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Wm. S. Hart baseball experience remembered

Feb. 2 marked Opening Day at the Hart baseball complex.

Posted: March 7, 2008 5:20 p.m.
Updated: April 10, 2008 2:01 a.m.

The Signal's Escape cover, Friday, Feb. 8-Thursday, Feb. 14, 2008.

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When we were a newer family at the Wm. S. Hart baseball complex, I would sometimes gaze at the large display boards bolted just above the sight lines on the chain link fences around the fields. They had championship team information printed on them.

Even in 1996 some of those boards were peeling with age. Still, the flaking letters told the tale: one could read the year, division, coaching staff, team roster and some particulars about the proud competition. The coach and team mom often shared the same last name.

Printed there were some the well-known names at Hart in their day. As I mused about people at those past events, I realized virtually nobody at the Hart complex knew who those people were anymore. But ask folks about those coaches and players back then, when the board was first bolted up, and most would have at least heard of them.

I would do a bit of math to help imagine where those teammates might be in life, let's see:
13 year-olds,
+ 12 years ago
My goodness, married and working in most cases. Many in school. Some in foreign lands. Some even no longer with us. Life and time scatters us like that.

There they all were though, in one place, at one grand costest; to take with them for life. For better or worse. So much time ago. Kind of sad.

Ah, heck, no worries. We're here now. We have our whole Hart experience ahead of us! We have all the time in the world. . .

Getting Started - Dec. 1995
It began with concern for our five-year-old Nickolas' upcoming choices, health and safety. Since moving to Saugus in 1992, when Nickolas was two, Alice and I observed neighborhood boys. Some with cigarettes -- or worse -- just hanging out. We didn't want Nickolas to be one of them.

Somebody suggested we get Nickolas involved in baseball at the William S. Hart Baseball Complex. Neither Alice nor I had sports backgrounds, even as spectators. But it seemed a likely fit for the stick-wielding little boy who winged and whacked balls, rocks and yard fruit with astounding accuracy. Young Nick could often be found somewhere outside the house by tracing the source of those projectiles.

Prior to the 1996 spring season, we went to the mysterious place of baseball and signed Nickolas up to see if he would like it. He did, and away we went. Some weeks after the sign-ups, I got the exciting call: "This is Dan Girch, I'm Nickolas' T-ball coach." Dan was enthusiastic to teach baseball to our team-the Cardinals.

I was a bit worried about how I might relate to sports families. Once I met them, the worry dissolved. We stood on common ground of loving our kids enough to be there. I came to care for all the kids and still do.

Fundamentals

That first season was one of basically keeping players safe and facing the right direction. During games, there were plenty of time-outs, mostly for tying shoes.

Sometimes, when silent flapping and pantomime did not work, an occasional shout to get fingers out of noses was needed. What the heck is the sign for that?

Baseball fundamentals were handled by at least a half dozen, devoted parents. Most of the rest of us supported by being at practices.

After some direction from the coaches, I even ran some of the practice stations myself. Listen, it took me several seasons to stop calling the runs "points" ok?

By the end of the season, most of the kids were making some real plays and heads-up decisions. Even in T-ball, it could be guessed who might continue to play-and of them, who might play well.

Between my son's skill and and my lack of it, he outgrew my ability to lead the way after the first season. Shoe tying is not big on any resumé. I remained his warm-up catch partner for some years through nepotism.

The Hart Shetland T-ball field was a miniature of the real deal, complete with block-wall dugouts that Nickolas would come to know so well.

We weren't supposed to keep score in T-ball, but we did. After each game we sidled up to my dear wife, Alice, (our "unofficial" scorekeeper) to see the result of her discreet services. With all the encouragement and grace given by the half dozen coaches on the field, those two columns usually looked more like basketball scores.

Pizza, pool parties, Gatorade, and goofing around seemed as much of what we did this all for as the baseball. At least in those younger years. We always needed a dugout coach just to keep the boys' attention on the game they were in. Honestly? Me too -- more than once I'd come out of distracted thought to find I'm clapping for the other side.

On the Hart complex walkways, I would watch the deep-voiced older boys going by. Impressive metal cleats with that uneven drum-roll noise, making three players sound like nine,-fourteen, like a hundred. Would our own little guys ever be wearing such gear? I could not imagine it.

Change of Level (And Name)

Nickolas' talent came naturally and he easily found his team spirit and sense of fairness to himself and others. Each level of ball brought confidence as well as challenges. A couple of years in to the Hart experience, we had to pay Nickolas a dollar just to stay in the batter's box. The baseball-sized bruises he was receiving from the novice pitchers made staying in difficult.

Except for the first and last season, Nickolas was usually the smallest boy on his teams. Twice, during the middle-early years at Hart, he wanted to quit baseball. We deflected and postponed the "retirement." Stopping short of insisting that he stay, we just repeated reasons for doing so. Promising more than we really knew, we told him he would grow. Thankfully, he stayed and did grow, both in size and skill.

Sometime during those first few years "Nickolas" became "Nick." It might have even been something that occurred to him while in one of those dugouts, I don't know. He began insisting it be Nick, so Nick it is.

As time went on, Nick became a solid part of the Hart National League stable. He was getting tagged for All-Star and tournament teams.

We were given the compliment of being asked to join travel teams: Outlaws, Cannons, Nighthawks, Reds and Mudcats. I say "we," here, because it was observed that even the best of players might be avoided if the family package included difficult parents. Any handful of flowers will be dropped if it has bees in it.

For the first seven years, Nick's regular season league teams would often be in the playoffs but they did not come out on top.

OK, OK. I'm Convinced!
Some years in, we were driving home after a particularly hard loss and personally bad game for Nick. He was frustrated and not easily consoled. I was feeling some of the hopelessness of it myself.

At a stoplight, I noticed a boy, only a little older than my own, on the corner. In the evening darkness, I could make out the paper bag the black-clothed kid was carrying. It was the size of a large beer can. The boy had no particular urgency in his manner or direction, but his message to me was critical.

I was convinced for the last time. That is the reason for baseball. The reason we go to all those practices, games, batting cages, tournaments, clinics, meetings and lessons. Why we suck it up, write the checks and keep showing up.

Even if there had not been any meaning or even fun in baseball. To keep these boys directed and busy.

That is why!

But there has been meaning and fun. A lot of it. Fun for Nick in terrific diving catches, thrilling throw downs, successful at bats. The meaning in mastered attitudes, as with acceptance of strings of strike-outs.

And let's remember all the "atta boy" knuckle-bang salutes among teammates for things well done-or well tried. There has been fun coming back to win from a hopelessly lopsided score. Meaning in being our dignified best while losing or winning, especially against an arrogant team. Lots of fun, much meaning.

The Gear. The Time.
Over the years, how many uniforms have Alice and I cheered for on that boy's back? The trophies and medallions cannot be displayed without looking humorously boastful or maybe even deceitful.

Many of the "latest" alloy bats have come and gone. Balls, batting gloves and shoes paid for over and over again.

If gathered, the group of baseball gloves could represent a small herd. They nearly deserve names and burial plots. (If we could find them!)

How many games played? I just don't know. Nick has more contiguous history with baseball than I have had with places of employment or most residences. And so, through him, does our little family.

Ah, Victory. . . But the end, too, dang it
Eight years and 3 months after Nick played his first game as one of those wiggly little Cardinals, he and his fellow National League Bronco Brewers won the season championship playoff game. It was his final game at Hart baseball complex as a Hart player.

Two of those Brewer teammates had been on the Shetland T-ball field with Nick all those years before. One of those two, Shawn, Nick's friend since kindergarten, is currently being looked at by professional teams and has been offered full college scholarship.

That last championship winning night, June 7, 2004, we three Kopackas walked out of William S. Hart Complex as a Hart family for the last time.

After the cheers and trophies, Nick walked ahead, uneventfully, to the dark, dusty parking lot. Alice and I were the last to leave.

At the exit, we turned and looked back at the empty, lighted field. I tried to soak it up, remembering the moments and feeling the importance of it. But it was really not possible. There was so much packed into those at first scary, then terrific, and now memorable years.

Nick has been a Saugus High player since then. With the help of baseball, our son has navigated some of the toughest years in life. During some of the trickier times a young man goes through, the desire to keep a team position outweighed less productive and possibly harmful decisions. The coaches at SHS used this wisely and I am grateful to them.

Thank You
The coaches down at Hart and all youth fields are some of the quiet heroes of our towns. Teaching our kids about life, while they teach sports.

Alice and I are thankful for all of our son's coaches: Joe Ferndino, Pat Smith, Doug Hill, Bob Corrales, Mike Pugmire, Gary Holbrook, Rich Domaradzki, Richard Erickson, Joe Dobson, Gary Warren, Dan Girch, Joe Linn, Jeff Salizar, Shawn Brubaker, Dave Ewart, Randy Henningfield, Ray Scarcello, Rick Villalovos, Gil Dominguez, Bob Mothershead. Thanks most recently to the SHS coaches headed up by John Maggiora.

I'm sorry if some have not been remembered here, but we are grateful to you all, and the many assistants.

Some of the above names have already faded from Hart memory as surely as the flaking letters on some of those boards. Another set of names have come to be known as the core of Hart Baseball family names.

Their fame may have dissipated but they have a lasting effect: their influence is reflected in the hearts, habits and values of those boys who played with and against one another those years at Hart and SHS since. Many of those boys have gone on to be the men of our town and other towns. Some coaching their own teams, some not, but all affected.

Off to College Soon
Nick is rounding the last bend of several things in our little home -- including being in that little home. He will be going to college in New Mexico this August. Nick will be bringing all of that experience to their baseball team. Partly because he is who he is, but very much because of the way he has been taught here, in his hometown.

The portion of baseball tuition money Nick has garnered will be useful. But not nearly as useful as what all of those men and boys have instilled in him.

Imagine that. All of those values, character, growth and life. All that depth from the activities surrounding a nugget of cork, wound in twine, covered with rawhide and stitched together with a bit of red string.

I went to Hart last weekend and took some photos on a nostalgic walk through. I went over to the Mustang field to look at the championship display board from 2002. It has Nick's name in the team roster. Right now, it's still shiny.

Tom Kopacka has lived in Saugus with his wife and son for 16 years.

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