Vintage Baseball, Classic Rain

In the end, the weather won, but not before the spectators at the tri-town vintage baseball game had a chance to cheer for their teams and the players had a chance to take some impressive cuts at the soft, brown, lemon-size sphere that mid-l9th century teams played with.

It was baseball, even if the correct spelling in the 1857 rules, by which the games were played, was two words: base ball. But base ball was baseball with a difference. Players didn't use gloves; outs could be made both by catching a fly ball or by catching the ball on one bounce. No stealing bases, no taking leads, no laying down bunts.

The biggest challenge, according to Marty "Moe Larry Curly" Radomski of the Deep River team, was just remembering the rules. Like most of the other players, Radomski had chosen a colorful nickname as l9th century players would have done.

A downpour ended the round robin, organized by the historical societies of Essex, Chester, and Deep River, halfway through the competition. Each team was to have played one game against the opposition. When the rain came, Essex had already defeated Chester 11-4 in a four inning game and Deep River was leading Chester 5-0 after two innings.

"We would have taken the whole thing," said Joe "da Brow" Kuzaro of the Deep River squad.

The Deep River Nine was called the Haz Beenz, though announcer Steve Knauth wasn't buying that.

"They don't look like has-beens to me," said Knauth, a writer and former sports announcer on WLIS radio.

Knauth had brought a little bit of vintage baseball with him, in the form of the seat he sat on. It was a souvenir from Ebbets Field, once the home of the long gone but never forgotten Brooklyn Dodgers.

Despite the score, Chester team coach Tom "Yukon" Miceli, said that he had not given up on his town's overall chances.

"We were going to change strategy. I don't know if it would have worked, but we had a plan," he said as the rain began.

Though he did not play in the round robin, Miceli had vintage baseball experience as a member of a Middletown team, the Mansfields. Miceli's nickname reflected that he is now an economics professor at the University of Connecticut. His sister, Nancy Watkins, was the scorekeeper, known in l9th century lingo as the tallykeeper.

"I grew up around baseball fields; I was always the scorekeeper," she said.

The Chester team, the Squirrels, had three practices before the game. The Deep River squad had conducted no formal preparation sessions, but several team members admitted there had been some informal practice in bending elbows immediately before the game at the Swedish Club in Deep River.

Doug "The Butcher" Senn, who organized last year's game, was once again part of the Essex squad. Last year, a volunteer Essex team had played against a team that participated in a regular vintage league. The success of that outing had inspired Essex Historical Society President Sherry Clark to contact Skip Hubbard and Jeff Hostetler, presidents of the Chester and Deep River historical societies, to set up the vintage round robin.

This year's Essex nine, taking its name from the three villages of Ivoryton, Centerbrook, and Essex, was known as the ICE Elephants.

Senn pointed out the multi-generational make-up of the teams. His son John "Captain America" played and his father, also John, was one the managers of the Essex squad. Essex also included four Finkeldys, representing three generations: Otto "The Fink," his son Drew "Finkster," and two granddaughters, Brittany "Brittster," and Jackie "Jack Attack." Otto, 81, got a hit, a squib that stayed fair, but a pinch runner went down the baseline for him. Deep River boasted a number of Atkinsons, including captain Rick, "Used to be Quick," and the father-daughter duo of Alyssa "Daddy Long Legs" and Rob "Wild Thang" Rankin.

There were multi-generational members of the Heiser family present, but with divided loyalties. Father John Heiser was an assistant manager on the Essex team; his wife Judy (see her Person of the Week profile on page 2) was assistant general manager, but son Ted "Teddy Ballgame," now a Chester resident, played for his town.

"He grew up in Essex," someone in the crowd shouted as Ted came up to bat for Chester.

Instead of captaining, this year Senn was the adjudicator, the only official allowed in vintage baseball, but instead of standing behind the batter, he stood in the middle of the infield, garbed in a bowler hat, and a formal vest. With a large and impressive walking stick he looked unapproachable-and indeed he was. According to the rules, any player who approached the adjudicator to complain about a call without being invited to do so was out of the game.

Jay "The Spider" Tonks captained the Essex squad this year. Attending the ball game, however, required a change of family plans. Tonks and his wife had planned to go away this weekend to celebrate their anniversary coming later in the week. The trip had to be postponed.

Chester Historical Society President Hubbard distributed stick-on handlebar mustaches to both male and female players to give a real 19th-century flavor to the proceedings. Marilena "Pizarra" Vacarro, Chester's pitcher and the only woman on the team, liked the mustache, but her mother Madelena DiBattista, sitting on the sidelines, had only one word when asked if she approved of the addition to her daughter's upper lip: "No," she said without a moment's hesitation. Vacarro's husband Skip "Pizarro" Vacarro upheld another great baseball tradition: He was on the disabled list, having hurt his knee earlier and then reinjuring it at a practice.

In the stands, the Winkley family of Chester-Sarah and children Caleb, 7, and Linnea, 5-were ready to cheer for husband and father Josh "Dubber."

Before this game, Linnea said her rooting had only been done for her brother Caleb's youth baseball team. Then she paused a minute and added, "And the Red Sox."

As rain turned the ball field from red dirt to red mud, a conference of team captains and the adjudicator finally called the round robin because of weather. But State Representative Philip Miller, a classic baseball aficionado who had been the afternoon's color commentator, ended the game with a phrase as vintage as the vintage rules under which the contest had been played.

"Wait 'til next year," he said.

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