FATHER’S DAY BRINGS BACK MEMORIES OF DAD
Sunday as I got phone calls one-by-one from our daughters wishing me a happy Father’s Day, I started thinking of my dad, who left us in 2001 at the age of 89.
My father always was “Big Joe” to my uncles and aunts even though when I went to college I was a couple inches taller than he was.
Dad instilled my confidence in athletic endeavors but he never just told me, “I have confidence you can do it.”
He would say something like “They’re having tryouts for Little League on Saturday and I think you ought to give it a try.”
My dad was not one who wanted to coach his son, but rather leave it to the ones who have been doing that job. He knew or played baseball with most of the guys managing or coaching in the league.
In fact, my dad was quite the opposite of most of the fathers who had sons playing on any team I was on. He didn’t want me to even know he was there and preferred to watch from the nearby woods or slip indiscriminately into a crowd of fans without much fanfare.
Dad was quite an athlete in his own day, playing tight end on the Schenectady (N.Y.) High School team because he wasn’t afraid to go over the middle on a pass play. He also was quite a pitcher for his high school team.
In fact, his friends and teammates that I would meet all said that he could have played pro baseball, except the Great Depression began as he was graduating from high school. He had to work to help support his parents and five sisters.
In the vocational section of his high school, Dad learned welding and eventually got a job at the local General Electric plant’s turbine division, where he worked until he retired in 1972.
He would come home from work religiously at 3:45 p.m., drink a hot cup of coffee and ask me if I “wanted to throw some.” This began before I was 10-years old and continued until I was 14 when my fastball hopped and occasionally struck him on the wrist.
By then, Dad was no spring chicken because he didn’t marry my mom until four days before his 29th birthday. I was born a year and two days after their first wedding anniversary.
My Little League career that my dad recommended I try was a booming success. I made the All-Star team in 1954 and we won our way to the LL World Series in Williamsport, Pa. where we successfully defeated Colton, Calif. 7-5 and were the World Champions. I was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player.
That was a great boost to my confidence, but I still had to be prodded into trying out for Babe Ruth League where the bases were the regulation 90 feet and the pitcher’s mound was 60.5 feet.
But I started getting taller and filling out, so the expanded dimensions were not a problem for me as a 13-year-old. Again my father watched me play, but I never knew he was there until we got home and he critiqued the action.
And because of my strong arm, my Babe Ruth League coaches decided to switch me from shortstop (where I played all my life) to third base where I eventually played both in high school and college.
I met my friend Tony Ottati in junior high who introduced me to playing golf in the summer and bowling during the cold months.
When we left junior high, Tony went to my father’s high school and I went to cross-town rival Mont Pleasant High. Tony called me one day and said he was going to try out for his school’s bowling team.
My dad recommended that I try out for my school’s bowling team. I didn’t think I was good enough, but somehow I bowled a 534 triple and wound up as the third man on the team, which was pretty good for a freshman. By the time I was a senior, I was the captain of our team.
I also tried out for the baseball team, but had a guy nicknamed Igor (and if you saw him you’d know why he got that moniker) who was also out for the position of third base and lived in the same neighborhood as our coach.
We battled on even terms defensively, but in the preseason games, the opposing pitchers found out in a hurry that Igor couldn’t hit a curve and I could.
My defense was helped immensely by our 6-4 first baseman we called Strube, who told me, “Kaz, you can throw the ball to me any way and I’ll catch it. But just DON’T throw it in the dirt.”
My dad encouraged me to go to a Pittsburgh Pirates tryout camp at the stadium in Central Park. I hit mostly line drives and the head scout stood behind the batting cage and as the pitch was coming he would tell me where he wanted me to hit it—right field, left field, up the middle.
At the end of the session he asked me if I was planning to play baseball in college. I told him I was hoping to do so and he said the baseball coach at McNeese State in Lake Charles, La. was a friend of his. “I’ll make a call to him and let you know something tomorrow.”
He told me I had a full baseball scholarship and to be ready to leave for Louisiana at the end of the week.
I had to re-learn my third base position at McNeese because instead of a 6-4 first baseman, I had one named Gus who was 5-10 and could jump maybe two inches off the ground. I kept throwing into the prevailing South wind and the balls were sailing over his head.
I worked that problem out and Gus became an excellent first baseman, especially because he COULD dig low throws out of the dirt.
When I came home after my freshman year Dad encouraged me to try pitching in the local summer semi-pro league. I took his advice and did real well.
I informed Coach Stephens at McNeese that I had pitched all summer in New York and did real well. I asked him if I could pitch for McNeese if it didn’t affect my starting third base position. “We have 10 pitchers so you’ll be No. 11,” Stephens said.
I worked out both at third base and with the pitching staff and finally got my chance in the nightcap of a split doubleheader against a good Nicholls State team in Thibodaux, La.
Coach Stephens told me to throw as hard as I can for five innings and he would come get me. But after five innings I had a no-hitter and McNeese was winning pretty handily. After seven innings, Nicholls still did have a base-hit.
In the bottom of the eighth inning a pinch-hitter hit a blooper over shortstop for the team’s first-and only—hit. I ended up with a one-hit shutout with 12 strikeouts. My picture was on the front of the Baton Rouge Advocate sports page.
I finished my four-year career with the Cowboys by being named to the All-Conference team three years in a row and was named the team’s Most Valuable Player in 1963.
Unfortunately my dad never got to see me play at McNeese, but he did get to see me pitch professionally in Minnesota with the Chicago Cubs’ Northern League affiliate in 1964.
I never did catch on until after he was gone how my father was responsible for my many athletic successes with his obscure confidence-building methods.
KWICKES…Long-hitting Brooks Koepka won his first major tournament last weekend after recording three straight birdies on the back nine Sunday to win the prestigious U.S. Open by three strokes. The former Florida State golfing star fired a 16-under-par 272 with rounds of 67-70-68-67. Koepka tied the U.S. Open record for his low score and netted a nifty check of $2.16 million.
De’Aaron Fox, who played his high school basketball at Houston Cypress Lakes and collegiately at Kentucky, is expected to be the fifth player taken in tomorrow’s first round of the 2017 NBA draft by the Sacramento Kings.
JUST BETWEEN US…The Houston Astros’ skid continues, mainly because of the injuries to four starting pitchers. The Astros have lost seven of their last 11 games going into Monday’s trip to the West Coast. Because they were playing the Boston Red Sox at Minute Maid Park last weekend, both Saturday’s (Fox) and Sunday’s (ESPN) games were televised nationally. The Bosox won two-of-three, mainly because they played fundamentally-sound baseball and also have an excellent staff of relief pitchers. But the Astros still were 11 games in front of the second-place Texas Rangers going into Monday’s action and should be getting their starting pitchers off the disabled list by the weekend.