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Notably Norwich: From backyard baseball to the big leagues

For those of us who are baseball fans, this time of year can be the most exciting, with playoffs that ultimately culminate with the World Series. Of course, post-season play is much more exciting if our team qualifies for the playoffs.

In this COVID-abbreviated season, the New York Yankees qualified and the two other “local” teams, the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets, did not. The Yankees have since been eliminated, and so most of this area’s attention is now focused on professional football. (Of course, if you root for one of the New York football teams, the season is already as good as over as Jets at this writing are 0-6 and Giants are 1-5. With Tom Brady gone, the Patriots may only be mortal this season.)

So, back to baseball.

My first memory of the World Series was the 1963 Fall Classic between the Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers. The Yankees had won the two previous series and three of the past five, so I assumed as I ran home from school and clicked on my transistor radio en route that they would be comfortably in the lead on their way to a third consecutive championship.

Back then, World Series games were played in the afternoon. Many fans were in disbelief by what was happening in Game 1, though.

The upstart Dodgers were beating the Yankees — dominating them, actually — as Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Sandy Koufax had been virtually unhittable, striking out a Series-record 15 batters en route to a 5-2 win. The Dodgers won the next three games in a shocking sweep of the Yankees.

This year, the Dodgers are back in the Series for the third time in the past four seasons, playing the Tampa Bay Rays. Both teams reached the Fall Classic by winning exciting seven-game series, which thankfully seems to have re-kindled interest in our national pastime.

Baseball was a part of life when we were kids in Norwich. We would play some form of baseball every day on the school playground during recess. After school was out for the summer, some of us would play baseball from morning until it was too dark to see the ball.

My best friend back then, Kenny Armstrong, had a big backyard with a hedge at the northern end of his family’s property on New London Turnpike. If you hit the ball over the hedge, it was a home run. If we had enough kids, we’d play real baseball; otherwise it was pickle, sacrifice fly, pitch-and-catch or some other creative variation.

We’d have north-south games. Kenny would recruit kids who lived south of his home; I would pick kids who lived north, as I did on Newton Street.

They were great games with Kenny, the three Monahan brothers – John, Bob and Fran – Dave and Jimmy McCaffrey leading the charge for the south team. Bo Cipriani, Paul and Alan Berman, Neil Brown and Rich and Bobby Lenkiewicz playing for our side.

Rain didn’t mean we couldn’t play baseball, either. Kenny and I would spend hours playing Strat-O-Matic baseball, scaling and flipping baseball cards or compiling scrapbooks full of baseball stories and photos from the newspapers.

Kenny’s dad, Ken Sr. coached our Sts. Peter & Paul Farm System team to a league championship with Kenny, Fran Monahan, Gil Lamphere, Jim Auwood and Don Crouch among those on our team.

On days when we weren’t playing ball in Kenny’s back yard, we’d play at the nearby John B. Stanton School as part of the City of Norwich summer recreation playground program. We’d play teams from other area playgrounds like Samuel Huntington School, the West Side, Greenville and Laurel Hill.

As our big game at Hamilton Avenue approached, we heard stories about one boy on that team who was supposed to be the best player in the city at his age – Gary Caulfield. Well, he showed us why that day hitting two towering home runs over the fence as Hamilton Avenue crushed our dreams of a city championship.

Caulfield, who was a year older than most of our team, but still eligible to play, certainly lived up to his reputation. He would later be a standout baseball and basketball player at Norwich Free Academy.

The greater Norwich area has a rich baseball tradition, with a number of local stars going on to careers in Major League Baseball. A future column will name more of them.

My great uncle, Augustin “Lefty” Dugas of Taftville was the earliest local Major Leaguer as far as I know. Lefty played four seasons in the big leagues in the early 1930s, two for the Pittsburgh Pirates and one each for the Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Senators before his promising career was cut short by injuries.

Seventy years later, his great grandson, Andrew Carignan of Norwich, would achieve a lifelong dream of playing in The Show for two seasons for the American League’s Oakland Athletics. Andrew’s career was also shortened by injuries, but what life experiences the game provided.

In their respective primes, few were better than Lefty and Andrew.

After batting .349 with 26 home runs and a .565 slugging percentage in the minors in 1930, Lefty was called up by the Pirates and had three singles in five at-bats and scored two runs in his Major League debut against the Philadelphia Phillies. He seemed on his way to a successful career, finishing his first season with a .290 batting average in the Pirates’ final 11 games of the season.

After a serious injury in an exhibition game the following spring, though, he was optioned to the Kansas City Blues of the AA-level American Association, where he finished the season with an eye-popping .419 batting average and .636 slugging percentage. In fact, years later, he proudly displayed the number 419 on his car’s front license plate.

During his long professional and semi-professional career, Lefty would have fleeting professional relationships with many players and managers, including Hall of Famers like Hank Greenberg (whose daughter, philanthropist Alva Greenberg, lives locally), brothers Paul “Big Poison” Waner and Lloyd “Little Poison” Waner, Chuck Klein, Joe Cronin, Walter “Rabbit” Maranville, and Rogers Hornsby.

Years later, when Norwich was designated by the New York Yankees for their AA minor league franchise, the Norwich Navigators played in Sen. Thomas J. Dodd Stadium located on none other than Lefty Dugas Drive. My friend, attorney Glenn Carberry, whom I’d known since junior high school, was instrumental in bringing the Navigators here.

One night, the Navigators hosted a home run derby, featuring retired professional all-stars like George Brett, Dave Winfield, Mike Schmidt, Carlton Fisk and Gary Carter, all of them now Hall of Famers. Behind the plate catching as those former stars took their turns at bat was young Andrew Carignan. Imagine what a thrill that must have been for a teenager still in high school.

Incidentally, there was a local entry in that competition who stole the show. Lee Elci, now a morning radio talk-show host for 94.9 FM, WJJF, was previously an All-State baseball player for Waterford High, who later played with the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor league organization in the late 1980s.

Elci hit bomb after bomb over the left field fence to win the competition. At one point during Elci’s powerful performance, Brett asked the other Hall of Famers: “Who the hell is this guy?”

Although he began as a catcher, Andrew Carignan’s prowess was pitching. He was named Connecticut’s top baseball player and in 2003 led Norwich Free Academy to its most recent state baseball championship under the tutelage of Coach John Iovino and assistant Duke Campbell, and with big hitting support from another former Major Leaguer, Duke’s son, Eric Campbell, who played three seasons for the New York Mets.

I remember taking my own sons to watch Andrew pitch against East Lyme High School one night and seeing more than a dozen Major League scouts sitting behind the backstop with radar guns to clock his blistering fastball. More than a few brows were raised when the radar guns consistently measured Andrew’s fastball above 90 mph.

He earned a full scholarship to one of the top baseball colleges in the country, the University of North Carolina, where he was the Tar Heels’ closer and pitched in the College World Series. I remember thinking while watching Andrew on ESPN how proud his parents, Gary and Lisa Carignan, and grandparents, Lou and Ann Marie Carignan, were, and how proud Lefty, who had passed away in 1997, would have been.

In 2007, Andrew was drafted in the fifth round by the Oakland Athletics. He blew away opposing batters as he climbed the minor league ladder, averaging well over one strikeout per inning. Perhaps his best period was in 2012 when he was pitching at the AAA-level Sacramento in the Pacific Coast League, going 2-0, recording a 2.70 earned run average and striking out 21 batters in only 13 1/3 innings while holding the opposition to a paltry .181 average.

Andrew, now 34, and Lefty, who was 90 when he passed, both had great baseball careers that they can be proud of. Andrew can also be proud that after his baseball career was over in 2015, he kept a promise he’d made to his mom and returned to college to earn his degree.

When Lefty was buried on a spring day 23 years ago, there was a gathering of friends and loved ones around the grave site at St. Joseph Cemetery in Norwich. After, the priest offered final prayers and an invitation to the reception that would follow, one person, then a few, then all of us broke into one last rendition of a song we had all sung together many, many times with Lefty: “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

It was a fitting, though teary sendoff for a wonderful, happy man who never considered himself to be special; just a lucky guy who got to spend a good part of his life doing what he loved most, playing baseball.

Bill Stanley is a former reporter at The Day who retired Oct. 16 after more than 21 years as Vice President for Development & Community Relations at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital. He can be reached at billstanleyjr@aol.com.

 

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