I played in the Belleville Little League 43 years ago. Richard Nixon was president, the New York Knicks were the defending NBA champs when the season started, while the Baltimore Colts were Super Bowl kings and gasoline was about .30 a gallon, I was in the seventh grade in what was then known as the Junior High School on Washington Avenue.
In other words, it was a long time ago, but if you ask me the score of any of the 14 games I played that year, I can pretty much recite it, as well as the key moments of each game. (More on that later).
It’s what the Belleville Little League has, and continues to mean to me a few generations later, not to mention so many other guys who played ball at Mike Marotti Field from 1965 to the present day.
It’s why when the Opening Day ceremonies for 2014 are held on April 5, I’ll be standing in my familiar right field spot for a few minutes, remembering a time gone by and enjoying the sight of a new group of players getting ready to play ball, as well as reciting the Little League Pledge.
The Little League Committee members in Belleville are working hard to make this year’s ceremony special. The theme of the day will be honoring five former players who went on to success on the professional baseball level. Frank Petite, Anthony ‘Chipper’ Biafore, Frank Fazzini, Mike Mundy and Jack Cullen all played pro ball, with Cullen the only man from Belleville to have played in the Major Leagues. Cullen pitched for the New York Yankees in 1962 and again in 1965 and 1966. He later played in the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers’ minor league systems.
Petite played minor league ball in the Minnesota Twins organization while Biafore (Chicago Cubs), Fazzini (Milwaukee Brewers) and Mundy (Colorado Rockies) also signed professional contracts. All five men are graduates of Belleville High School and their stories are unique in their quest to attain baseball’s highest level.
It should be quite a morning when the five ‘return’ to where it all started at Marotti Field.
As far as the field itself, I had the chance to visit last night, thanks to Craig Jackowski and Tom Graziano and was very impressed with the work that has been done to make the place a Field of Dreams once again in 2014. The people who run the league itself have worked hard to raise money, not to mention the hours toiled to make the field house immaculate, as well as the extensive work on the field itself.
“Wait until you see what it looks like on April 5,” Graziano said to me. “It’s going to be something else.”
I don’t doubt it. This place has a magical effect on so many, and that began with Mike Marotti’s diligence and love of kids 50 years ago. We lost Mike in 1998, but his legacy continues to burn bright.
There were so many others who have helped, too, including the late Doug Cantarella and Mike Limongelli, as well as Jimmy Messina and hundreds of others. These men didn’t do it for money, they did it for love of the game and consequently, we, as kids, learned the game at a high level while also having a great deal of respect for our coaches and mentors.
Like I said earlier, I do recall every game I played for Biancardi in 1971. So here goes, beginning with our green and gray uniforms that made us look like major leaguers. Jim ‘Red’ Clenighan was our coach.
I remember thinking the field was Shea Stadium, mostly because I was (and continue to be) a St. Louis Cardinals fan, so the National League parks had more relevance to me. Most kids I knew then called it Yankee Stadium.
Opening Day: We had the Little League march, then played Rotary Club. Mickey Limongelli was our starting pitcher. I started in right field and wore No. 12. We fell behind early, but started to rally. I remember getting a hit in the fifth inning and Mickey followed with a two-run homer over the right centerfield fence. I was so excited that I forgot to touch second base and had to back and touch it as Mickey came barreling in with a big smile on his face. Rotary won, 6-3, but we were excited about our chances.
Game 2: We won our first game, defeating Wallace & Tiernan, 8-2. I had two hits and made my first catch in right field.
Game 3: We defeated Riefolo, 12-5. Riefolo was an ‘expansion’ team that year, but they were a tough opponent.
Game 4: We faced Ricky Loma, a hard throwing pitcher from Colony Club and lost, 3-1. Ricky must have had 12 strikeouts (out of a possible 18 outs), including me a few times. He even struck out Mickey, which none of us had ever seen before. Oh well. (Ricky and I were in the same class in Junior High back then, 7H. So, needless to say, he reminded me of it for a while. LOL)
Game 5: Our first night game of the season, against the Elks and Joe Gelpi. The game went back and forth, and late, the lights actually went out for a few minutes. I had a hit, but the Elks got the win, 6-5. I played first base that night and remember being pretty nervous under the lights.
Game 6: I got my first two RBIs of the season in the first inning, a single off Dean Campana of the Varsity Club. We took a 2-0 lead, but Varsity Club, which also had a great player in Anthony Gamarro, dominated after that and won, 12-2. Late in the game, Clenighan moved me to first base from right field and I made an error. But I did come back and made this catch in foul territory to end the inning. I still have no idea how I caught that ball. I do remember my father being so excited after I made the catch.
Game 7: It was the final game of the first half of the season. Back then, there were two leagues, the American and National, each with eight teams. We were 2-4 and needed a win to get some momentum. We beat Landolfi Funeral Home that night. I played first and had a couple of hits.
Game 8: Our first game of the second half of the season was a win over Wallace & Tiernan, 7-6. I had two more hits and hurt my ankle late in the game after sliding into home. Thankfully, it wasn’t too bad. (By the way, Colony Club won the first half championship that year, beating Rotary in a one-game playoff).
Game 9: My father had taken me to the old batting cages in what is now the Meadowlands to get some extra hitting in as we prepared to play Colony Club again and Ricky Loma. Ricky had one speed, which was really fast. Anyway, I actually fouled some pitches off, but Loma had the final laugh as Colony won again, 5-0, in a night game.
Game 10: We beat Landolfi to start a 3-game winning streak.
Game 11: Probably one of the most exciting games of that season. We were playing Varsity Club, with Campana back on the hill. This was Limongelli’s big night. He hit two long homers off Dean, who was also Mickey’s cousin, and Ronald ‘Booper’ Beck, our regular first baseman, also hit a homer. We won a 9-6 thriller. I didn’t get any hits, but it was so much playing in a game like that. We were now 3-1 in the second half of the season, with a big game against the Elks coming up.
Game 12: We had lost to the Elks in a close game earlier in the season. Once again, Gelpi was their pitcher and he was a tough opponent. Gelpi was also a pretty good hitter and I remember him hitting a shot into the gap in the first inning that I actually caught in right field. I did make an error later when a ball that was hit right to me sailed over my head. Joe also struck me out twice, but in my third at-bat, I hit an opposite field single to drive in the winning run. We had won, 6-4 and were now 4-1 heading into our biggest game of the season, against Rotary. The winner of that game would most likely be the second half champions.
Game 13: We were so excited to play Rotary. Mickey’s dad, Mike, was Rotary’s head coach and that Rotary team was loaded, for sure. Anyway, not much to say here, except we lost, 18-3 (no mercy rule back then) in a night game. Rotary scored six times in the first inning and that was pretty much the ball game. Booper did hit a two-run homer for us in the first inning, but we were never really in that game.
Game 14: Our final game of the season came on a Saturday morning against Riefolo on a hot day. We were hoping to finish the season with a 5-2 record and figured we’d get a win against Riefolo. I played first base that day. The game went into extra innings. After striking out and grounding out in my first two at bats, I hit a double (my first extra base hit of the season) in the sixth inning, then hit what I thought would be a homer in my final at bat in the eighth. The ball hit the top of the centerfield fence and bounced back in. I ended up with a second double, but Riefolo would get the win that day, 5-3.
Our team had finished 7-7 on the season. As I walked off the field for the last time, already knowing as a 12-year-old what a great privilege it was to have played ball there, Mike Limongelli, the Rotary coach, came over and congratulated me on my two doubles. Forty three years later, I still remember that, because it meant so much for me to hear that from an opposing coach.
I was 11-for-30 that season, with a .367 batting average, no homers and 8 RBIs.
Rotary would end up beating Colony Club for the National League title as they dominated Loma in the playoff game, but Amvets, the powerhouse American League champions which was undefeated that year, swept Rotary in the championship round. Biafore, ironically, played for Amvets.
I will never forget those days, for sure. John Herco, Jim Clenighan Jr., Limongelli, Beck, Anthony Speer, Joe Norton, Tom Bianchi, Kenny Gruber, Dominick Rodano, Rich Morowski, Tom Henry, Mike McNulty, Mike Lichamelli and Rich Gaschke were my teammates in 1971. Joe Norton Sr. was the assistant coach.
Sadly, Mickey Limongelli passed away at a young age and a few years after that, his dad passed. My coach, Red Clenighan, died a while back, too.
We all grow up, but it’s nice to know how much the little league meant to us as kids. The passions are evoked every year, especially on Opening Day, and that will be more than evident this coming April 5.