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Turner's love of the game keeps ECML going

Groton — John Turner, Jr., stood in the parking lot at Washington Park after a recent Eastern Connecticut Major League game telling baseball stories.

The crack of the bat could be heard on the field behind him as Turner chatted about his adventures on the diamond over the years.

There's the time he sat in the dugout during a Boston Red Sox fantasy camp in Florida talking with Luis Tiant and another one about hanging out with Carl Yastrzemski. His eyes lit up when talking about playing a camp reunion game at Fenway Park.

His baseball stories also involve his long running relationship with the ECML as a player, coach and league commissioner. The amateur men's league would likely not be still around if not for Turner's commitment, dedication and passion for the sport.

"I love the game," Turner said.

Turner, 63, might be still playing if not for bad knees ending his competitive career that spanned about 40 years ... although he still makes a brief appearance each season.

You will find him several days a week standing in a Washington Park dugout and holding a scorebook while coaching the Pirates, the league's most established team. He also ensures the ECML runs smoothly, helping to provide current and former college and high school players an opportunity to spend their summer playing baseball.

"These guys, I tell them to play as long as you can because you will know when it's time," said Turner, who lives in Pawcatuck. "It kills me because I'd love to go out and play."

Players in the league appreciate everything he does.

"He's very dedicated to the league," said Rich Cochrane, a 50-year-old member of the Pirates from East Lyme. "He's had a really good intensity with organizing it. Also, he's done an incredible job recruiting some incredible talent. ... He's gotten a good mix of young and old. That's what I like about it.

"He's been there all throughout. He loves the game. He's a baller, and that's what you need. You want these kids to be playing into their 50s."

The league is thriving this summer, thanks to Turner and Mitchell College baseball coach Travis Beausoleil, who helped inject some talent into the league by bringing in local college players after opportunities to compete in many summer collegiate baseball leagues were wiped out due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Five teams are competing this summer, two more than last summer when the ECML appeared in jeopardy of folding.

Once upon a time there used to be three amateur leagues in the area — Westerly Twilight League, Morgan Park League in New London and Norwich City League.

But due to a variety of circumstances, including player numbers dwindling, the leagues began to struggle.

Turner helped hatch a plan in 1993 to merge some of the local leagues and form the ECML.

"We met at some bakery in Norwich," Turner said. "Don't ask me where. We all met there and at the end of the night the late Tom Bohara and John LeVangie, who were running the Norwich City League, saw that if we didn't merge into one league, then they were going to lose the city league.

"So we formed the ECML."

Turner became the first and still only ECML commissioner.

During its glory days, the ECML drew all the top talent in the area.

About 10 years ago, some players started leaving for more competitive and newly formed summer collegiate leagues. Some veterans retired from the sport.

But, through all the changes, Turner has refused to let the league die.

"I kept it going because my son (Jack) wanted to keep playing," Turner said. "I've always been fortunate that the guys that we get to play with us become loyal and they stay."

"All the teams appreciate what you do and that keeps you going. When you talk to them afterwards and they joke around with you, that's really the reward. It's not about the wins and the losses. ... Even though it's sandlot, you build life-long memories."

Baseball always has been a major part of his life.

He grew up in Pawcatuck, attended Stonington High School and then went to Thames Valley Community College, playing every chance that he got.

He's found a way to stay involved in the sport. He once served as a volunteer assistant for the University of Hartford baseball team.

An avid Red Sox fan, Turner signed up for a Boston fantasy camp in Florida. After attending his first one, he was hooked. He's been five times. He relished his time hanging out on the field, in the dugout and locker room with former Red Sox stars.

"It was great," Turner said. "I got to meet and become friends with a lot of guys, especially Jimmy Rice and Rick Wise. Rick and Jim were my coaches my first year there. Think about this, you're a baseball fan and you look around and you're in awe.

"I'm sitting in the dugout and Luis Tiant is talking to me. To this day, he'll remember my son and ask how my son is. Then he'll see my son and say, 'how's your father?' He's a great guy."

Fantasy campers also play a reunion game at Fenway Park. Turner manned center field where Fred Lynn once gracefully roamed and pitched on the same mound that Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens once commanded.

"Every game exceeded what you expected," Turner said.

Turner has been living his own baseball fantasy life in southeastern Connecticut. He dedicated a great deal of his free time outside of his job. He does configuration management for the Navy.

He's not sure how much longer he'll be involved with the ECML. He's gotten to the point where he's watching the sons of former teammates play in the league.

"At 63, how long can you be a kid?" Turner said. "I've been pretty fortunate."

It's hard to imagine the ECML without Turner.

Until he retires, you'll find him at Washington Park on summer nights enjoying every moment and adding to his seemingly endless list of baseball stories.

g.keefe@theday.com

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