Friday, December 12, 2014

Tom Lahart and ‘The Big Red Machine’

The Reds: 1979 Kingston Little League National League Champs. Coach Tom Lahart is at far right.

Kingston Little League coach left his players with lasting memories

My old Little League coach, Tom Lahart, passed away last week. I played for him in Kingston from 1978-1980. That’s a long time ago, but with his passing, he’s been on my mind a bit over the past few days. He was a good guy, a fine baseball coach and someone that had a lasting impact on my life.

I was 10 years old in the spring of 1978 when I found out that the Kingston Little League team that had selected me to play for them was the Dairy Queen Reds. I had moved to Kingston from South Wilkes-Barre in 1976, and though I had played one year of baseball at St. Therese’s, I was not by any means a polished baseball player. I was a quiet and shy kid, and though - because I had a “Johnny Bench Batter-Up” pitching machine in the backyard - I could hit OK, I could not for the life of me catch a fly ball.

Mr. Lahart taught me how.

The Reds practiced often. We practiced on cold spring days on fields all over Kingston. When he was teaching his outfielders how to play the position, Mr. Lahart would put us in the outfield and he would stand in the batter’s box. He’d then point to you with his bat, to let you know this one was for you, and he’d then toss the ball in the air and hit it in your direction. He was good at it, and he’d always loft you a nice, soft, high fly ball. I, however, was much too eager.  As soon as he’d hit a ball towards me, I’d start charging in for it at full speed. And it would always land about 30 feet behind me.

1978 Kingston Reds 
Mr. Lahart fixed that. He taught me how to hold my ground, read and track the ball, and go catch it. Two years later, in my final year of Little League, I was the starting left fielder in an All-Star game.

Thank you, Mr. Lahart.

One of my fondest memories of my All-Star season does not involve a game, but a practice. Once the All-Stars had been selected by the coaches in the league, the practices were pretty intense. There were about 15 kids competing to be one of the nine starters, and at the final practice before the big game, one of the assistant coaches who was pitching batting practice was really dealing. He was challenging us with some serious heat in what was essentially a simulated game, and as I stepped into the batter’s box with two strikes, my teammates started busting me that I was about to whiff.

1980 Kingston Reds
I launched the next ball not just out of Kingston’s Memorial Field, but into Janjigan Field, which sits behind it.

I was the only one on the squad to hit one out during all of the All-Star practices we’d had, and with that swing, I had made myself a starter. But what I remember the most about it was walking away from the field with Mr. Lahart after practice. It was just the two of us, and I think he was proud that one of his Reds had shined. I’d actually, at that point, never hit a ball over the fence before – I just don’t think I was quite strong enough at the time – but he told me he thought I was quite capable of it, and that I probably could have done it many times. Perhaps it was the competition at the practices that raised my game. Or maybe, as I was playing my final games as a Little Leaguer, I was finally developing into a better player. All I know for sure is that my coach believed in me. And that meant something.

Thank you, Mr. Lahart.

1980 Kingston National League All-Stars, managed by Tom Lahart  
In my first year with the Reds, Mr. Lahart taught me how to play. In my final year, I was one of his best players. But neither of those seasons is the season that I remember the most. It was my middle season playing for him, in 1979, when we had the best team. We were led by Mr. Lahart’s son, Eddie, who was not just the best player on our team, but probably the best player in the league. He was only a year older than me and he was my teammate, but I looked up to him. We all did.  If Mr. Lahart could take a skinny and clueless kid like me and turn him into a decent player, you can imagine what he was able to do with his own son. Eddie was our star and he led us to a 15-5 record and the Kingston National League Championship. We were a pesky, scrappy team, and when we squared off in the Kingston World Series against the undefeated 20-0 American League Champion Yankees, nobody gave us much of a chance.

Except Mr. Lahart.

He believed we could win and he certainly made us think so. We were Kingston's version of the “Big Red Machine,” we were not intimidated by anyone, and in Game 1 of the best of three series, we beat the mighty Yankees. It seemed like the whole town was there watching those games, and thinking back, it still feels pretty good to have stunned them all. They were good times. Our moms became our biggest fans, the “Radical Reds,” and they all arrived at one of the games on a float. Our dads watched with appreciation, trusting in their sons under Mr. Lahart’s guidance. I can still remember in the dugout before Game 2, he told us that the Yankees were probably still pretty shocked that we beat them in Game 1, and that if we could come out and get an early lead in Game 2, they might panic and fold, and we could wrap things up that day. But it was not to be. The Yankees were not 20-0 for no reason. They had some fine players and they were also well coached, and they beat us to even the series.

Game 3 would be for all the marbles.

I remember it like it was yesterday. “Are you nervous?” asked my Dad, as he drove me to the field. “No,” I said. “Good,” he said. Mr. Lahart had us ready to play, but what happened on that warm summer night is still to this day the most heartbreaking loss I’ve ever been a part of on any field.

It was the bottom of the sixth inning, which in Little League is the equivalent of the bottom of the 9th.  We had a one run lead. There were two outs. The Yankees had runners on second and third. There were two strikes on the batter. The crowd was loud. A strike, or any type of groundout or pop out, and we were the champs. A base hit, and the Yankees were the champs. It was about as good of a baseball game as you will ever see. I was in left field, fully anticipating a strikeout. I was expecting to be tossing my glove high in the air and running into the infield and mobbing my teammates, just like you see MLB players do after the final out of the World Series. But that’s not what happened.

The pitch got by the catcher. The tying run scored from third.

The catcher could not find the ball. It had gotten stuck under the backstop. He frantically looked around for it as Eddie, our pitcher, ran in to cover home while yelling and pointing to where the ball had lodged.

Too late.

The winning run scored. All the way from second base.  

We lost the World Series. On the last pitch. Because two runs scored on a past ball.

We were heartbroken. And, because we were still just little boys, we cried.

Base of trophy from the 1979 Reds, Tom Lahart's best team
Sitting in the dugout after the game, Mr. Lahart could see our pain. He was disappointed, too, especially since he knew that we had played well enough to win, but that we had lost on a freakish play. He told us all how proud he was of us, and that we should all be proud, and then he walked off to his car, came back, and gave us all a gift. It was a patch for our jackets that read “Reds – 1979 Kingston Little League National League Champions.” I still, to this day, wonder if he had patches in the car that said “World Champs.” He probably did. But the way he handled things that day, and they way he treated us, in such a sad little moment, is something I have never forgotten.

My son played t-ball this year, and though he played his home games in Larksville, he had a few “road” games on the fields in Kingston – the same fields that I played on more than 30 years ago. And every time we went there, I thought about the things I have written about here today. I thought of Mr. Lahart.

I have been asked if, next year, I would like to serve as a coach on my children's team, and I have already said yes. I think it will be fun to help teach young boys and girls how to play the great game of baseball, and I know that if I’m ever stuck on something, I can draw on some of the things I learned from my old coach: How to track a fly ball. How to prepare for a big game. How play with confidence, but not cockiness. And how to display good sportsmanship. And I will know that the many hours spent, volunteering time with those kids, is not being done in vain, and that decades later, some of them still might appreciate it.

I know I do. And I always will.

Thank you, Mr. Lahart.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Remembering “Buddy”

The two pictures were always in my grandmother’s home, properly framed. One, I clearly recall, contained a small locket of hair. They were of a young boy.

I was about the same age as the child in the photos when I first asked my grandmother who he was. And though she was gentle in the way that she told me and offered few details, she explained that he was her son and that he had died long ago.

“He came home from school on Friday not feeling well,” she said. “And by Sunday, he and four of his classmates were gone.”

This was in 1933. His name was Edward Roberts, but everyone, including my grandmother, called him “Buddy.” I would later learn, when I was much older, that Buddy died from diphtheria. It was, unfortunately, common at the time. And obviously when it went through a school, it was devastating.

My grandmother, with her second marriage, went on to have two daughters who she loved dearly. Buddy, however, remained somewhat of an enigma. Neither my aunt Joan nor my mother knew him. He had passed away before they were born. And since my grandmother’s first husband had also passed on, it seemed he only lived on in her memory and her mother’s memory. Buddy, we were told, loved his grandma and she adored him. They are in some ways still together, as they are buried side by side.

Buddy was a blonde-haired little boy, and when I was his age, so was I. My grandmother and I were very close, and as I think back on all of the time I spent with her, she never seemed to mind having a house full of my friends. Sometimes I now wonder if, on some of those days, when her home was filled with the laughter of little boys at play, her mind didn’t drift back to 45 years earlier and to the son she had lost.

A few years ago, I began to do some ancestry research and was able to learn quite a bit about how and when my family came to America. I even learned a little bit about some of our family history in Europe. But Buddy’s story, which was only about 80 years ago, was the one that got to me the most. And perhaps that’s because there were also some odd coincidences that paralleled his short life and the life of my family today. He originally lived in Pringle, but moved to the Lynwood section of Hanover Township. My mom originally grew up in Hanover Township, but now lives near Pringle. I also now live near Pringle, but because of some recent changes in our family life, I have found myself spending quite a bit of time in Lynwood. There is a long Pringle/Lynwood connection to my family which goes back more than 100 years, and I find it ironic that I now find myself driving down Buddy’s old street a few times a week. And then there is my son, who is now five years old and who is also a blonde-haired little boy. Though it was not at all by design, I often call him “Buddy.” 

There is no one alive in our family today that actually knew little Edward Roberts. He passed away on this date - September 24 - 81 years ago. But my sister and I have decided to be the keeper of his flame. We do this to honor his memory and we do it out of respect to our grandmother. And so today, if even just a few of my friends took a few minutes to read this little blog, his memory has been passed on.

Rest in peace, sweet boy.

You have not been forgotten.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

‘In ways we cannot be … even in memory'

Anyone that knows me knows that I had a very special relationship with my grandparents. Though they passed on many years ago, I still speak of them often, and there is not one day that goes by that I don’t think of them. When I was a young boy, their home was my home.  I was there five days a week after school, from about 3 to 5 p.m., when my Mom would pick me up after work. And in the summers, she’d drop me off at about 8:30 every morning and I’d be there all day. I probably spent just as much time there, if not more, than my own house. I even had my own room there.

And I loved it.

I always felt complete love there. My grandparents didn't seem at all burdened with the fact they were essentially babysitting a young boy everyday during their golden years. They seemed to love having me there. My friends from the neighborhood were all welcome there. We’d play in their yard and all throughout their house all day. Lemonade was always there for everyone. Lunch, too. They even put a pool in their yard, just for me and my friends, which came with only one rule: nobody goes swimming unless grandpa is in the yard supervising.

It was good rule.

And they were good people.

I could probably write a mini-novel about my memories of that house. And though I haven’t been in it in more than 30 years, I can still remember everything about every room in it. From the pattern of the linoleum on the kitchen floor to the sound the back screen door made when it closed, it is all as clear to me today as when I was eight years old.

And the nice thing is, sometimes, I go back.

Not literally. But in dreams. They don’t come as often as I’d like, but when they do, I always wake up feeling like something special has happened. Sometimes, I’m a young boy again, and it’s summer, and everything is as it once was. Sometimes, I’m the age I am now, and I go inside, and my grandparents are still there, and we chat. I call these dreams “visits,” because that’s really what I like to believe they are.

I can still recall the first time I had such a dream. It was around 1986, which was eight years after my grandpa had passed and only two years after my grandmother had passed. I was about 18, and I must have not been feeling well, because I had never been one to nap, especially at such a young and vibrant age, but for some reason, on a beautiful summer afternoon, I fell asleep. And, for the first time in about five years, I found myself back at my favorite place: my grandparents’ home.

I still remember the feeling I had when I woke. It was wonderful.

Sometimes, the visits are in full color. Sometimes, they have a sepia tone to them. Regardless, they always feel remarkably real.

Some years ago, one of my favorite bands, The Badlees, recorded a song called “A Fever.” The first time I heard it, it resonated with me. It reminded me of my visits.

Some of the lyrics:

“I dream of you
In light as blue as neon when it's blue
Past visions of rolling hills
In movie stills
A panoramic stew ….

A fever's brought me close to you
In ways we cannot be
A fever's brought me close to you
In ways we cannot be
Even in memory”

I have made a little slideshow here of some photos of my grandparents, set to the song:

I share this today with some family and friends because it was 30 years ago today that my grandmother passed. It is hard for me to comprehend that it has now been three decades since I have talked with her, and even longer since I've seen my grandpa.

I hope to see them again someday.

But for now - in ways we cannot be - I'll take the visits. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Blessed to have two ...

Those that know me best would probably note that I have always been a very reflective person. I often tend to look back on things from the past, but with today’s perspective. It is actually something that I enjoy. When I'm not doing that, I'm usually looking ahead and preparing for what’s next. That’s fine, too, but by doing both of those things too much, you can sometimes lose sight of the present. And you might not appreciate it. And though I recognize that living in the moment has never been something that I've been particularly good at, I can honestly say that such is not the case when it comes to my two children. When I am with them, I am very much right here, right now.

And I consider this a gift that they have given me.

Driving home from an amusement park last night, just the three of us, I realized that these days - right now - are some of the best days of my life. Putting my arms around them and holding them tight as we went on some of the park’s more adventurous rides is something that, well … I know these are things that will not last. My five year-old son telling me he would like to ride the mini roller-coaster, but only if I rode with him, are moments that, even while they are happening, are very special to me. And, thankfully, I was well aware of this as I held him close as we rode. The joy on my seven year-old daughter’s face as we emerged - completely saturated - from one of the water rides is something I will never forget. Her eyes - like the Irish girl that she is - seem to gleam even more when she smiles.

Taking them both to Yankee Stadium last weekend to their first MLB game provided for another moment, or series of moments, that I will never forget. The thrill in my daughter’s voice as we pulled into the Bronx and she spotted the stadium for the first time will stay with me forever. As will her funny but astute observation about the place, which she made from her seat in about the sixth inning:

“This is big.”

Every time I go back there, for the rest of my life, I will also always think of my son’s favorite part of the ballpark: the escalators, which he pronounces “excavators.”  He seemed happy to see Derek Jeter play baseball, but I also think he would have been happy to simply ride the stadium “excavators” all day. I suppose I could have saved a few hundred bucks and just taken him to Boscov’s. The boy always makes me smile.

Parents with older children often tell me to “cherish these days.”

Trust me. I am.

Though life often twists and turns in many directions, and though change is always in the air, I am – when it comes to my precious Mary Ann and A.J. – well aware that these are some of the best days of my life, and that these are days that I will someday look back upon and perhaps long to revisit. I am also well aware that being their father is the most important thing I will ever do, and that I am blessed beyond words to have them in my life.

Some people wish they had but just one thing to live for.

I have two.