Chapter 3: My Pop and Little League in Dundalk

March 07, 2012 | Nestor Aparicio

on 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, Drew Forrester 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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.