True Confessions Of A Baseball Junkie by Don Laible
I've loved baseball, well, since watching the 1967 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers. I was eight-years-old.
I'm the guy that can't wait for the Super Bowl to come in February, because that means football season is over, and baseball's spring training is about to start. Attending my first live MLB game during the 1968 season, when my mom took me and brother Billy to an August Yankees-Tigers doubleheader sealed the deal for me.
Living in Queens, a couple subway transfers, and we were in the Bronx.
We sat in the bleachers. Our tickets were .75 cents each. What a grand memory.
1968 was the year of the Tigers. Their lineup was packed with names as Northrup, Kaline, Cash, Stanley, Freehan, and MClain and Lolich topped their pitching staff. Detroit won the Series that Fall. McClain won 31 games. I also was privileged to have seen Mickey Mantle, Joe Pepitone, Tom Tresh, and Roy White wearing Yankees pinstripes.
My friend Johnny Mesagno who lived a bit up our street, he invited me and my brother to two Mayor's Trophy games. The then in-season exhibition games between the New York Mets and Yankees each season rotated in being played at Yankee and Shea Stadiums. However, the games I attended (1968 & 1969) were both played at Shea.
I was hooked on being at the big league ballparks, and all the fanfare that goes with being amongst thousands of fans. Just seeing the green grass of the playing field gripped my imagination. Living in the Ridgewood section of Queens, there was very little green patches of grass anywhere, and certainly nothing the magnitude of Shea's outfield.
Once moving Upstate, located halfway between Richfield Springs and Cooperstown, I discovered the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Oh yeah, while living on Weirfield Street in Queens, twice my buddy Johnny and his parents took me and my brother for day trips to Cooperstown.
So, in 1978, my pal in Richfield Eric Ehrmann invited me to join he and his parents to The Otesaga Hotel in Cooperstown, the evening before induction Sunday. I borrowed a tie and jacked from Eric, and there I was. Sitting in The Hawkeye Lounge, while listening to a swing band ( a first for me) play into the night. While sipping cokes through the night I met baseball legends for the first time up close.
Thanks to Eric for supplying me a clean baseball, I collected some cool autographs that Saturday evening. Bob Feller, Bowie Kuhn, Sandy Koufax, Stan Musial are names that stick out who I remember meeting. The ball, long since given away, also had then NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle's signature. You never know who you may run into during induction weekends.
Next up, four years later, in 1982 I hooked up with ESPN.
For many years ESPN carried the Hall of Fame Inductions, either live or as a taped telecast. I crewed the 1982 show as stage manager. Basically, my overall responsibilities was to do whatever the show's producer Steve Stedman asked. I showed up in a three-piece suit. The first thing Mr. Stedman said to me as I arrived in the production truck awaiting my assignment - "lose the jacket."
For 19 consecutive years I filled a number of positions for the ESPN show, and I have nothing but found memories. Squeezed into Induction Weekends were a few other assignments that I gladly accepted.
The Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox were the teams traveling to Cooperstown for the 1985 Annual Hall of Fame Game. I received a call from a news editor at UPI - Fred McBride asking if I could give an account for the day's happenings. What made the day extra special was a visit by then Vice-President George H.W. Bush.
What fascinated me most was the amount of security scattered in and around Doubleday Field. Sharpshooters were in firing position on the roof of the ballpark. Secret Service agents were walking about the playing surface. Men with ear pieces in were everywhere. Very intimidating but equally exciting at the same time. I filed my story, and the story that went out on the wire service had my name as the byline.
In the 1990's, me and Billy would camp out the night before tickets went on sale, usually in February or early March, in front of the Hall of Fame. We were always first, and frozen at the same time. Blankets and long underwear be damned, we froze as we sat in chairs placed next to the Hall of Fame door that was to open at 9:00AM. We even had a feature story written about us in The Daily Star newspaper, as well as a picture of us all bundled up, as a follow up to demonstrate our fanaticism for the game.
Again, real cool.
In 1984, the Hall of Fame Game featured the Detroit Tigers and Atlanta Braves. This was an era when the SuperStation WTBS carried nearly all Braves home and away games. Well, the Hall's exhibition game would be no exception for the SuperStation's programing. After Sunday's work on ESPN's show of the newest hall of famers making their speeches, the crew turned their attention to what would be expected for the next day.
WTBS Carried the Braves game LIVE from Cooperstown. I was hired as stage manager for this gig too ($75.00 for the day). The part of my responsibilities was two-fold. First, I shadowed the late, great announcer Craig Sager the entire game. What he asked for, I delivered in record speed. I also spent a few minutes with then Braves' TV announcer John Sterling. And if you watch a tape of the broadcast, the show opens with home plate being brushed off - that's me brushing the dirt off the plate.
The following year, 1985, a company out of California staged a Yankees fantasy camp. I don't remember how I was able to contact the promoter, but it turned out that my wife Barbara and I became the clubhouse/equipment managers for the three-day event. We washed the former Yankees and campers' uniforms, set up a clubhouse in the basement of The Otesaga, and attended to the players needs during the games. I also made a couple cigarette runs for former Yankee Hector Lopez.
Going back a few years, in 1981 I was hired as the assistant general manager/director of public relations for the Little Falls Mets. At the time Little Falls served as the New York Mets' short-season Class A affiliate. The experience I gained, and the contacts I made remain near and dear to me. At season's end, I was invited to Shea for an interview with then Mets Assistant General Manager Lou Gorman. Sitting in his office, as a 22-year-old, I could see my future in baseball.
Less than a week later I received a phone call from the general manager of the Mets Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk, Virginia. I was offered a position in sales and public relations for the grand weekly salary total of $150.00. I wasn't willing to take the first step, and make the sacrifices in the minors, in hope of a brighter future in the big leagues.
The following season baseball would still be chewing up much of my time, and I would begin a lasting friendship, too.
WLFH 1230 AM was planning to carry a large chunk of Little Falls Mets games. I was paired with Mohawk's Bill Keeler. With each broadcast I learned just how much I didn't know about calling a game, and how awful I was. But, hey, I was living the dream. WLFH aired all home games, and road games in Oneonta and Utica. Depending on who was handling the play-by-play or color commentary for each broadcast, I would earn if I remember correctly $15.00 and $12.00.
Beginning in 2012, for eight years I penned a sports blog for the Observer-Dispatch in Utica. Most of my stories/interviews were with baseball people. I also covered the Hall of Fame's Classic; a game featuring retired players representing all 30 MLB clubs.
I continue this tradition now for WIBX950.com. The Hall's Classic in May and inductions each July are my two favorite times of the year - bar none. Living now in Southwest Florida, I already have my plane tickets and car rentals set up so I can attend both events.
Then there is my addiction to the Syracuse Mets (formerly Chiefs).
Cooperstown and Syracuse's NBT Bank Stadium are my favorite places on earth. Triple-A baseball is always a wonderful experience in Syracuse. Affordable, entertaining, and inspiring, wonderful local management knows how to promote baseball. With all the hype around Syracuse University's basketball and football programs, I would like to see folks in the Utica area just try the experience presented by the Syracuse Mets - just once. You will thank me.
This past March I attended my first spring training game here in Bradenton - southern home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Who knows what's next for me but one thing is for sure, it's going to involve a bat, ball or a spread of green grass.
Don Laible is a freelance sportswriter from the Mohawk Valley, now living in Florida. He has reported on professional baseball and hockey for print, radio, and on the web since the 1980's. His columns are featured weekly at WIBX950.com. Don can be contacted via email at Don@icechipsdiamonddust.com.