I’ve loved baseball since watching the 1967 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers. I was eight years old.
I’m the guy who can’t wait for the Super Bowl to come in February because that means football season is over and baseball’s spring training is about to begin. Attending my first live MLB game in the 1968 season, when my mom took me and my brother Billy to a Yankees-Tigers doubleheader in August sealed the deal for me.
Living in Queens, a few subway rides, and we were in the Bronx.
We sat in the stands. Our tickets were 0.75 cents each. What a great memory.
1968 was the year of the Tigers. Their roster was filled with names like Northrup, Kaline, Cash, Stanley, Freehan and MClain and Lolich leading their pitching team. Detroit won the series this fall. McClain won 31 games. I was also privileged to have seen Mickey Mantle, Joe Pepitone, Tom Tresh and Roy White wearing Yankees stripes.
My friend Johnny Mesagno who lived a little up our street, he invited me and my brother to two games of the mayor’s trophy. The then-in-season exhibition games between the New York Mets and the Yankees rotated each season at Yankee and Shea Stadiums. However, the games I attended (1968 and 1969) were both played at Shea.
I was addicted to being in big league ballparks and all the fanfare that comes with being among thousands of fans. Just seeing the green grass of the playground captured my imagination. Living in the Ridgewood section of Queens, there were very few patches of green grass anywhere, and certainly none of the scale of Shea’s outfield.
Once in the upstate, located halfway between Richfield Springs and Cooperstown, I discovered the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Oh yeah, while living on Weirfield Street in Queens, my buddy Johnny and his parents took me and my brother on day trips to Cooperstown twice.
So, in 1978, my Richfield buddy Eric Ehrmann invited me to join him and his parents at the Otesaga Hotel in Cooperstown the night before induction Sunday. I borrowed a tie and a sweater from Eric, and there I was. Sitting in the Hawkeye Lounge, listening to a swing band (a first for me) play into the night. Sipping cokes all night, I met baseball legends up close for the first time.
Thanks to Eric for providing me with a clean baseball, I picked up some cool autographs this Saturday night. Bob Feller, Bowie Kuhn, Sandy Koufax, Stan Musial are names that stand out and that I remember meeting. The long-donated ball also bore the signature of NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. You never know who you may meet during induction weekends.
Then, four years later, in 1982, I joined ESPN.
For many years, ESPN has aired Hall of Fame inductions, either live or as a taped television show. I was part of the 1982 show team as a manager. Basically, my overall responsibilities were to do whatever the show’s producer, Steve Stedman, asked of me. I showed up in a three-piece suit. The first thing Mr. Stedman said to me as I pulled into the production truck awaiting my assignment – “lose the jacket”.
For 19 consecutive years, I’ve filled a number of positions for the ESPN show, and all I have are fond memories. In addition to the induction weekends, I gladly accepted a few other assignments.
The Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox were the teams traveling to Cooperstown for the 1985 annual Hall of Fame game. I got a call from a UPI editor – Fred McBride me asking if I could report on the events of the day. What made the day even more special was the visit of then-Vice President George HW Bush.
What fascinated me the most was the amount of security scattered in and around Doubleday Field. Snipers were in firing position on the roof of the baseball stadium. Secret Service agents were walking around the playing surface. Men with headphones were everywhere. Very intimidating but equally exciting at the same time. I filed my story, and the story that ran on the dispatch service had my name as a byline.
In the 1990s, Billy and I would camp the day before tickets went on sale, usually in February or early March, in front of the Hall of Fame. We were always the first, and frozen at the same time. To hell with the blankets and long underwear, we froze as we sat in chairs placed next to the gate to the Hall of Fame which was supposed to open at 9:00 a.m. We even had a feature article written about us in The Daily Star newspaper, along with a picture of us all bundled up, as a follow-up to demonstrate our fanaticism for the game.
Again, really cool.
In 1984, the Hall of Fame Game featured the Detroit Tigers and Atlanta Braves. It was a time when the WTBS SuperStation carried nearly every Braves home and away game. Well, the Hall’s exhibition game would be no exception to SuperStation’s lineup. After Sunday’s work on ESPN’s show of the new Hall of Famers making their speeches, the team turned their attention to what would be expected for the next day.
WTBS carried the Braves game LIVE from Cooperstown. I was also hired as stage manager for this concert ($75.00 for the day). Part of my responsibilities was twofold. First, I followed the late big announcer Craig Sager the entire game. What he asked for, I delivered in record time. I also spent a few minutes with Braves TV presenter John Sterling. And if you watch a tape of the show, the show opens on the brushed marble – this is me brushing the dirt off the marble.
The following year, in 1985, a company in California organized a fantastic Yankees camp. I don’t remember how I was able to contact the promoter, but it turned out that my wife Barbara and I became the clubhouse/equipment managers for the three day event. We washed old Yankees and camper uniforms, set up a basement pavilion at the Otesaga, and attended to player needs during games. I also did some cigarette shopping for ex-Yankee Hector Lopez.
A few years ago, in 1981, I was hired as the assistant general manager/director of public relations for the Little Falls Mets. At the time, Little Falls was a Class A short-season affiliate of the New York Mets. The experience I acquired and the contacts I made remain close and dear to me. At the end of the season, I was invited to Shea for an interview with Mets assistant general manager Lou Gorman. Sitting in his office, at 22, I could see my future in baseball.
Less than a week later, I received a phone call from the general manager of the Mets Triple-A branch in Norfolk, Virginia. I was offered a position in sales and public relations for the grand total weekly salary of $150.00. I was not willing to take the first step and make sacrifices in the minors, hoping for a better future in the big leagues.
The following season, baseball would still take up a lot of my time and I would also start a lasting friendship.
WLFH 1230 AM planned to carry a large portion of Little Falls Mets games. I was paired with Bill Keeler from Mohawk. On each show I learned how bad I didn’t know what to call a game and how awful I was. But hey, I was living the dream. WLFH broadcast all home games and road games in Oneonta and Utica. Depending on who handled the play-by-play or color commentary for each show, I would earn if I remember correctly $15.00 and $12.00.
Starting in 2012, for eight years, I wrote a sports blog for the Observer-Dispatch in Utica. Most of my stories/interviews were with baseball people. I also covered the Hall of Fame classic; a game featuring retired players representing all 30 MLB clubs.
I continue this tradition now for WIBX950.com. The Hall’s Classic in May and the Inductions in July are my two favorite times of the year – bar none. Now living in Southwest Florida, I have already arranged my plane tickets and car rentals to be able to attend both events.
Then there’s my addiction to the Syracuse Mets (formerly Chiefs).
Cooperstown and NBT Bank Stadium in Syracuse are my favorite places on earth. Triple-A baseball is always a wonderful experience at Syracuse. Affordable, entertaining and inspiring, the wonderful local management knows how to promote baseball. With all the hype surrounding Syracuse University’s basketball and football programs, I’d love to see people in the Utica area try the experience presented by the Syracuse Mets – just once. You will thank me.
Last March, I attended my first spring training game here in Bradenton – the south home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Who knows what’s next for me, but one thing’s for sure, it will involve a bat, a ball or a stretch of green grass.
Don Laible is a freelance sportswriter from the Mohawk Valley, now living in Florida. He has reported on professional baseball and hockey for print, radio and the web since the 1980s. His columns are featured weekly on WIBX950.com. Don can be contacted by email at Don@icechipsdiamonddust.com.
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