My father was an immigrant from Portugal. He came to the United States in 1923 at age 11 through Ellis Island. In Europe as in most parts of the world, soccer is the universal sport. But in the United States in the 1920s, there was a new sport that was gaining momentum in the public eye. It had a wealth of stars with neat names like Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Walter “the Train” Johnson, Christy Matheson, Pie Traynor, Goose Goslin, Hack Wilson, Kiki Cuyler, Gabby Hartnett and the list goes on. And it was an easy game for an immigrant to understand: 3 outs, 4 bases, 4 balls, 3 strikes, and 9 innings, run to each base and go “home” to score, the symmetry of a diamond, grass and dirt—simple. And it was the high tide of baseball in New York, the entry point of immigrants, with the Yankee dynasty of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Waite Hoyt and the 1923, ’27 and ’28 World Series wins. My father, embracing his new country fell in love with baseball. He passed that love onto his son.
I think that I remember the first baseball game that I attended and it was in 1955. I was seven. It was at Forbes Field and we had seats on the first base side in the back. Forbes was known for its poles of obstruction so I remember three things about the game: twisting right and left to see past the poles, eating peanuts, and holding my Roberto Clemente baseball card and watching him bat. My Dad had a companion to talk with so he and I had snippets of conversation but I remember how natural and relaxed that experience was. (Weird side story: They were selling chameleons on the way out of the ball park and I really wanted one but my Dad wouldn’t dare bring a chameleon home on two streetcars and face my Mom with the product of my first baseball game. He was a smart man, my Dad.) That was the first of many games that I attended at Forbes Field and Three Rivers Stadium with my Dad. I made it a regular event to take two streetcars with my friends on Saturday (knot-hole days where tickets cost 50 cents to sit in right field where my hero, Roberto Clemente played. I spent many of my young hours watching the “21” across the back of my hero).
So I learned to play baseball by watching and emulating the stars of the National League in the 1950s and 1960s, but especially my Pirates. I played sandlot ball through high school and tried out for the Duquesne University baseball team in 1966. I made it as a second baseman and pitcher. The University gave me some scholarship money which made my Mom delirious with joy and my Dad proud. I had a tryout with the Pittsburgh Pirates at Forbes Field in 1967 (before the draft) and ended my baseball playing career in 1969 as the starting second baseman for the successful Doc Skender-led Duquesne Dukes. But I knew that I wanted to extend my “career” as a high school baseball coach.
I coached baseball at my first teaching job in East Liberty, the Bishop’s Latin School. We did not have a whole lot of talent or equipment but the kids loved the game and played hard. I came to Chartiers Valley in 1974 perhaps with my hope to coach baseball somewhat dimmed as I struggled to manage the intricacies of becoming a public school teacher. George Anderson, a Physical Education teacher at Chartiers Valley and the Head Baseball coach, visited me during a study hall that I was proctoring in the early winter of 1974. He asked me to be his second assistant. I took the bait.
By 1987, I had been elevated to Head Baseball Coach of the Chartiers Valley Colts. I can say that it was an honor that I truly respected. I vowed to myself that I would work hard to bring out the best in my student-athletes. I wanted for us to experience winning but also growth and lessons in life.
By 1994, after two section titles and four playoff appearances, I began to see my career take a different path. Along with my colleague and good friend, Mary Kay Babyak, we established an organization called APEX (Agenda to Promote Educational eXcellence) that worked with teachers to promote good practices and become change advocates in their schools. We had been graciously supported by the Heinz and Mellon Foundations for our work. In addition, I began my teaching career at Duquesne University by teaching a night class once per week and a summer class. My vow that I would work hard to promote the baseball program and to bring out the best in my student-athletes was now suffering from the constraints of time.
Spring 1994. Little did I know that this last season for me at the helm of a high school baseball team would be a magical one? With players like the Danzusos, Mike and Nick, Brandon Pilarski, Justin Byers, Brad Hensler, Tony Rosati, Brian Kappler, and Matt Gastgeb, we exceeded all predictions and won Section 3 of the AAA WPIAL Baseball section with a 13-4 record. The “Boys of Spring” found different ways to defeat their opponents and it was an exciting April and May. This put us into the running for a WPIAL title with 19 other playoff teams. Now it was time to see who we would be paired against in the first round of the tournament.
We had won a section but we were paired with the number one team out of 20 playoff eligible teams, Mt. Lebanon. Mt. Lebanon had handily won their section and placed six of their starters in the all-section team; three of their players were going to play Division I; and they were ranked 18th nationally. National rankings were suspect but suffice to say that the 1994 Mt. Lebanon baseball team was very good and ranked one out of the 20 WPIAL playoff teams. This meant that we were ranked 20th (WPIAL then paired 1 with 20, 2 with 19, 3 with 18, and so on). It was a subjective decision on the part of the WPIAL brass that we were 20th in a field of 20. Our 13-4 record had impressed no one at WPIAL.
In 1993 when we went to the playoffs after a section title, I had given a rah-rah pep talk/motivational speech to my players to get them motivated for a game against West Mifflin at historic West Field (Homestead Grays). It worked. We won. But somehow I suspected that a “Knute Rockne” would not have worked this time. We had our final practice before our playoff game with Mt. Lebanon on a sunny day, May 22, 1994. We drilled; we batted; we went through our plays for different situations. Then I told the squad to assemble in shallow right field. I crouched with my assistant coach, Frank Brown, near the third base line. I remember saying, “What am I going to say to them? We are playing a tough Mt. Lebanon team and I feel that they unfairly paired against them. We should have been 19th or 18th, not 20th.” There was a pregnant pause before I went out to address the kids. As I slowly made my way out to the congregation of players sitting idly in a circle in shallow right field, my mind was deep in thought ruminating for the right choice of words. As I slowly made my way through the outfield grass behind the shortstop position, the contrast of yellow of the dandelions growing up against the deep green of the spring grass resonated with me. I reached down and pulled a few dandelions. It allowed me to stop and collect my thoughts once more.
When I reached my players, I kneeled within their circle. This was a ritual that had been performed many times before after practices. I was surly. I told them that they had won Section 3 of the AAA WPIAL baseball conference and they were ranked 20th among 20 teams (Each section—10 total, had placed the first and second place teams into the tournament). Why?! Disrespect! They (always the transgressor) had deemed us less of a team than the other second place winners and put us up against powerful Mt. Lebanon! They wanted to eliminate us from the tournament in the first round and let the ‘big boys’ play! Our 13-4 record and section title meant nothing to the WPIAL! We were like weeds; we were to be cut down and placed out of the way. I told the kids to look around and they did. Did they see any flowers blooming? Did they see any contrast with the bright green grass of Spring? The only “bloom” growing was the bright yellow dandelion (I imagined that some these players might have picked some dandelions in their youth and made a bouquet to give to their mother or a girl in 4th grade, not knowing that they were weeds—yellow flowers amongst the stark contrast of bright green in the Spring does not harbor the emotion of uselessness as a weed.) We were deemed weeds to be eliminated quickly in the first round. That was it! That was practice and the players slowly moved off to their cars, buses, and the locker room. And I want to say that their wheels were churning in their craniums.
I arrived at school early the next day. After I had returned from practice, I had addressed envelopes and short personalized messages to all of my players. I now began to pick dandelions in the field around the parking lot entering CVHS from the rear. I put one dandelion in each of the envelopes addressed to my players. I hurried into school (I know that some of my colleague-teachers saw me picking dandelions that morning and wondered what new glue I had been sniffing), found the homerooms of each of my players, and arranged to have them delivered to them during homeroom. It was complete. Now we had to play the game, a night game at Peterswood Park against the number one ranked AAA WPIAL baseball team and nationally recognized with a slew of talent.
The game was terrifically exciting with a big crowd and the entire atmosphere of a playoff game. CV played tough but was losing 5-3 going into the top of the last inning. Then with some clutch hitting and luck (of the dandelion), the Colts scored 5 runs to go into the final frame winning, 8-5. We still had to navigate the final three outs against the Lebo Blue Devils but the excitement on the bench and with our fan base about the anticipation of a win was like a bolt of unexpected lightning piercing a hot August summer sky. I stuck with my starter, Brandon Pilarski. He got two out and had two on base when Mt. Lebanon’s Patrick McCloskey, all-section and one of the best hitters in WPIAL strode to the plate. He had already hit a two-run homer against Pilarski early in the game. Another homer would tie the game and deflate the COLTS. He struck out. Game over! The headlines in the Tribune-Review the next day was “Chartiers Valley ‘blooms’ for win.”
We lost our next playoff game to Albert Gallatin, 3-0. But somehow it was anti-climatic. My field of player/dandelions, disrespected, counted out, and a little awed themselves by their accomplishments had defeated the mighty Mt. Lebanon Blue Devils in a baseball game on May 23, 1994. I sincerely believe that each and every one of those players remembers that night of glory. I believe that they have recounted the story to their friends, family, and maybe their own children. It was a magical night when the Chartiers Valley Colts, albeit represented by the colors of blue and red, flashed their bright ‘dandelion’ yellow to take down a behemoth opponent. And like the ‘dandelion’ immigrants who ventured to America’s shores in the 1920s, they enriched the character of what an “American” is. They contributed to the mighty victory against totalitarian threats of World War II and they were loyal bulwarks for the United States throughout the Cold War and other threats. The immigrant dandelions like the CV dandelions triumphed over indubitable odds. It was a testament to the human spirit. It was a bright and shining event in the story of a human being.