December 3, 2018
I love the refreshing piney smell of Christmas trees that are now piling up on the sidewalks of Broadway in my Upper West Side NYC neighborhood. For a few moments, it makes me love the changing of seasons and forget that spring training is still several weeks away.
An even better antidote for the No-Baseball Blues is to attend a gathering of players, coaches, scouts, and fans as I did last week. For the first time I attended the Annual Raymond E. Church Service to Youth Baseball Awards Dinner at Russo’s On The Bay restaurant on Cross Bay Boulevard in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens not far from JFK Airport.
The function was sponsored by the Greater New York Sandlot Athletic Association (GNYSAA). My appetite for this event was whetted when I learned that the GNYSAA grew out of the New York Journal American/Hearst newspapers high school all-star game that was an annual event in NYC from 1946 through 1965.
88 future major leaguers played in a game that was held most of the time at the Polo Grounds. Among the future MLB stars that played in this game were Tommy Davis, Al Kaline, Harvey Kuenn, Bill Skowron, and Joe Torre. Kuenn played in it during its first years from 1946-1950 when it was billed as a New York versus The World competition. (Thanks to fellow SABR member Alan Cohen for this info.)
More storied names from the past were brought up by Frank Del George, one of the evening’s coaching excellence award winners. A product of the Brooklyn housing projects, Del George is currently head coach of St. Francis Prep and once was a star shortstop for St. Francis College of Brooklyn.
Del George remembered warmly that he had played for Frank Tepedino Sr. - father of future Yankee outfielder-first baseman Frank Tepedino - for the American Legion Cummings Brothers team. His double play partner? Future Yankee second baseman and Met manager Willie Randolph.
Guest speaker Nelson Figueroa, former Mets pitcher and current Mets cable TV commentator, also spoke very movingly about his roots of his career. He pointed out in the audience Anthony Iapoce, newly appointed Cubs batting coach, and noted that he and Iapoce had played for a USA Baseball 12-and-under team in Japan 32 years ago.
Nelson was under five feet and less than 100 pounds. But he made the team, one of 16 chosen out of 600 competing. He paid tribute to his Abraham Lincoln HS coach Joe Malone who believed in him despite his small stature. He thanked Malone for having him throw only fastballs and change-ups at that tender age.
Figueroa also saluted the longtime Youth Service coach Mel Zitter, mentor of Manny Ramirez and Shawon Dunston among others. Before “tough love” was a cliche, Zitter epitomized the no-nonsense coach who drove his charges very hard in early a.m. practices. He also made sure, Figueroa noted, that the Parade Grounds field was properly maintained so no one got hurt.
Zitter was in the audience, having made the long drive from his home in North Carolina to show his devotion to NYC grass roots baseball. Figueroa thanked Zitter for taking him to a youth tournament in Waltham, Mass where he made contacts with Brandeis University coaches.
He listed himself as 6 3 and over 150 pounds. but he was barely 6 feet and much lighter. Figueroa quipped that people often asked, “Where’s the rest of you?” Yet he went on to an outstanding college career, capped in 2015 by his election to the Brandeis University Athletic Hall of Fame, a honor worthy of the school’s only major leaguer.
An elegiac moment near the end of the evening was provided by Brother Robert Kent who was honored for his 50 years of service at St. Francis Prep as baseball coach, athletic director, and history teacher. Bemoaning that on the site where Ebbets Field once stood there is now a sign, “No Ball Playing Allowed,” he urged that we work towards a time when “more Willies, Mickeys, and Dukes” are developed in our area.
Next up on the NYC baseball banquet circuit is the grand-daddy of them all, the 54th annual New York Pro Scouts Hot Stove League dinner at Leonard’s at Great Neck on Northern Boulevard.
It will be held Friday January 25 starting at 630p. No tickets will be sold at the door but information can be obtained by contacting longtime Chicago Cubs scout Billy Blitzer at BBSCOUT1@aol.com
I’m off to baseball winter meetings in Las Vegas from Dec. 9-13. I will be back here with tales from those days of wheeling and dealing. Am not exactly thrilled that Jeff McNeil, the surprise of late last season for the Mets, will now be reduced to utility status with the acquisition of aging Robinson Cano from Seattle.
Another new acquisition 24-year-old Edwin Diaz, who led all of baseball with 57 saves, should help. But one never knows what happens to players in a new environment, especially in a pressure-cooker environment like New York. (See under Gray, Sonny.)
It will really be hand-wringing time if the Mets trade Noah Syndergaard. Woe to any baseball organization that feels because the MLB TV network will be providing 24/7 coverage of the meetings you must do "something." But good advice is always not to get too distraught about things that haven’t happened yet and that we have no control over.
So the best advice always remains: Take it easy but take it!