win because Central’s final drive began 98 yards away.

The Houston Texans had better not be so lethargic in the first half of their football games or they will repeat last year’s scenario of not winning a football game after September. Granted, the Texans really seem to come to life in the second half, but like last Thursday’s game against Indianapolis, it’s tough to come back from a 24-0 deficit against a good team like the Colts. When a team gets behind so quickly, the game plan usually ends up in the garbage can at halftime.

Former Houston Astros’ slugger Lance Berkman is attending Rice University full-time this fall working toward his degree in kinesiology after a 17-year absence away from the books. He plans on graduating next summer.

Wonder if having a “Criminal Wannabee” for a quarterback had any bearing on Florida State being ousted from the No. 1 spot it has held for quite some time? It looks like the voters who comprise the Associated Press Top 25 College Football Poll have really bought into the Mississippi State success story, because the Bulldogs are the first team in the poll’s 78-year history to go from unranked to No. 1 in five weeks.

And speaking of this week’s AP Poll, despite a resounding 35-20 victory over Texas A&M at College Station Saturday night, Ole Miss remained No. 3 behind Mississippi State and Florida State, Baylor moved up one notch to No. 4 with its come-from-behind 61-58 victory over TCU, Notre Dame came up one spot to No. 5, Auburn dropped four places to No. 6, No. 7 Alabama and No. 8 Michigan State didn’t move, No. 9 Oregon and No. 10 Georgia both moved up three spots. The other two Texas teams, TCU and Texas A&M, both suffered losses last week and dropped to No. 9 and No. 21, respectively. 

JUST BETWEEN US…Sunday’s big game at Seattle between the Dallas Cowboys and the Seahawks exposed some obvious weaknesses and strengths of the two teams. In the weakness department, Seattle showed that if a team runs right at them, they will have success, especially if they have a running back as talented as DeMarco Murray. The Cowboys rolled up 401 yards of total offense, including 162 rushing yards, compared to a paltry 206 total yardage for Seattle. The Seahawks came into the game as the NFL’s defensive leaders, surrendering less than three yards per play to the opposition through the first four games. The Cowboys averaged 4.8 yards per play. The Cowboys’ defense was a huge question mark at the start of the season, but they are playing like the era when they were called the Doomsday Defense. Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” looked like it fizzled Sunday. The game was not as close as the 30-23 score indicated. The Cowboys reigned supreme in every phase of the game. Both teams are scheduled to be seen on FOX-TV Sunday with Seattle at St. Louis playing at noon and the NY Giants at Dallas set to kick off at 3:25 p.m.