On the Broad Street subway heading home I was approached by an Inquirer reporter writing a story about baseball and Opening Day. He wanted to know what makes people baseball crazy. He sat down next to me and asked me why I follow the Phillies.
I said I think it’s been programed into me from childhood — I had three older brothers and a sister. Then he asked if I played as a kid. I laughed and said, “Yea, I guess so, like from age, 5.” I told him for some, it becomes a way of life. He wasn’t sure what I meant. He asked me to explain.
So I did.
For some, baseball is a game you play and follow throughout life. From age 8 to 14, I spent long summer days at the playground where I grew up on the ‘Hill.’ From 7, when I left the house, to the dinner bell. We made up teams from a pool of 50 some kids.
No adult supervision, we just made up teams and played. Sometimes an older kid would ump, standing behind the pitcher’s mound, calling balls and strikes.
As I became older and played organized ball, I played on the Hill’s little team (Babe Ruth, 13-15) and then the big team (American Legion, 16-19). The Hill was mostly made up of blue collar Irish and Italian families. With my name, I could swing either way.
I met Pete Bruno on the first day of spring practice for the Babe Ruth team, we were both 15. Pete’s family emmigrated from Italy — from the town of Luzzi in Calabria, when he was 7.
They came to New York on the Andrea Doria, one of the most beautiful ships of its time — Italy’s prize cruise ship. The next trip the Andrea Doria made it collided with another ship and sunk. Many passengers died.
The Brunos lived in Conshohoken then moved to the Hill. Pete’s mom and dad didn’t know the meaning of entitlement, they just knew hard work.
The Bruno home always smelled like gravy — what the Italians call the tomato sauce they make for pasta. Pete’s dad made home made wine. You could get drunk by simply smelling it. Mr. and Mrs. Bruno and Pete’s three sisters were great people.
I’ll never forget that first day I met Pete. He was cocky as hell and confident about his baseball ability — and I thanked God he wasn’t a catcher.
He’d say, “You guys ready to see the Brun hit?” We all watched him on that first day of spring practice, when the field was muddy and the air still quite cold.
Didn’t matter to us, we would have practiced in a snow storm.
The ball jumped off his bat and sounded different than when the rest of us hit. Left handed, he had a sweet ‘Johnny Callison’ like swing and hit the ball hard in the corner and alleys in right.
I played a lot of games with Pete: Babe Ruth, American Legion, Harriton High School, and Narbeth PenDel, where I sat and he played.
Six kids signed pro contracts from that Narberth Penndel team. Every team I played on with Pete he hit either clean up, third or fifth. With a swing like his, he was a natural run producer.
I was a catcher, good arm, good glove, no hit. Not many stole on me — successfully. Pete was a third baseman, good glove, good arm, and he could flat out hit. He also played a year of third base at Temple.
On the Hill, we were a team with a chip on its shoulder, ready to fight, and we did a few times. In high school, playing at Haverford High School — bunch of rich kids with snotty attitudes, we didn’t like them much. Pete hit a grounder to short and the first baseman moved into his path to catch the throw and Pete knocked him about ten yards. It took a while for the fight to break up, after both benches emptied.
We were no angels, either. One night, driving around the Main Line drinking beer, we got pulled over by the Lower Merion police. There were five of us. The cop made us put our quarts of beer on the roof. We thought we were dead. It was late and I can still see the beer on the roof illuminated by passing cars. It was Schmidts.
Gary Petka, our left fielder with a gun for an arm, and another Hill kid you didn’t want to mess with. He told the cop — who also was from the Hill; back then, most LM police officers were — we were playing the next day in a high school championship game, which was true.
Gary told him if he “took us in,” Harriton would forfeit. The officer let us go — WITH THE BEER. Every single quart. “Alright,” he said, “now get out of here and go drink in the woods or in a park somewhere. You Hill kids are a pain in the ass.”
Sure, that would happen today.
We got caught smoking in the locker room between games of a high school double header, by the wrestling coach. After a lecture on smoking, HE, TOO, LET US GO! Somebody was always looking out for the kids from the Hill.
Pete later played in two Phillies’ Dream Week camps. Plus, in 1996, he played in the Phillies Dream Week all-star game at the Blue Rock Stadium in Wilmington, Delaware — part of the festivities that were included in the Major League All-Star game. Lots of guys went to Dream Week, but only a small minority played in the all-star game.
Today, Pete is a successful business owner and lives in
Villanova with his wife, Regina. They have two children and four grandchildren.
He was my best friend in high school and my second best friend today. Every other month, he and I still meet at a restaurant, drink some wine, eat, and laugh about the past. We have a lot to laugh about.
* * * *
When I met Dave Sikorski I wasn’t as wild. It was at Mansfield High School where I taught and Dave was the junior high guidance counselor. He’s now a retired school psychologist.
Dave’s office was in the same hall where I had hall duty before school and during homeroom. So we had lots of time to interact. The teachers at Mansfield were a close-knit group and we played cards and softball together.
One night at cards, one of the players, history teacher and track coach Terry Mudge — you can see his famous blog that he and I do together, here — got annoyed when a card player put his cards down during a hand, then picked them back up.
Terry said when you do that, you’ve dropped out of the game. He said once out always out. An argument ensued and Terry left.
Dave and I cooked up this scheme in school the next morning — Dave, I know you’re reading this, don’t deny it. Every morning senior Tommy Fahsbender would read the morning announcements over the school’s PA system.
Somehow, he got a message to add to the end of his announcements. It went something like this: “So that’s it for this morning’s announcements, but remember, once out always out, right Mr. Mudge?”
Dave and I were standing together in the hall during the announcements and we heard Mr. Mudge’s door open and slam against the wall.
Terry, a more serious type, but a great coach, history teacher and friend, came looking for Dave and me, standing together in the hall grinning like two hyenas.
Terry figured it had to be us who set up Tommy. He let us know he didn’t appreciate our creativity in front of the entire school. All we could do was laugh and swear it wasn’t us.
But he never believed us. Terry, I swear to the heavens it wasn’t us. Right, Wes?
I played on a slow pitch softball team with Dave in Mansfield, first called Super Duper, then West’s Lounge. Five of the guys on the team were teachers and the other teams in the county loved playing the teachers’ team.
We were good and Dave was one of the reasons why. He was a right handed hitter who, like Pete, could drive the ball to the corner and alleys in right.
Slow pitch is not an easy game to play. A good slow pitch pitcher will put a little spin on the ball and arch it up as much as 20 feet before the ball comes down across the strike zone.
If you’ve never played it, it’s like trying to swat a mosquito with a 40 ounce bat. Dave, like Pete, was a good hitter. He had this little shimmy with his hips and butt while he waited for the ball to drop — it was all part of his timing. Then he unleashed a rocket to right.
Dave pitched and played first. I played third and again was a good glove, good arm, no hit. Same old story. Dave played slow pitch from his early 20’s to his early 40’s. I played on the Mansfield teams, maybe 7 years.
Today Dave and Judy live in Mansfield. They have four children and four grandchildren.
Another good athlete on that team, my former neighbor, Wes Detar, our shortstop. Wes was an outstanding athlete at Galeton High School and Lock Haven University.
He was the Phys Ed teacher and varsity soccer and basketball coach at Mansfield High, the athletic director — plus, the driver education teacher, and he still lived to tell about that one. Wes is a member of the Tioga County Sports Hall of Fame. He was a damn good coach.
Bruno, Detar, Sikorski, and Costello, never received a $5 million signing bonus, never played in fancy stadiums or in front of big crowds. Like millions of ball players in America, they played with great guys who all had one thing in common.
They loved the game.