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The true boys of summer

A week of covering the Meriden Merchants baseball team at McKenna Field for the Greater Hartford Twilight League championship has opened up another exciting facet of the game for me.

Every level of the game has the inherent bucolic beauty that baseball was meant to convey.

I’ve relished my time covering the Little League Eastern Regionals at the A. Bartlett Giamatti Leadership and Training Complex in Bristol. There’s always something special about paying tribute to the innocence of youth as it pertains to our American way of life.

At the other end of game’s prism in central Connecticut is the Eastern League and the New Britain Rock Cats. For a very reasonable admission price, the baseball is just two steps from what you pay dearly to see at Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium. Weighing the quality of play and the cost effectiveness of enjoying baseball, nothing beats New Britain Stadium.

But what has escaped my realm over the years is the young men who adore the game, played in college or at a similar level but weren’t talented or fortunate enough to reach the play-for-pay plateau.

I spent a considerable amount of time using my internet skills learning about the players on the Merchants and the team that beat them for the title Wednesday night, Ferguson Waterworks.

A handful of them, like the Merchants’ left-handed pitchers Charlie Hesseltine and Ryan DiPietro, and Ferguson right-hander Jamie Kukucka, had opportunities in the professional independent leagues. Many were All-League or All-State quality players in high school. Others like Merchants right-hander Eric Polvani and Kevin Jefferis of the Connecticut Expos went on to prominence in college programs from Division III on up.

I went into the Twilight experience expecting a lion’s share of walks, physical errors and mental mistakes based on miscommunication or the lack of unity. None of those deterrents surfaced. Play was crisp. Were there errors? Of course. How many Major League games go by without an error or two being made, some of them as shocking as a dropped infield pop?

Walks were few. Polvani, for example, issued one free pass in his 20 innings of work (2-0, 0.70 ERA, 26 strikeouts in the tournament).

The GHTL began using wooden bats eight years ago, giving the games a more nostalgic feeling than the scholastic and college contests where the soothing crack of the bat has been replaced by an unholy “ping.” The hitters really have to barrel up pitches in order to get solid base hits. Some, like the Merchants’ third baseman Justin Poirier, have adjusted rather well.

The atmosphere was charming. McKenna Field, located just east of Route 5 (Main Street) in McAuliffe Park, is ringed by hundred-year-old pine trees. The diamond is well-manicured by the East Hartford Parks and Recreation Department. The grandstands offer shade on one side and sun on the other.

McKenna, named after legendary East Hartford sportsman Ray McKenna, doesn’t have the amenities of New Britain Stadium, but I didn’t hear any complaints about the hamburgers, hot dogs and cold drinks the GHTL’s concession stand serves.

The GHTL is something of an anachronism. The league history cites the legendary players who came through years ago and the crowds up to 7,000 who witnessed games in generations past. Those days regrettably are over.

Baseball fields have been replaced by malls, street corners, computer rooms and other hangouts as centers for today’s youth.

Baseball is just one sport, somewhat lost among football, basketball and auto racing these days, considered too slow because of the hyperactivity that has supercharged our existence.

But those who frequent the GHTL — president Mark Foss and his wife Jane, coaches who have made it a lifetime like Gene Johnson and Tom Abbruzzese and dedicated young player/organizers like the Merchants’ co-managers Rob Tencza and Trey Bongiovanni — deserve worlds of credit.

They have a wonderful product, one that goes largely unreported and under-appreciated as the world races by on the interstates nearby. Thanks to all who made my GHTL experience an eye-opener. And to any still around who can appreciate grass-roots baseball, you’ve simply got to take a look when play starts up next season.



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