(Note: This is part two in a three-part series about giving up softball after nearly 30 years of playing)
Growing up in my town — softball was a huge thing. There were a lot of teams and players. At one point, there were fields all over town. Eventually that got down to one complex with three fields.
No matter where it was played, it was important in our area.
I started when I was 16. I didn’t play much on that first team, but the following year, I got a bunch of friends together and we started our own team. The rest was history. The following is a history of my playing days. It was rather fun to go through everything.
When I was younger, I tried to keep all stats. I wish I had done that consistently through the years as it would be awesome to not only keep my own stats, but to be able to see what teams I ran did over the years. Alas, we can’t go back in time, so a lot of those items are gone forever. But the memories remain.
Let’s look at everything from the past.
I started playing softball the summer after my junior year in high school. I played on a local team that was, well, bad. Even then, though, I didn’t get a ton of playing time because they had all their “people.” I saw the same with some of my friends. Others wanted to play, but couldn’t catch on with a team.
So, I did what I thought I had to do — I put my own team together.
From that point, until the end of my playing days, I ran a team. Not that I didn’t play on some teams in other leagues — I did — but my main team was always one I ran. Over the course of the years, there were a lot of different people who played for me, be it in a league or tournament. I always enjoyed that, too.
I’d like to think it was because those people thought I did a good job running a team. But it also could be because I made sure to do the leg work as needed.
Hawley’s Era (1991-1994)
The first team I ran was Hawley’s. We were sponsored by a local real estate company, whose owner’s son played on the team.
We didn’t do well that first year and took a lot of lumps. That didn’t deter us, though, and just a mere three seasons later, we were playing in our first championship series. We didn’t win it (and, actually, got swept 2-0), but we were on the upswing.
This group was something fun. We got new shirts every year and we never matched. The team photo of us after that finals loss is something to look at. I still look at it with fondness as it was one of those teams where it was just fun to play. Just a bunch of kids playing ball and enjoying it and being as competitive as we could be.
For those of us who were likely to remain in the area, we knew it was just a beginning.
Shire time, baby! (1995-1999)
As we grew older, and some people left the team, it was time to find a new sponsor. We found that in the Shire Pub, which served as the local watering hole for many of us. It made sense for us to be sponsored by a local bar as we were at the age where, after a game, we wanted to go out and pop a few cold ones.
This era was a fun one.
We experienced a lot of success with this group and, if memory serves me right, we made the finals two or three of five years. We didn’t win one, though the 1995 season is one where we should have hoisted the trophy.
That was a good team, but we threw the championship series away — literally.
The Brookside League in Delhi had a trophy, in the spirit of the Stanley Cup, where they had a trophy that went from team to team based each year. The top was a removable pewter cup in which teams used to pour their favorite beverage and drink out of following a championship victory.
It was something I wanted to do during my playing days, and one I figured would come with time. It didn’t during the Shire years, unfortunately.
Still, those were formative years, which were filled with some great memories. A few are below.
Number switch: I had always worn No. 14, in honor of Pete Rose. But when another friend joined the team, 14 had been his number for years, including college. He asked if I would switch, so I had to come up with something.
A few years before this, John Kruk had given up No. 28 to Mitch Williams on the Phillies for a case of beer (rumor had it a box of Twinkies might have been involved, too). So, I proposed it a bit lighter and said I’d give up 14 for a case of beer. A few hours later, I got a knock on the door and a case of Labatt Blue. I switched to 29 the next season (the same number Kruk took) and I’ve never switched since then.
Shire time, baby! For some reason, this group was a bunch that waited until late to score runs. And when I say late, I mean sixth inning. I’m not sure what it was about the sixth inning, but it’s usually when we rallied.
We always would get the team together, say a few words and then we had one player who would chime in. And that’s usually when we said “Richie … what time is it?” And he’d scream out, in his city/Long Island accent, “It’s Shire time, baby!”
Many times that was our war cry and we’d end up doing some damage during that inning.
Head shaved: This was the time that we started going to states, too. And we did pretty well at them. We wanted to go to nationals, however. Back then, even with it being an NIT, so many teams wanted to go to nationals that you kind of had to qualify. We needed to finish top 5 in states to be able to go.
I told the team the one year if we qualified, I’d let them shave my head. We ended up finishing fifth in the state that year (and could have been higher — we lost two games at 3-2, and 2-1, to two teams who we always battled at states to close games. One of those teams won the state title that year), and eventually even finished 13th at nationals (it was like a 42-team tournament, too).
But after a game in the league soon after qualifying, I sat in the middle of the Shire as they took turns shaving off my hair.
Success grows: The one thing about this team is how successful we were. It was a great run, despite not winning a championship. Toward the end, though, the Shire was approaching the end of its run and we knew we’d have to switch sponsors. A new bar had opened in the town and we all knew the owner, so it was a perfect match.
Toward the end, we did have a rough year that eventually landed us a pitcher who would stay with us for the rest of my run. My brother also joined the team and caught for us, so with him and Leap it was almost like a bickering family at times (all in a good way, of course!)
This was a switch in colors from green and yellow (Oakland A’s style) from the Shire, to red and blue. We also went with a switch to vests with a blue shirt under. It was a neat style change and we had a lot of fun with this team.
But what is the most important part of this, for me anyway, is that we finally broke through. If there’s never anything else to remember off this era of my teams (and this team was a lot of fun all throughout), it was 2001 and winning the league championship.
Some of what made it great is we beat a team that featured a few players who had left us the year or two before. That was fantastic. One of them pitched for the other team, too, so it was nice to kind of push it back.
That team photo is a special one to me. With the championship trophy and a bunch of guys who played the game the right way. We had guys who did everything. We bunted. We stole bases. We had guys who mashed the ball. We played defense. It was one of the best teams I’ve ever been a part of.
And to win it with my brother, who had won oodles of championships in the league with another team, made it one of the most special championships I’ve ever won. It was also the first for Leap and Marc — two guys who are the only others to be on every championship team that I’ve run.
More on that later.
We lost in the finals in 2002 in three games, which turned out to be the final season of the league.
It was time to switch leagues now, which also meant switching sponsors as we were in a completely different town.
It was the first time many of us had played in the Oneonta City League, and we came ready to go. Luckily, I knew the owner of Thetford’s Towing and he agreed to sponsor us — a sponsorship that lasted 14 years.
The colors went back to green and yellow. The team became known and, in time, eventually became one of those “hated” teams because of our success and, honestly, our ability to be scrappy. I think, for the most part, we tried to play the game the right way, and didn’t chirp as much as other teams. It’s not that we didn’t, but we tried to keep it to a minimum.
There was a lot of success. And there were a few slim years. But over this time period, we never finished below .500, and reached the finals many times. We couldn’t get past one team, unfortunately, but we always competed and played at a pretty high level.
The Thetford’s years are broken up into two sections, though. From 2003-2015, we played in Oneonta. In 2016-17, we moved to Laurens to play in the Over-35 league.
It took a while for us to finally break through in Oneonta, winning our first championship in 2010. We won again in 2011, before not having the same luck in 2012-13. We got back on track by winning in 2014 and 2015, but at that point, the league was in flux and with a few teams deciding they weren’t playing the next year; and with some of our guys not wanting to play as much, we moved on.
For the two years we were in the Over-35, we won it. Games against the top teams were often fun and competitive. Games against the non-”A” teams weren’t as much fun. But that’s the case in every league.
I won’t lie, though. It’s kind of nice to know that we might be walking away — but we were champions each year we were in the league.
Through the years
There have been other fun times. We had a “tournament” team we’d throw together a bunch of times — The Hoo Haas. There were a lot of people who played with me on that team through the years. Sometimes, people would just decide at the last minute to play with us and we’d win a few games and just have a lot of fun. We never won any tournaments, but we had some nice runs and placed high up. It was always nice to make it to Sunday and win a few games.
I also played in Stamford, one of the top leagues in the area for several years, and stayed with the same team there until the league folded. I always had fun with that group. I made some good friends and I learned a lot about the game. It was also nice to just show up and play. The team I was on — Pindar’s — had been together for many years and there were a lot of characters and good players on that team. I’m glad I had that opportunity, and ironically enough, the contacts made to get on that team came from a tournament.
I had a lot of fun playing ball. It kept me active and I am glad I played in an era where there the opportunities were aplenty.
Softball has been great to me, but the time had definitely come.
I’ll give my final thoughts in the last part of this series.