Chapter 3: My Pop and Little League in Dundalk

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(Originally published as a prelude to the “Free The Birds” walkout in Sept. 2006, this is Part 3 of a 19 Chapter Series on How baseball and the Orioles berthed WNST.net. If you’re as upset about the demise of the Baltimore Orioles, please save Thursday, April 5th for some civic action.)

I think the biggest part of my Pop’s revitalization as a person in the 1970’s after his son’s death wasn’t that he found a little sports buddy in me — as a bat boy and an avid baseball, football and basketball watcher — but in the abundance of energy it must’ve taken to keep up with me.

Can you imagine the energy it took a 60-year old, overweight steelworker after a full 90-degree, eight-hour day at Sparrows Point to chase a rambunctious 10-year old boy down from Section 34 in the summer of 1979? That happened every single night! Forty-two games that summer, I swear to God!

My Dad took great pride in volunteering as a Little League coach in my neighborhood, Colgate, near Eastpoint Mall. He won two league championships as the coach of the Colgate-Eastpoint Pirates in 1973 and 1974. It was a four-team league with a great parade through the neighborhood on Opening Day Saturday. It was very a very typical American kinda thing, I thought. I was the team batboy. We had our championship picture and clipping from The Dundalk Eagle on the kitchen wall from the day it was published through my father’s death in 1992. He loved coaching those kids and winning! I liked just being the batboy and being a part of baseball.

All of those “older” kids kind of took me under their wing and made me feel good. They played catch with me, pitched to me — stuff like that. And when you’re 4 or 5, that’s a pretty big deal! These kids were like 12 and 13 years old.

My Pop was such a little league wacko that one time he had a really talented kid named Ted Boccia, who wanted to be a catcher. Only problem was, he was LEFTHANDED!

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He was adamant about catching and catching was my Pop’s FAVORITE position, the one he played as a kid. So, clearly being unable to find a left-handed catcher’s mitt anywhere in the known universe in 1973, he wrote to the Rawlings factory, told the story of this boy’s dream to be a left-handed catcher and they had one made and sent it to my Pop. I even think my Pop might’ve paid for it himself. Needless to say, the Eastpoint Pirates had an outstanding left-handed catcher, the only one I’ve ever seen in my life!

As for me during those years, I excelled at the greatest game ever played: Wiffle ball!

We played in my backyard and alley. All the neighborhood kids did.

There were no “fantasy” leagues or video games. There was APBA and Strat-o-Matic (we honestly didn’t discover those until adolescence and I loved me some “Strat” in the days when I got a little older), but we opted for good old-fashioned “put the bat through the glove” kinda ball.
ANY kind of ball, actually — wallball, wiffleball, kickball, rundown, pitcher’s handout or just plain, baseball — we’d play!

We’d play with pinkies (those soft spongy balls), we’d play with superballs, but mostly we’d play with tennis balls and wooden bats on the pavement at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church on the back side of Eastern Avenue. We’d play ANYTHING but softball,because that was a sport “for girls.” Only girls and a bunch of old men who always looked like the baseball equivalent of Uncle Rico (fat, over the hill, weird and probably drinks too much) from “Napoleon Dynamite” played softball in my neighborhood. And in my neighborhood, you didn’t play lacrosse. The one guy who did play, threw the ball endlessly against the same wall, all alone, and eventually got beaten up.

But there were three serious games we played and we started at 8 a.m. and went until our mothers yelled down the alley for the second or third time and the din of the lightning bugs was thick, the crickets were chirping and the mosquitoes were feasting on us.

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Then, it was usually time for Snowball Joe to roll through the neighborhood in his white truck ringing the bell and blaring 98 Rock. I always went with the pineapple with marshmallow — the topping was an extra 10 cents, but well worth the investment. I always looked for the lucky star on the bottom of the cup. It meant a “freebie” next time!

The most popular game we played was the tennis ball/wooden bat concoction on the church lot. We had a home run fence and a left center field alley, which was LITERALLY an alley. It’s still there to this day. If you could hit the ball past the left fielder, the ball could roll all day — and it was UPHILL!

The pastor at the church was a real drag (we used another euphemism for a man named Richard for this, and we’re probably taking the no-purgatory route straight to hell for the things we said). That was totally our favorite game and place and hang until the pastor put up a “NO BALL PLAYING” sign after the drug addicts and drunks and vandals in our neighborhood trashed the aluminum siding late one night. Our adult friend Bunny always pitched for us in the summer, and quarterbacked in the winter. He was Tony Tamberino’s uncle and one of the coolest guys ever — he played in a band and had days off, and usually spent them running around with us. He was the quarterback and pitcher whenever he played and it was always more fair when he played because he was the law!

And he went and tried to talk some sense into the pastor, but we still got tossed!

Then, we were forced back into Rob Debelius’ yard (he had the biggest yard in the neighborhood and it was a constant source of energy with six kids in his family) on Eastern Avenue and we were resigned to playing “advanced” waffle ball. We had played there a lot as 7 and 8 year olds. But at 10-11-12, we had to invent rules to make the game a challenge. Hitting the ball OVER the fence was now an out — it was just too easy. You had to HIT THE FENCE to have a home run, a very difficult art to master. A liner off the pool deck was a double. A liner into the pool was an out (and whoever HIT it had to GET it…with the net…hitters/gitters is what we called it!).

There was a basketball pole directly behind the pitcher and if you hit it in the hoops net, it was an automatic grand slam. And there was a log cabin in right field and a solid cement wall acted as the first base line. Left field had a long, low gray fence. Centerfield was, appropriately, a green wall. And deep centerfield had a garage overhang that was perpendicular and fed the balls back down if you hit it onto the roof.

Here was the major “house” rule (and didn’t EVERY playground have these?): catching off anything! That meant if you caught it before it touched the ground it was an out no matter what it hit off of (including the grand slam basket!). And the fence had a ledge that was always playable, if you were quick.

We ALL kept our own statistics. Some summers when we got a little older, we’d have like 139 dingers in one season!

Wiffle ball was the best game for emulating the Orioles’ stars and their batting stances.

We’d play Orioles vs. the Red Sox and make lineups from the previous night’s box score and then have to bat AND pitch in the style of the player who was up. If you didn’t know what Eddie’s crouch looked like or Bumbry’s squat or Lee May’s herky-jerky twist, you were going to be getting the business from the fellows in the ‘hood. And doing Tiant’s twirl was absolutely the best. EVERYONE in my neighborhood wanted to be Luis Tiant!

The only way to have your “head in the game” was to watch the game in the evenings on TV. And of course, we tried to follow the “Oriole Way” because Brooks Robinson and Chuck Thompson would tell us the right ways to be a ballplayer. Hitting the cutoff man, sacrificing, moving runners — those same fundamentals that really don’t exist in the majors any more — I learned them from BROOKS.

EVERY NIGHT!

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Other than the tennis parking lot game and waffle ball, the only other game was the most obvious — getting a real bat and glove and ball and heading “up to the school” for a pickup game. This usually involved kids from other parts of the neighborhood, who would occasionally invade our turf for a waffle ball friendly or hit the church lot before we were expelled.

This was always the least amount of fun for us, because usually it was just a big drama nd some kids just sucked at baseball and couldn’t hit the ball, so it got boring. And we were kinda far from Mom’s Kool-Aid and lunch and our parents didn’t like us hanging where they couldn’t keep an eye on us. So, if one kid couldn’t play because the folks were being edgy, we’d usually just stay on our street because we all mostly liked each other and had loads of fun.

Playing “organized” ball was another story.

Obviously, my Pop was into the local league but it was kinda falling apart at the time in Colgate. The rival league was the Eastwood Little League and that was just the bomb. Like something out of “The Bad News Bears,” complete with stage parents, hoods hanging around the fields just sans the “super-ultra-cool” home run fence. I remember when that movie came out I didn’t think the girl pitching was cool, or the storyline was particularly cool. The kids were fresh and uppity, but that wasn’t the sell for me.

There were two unique marketing events in that movie that stole my heart:

1. I thought the fact that the “bad guys” went to Pizza Hut when they won was AMAZING! The Pizza Hut in Middle River — to a kid from Colgate — was the most “exotic” place in the world to get pizza. Right up there with Shakey’s!

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2. I also thought that the mere notion of an actual home run fence (I STILL had NEVER EVEN SEEN such a thing in person until I was well into my 20’s in Florida for spring training!) was completely over the top and the greatest thing I’d ever seen. I thought it was so good and so cool, that it probably only existed in the movies…and in the Little League World Series!

And when they hit the Astrodome in the second movie with Tanner Boyle?

“Let them play, let them play!”

Well, you had to have actually played Little League to get it. It’s a complete over-the-top fantasy thing you’d really have to be a 10-year old boy to understand!

Chico’s Bail Bonds is still hilarious!

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Our Little League when I was a batboy at Colgate had two food groups: hot dogs and snowballs. My Pop, though, did get pretty damned close to the Pizza Hut-quality of party when we would take the entire team to the newly opened Friendly’s at Eastpoint Mall for our end-of-the-season team party. Andy, who was the coolest kid on the team to me, always got the Jim Dandy. There is also a guy who played on that team named Tom Duni, who I still see at WNST events all the time.

But even with the big party, Eastwood was the Rolls Royce of eastside leagues and it was just a short bus ride or a long walk for my Pop and I.

I did play just one year at Colgate when I was 6 and it was only instructional baseball on a tee.

The first day I played “tee” ball — and I swear to God this is a true story — I threw the ball over my Dad’s shoulder through the plate glass window in our living room. First throw, he missed and BOOM…glass everywhere! My Mom was PISSED!

And then it was off to the field at Colgate Elementary where I played first base because I was the only kid who could catch and that’s what you do when you’re six. I was honestly the only kid in the league who wasn’t afraid of the ball at that point because my Pop threw to me in the backyard and alley every day from the time I could stand up.

By the time I was 8 it was time to move up to Eastwood and the big time.

Eastwood’s league games were played at the Joseph Lee Fields behind Patterson High School and Our Lady of Fatima, where my birth parents were married, where I attended eight years of CCD and did the whole traditional communion, confirmation Catholic thing. We went to church every single Sunday from birth until I was old enough to make my own decisions with my Sunday mornings.

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Don’t laugh: but I was even an alter boy for six glorious years! (“I’m sorry, Father Baumgartner, I have no idea what happened to the missing church wine.” I’m telling ya, I’m heading straight to hell for that one alone!)

At Our Lady of Fatima, we had a night called Sports Night. Every year an Oriole would come to the event and eat rubber chicken…or worse…the roast beast! Actually, I thought it was the most exotic meal ever because my family NEVER, EVER ate at restaurants.

Not even the White Coffee Pot or Denny’s. Never!

I didn’t eat at a real restaurant until about 1981 when Harborplace opened and my maternal mother would take me there for dinner when she was sober to show me about the finer things in the world.

She didn’t like baseball and she listened to country music, so we honestly didn’t have a lot to talk about during my childhood.

So, Sports Night and the roast beast dinner was like a Ruth’s Chris function in my neighborhood. We had to wear a suit jacket on a Tuesday night, I was 9 years old and real NFL players, Oriole players, sportswriters and horse racing jockeys (Danny Wright came every year) came to hang out and sign autographs and do the community goodwill thing.

It was, in no small way, the biggest night of the year for my family!

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Cal Ripken Sr. was a regular, smoking cigarettes all night when it was still OK to do that sorta thing publicly. And everyone drank draft beer from clear pitchers in plastic cups, including the head table. All of that celebrity, right there, in the basement of Our Lady of Fatima.

One year I met Nestor Chylak, the umpire, there. He was from the Pennsylvania area near Scranton where my Pop was from. They actually knew some of the same people, and my Pop ADORED Nestor Chylak. He signed an autograph for me on a slip of paper and told me I was the first American “Nestor” he’d ever met. I still have that autograph!

I still have the pictures. One year Kenny Cooper came to Fatima when the Blast were getting started and it was cool to see him become a star in town. But it’s even cooler now that I can call him this afternoon and run some silly business ideas by him.

And you know what one of the really cool things I’ve ever done in radio is?
I actually WAS a “sports radio celebrity” sitting at the head table of that banquet in the late 1990’s, when I was invited by Ben Neil, who always rounded up the “celebrity” troops.  Of course, Elrod Hendricks was the Oriole who represented the club that night!

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Do you have ANY idea how proud my Pop would be if he knew I was a “celebrity” at the Sports Night Dinner at Our Lady of Fatima?

Along with hosting the Dundalk Heritage Fair parade back in 2001, nothing has made me more feel more pride!

But again, Fatima was really the home of baseball for me: the Joseph Lee Fields and the Eastwood Little League in the parking lot between there and Patterson High School.

It was on the hill on Field No. 1 when I learned Elvis died on Aug. 16, 1977. (Elvis dying was a BIG, BIG deal when you were from Dundalk. At least five of the Moms in my neighborhood claimed to have met Elvis, and one time we even saw a commode at the Eastern Center flea market/bingo emporium on Eastern Avenue at Eastpoint that said Elvis had sat upon it. They wanted $25 for the seat, which was truly a King’s ransom at that time).

It was also at the Joseph Lee Fields where I first saw Tim Norris pitch. Once my Dad saw him pitch once, we became like groupies. We went to every game he pitched up on the pony league fields near the hospital, and then lo and behold, he was drafted by the BALTIMORE Orioles, and on the same day as Cal Ripken Jr. was.

Obviously — and I’ve met Tim a few times over the years and he was always kind — I kinda wish I had grown up in Aberdeen in some ways!

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But Eastwood was no joke!

Eastwood’s Little League was so legit that real Orioles players came and spoke at the awards banquet. I still have my picture of Doug DeCinces in his brown leather bomber at the Steelworkers Hallon Dundalk Avenue, next to the Roy Rogers.

It was also at the Joseph Lee Fields (the one field right at the mouth of the Patterson High parking lot) where I suffered my greatest sporting indignity (if you don’t count that national anthem at the Blast game a few years back when I forgot the words!)

We were a tight outfit, the Eastwood Orioles. Led by taskmaster manager Butch Karolkowski — he forbid us to swim on game days because he “needed us fresh” — and featuring now almost-famous UFC fighter John Rallo (I also played Pop Warner football with him at Dundalk Gridiron in the Summer of 1978…I was late for practice the day Bucky Dent hit the home run against the Red Sox because we were too busy watching the game!) and the coach’s son, Mark Karolkowski, we won the first half of the season, putting us into the World Series. We had the last game of the second half of the season against the Yankees, led by shortstop Barry Stitz, who would go on to a professional soccer career with Kenny Cooper and the Blast and Spirit.

We had the same record, same everything in the second half and the game came down to the final inning and we were the home team. I had the ultimate situation: bases loaded, two outs, last inning, full count.

I can’t make this stuff up!

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(The whole story was told in 2024 on Crab Cake Row: A Cup Of Soup Or Bowl at State Fare):

If we won the game, there would be no World Series, because we would have won both halves.
If I walk, we win the World Series. If I get a hit, we win the World Series. If I make an out, we go to extra innings.

The pitcher was the most feared pitcher in the league, Richie Pfaff, who did a turn in the minors of the Milwaukee Brewers system later in life, I believe. And worse than throwing what felt like 103 miles per hour, he was LEFTHANDED. All these years, do you know just how weird those lefthanders were? You might see two or three in your league all summer!

The odds were stacked against me.

I took a pitch, low and away. Thirty years later, I’d still call it borderline, but the ump called it “STRIKE THREE.” I not only screwed that up, I also got stuck having to pitch the next inning because our front line guys — Karolkowski (who was at my wedding three years ago and I saw most recently at the Blast championship game with his younger brother, who was OUR bat boy that season) and Mike Moniodis (who is now a musician and faithful WNST listener participating in the rally on September 21 and I honestly haven’t laid eyes on him since we were 10 years old — we communicate via email!) had used up all of their innings. I proceeded to give up the winning run the next inning. We lost the World Series the next week to the Yankees of Barry Stitz.

I was, effectively, washed up at 10! Never to be the same!

Barry Stitz was playing in that game at the Joseph Lee Fields almost 30 years ago. Barry Stitz was also playing on the night of the Blast anthem fiasco.

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Coincidence? I think not!

And to think I named MY ONLY SON, Barry!

I did have one other very positive athletic pursuit as a child, besides duckpin bowling (I was an excellent Saturday morning keggler in the Highlandtowners league at Eastpoint Fair Lanes from 1973 through 1981). Even though my team never won a championship — I can’t really count the batboy championship days of Colgate — I do have one really cool plaque that I earned.

In 1977, my Pop found out very last minute (I think he read about it in the paper) about the Thom McAnn “Pitch, Hit and Run” competition in Patterson Park in Highlandtown. It was on a Saturday afternoon, and for whatever reason, we got on the bus and I was wearing street shoes. Not soft bottom hushpuppies or something reasonably athletic. I was in actual black “dress” shoes with polish and stuff, the kind you’d wear to church.

The kind you’ve probably BUY at Thom McAnn!

We got there late, registered and I won the competition going away. You had to throw the ball fast and accurately. You had to run the bases quickly. And then you hit the ball as far as you could. For whatever reason — and I think I was in with a crummy lot to be honest — I was the champion and took home the plaque. I was a decent ballplayer, usually the kid who batted second or third or, most times, fifth, but I was never the star of my team.

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I always used to see the national finalists from this competition on television from Myrtle Beach at the All Star Game (wearing their home team jersey and that was when kids didn’t just HAVE home team jerseys available to them…it’s not like you could just buy one at the mall like today). So, for winning I’d have a chance to compete at Memorial Stadium for the right to represent the Orioles in some regional contest in some exotic place — like Philadelphia or something!

We got on the bus like we always did (but it wasn’t a game day so it was a little weird and empty, unlike those many raucous evenings with O’s and Colts fans) and we were en route to 33rd Street when the bus failed right at the corner of Erdman Avenue and Edison Highway — right where the Bel Air-Edison sign sits below Catholic High School. We were stuck at the gas station and had to walk the rest of the way to Memorial Stadium.

I’d like to say fatigue set in that afternoon on 33rd Street and I was exhausted from the heat, but really, I just stunk. I was slow as molasses, threw like a sorry left-handed girl and beat the ball into the ground when I had to hit. I finished so far in last place that it was really disgraceful. My Pop just shrugged and said I wasn’t the best player that day, but he was tickled that I actually got to hit on the field where Johnny Unitas played (actually Ordell Braase was his favorite Colt) and Brooks Robinson played.

But, I CAN say that I got to hit on the field at Memorial Stadium.

How many kids can say that, right?

I later played a few seasons in the Berkshire Little League, but I was just really killing time until I discovered girls. I learned how to become a catcher in that league (my Pop was always a catcher so I think that made me wanna do it even more) because most kids were afraid of getting their hands chewed up. I was already missing my index finger on my right hand (I had a lawnmower accident chasing a superball when my Pop turned his back in our front yard when I was 3), and I loved the idea of balling up my hand and putting it behind my back when the batter swung so it was no big deal to me.

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My fielding glove was always a Rawlings — Tom Seaver autographed, but you could never see the O in his autograph. So it looked more like ‘Tmmmm.”

My Dad bought this special oil to rub down the glove and he put a clamp on it and wrapped rubber bands around it to make it soft and pliable so I’d have the best chance.

Then, we’d put it under the mattress for a good week to get it properly prepped.

Some days I can still smell that old glove, the leather, I can taste the leather strap that I’d tighten with my teeth when I played the field.

Or I can smell that dirty, dusty smell that my catching equipment always had at Berkshire. The smoky, burning, silted cloud of dust that would kick up when someone slid.

But almost 30 years later people like Mark Karolkowski and Richie Zavetz and John Rallo and Barry Stitz always seem to pop up in an email or somewhere out on the street. And 30 years later they listen to my little radio station. And we were teammates or rivals or friends when we were 10 years old.

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And almost 30 years later, baseball and life has changed so much from those Little League fields in East Baltimore.

But sports are still very much in all of our blood! The games probably always will be.

But for me — and thousands of other kids like me who grew up to be sports junkies in this great city — it ALL started with baseball.

And that orange hat with an “O” on it. Licensed or otherwise…

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