Jamestown Man Experiences Thrill Of Lifetime At Ballpark
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article appeared in The Post-Journal on March 21, 2017. With Major League Baseball scheduled to return next month, it was deemed appropriate to run it again as another in a series of “Remember When” stories.
Every Monday through Friday morning, a bunch of guys gather at Fisher’s Restaurant, located in the Third Street Plaza on Jamestown’s westside.
Some days, it’s three or four men who show up.
Other days, well, it can be as many as eight or nine. Whatever the number, though, they’re never at a loss for words.
“We’ll talk about anything,” said Jamestown resident Bill Johnston, one of the group’s regulars.
With that as a backdrop, I have a pretty good idea what will be on the agenda in the coming weeks. The conversation will center around baseball and, more specifically, a nine-day trip to Florida that Johnston is in the midst of with another city resident and coffee buddy, 89-year-old Frank Stefanelli.
Call it a spring training odyssey that neither man will ever forget.
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Late last month, Stefanelli, who joined the fire service in Jamestown in 1960, was appointed fire chief in 1970 and served in that capacity until his retirement in 1980, made it known that he wanted to make a trip south to see as many Grapefruit League games as possible.
Johnston, 67 and also a retired member of the JFD, agreed to go with him.
Since arriving in Tampa last Thursday, the men have seen games in Bradenton (spring training home of the Pirates), Lakeland (Tigers), Port Charlotte (Rays) and Dunedin (Blue Jays). Stefanelli and Johnston are scheduled to be in Sarasota (Orioles) today, Clearwater (Phillies) on Wednesday, Kissimmee (Braves) on Thursday and back to Lakeland (Tigers) on Friday, their last day.
While Johnston will fly home Saturday, Stefanelli will board a flight from Tampa to Las Vegas where he will spend five weeks with his daughter.
“It’s been well worth the time and effort,” Stefanelli said Monday evening. “It’s been exciting. To be honest with you, if I can talk (her) into it, I’m going to have her take me to Arizona and see some (spring training games) on the West Coast.”
Here’s guessing that nothing will top what Stefanelli experienced last Saturday at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland.
“I can still feel it,” he said. ” … I’m still shaking.”
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Dan Lunetta, another Jamestown native, has served as the director of minor league operations for the Detroit Tigers since 2004. A Lakeland resident, Lunetta readily admits his love for his hometown and is always at the ready to roll out the welcome mat when any Jamestown folks find their way to the Sunshine State.
“When (Johnston) sent me (an) email and told me what they were doing and that they wanted to come to a game,” he said, ” … I wanted to be sure we could do something, that we could accommodate them well.”
In Johnston’s email, he mentioned that Stefanelli was a World War II veteran who had enlisted in the U.S. Navy as soon as he turned 17 in May 1944. Johnston also mentioned that Stefanelli was assigned to the Light Cruiser USS Juneau CL-119 during its outfitting prior to its commissioning on Feb. 15, 1946.
At the time the email was sent to Lunetta, it was meant only as background, but what it ultimately became was the vehicle by which Stefanelli experienced the thrill of a lifetime.
“We have a program (with the Tigers) where we recognize war veterans prior to our home games,” Lunetta said, “and I thought it would be pretty special if we could do something to recognize Frank and perhaps it might include a first pitch. I discussed it with one of my co-workers who is responsible for coordinating that effort and, of course, he said he was all for it.”
Once Stefanelli and Johnston arrived at the ballpark last Saturday, they picked up their tickets at the will-call window and eventually met Lunetta near the Tigers’ dugout.
“That’s when Frank found out he was going on the field,” Johnston said.
Added Lunetta: “He looked at me with eyes of bewilderment. … I could just see the excitement.”
Coincidentally, Lakewood resident and local sports historian Greg Peterson was also at that game. He recorded Stefanelli’s every move for posterity, including his pregame time in the dugout; his walk from the dugout to the mound — he did so without the use of his cane, which was held by Johnston; and the announcement of his biography that was read over the public-address system.
At the appropriate time, Stefanelli took his place between the pitcher’s mound and home plate and cocked his right arm.
“I want you to know I threw a strike,” Stefanelli said. “It did not bounce. It went right into the mitt.”
The perfect pitch drew a loud and extended applause from the fans.
“That was pretty spectacular,” Lunetta said.
But there was more serendipity to come for Stefanelli.
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Mike Loftus lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but winters in Florida and was at Publix Field at Joker Marchand Stadium last Saturday with his son.
Loftus is a Navy veteran.
Incredibly, Loftus, like Stefanelli, was assigned to the Light Cruiser USS Juneau CL-119 during its outfitting prior to its commissioning on Feb. 15, 1946.
“When they mentioned my name and I started out toward the pitcher’s mound, (Loftus) left his seat to catch me at the dugout,” Stefanelli recalled.
While it wasn’t a reunion 71 years in the making — they had met during previous Navy reunions over the years — it was one that was the most unexpected, the most miraculous. After all, Stefanelli and Loftus are two of three surviving shipmates from the USS Juneau.
“It just underscores that everybody has a story to tell and you just have to continue to look for it, because you’ll find it in the least likely places,” Peterson said. “Who would have guessed there would be a reunion of two of the three surviving members of the unit from the USS Juneau at a baseball game in Lakeland, Florida.”
“It’s astounding, mind-bending,” Lunetta said. ” … (Stefanelli) made it happen because of his service to our country. Thankfully, we had the opportunity to recognize him and have him out there to throw out the first pitch. It was pretty special. I could tell how much it meant to him.”
Added Stefanelli: “It’s an afternoon I’ll never forget.”