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Four Local Stories In 2017 That Transcended Sports

Charlie LaDuca of Fredonia holds the Men’s Senor Baseball League World Series championship trophy. Submitted photo

EDITOR’S NOTE: While The Post-Journal sports staff prides itself on covering the hits, runs and errors, the goals, the touchdowns, and the recording-breaking times of our area athletes, there are also stories that transcend who wins and who loses. Following are four such features from 2017 that detail the story behind the story as told by sports editor Scott Kindberg.

LADUCA’S FIELD OF DREAMS

NOV. 19, 2007

Charlie LaDuca grew up on Buffalo’s east side in the 1950s. Across the street from his family’s apartment building was a small field where his love for baseball took root.

It wasn’t a carefully manicured piece of real estate. Heck, it wasn’t even a diamond, but Charlie still has warm fuzzies five decades later as he recalled the times he spent on it with his dad, Sam. Typically armed with only one baseball, which was usually wrapped in electrical tape, a bat and a shared passion for America’s pastime, father and son created memories.

Lester Wevers, wearing the Army hat, has been a fixture at Panama Central School athletic events since the 1940s, including serving as an honorary captain for the football team in a game before the program merged with Sherman and Clymer. Submitted photo

“He would throw it, I’d hit it and he’d go chase it,” LaDuca recalled earlier this week. ” … I don’t ever remember him playing (organized) baseball, but … we played a lot of catch and had a lot of batting practice.”

And when they weren’t playing the game, Sam would frequently take Charlie to the old Offerman Stadium in Buffalo to check out the Bisons.

“It was just a different era,” said Charlie, now 65.

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In 1992, at the age of 41, Charlie and two buddies from Fredonia joined an adult baseball league in Buffalo as part of the national organization known as the Men’s Senior Baseball League. Several of Charlie’s games were held at Lincoln Park where he played as a kid. In the warmest of ironies, when Charlie would take the mound, his parents, Sam and Joan, would usually be cheering him on from the stands.

Richie and Peyton Joly at the performance of The Nutcracker at the Reg Lenna Civic Center last month. Submitted photo

Just like they did when he was a kid.

Not long after, Charlie helped form a local 25-and-older team. The Pro Bats Yankees, sponsored by the wood-bat company he owns, is part of the Chautauqua Men’s Senior Baseball League, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this past summer.

“I’ve always enjoyed the game,” said Charlie, who had a decorated coaching career at Pine Valley Central School that helped land him in the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame earlier this year. ” … Growing up with my dad, going to the old Bisons games, it’s been a love affair. … I like the fact that it’s a difficult game to play. Obviously, as I get older, my skills have deteriorated, but it’s the people you meet from all different walks of life. At this point, it really keeps me young to be around these younger players and it gives me something to look forward to as far as staying in shape.

“It’s a beautiful game, an amazing game.”

But don’t get the idea that Charlie, who will turn 66 next week, is ready to hang up his spikes and glove anytime soon.

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In October, Charlie joined 25 teammates from throughout the United States — all 65 and older — in the Men’s Senior Baseball League World Series in the Phoenix, Ariz. area.

Guess what?

Charlie’s team, the Los Angeles Athletics, won.

After 23 tries in various divisions of the MSBL — yes, Charlie has been at it that long — the monkey is finally off his back.

“Bob Sherwin is the manager of the team and he’s actually a wood bat customer of mine,” Charlie said. “I wrote an article for the MSBL organization, he read it and he said, ‘I didn’t realize you were 65. Why don’t you come play for us.'”

That conversation was in May. Five months later, Charlie was taking the mound in Game 1 of pool play of the MSBL World Series.

To say that he was on his game would be an understatement. In fact, the Fredonia Central School baseball players he helps coach each spring would be proud.

In eight innings, the left-hander gave up one unearned run; the Athletics ended up going 5-0 in pool play; and they won the championship game, 14-5. To prove that he can do more than throw strikes, Charlie also had a single in the title game and finished the series with five hits in 11 at-bats. His only concession to Father Time was when he was pulled for a pinch-runner after his base hit in the championship game.

“I really can’t run,” Charlie said. “After my knee replacements, everything changed.”

Not his love for baseball, though, which means Sam, Charlie’s dad who died 13 years ago after battling lung cancer, is smiling somewhere.

“In late October (2004), I was actually (in Arizona) playing in the tournament, and I really had to hustle back (home),” Charlie said. “By the time I got back, he was in a coma.”

A month later, Sam passed away.

To honor his memory, Charlie has his father’s initials written on the brim of his baseball cap.

“It was definitely heavy on my mind when we won (in Arizona),” Charlie said. “I just looked to the heavens and said, ‘We finally did it.'”

Which brings us to Charlie’s favorite movie, “Field of Dreams.”

In one scene, character John Kinsella, played by Dwier Brown, had a conversation with his son, Ray, played by Kevin Costner.

The dialogue goes like this:

John Kinsella: Is this heaven?

Ray Kinsella: It’s … Iowa.

John: Iowa?

Ray: Yeah …

John: I could have sworn it was heaven.

Ray: Is … is there a heaven?

John: Oh, yeah. It’s the place where dreams come true.

Ray: Maybe this is heaven.

“When I watch ‘Field of Dreams,'” Charlie said, “I have to watch it by myself, because I get choked up.”

Who says there’s no crying in baseball?

BOND BETWEEN BERLIN,

PLAYERS REMAINS STRONG

JULY 9, 2017

Not long after the Jamestown 13-year-old all-stars captured the Western New York State Babe Ruth championship Saturday afternoon at Bergman Park, assistant coach Nick Bell took to Facebook.

Along with a victorious team photo, he also added a post, which read, in part:

“I expressed a couple weeks ago to the team that the name on their chest was more than just a name of the city they represented,” he wrote. “It was a name of a brotherhood that forever bonds the lives of young players.

“The success that we achieve is only a byproduct of the ultimate goal of obtaining and maintaining relationships.”

Bell knows of what he speaks.

A generation ago, he was part of a couple of all-star teams that put the Jamestown Babe Ruth League on the map, not only in Western New York, but also throughout the Mid-Atlantic Region. Beyond the wins and losses however, that collection of talent formed a bond that was greater than any Ryan Anderson home run or Dave Schuler pitching gem.

“The reason we were successful when we were 12 and 14 was (because) we loved each other more than we loved ourselves,” Bell told The Post-Journal immediately after Saturday’s 11-4 victory over the East Lake All-Stars. “We played great team baseball, and that’s what you need to be successful in these tournaments. The way these guys really meshed in the last week or so was really the epitome of what we were growing up.”

Incredibly, the thread that connected Bell’s team in the 1990s to the group that Coach Tommy Tantillo ran out on the field this weekend remains the same.

His name?

Doug Berlin.

For those who have made a habit of spending spring and summer nights at Babe Ruth League fields in greater Jamestown for the last 25 or 30 years, you know who Doug is. For many seasons, he was a coach in the dugout, including those fun-filled summers in the 1990s.

Most importantly, in EVERY season Doug — the T-shirt, shorts and floppy socks-wearing Pied Piper — has been a coach in life, one whose love for baseball is only exceeded by his love for kids.

“I really got to know him when I moved back to Jamestown and started coaching,” Tantillo said. “We do talk a lot of baseball, but it seems like every time when he has a baseball story, he always relates to life.”

Sadly, life has thrown Doug, his wife Maureen and their adult children, Erin and Mickey, the worst kind of curve. Two weeks ago, their son, Matt — Mickey’s twin brother — died in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was 33.

But that tragedy hasn’t stopped Doug from continuing to support the players in Jamestown’s Babe Ruth program, particularly the 13-year-olds. So, at Tantillo’s gentle urging, Doug spoke to the kids during their WNY state tournament run, beginning at the end of practice last Wednesday.

“It went a lot better than I thought,” Doug said late Saturday night. “It wasn’t just about baseball. It was about being a good teammate and about the choices you make.”

Added Tantillo: “I thought it was really courageous of Doug to speak at this time. The kids’ eyes were on him the whole time. … They were attentive to what he was saying, taking it to heart. They played to his words.”

So after losing both games in the District 5/7 Tournament, the Jamestown All-Stars put it together as the host of the WNY state tournament, including Saturday when Doug gave them another pregame chat, culminated by a hug for each player.

“He told the guys that these opportunities only come around once in a while, so leave it all on the field,” Tantillo said. “He (also) told the kids how much he loves them and (asked) them to play with a lot of passion and energy.

“It’s great to see 13-year-old kids take those words to heart.”

When the game was over, the Jamestown kids posed for a team photo, but not before Bell retrieved a jacket. On the back was stitched the following: “WNY State Champs 1996.”

The jacket belonged to Matt Berlin, Doug and Maureen’s late son.

“Coach Tantillo and I said that they may not get it or understand it right now, but as the maturation process occurs, they’ll look back and understand just what it meant.”

PRIDE OF PANAMA

APRIL18, 2017

Lester Wevers will be stopping by Panama Central School today, and for those who know the village resident, that’s hardly a surprise.

Fact is, he’s been a regular at PCS for most of his life. His love of all things Panthers began when he was a student and a member of the school’s first football team; continued through the decades, including when his daughters were students; and still remains a vital part of his daily existence as he roots, roots, roots for the home team.

And, today on his 90th birthday, Lester will make the short trip to the school at lunchtime where blue and white cookies (school colors, naturally), decorations and a signed card from the students/faculty await.

“He’ll like that,” Panama athletic director Chris Payne said.

As you’ll soon find out, everybody in this tight-knit community loves Lester.

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Lester graduated from PCS 72 years ago as the class valedictorian, but he’s never left the village after being discharged from the Army. Fact is, he and Wyona, his wife of 67 years, have lived in the same house for 65 of them.

“(Panama) has been part of his blood from early on,” said Dottie Morris, the youngest of four daughters. “It’s just been one of those things that once my sisters (Barbara, Marcia and Cathy) and I graduated, that was still a part of him. He wasn’t going to give it up because we weren’t there to watch. It gives him a lot of things to look forward to, which keeps him young.”

Football, volleyball, basketball, baseball, softball, swimming. You name the sport and if it involves a Panther, expect Lester to be in attendance. Some days he’s there as early as 4 p.m. for junior high basketball, followed by a swim meet, and culminated with the junior varsity and varsity basketball contests.

“He rarely misses a game at Panama and makes many of the close road games,” Payne said. “There have been times when he would try to juice up our crowd by grabbing a pom-pom from the cheerleaders or lead the student section in a cheer.”

Even after Lester turned 80, it didn’t prevent him from some additional partisan high jinks.

“A few times,” Payne recalled, “he would do a cartwheel.”

Added Dottie: “He’s a jokester.”

His sense of humor is apparently infectious.

Last fall in one of his late-afternoon trips around the school, Lester walked by the gym, stuck his head in the door and noticed the varsity girls basketball team was practicing. Later, he happened to run into one of the Lady Panthers, who told him that Coach Jeff Angeletti had installed a new play into their offense.

It’s name?

The “Lester” play.

Angeletti couldn’t be immediately reached to comment on the effectiveness of the play in game situations, but it’s clear the student-athletes hang on Lester’s every word.

“The first time (the girls basketball went to states), I can remember they had a send-off breakfast, and they invited me to be there and talk to the girls before they left,” Lester said. “I can remember telling them, ‘Whatever happens, win or lose, if you’ve done your best and you’ve worked hard, you can be proud.”

Then he paused and said, “I want you to know right now that I’ve got more butterflies in my belly than you have.”

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Eight years ago, 300 former Panthers showed up for the “Sea of Blue” football game at the school. Bleachers were set up behind both end zones to accommodate the large crowd and a parade of alumni took place at halftime. Lester (Class of ’45), of course, was there.

And during Panama’s final game before its merger with Sherman and Clymer he was asked to be the honorary captain.

“I thought that spoke volumes there,” Dottie said.

What also speaks volumes is the appreciation the faculty — past and present — have for a man known affectionately by his great-grandkids as “Rascal.”

Noted former volleyball and softball coach Deb Palmer: “Lester has been a fixture at Panama sporting events forever. He is always very knowledgeable about Panama teams and he asks really good questions when he talks to the coaches.

“I think my most amazing memory (is him) running up and down in front of the crowd getting everyone to cheer and thinking to myself, ‘I’m not sure I am as agile as he is.’ The fact that he is still such a loyal fan and so supportive is such a neat thing for Panama athletics.”

Tammy Hosier, the coach of Panama’s 2016 state championship volleyball team, is equally fond of Lester.

“He is definitely one of our biggest supporters,” she said. ” It would be a rare game to not see Lester sitting in the stands. Whenever a game is changed, I always think of Lester. If someone does not notify him, he ends up poking his head in the gym while we are practicing. He never gets mad. He just asks when it is rescheduled for.”

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Twenty years ago, sportswriter Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press published a book about conversations he had with his former college professor, Morrie Schwartz.

What their weekly visits became, in reality, were a series of life lessons, passed down from a wise man to his former student. The book, entitled, “Tuesdays with Morrie,” became a New York Times best-seller, a made-for-TV movie and an off-Broadway play.

I did an Internet search of the book title this week and I uncovered dozens of quotes gleaned from Albom’s work, including this gem from Morrie:

Devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.

Funny, but I could almost hear Lester advising his beloved student-athletes at PCS in the same way.

JOLY’S GAME PLAN SHOULD BE

A LESSON TO US ALL

DEC. 25, 1017

Today is Christmas, a time for family, food and, if you’ve been on your best behavior for the last 365 days, an opportunity to open a couple of presents under the tree.

In the case of Richie Joly, a Jamestown High School special education teacher and assistant varsity football coach? Well, his gift came a week early, except he was the one doing the giving, and by conservative estimates, more than 1,500 people in the greater Jamestown area were the recipients.

One of them was Joly’s 9-year-old daughter, Peyton.

“Richie has a huge heart,” said Red Raiders’ head coach Tom Langworthy, “and he’d do anything for anybody. Family is so important to him. He takes such pride in being a dad.”

Even if it means, as Joly put it, learning “to be comfortable when you’re uncomfortable.”

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On any given Friday night in the fall, Joly can be found on the sidelines of the Jamestown Red Raiders. Having just completed his 11th season, the Bennington, Vermont native – along with Langworthy and fellow assistants Dave Munella, Ryan Calkins, Mike Baker, John O’Brien and Arrick Davis – have seen the program scale the highest of heights, capped by a New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class AA championship in 2014. That title came exactly 20 years after Joly, then an all-state defensive back, won a state crown as a member of the undefeated Mount Anthony Union High School football team.

But when Joly and his wife, Sara, decided last spring to renovate part of the basement of their home on Jamestown’s west side, the blueprints weren’t for a man cave or a football shrine. Rather, the space, measuring about 12 feet by 10 feet, was for Peyton, a fourth-grader at Fletcher Elementary School.

“We built a dance studio,” Joly said. “That’s her space. … We started it in May (for her birthday). The only thing we have to do is get mirrors connected to the wall.”

Once that happens, Joly should like the reflection staring back at him, especially after the performance he put on during the Chautauqua Regional Youth Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker at the Reg Lenna Civic Center Dec. 15-16.

In case you’re wondering, football coaches can dance.

“We would definitely ask him back next year,” said Elizabeth Bush, the CRYB executive director. “(He has a) great work ethic, (he’s) dependable and friendly.”

Most importantly, Joly took the stage because, “bottom line, it came down to my daughter asking, ‘Will you do this?'”

So with the blessing of Monika Alch, CRYB’s artistic director, and a schedule that allowed him to work around his in-season football responsibilities, Joly agreed to play the role of the party host in The Nutcracker’s first act.

“I remembered that he and his wife had taken a salsa class at CRYB, so I knew he did not have two left feet, which is a good thing, but he exceeded our expectations,” Bush said. “He threw himself into the role and had a great rapport with everyone.

“We normally ask community members to portray the adults (and) we do occasionally have parents of children in the scene. As a matter of fact, the person who played the party host of the past several years is Dr. (Peter) Walter (of Bemus Point), whose daughters dance at CRYB. We found out this fall that he would not be doing it and learned that Richie would be willing to step in.”

And step out, too.

“I had to learn the choreographed dance and where I had to be,” he said. “There were times my stage wife and I had to come out with my ‘children,’ introduce them to the party and, at one point, I had to walk to the end of the stage and let everybody know the dancing was starting. I moved to the side, the children all danced and then the adults came in and our dance matched the children’s dance.”

Calling plays in Jamestown High School’s spread offense is easy by comparison.

“I was learning all sorts of stage terminology (like) stage right, stage left, but I kept using sports terminology (like) halftime as opposed to intermission,” said Joly, whose wife, Sara, was helping the kids offstage. “It was a great learning experience and they were very patient with me. … I can dance, but not the choreography that was going on. They kind of slowed it down, so I could catch on and my daughter would watch the whole time and smile.”

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The scouting reports are in and Joly earned high grades for his stage presence, according to his football boss.

“He’s so comfortable in his own skin. That’s really it,” Langworthy said. “Of all of the coaches, he’s the one to do it. This was kind of right up his alley. He took some ribbing, but he laughed it off. It was all in good fun.”

Most importantly, it was all about Joly’s family, which also includes 12-year-old Cole.

“I would like everyone to know I’m modeling what parents should be doing for their children and that it’s OK to come out of your comfort zone,” he said. “When your 9-year-old daughter looks you in the eye and asks, ‘Will you please do this?,’ it’s something you should do.”

That’s a game plan that will work every time.

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