SUMMERBALL A month with the Torrington Twisters
copyright 2005 by Laurie and Blair Pessemier All rights reserved
Blair and Laurie Pessemier
I didn't grow up as a baseball fan. The interest kind of snuck up on me. I saw my first game, the Red Sox versus the Toronto Blue Jays, in 1978. A few years later, when I had moved to the West Coast, we'd watch the Seattle Mariners play, at least a half-dozen times a summer -- tickets were cheap. I've seen bigger crowds at a Torrington Twisters game, than some nights with the Mariners at the Kingdome. I don't always remember every playerâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s name, nor do I keep track of the statistics. I just know I like to see Randy Johnson pitch, and Johnny Damon field. Some of my most vivid baseball memories are of watching Orel Hershiser pitch in the World Series (on TV), and hearing the sound of Nolan Ryan's pitching arm going out at the last game he pitched.
I started to miss baseball when we moved to Paris. I'd switch on the Internet and see that the Yankees and the Red Sox were neck and neck for the pennant. It wasn't that I exactly wanted to be at those games, but I wanted to see the grass, the uniforms, hear the crack of the bat, and smell the hot dogs and beer. It was a reminder of my culture.
The origins of Baseball can be traced back clear to the time of William the Conqueror in the 11th century. Around 1200, the game was played in London and in Eastern France. Today, when I try to explain the game to the French, they just throw up their hands. Baseball was played at the Plymouth plantation, and Jane Austen refers to girls playing baseball at the end of the 1700s. In 1805, Lewis and Clark tried to teach the Indians baseball in Idaho. A set of rules for the game of Rounders was published in England in 1828. The idea of "innings" evolved from the subsequent game of Town Ball, played in England - each team was "in" an equal number of times. Towns challenged other towns to matches. These two games contributed to what is baseball. Baseball was being played in Massachusetts and New York in 1840. In Massachusetts, they pitched overhand, in New York, underhand. Modifications were made. The introduction of the shortstop in the 1850s resulted in the game being played according to a number of innings, rather than reaching a score. Shortly afterward, with the advent of â&#x20AC;&#x153;leaguesâ&#x20AC;?, baseball became the institution we know today.
I contacted a number of minor league teams about â&#x20AC;&#x153;paintingâ&#x20AC;? a baseball team for the summer of 2005. We chose the Torrington Twisters because I am from the Torrington, Connecticut area. There is nothing like baseball beneath the lights on a warm summer night in the Northeast. As the first evening breeze kicks up after a sweltering summer day, the aromas of popcorn and cut grass seduce the senses. The first ball is lobbed out by the new superintendent of schools. As night falls, maverick fireworks light up the sky behind the stadium.
We live in Paris during the year, so the trip was formidable. We ordered all our paints and supplies to be delivered to our destination. We “hit the ground running”, attending our first game just twenty four hours after our arrival. At the American Library in Paris, there are an astonishing number of books about baseball on the shelf. Some are incredibly thick – I pass these over – too heavy to carry home. My favorite is an old Sports Illustrated volume that outlines how to hold the ball, how to execute the steps between catching and throwing, how to field. They make baseball look like ballet – a graceful collection of moves to advance the score.
I see the same grace in the movement of the players on the Torrington Twisters. I am surprised how calmly Jordy Snyder, the short stop, throws the ball to Gordie Gronkowski, the first baseman, to tag the runner OUT. I am more agitated than they are, sitting in my seat in the bleachers. In fact, when Jordy tries to rush, his handling of the ball is clumsy. I try to keep the same thing in mind as I write these pages. It doesnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t have to be finished today. Take my time, craft my words.
There are things Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ve always thought were good about baseball: Baseball is played outside, and can be played by anyone. It is a team sport with room for individual excellence: every player can be a hero. It is non-violent. There is no clock. The players look normal. Every game, every inning, every pitch is a new opportunity.
Things I learned about baseball: Itâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s good to take your time, to be precise. Throw for the chest (unless youâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;re the pitcher). Baseball depends on the fans.
The greenskeepers were watering the dirt between the bases as the players acted out a harmless game of catch on the sidelines. The sun spilled its golden oil across the grass; I painted the shadows a soft purple. Teams organized on their respective sides as a crackly PA played.
If we donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t get there for the National Anthem, I feel as though Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ve missed the game.
We had parked our car just outside the gate. We were surprised about how easy it was to find a place, until the first foul ball cleared the net and dropped into the lot, hitting metal below.
Behind us, the staff of a local camp for boys sang silly, bawdy songs, peppered with "rap". From their seats at first base a dozen 11-year-old girls, the undefeated champion baseball team (in their class) in Torrington, taunted the camp counselors. I hadn't seen such unbridled joy in a long time and had a hard time keeping my mind on my work.
College baseball is different from the majors. It is more of a process. It is learning that a pitcher doesn't just pitch. Being the shortstop doesn’t mean your glove doesn't have a hole in it. It is about perfecting the game. We sat in the first row behind the net between third base and home. I could hear the pitch hit the leather of the catcher’s mitt. When we'd attended Seattle games years back, I could hear that sound on the radio before the smack would reach the stands.
NECBL (New England College Baseball League) is an NCAA sanctioned “wooden bat” baseball league. It is clear when we hear that delicious “crack” of the bat as it connects with the ball.
The crouch of the catcher was like an origami figure as he waits for that ball. The batter lifts his foot ever so slightly before he swings the bat. I try to remember all my human figure studies as the action transpires just a few feet before my eyes.
We take pictures, too, but I love trying to catch the movement in front of me. Elbows up, the bat appears to be suspended by a thin string from the sky above.
Two bats broke on Thursday night. Skinny little bat boys, wearing helmets made for men with many more worries, dash out to pick up the pieces. The camp counselors sang to the tune of Batman, "bat boy, bat boy" from behind us each time the urchins darted out to retrieve another ball or bat.
This first game we saw the Torrington Twisters play was against the Danbury Westerners. The Westerners were a rangy lot, with a tall, skinny pitcher who looked a lot like Ichabod Crane. They were sly players, taking every advantage to steal a base, often with success. The Twisters stole bases, too.
I painted my first painting of Fuessenich Park that night, trying to cram in all the details before night really fell. This was nearly the longest daylight of the year, just after the summer solstice. Fuessenich Park was donated to the city of Torrington, Connecticut in memory of Elizabeth Blake Fuessenich, who died in 1914. Her husband constructed the park in the early 1920s. On the dedication plaque he wrote: â&#x20AC;&#x153;many shall rise up and call her blessedâ&#x20AC;?.
There is an overwhelming sense of youth here â&#x20AC;&#x201C; at the brink of being launched.
The second game we saw, against the Holyoke Giants, was a win for the Torrington Twisters. Objective as I try to be, the “win” is definitely a better feeling, no matter how good everyone played. I refer to the “play-byplay” notes after the game and I am astonished at their objectivity.
From the beginning, I believed our Torrington Twisters to be the most fit, fair, and finest players on the field. As the season unfolded, the truth, according to the statistics would be told. The “play-by-play” doesn’t take into account spectacular fielding. To see Andres Perez fly through the air, and slide along the grass as he picks off an errant flyball, rivals Barishnikoff. Our second baseman, Michael Just, finished the season with only one error – a remarkable record. One of my favorite plays is when third baseman raises his mitt to trap a smoking line drive.
The Twisters start practice at 4 PM for the seven o’clock game. The batting cage is wheeled in, along with the pitcher’s cage – from behind a net, he throws easy balls the players can hit. “Center field, left field, right field, grounder, home run, bunt…” The players hit about 10 balls each, and the lineup starts again.
The Twisters exercise while the visiting team practices on the field. The Twisters â&#x20AC;&#x153;playâ&#x20AC;? â&#x20AC;&#x201C; using two baseballs: Two-ball. Someone tosses the two balls in the air and then someone else tries to catch both at the same time.
It can reach over 100 degrees on the field, and we skip painting practice sessions on these days. The flag never â&#x20AC;&#x153;wavesâ&#x20AC;? in this weather. The white lines are drawn -- at home base they last all of two minutes into the game. The bags are set to designate the bases. Before play, the greenskeepers, assisted by the Twister coaches, come out to rake the infield and wet it down. The pitcher warms up in the bullpen.
Joey, one of the kids, about 10 years old, hangs around the stadium for every game. Today, he asks Gordie if he can throw out the first pitch. “It’s OK with me,” Gordie says diplomatically, “but you’ll have to ask the coach.” Joey must have 50 shagged balls by mid-season, which he carries around in a giant batbag. He’s Amber’s brother, and the two fight like cats and dogs. Amber is celebrating her 12 th birthday at Fuessenich Park, the announcer broadcasts at the start of the seventh inning.
Amber and her friend, Mimi, talk to us about art. “Why is that chalk square?” she wants to know. When they ask how much we get for a drawing like this one, we tell her we sell them for about $100.00 each, and they exclaim “You must be millionaires!”
Amber and Mimi retrieve two back-to-back out-of-the-park home run balls, hit by Bobby Carlson and Jordy Snyder. Amber’s mother cautions her to “hang on to those balls. They’ll be worth money some day.”
It was mini-bat night, and I had Amber sign my bat. She thought it was foolish, she wasn’t a famous person, but she signed it anyhow. “I’ll get you the autographs of all the players after the game,” she offered. I accepted. Mimi and Amber were the first two fans to visit with us. Having artists at the game was fine with them.
Sitting in the stands, waiting for the national anthem to be sung at the next home game, he announcer tells us there is going to be a delay for fifteen minutes – a rain shower with lightening is predicted. The Twisters stand at the dugout happily catching the occasional raindrop, reflected in the lights. At seven o’clock precisely, the heavens open and we are drenched before we can make it to the car. We wait. At about 7:30, there is a further delay: “but we’re hoping to play”. The rain delay lasted two hours. There were other rain-outs, where we learned from a Torrington Twister supporter, how to make beer can chicken. Sharing umbrellas beneath a big leafy tree, important conversation transpires. Baseball wouldn’t exist without the fans. It’s like a painter never showing their work. We need someone to witness what we do.
The Torrington Twisters are part of the New England College Baseball League (NECBL). The league began twelve years ago, in Connecticut. Since that time more than 70 former Twisters have made it into professional baseball. We told Kirk, the manager, we needed more information on the NECBL and he sent us in the direction of Rich, the secretary of the organization who happened to be there Tuesday night. Rich has been compiling data on NECBL for ESPN. The station is going to cover the NECBL playoffs this year, possibly to be held at Fuessenich Park.
We explain to Rich our mission to paint/sketch/write about the Twisters. He can understand our passion fully. “I am an artist, too,” he says. “Graphic arts: I designed the Twisters logo and uniforms”. At the first Torrington Twisters game, in 1997, Rich tells us how a five-year-old girl interpreted his logo onto a poster – it was an overwhelming moment for him. Eight years later, he still drives up from Fairfield, CT, to see the game. “The Twisters saved my life,” Doug declares from his wheelchair in the handicapped section of the stadium. They gave him something to believe in, something to hope for, when his health failed. Doug blames himself for last night’s loss. “ I should have driven to Vermont,” he laments. Doug sits directly behind home plate and questions the umpires’ calls.
The umps are different at nearly every Twisters game. Some are tall, others short, and their â&#x20AC;&#x153;bluesâ&#x20AC;? are various shades. The umps arrive all together and change into their official umpire attire in the vicinity of their van, usually parked right next to our car, out of the foul ball zone. They sit around in lawn chairs there before and after the game and chat calmly â&#x20AC;&#x201C; surprising for a group who seem to be universally hated during the heat of the game.
If things get really bad with the Ump, the Twisters coach, Greg, summons the maximum force of his small frame, and takes to the field to argue. The Ump inevitably folds his arms and assumes the stance of a bull. Greg gesticulates like a bantam rooster. The only result seems to be the crowd yelling "play ball!" Last Monday Greg registered the Torrington Twisters were continuing to play "under protest".
Doug and Mary kibitz over the state of the team. At mid-season, the Twisters are .500; one game out of first place. “They’ll end up playing Newport in the playoffs, at Newport”, Doug says. He and most other Twister fans hate the Newport stadium, which has a restaurant in part of right field. Mary is the Italian Mother of the team. She’s a source of support: “Gordie – you a good boy,” Mary chides. She brings sandwiches and waters, and hugs for any team member or loyal fans who need them. She has hosted Torrington Twisters in her home. This fall she is attending the wedding of one boy, now living in Florida, who lived with her one summer. All of the Twisters are housed by volunteers in the community.
Mary gets a ride to and from the games. A guy with two kids, sitting behind us, is giving her a ride home tonight. Heâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s at the games with his 4 and 6 year old, every night. The petite four-year-old girl loves to yell like her dad and Mary, â&#x20AC;&#x153;here comes the meatball, Jordy!â&#x20AC;?
“NO PEPPER” the signs read behind home plate. I am sure this guy behind me will know what that means. He explains that “pepper” is a baseball game with just three men. The batter bats “backward” from homeplate, against the solid walls which separate the field from the crowd.
Nick is at every game. Nick wears his "Special Olympics" shirt, and peers at us from eyes slightly off straight. He knows the name of every player and his strengths and weaknesses. He flirts with my aunt. Nick speaks French. "I was born in France," he tells us, with his laughing eyes.
I would have liked to have spoken more with the team and the coaches during the season. They are extremely focused on the game and practice. I somehow imagined we'd drink beer at the pub after the games, but it never happened. This isn't just "local" ball; it's the real thing -- only realer and more serious because the goal is to make it to the majors.
I was struck with how similar the painter is to the ball player. We must be completely focused on what we are doing or the "ball" slips by. And we're nothing without someone to appreciate our work: TO WATCH; TO LOOK.
The baseball player must have the best eyes on earth. How does that happen? Do they have good eyes to start with or did the ability to see a 95 mph curve ball develop over time? I can't see the ball with my glasses on under perfect conditions. Kirk has been the manager of the team since “day 1” in 1997. He runs a landscape business to keep himself afloat – I see his ad in the program. Kirk personally visits college teams during the year to recruit the summer talent. “It’s a competitive situation,” the tells us, “everyone wants the good players”. Torrington has its share.
A Cincinnati Reds scout stands at the edge of the field watching the warm up. Nearly every night there is a scout or two in pursuit of future superstars. Three former Twisters have their jerseys in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
More than one half of the teamâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s time is spent on the bus, going to and from games. Pittsfield, Massachusetts isnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t too far from Torrington, Connecticut, so we decided to drive up to a Twisters' "away" game. There was more than just the appeal of the game: there was the historic Waconah Stadium to appreciate. In fact, references to baseball being played in Pittsfield date back as early as 1791. The ballpark itself dates to 1892.
The girl at the ticket booth sold us the most expensive tickets: $6.00 each. It is easy to be fooled, because the stands are completely enclosed in wood. Really, we could have sat anywhere, with any tickets, as the other spectators did a little later on. There were only 362 seats taken.
The stadium is one of the oldest in America. The structure is elegant, in an old New England style. The stands are completely covered, which helps in the rain, and keeps the floors and seats in good condition. There is something about stamping one's feet on a wood floor that makes a team go on to win. We bought sausages and beers, but were driven from the beer garden by raindrops. We prayed there wouldn't be another rain out, like the night before.
A few other Twisters' fans showed up. Ashley brought party whistles, "blow them whenever the Twisters pitch a strike" she suggested. We blew for strikes, for Twisters' hits -- you name it, any excuse to celebrate. Our whistles overwhelmed the fans of the other team. I played along, kazoo-like to the strains of "Take me out to the Ball Game". We laughed. Pittsfield fans were quiet. Our whistles were working -- the Twisters led five-to-nothing at the top of the ninth. The lady at the concession stand offered Doug a job, if he'd come every night and root for the Pittsfield Dukes. No dice. And we won the game 5 to 1.
"Everyone wants to play for Newport (Rhode Island) in the summer," Alfredo, the food concessionaire, sneered, as the Newport Gulls sprung into the lead. "They're a great team." Big white teeth and great tans was what I saw, a fleet of showboats in top condition. Undeniably good players.
The Torrington Twisters are selected on the basis of their playing ability and the sense they will fit into the community. The team members are remarkably friendly and generous with the kids who come to the game. After every game the dugout is full of kids getting a piece of the excitement that is baseball: to have something to trade, or dream about during the off season. They have something to inspire them for the years ahead.
The Twisters set a great example: sportsmanship, fidelity, focus, fitness. Despite bad calls by the umps, unlucky breaks, or sun in their eyes, they never fight, cheat or swear on the field.
Friday night, #51, Gerard, was hit square in the head with a pitch. He fell to the ground and laid there. He got up after a minute and played again, having impressed on every child there the importance of wearing your helmet.
My nephew, Marshall, was the bat boy one night (two, if you count the rain-out). He’d not only retrieve the used bats, but he’d jump out of the dugout to high-five a Twister’s home run. He talked about what a joker number 27 was. "Look how he wears his hat," Marshall laughs. Gerard Haran signed Marshall's program: "to the best bat boy in the world".
At Sunday night’s game, Kirk announced: the Twisters are going to Yankee Stadium to see the Yankees play the Orioles Tuesday. ”We’ve got four tickets left”. Blair and I jumped to our feet and claimed two at the admission stand. Tuesday morning, we were at the parking lot waiting for the bus. The Twisters, hanging precariously over the 100 foot high rail from the third tier, all had the look like "in ten years this could be me" as Randy Johnson pitched the 12-3 win for the Yanks. Some of the Twisters will be big league players, others businessmen and teachers, husbands and dads. Fuessenich Park will never be Yankee Stadium.
“I feel I am bigger and stronger than some of the guys I saw out there”, said Gordie Gronkowski, referring to the NY Yankees, “I know it’s a tough road to get there, but like everyone here, we’re not going to give up until we have to.”
A lot of the Twisters had athletes for Dads. Gordie’s Dad was a Buffalo Bill; Seth Iorg’s dad played in the World Series twice. His cousin, Eli Iorg went to the majors from the Torrington Twisters last year. “But Seth has the personality” Doug tells us.
I can imagine the Kantakevich brothers, who both play on the team, out behind the house, pitching to one another. Unless there is someone on the receiving end who can field that pitch, it is abandoned in favor of something Mom can catch. You've got to miss dinner some days.
To play sports, one must have a drive that can only be appreciated by someone else who has the same drive. It is an all encompassing "vocation", that is baffling to others.
When I realized I would be a painter, it changed my life. Years later, a friend said, "When you decided to take up art, everything changed, I couldn't take part in that world with you." So it is for the professional ball player.
The Torrington Twisters played two games against the Olympic teams for the USA and Italy. Team USA was intimidating. As they changed from their practice clothes to impeccable bright white uniforms, I think everyone gasped. The Team USA pitcher sent the ball over the plate at 95 mph. Even though I was just off home base, four rows up, I couldnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t SEE the ball pass. The Twisters lost, but only 3-1.
Team Italy was a less polished team, but we still lost. As the season wore on, the Torrington Twisters began to wear down. The Twisters played almost every night between the 8 June and the end of July, sometimes double-headers. Bus rides to games could be as long as four hours, leaving the players in the parking lot at 2 or 3 AM. A schedule like this is a result of longer college baseball seasons, and the intention to make this experience like playing major league baseball.
This games with Team USA and Team Italy may be the last of their kind, with the elimination of baseball from the Olympics. Who knows, maybe it will involve other parts of the world to make the pennant race a true World Series.
We talk to the players, who unequivocally praise the Twisters, and this experience.
Justin Lepore says, â&#x20AC;&#x153;What could be better than playing baseball all summer? My friends, theyâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;re all working, but me, I am just playing ball.â&#x20AC;?
People choose the Torrington Twisters over other teams. Michael Just chose Torrington, over the Cape Cod league, with no regrets. Michael plays second base perfectly, inheriting the job from a player who was drafted by the Colorado Rockies.
Gordie Gronkowski, here for the second summer, is probably the most popular player on the team. His easy-going character and bigness (he's 6'6") make him a candidate for cheers, "Let's go, Gordie!" Heâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s a great first baseman, who jumps up and down with joy when the team scores. Gerard Haran is an overall good player â&#x20AC;&#x201C; he can catch or hit, or play the field. You can see the most emotion in his face, his moves. He comes off the field hollering for the team to win, in the 11 inning showdown with Pittsfield.
The strongest player is Andres Perez. He came to Torrington just as the season started. He has fielding talent, as well as the ability to hit and to run. He's pulled the team through a number of difficult situations.
Being a success in any field isn't only proficiency. It is the ability to live the role, to believe in ones' self. Andres Perez does that, as does Gerard and Gordie. Nearly all of the players, from stellar Bobby Carlson to the pitcher Adam Trent are serious, talented men who want to play ball for life.
I know each of the players on the field, and how they were feeling, just by how they move. Gordie jiggles his fingers when he wants to run from first base to second; Gerard can really steam at a call, ripping off his gloves when heâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s unjustly called out at first. Team and spectators are one, willing the win to happen. When that home run scores, the team jumps from the dugout to congratulate the scorer â&#x20AC;&#x201C; we stand up and blow our whistles.