Menhart pitches in with key message

Groton

Paul Menhart has taken his swing at going home again this week, ironic enough for an old pitcher. And he's been awash in youthful memories, back home where it began, a home where everything (the look of his alma mater) and nothing (friend for life Bernie Nasser) has changed.

This was Tuesday morning on the baseball field at Fitch High, a place Menhart barely recognized all these years later, especially with its spiffy makeover. One of the greatest ever in Fitch lore and legend was home, talking to the baseball team of 2012 inside the home dugout, only the whistling wind daring to make a peep over Menhart's observations.

It is a considerable trick now to get high school boys fixated on anything else but a video game and perhaps Amber walking across the beach. But Paul Menhart had them Tuesday morning. On every inflection, every syllable, every movement.

"Bernie was driving me here," Menhart was saying, 25 years after graduation, "and I'm freaking out at how the new school looks and how this field looks. You guys don't know how good you have it."

This was the same Paul Menhart who pitched for the 1987 state championship team, the kid who teamed with lefty Kevin Kirsch to form among the best 1-2 combinations in the history of this region. Maybe the state. The Menhart who made it to the majors, mesmerizing his audience Tuesday with tales from his days with the Blue Jays, Mariners and Padres. The guy who stood on the mound at Yankee Stadium once and whose Major League debut wasn't complete until he struck out Mark McGwire.

Menhart is the pitching coach with the Harrisburg Senators, the Double-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals, in the state this week to play New Britain. Nasser, a former teacher and coach of Menhart's at Fitch, asked his old student to come home again and talk to the kids. Bernie was happy to tell them that Menhart has worked extensively with Nats phenom Steven Strasburg, among others.

"All the things I've done," Menhart told a group that also included Waterford coach Art Peluso, Stonington coach Duffy Grace and a few Stonington players, "the one thing that always stayed with me was (former Fitch coach) Ed Harvey, who taught me more about baseball than any man ever has. I feel the same about Bernie and soccer. Your high school coach will stay with you forever. It's just that some of you might not realize it until later."

Menhart knows of what he speaks. He lived it after Monday's game in New Britain, driving with Nasser to the East Haddam home of old batterymate Dave Piela. They spent the remainder of the night at Nasser's house, reminiscing. Like the story from their old soccer days when teammate Kent Noreika, responsible for the team's medical kit, left it outside all weekend.

Nasser made Noreika write a letter of apology to the medical kit and read it aloud to the team.

Three decades later now and the memory still runs like a current through Menhart's mind.

Menhart's talk, peppered with a ballplayer's wisdom and five or six of George Carlin's seven words you can't say on television, ping-ponged among how to properly throw a changeup, why he prefers a fastball inside with the count 1-2 and coming to practice with a purpose. Work on the spin of the breaking ball, fielding a ground ball the right way. Appreciate your coaches. Pitch to the hollow of the knee (just below it) because no one's ever seen a 500-foot ground ball.

"And don't throw 18 different pitches," he said. "Not like you hear on TV or in your stupid little video game. Throw a two-seamer, four-seamer and a change. It's high school. In high school, you need to master throwing it over the plate."

Soon, he told the story of his Major League debut, home opener, 1995 in Toronto. He was never officially told he made the team. And then a few days later, he was on the mound in the ninth, facing McGwire. Struck him out on a 2-2 changeup.

All these years later, Menhart hasn't forgotten. Not striking out McGwire. Not where he came from. Going home again was never so much fun.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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