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.