Filling the gap: A life on the field

Friday, May 29, 2015
Kiyoko and I holding the 2015 Class A State Softball Trophy at Murfreesboro on May 23. Photo by Anthony S. Puca

Good times will be remembered

In a way we all live vicariously through everyone we meet in our lifetime, especially the people that we care about or the many that have touched or encouraged us to go beyond who we thought we were.

For me, growing up, most of those special people played or coached baseball.

Mickey Mantle, Carl Yastrzemski, Tom Seaver, Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton were my heroes, and, yes my two coaches that touched me more than they will ever know, Paul Bowen and Joe Vivier, who had lost his right arm in Vietnam.

I think the first book I ever read from cover to cover was "Yaz" in 1968.

This is me at Easter of 1968 in front of the wall.

The wall

We had a big front window in the house where I grew up in Hamilton Square, N.J., a three-bedroom rancher that stuffed five kids in it like a Volkswagen.

The big couch was right under the window, and that is where my dad used to watch his golf matches on TV, during the glory times of Arnold Palmer, Jake Nicklaus, Gary Player, Chi Chi Rodriguez and one I remember a lot, "The Merry Mex" Lee Trevino.

My favorite was Billy Casper, he hit the 50-yard hook.

Anyway, outside there was a patio under that window that had an uneven brick wall up to the window frame, and on ground, under the wall were gray and white patio bricks that after the years, became uneven as well.

When there was no one in the neighborhood to play baseball with, and that was rare, I didn't care. I played with the wall.

Play and practice

My dad bought me these pink hard rubber balls that were the perfect simile for a baseball.

I would stand on the sidewalk, maybe 25 feet back. and throw that rubber ball against the wall, and it would go any which way, up or down, left or right, depending on the little ridge it would hit.

I was about eight when I started, and by the time I was 12, I could catch almost anything in my front yard, the next door neighbor's yard and in the street behind me.

I also had every ridge down on which way the ball would bounce so it became a regimented practice session after a while.

Bang...bang...bang

Needless to say, when my dad was trying to watch his golf heroes make a winning putt, all he heard was the incessant sound of that ball striking the wall every few seconds for hours.

And every once in a while, the window.

Never broke it, amazingly.

Hitting the flower box sounded like a bomb going off, so I became very accurate with my throws, not to make Dad really mad.

At first my dad would come to the front door and yell at me to stop, but I continued on and after a while, he would just bang on the window, and after that he just kind of gave up and let me go because he knew it was helping me get better.

On the team

My dream came true when I made the Balgowan's Bicycle Team in the Nottingham Little League in 1968.

My only true pre-teenage dream came true when I made the Little League team, Balgowan's Bicycle Shop, at eight-years old.

I could catch anything at that point, but was a little behind in hitting, so I became a speed guy that could get on base with my wheels, and that's what I did.

Little League was my life and then Babe Ruth where we played at Switlik Park, "The Birthplace of Babe Ruth Baseball."

Like many of us, the baseball dream ended when it was time to go to work and support myself, and I began at General Motors after high school, never to see the ball fields again.

Not!

August 1990, playing for the 89ers in the United Auto Workers League on the back page of the local paper, The Trentonian of Trenton, New Jersey.

To my surprise and delight, the Fisher Body plant in Ewing, N.J., had a United Auto Workers League. I played shortstop on the 89ers, a team consisting of guys from Departments Eight and Nine in the plant.

Our biggest rivals were the "Ball Busters."

New start

It was great, and then I left for Tennessee and Saturn, ending my prolific career.

Time has a way to meld the past with the present, and when my daughter Kiyoko was eight, she gave up dance and gymnastics for Little League softball.

Dwayne "Double D" Dowers was the coach, I was the assistant coach. We were the "Chapel Hill Cruisers," and later on "Sambos."

I think we finished near or at the bottom of the standings for a few years, but we had a blast, and many of the girls on the team fell in love with the game that I cherished as a youngster.

We practiced on Mike Waggoner's field behind his house for years. Thanks Mike!

On the road

I retired from GM in June 2006 when Kiyoko was nine I started work at the Tribune as a sports writer that August.

Then came Little League all-stars with our first trip to Memphis with the 10Us and then to Morristown at age 11.

I was now wearing a different hat, covering sports in the county and travelled to all of the softball events as a dad and a writer.

It changed my perspective as I began to mingle with other teams, players, coaches and fans.

Mike "Gumby" Wortham, Dowers, Scott "Potty" Walls and Casey "The Big Sandwich Man" Davis were the coaches during the all-stars and we all became good friends.

The Marshall County Little League changed to Babe Ruth when Kiyoko was 12, and we qualified for the Southeast Regional Tournament in Richmond, Va.

Tough foes

She was also in middle school, playing for the Forrest Lady Rockets under Bunky Elmore, and her desire to play grew exponentially.

In Richmond, we were up against very stiff competition -- perennial powerhouse Pitt County, N.C., and its biggest rival, Washington, N.C.

We were the unknowns, new to the Babe Ruth League that these teams had been playing in for years, but we were unafraid and beat several teams, including squads from Virginia and Florida.

We lost to Washington in the first round, but something happened that day that changed me forever.

New friends

After the game the Washington girls and the coach made it their business to befriend us, and a bond was born between the two teams that has lasted to this day.

We reeled off several victories in row after the first-round loss and found ourselves in the losers' bracket final of the entire tournament, against (Guess who?) Washington.

We lost the game and finished third.

We really won!

The girls learned a lot about sportsmanship, and I learned a very valuable lesson that the game is for them, not for any parent.

Katie arrives

After her seventh-grade year, Kiyoko's dream came true when she was called up to the varsity squad as an eighth-grader, and she voluntarily changed her entire school schedule to help a new friend, Katie Warrick acclimate to Forrest.

Warrick transferred from Community that season and the rest is history as far as she is concerned.

Warrick is probably one of the top three players ever to don the blue and white, and her 51 career home runs will be a tough record to break.

Kiyoko was fighting for a starting position in the outfield that season until near tragedy struck when she ran into the fence during pre-game warm-ups at the Lincoln County Border Battle in Fayetteville on Saturday, April 9, 2011.

Scary moments

I was taking photos for the Tribune, and when I saw her hit the fence, my feet never touched the ground on my way to her in foul territory in right field.

When I got there she was out cold with blood coming from her eyes and nose.

I was never so scared in my life!

She was taken by ambulance to Lincoln County Medical Center where she was diagnosed with a concussion.

That ended her entire eighth-grade season and made me appreciate every moment I would hopefully have left watching her play.

Determination

Forrest went to the state tournament the next three years, and during her junior year, Kiyoko suffered her second concussion, once again in pre-game warm-ups on Monday, April 21, 2014, at Spring Hill.

She came back several weeks later, but was never the same player.

Compound multiple concussions with a torn labrum in her right shoulder, and you have the makings for a reason to maybe give it up.

Not her. She worked harder this past off-season than any before, determined to not only come back and play, but to lead her team to a state championship.

When it was time to order class rings last year she said, "I don't want that ring, I want the state championship ring."

Lasting legacy

This was an incredible season for the Forrest girls and a satisfying one for me as well because Kiyoko, along with seniors Warrick, Briar Mays and Savannah Brothers have left a legacy that should be heeded by those who come next.

It's not about talent or who is who or any of that. If that was the case, many teams would be successful.

It was about a group of girls who decide that they were going to utilize their talent and stick together as a family without bullying or trying to make 'me' look better.

They Lady Rockets are state champions. They earned it. And now, I think I love softball even more and can't wait to see what is in store for next year.

The Force 96 14U travel team, front row from left, Alissa Hunter, Kiyoko Puca, Sydney Strasser, Kelsey Wortham, Heather Hart and Charlie Bruce. Back row, Dwayne Dowers, Baylee Dowers, Mary Taylor Hickman, Haley Trail, Taylor Wolaver, Spencer Walls and Mike "Gumby" Wortham.

It's about people

I will miss Kiyoko playing, and I will miss the other three Forrest seniors. And, our travel ball compatriots from Force 96, Havoc and the Tennessee Rage.

Baylee Dowers, Kaitlin Toombs, Savannah Oliver, Sydney Strasser, Charlie Bruce and Spencer Walls from Forrest played with us for years on some of those travel teams.

Jacey Perryman, Ashton Watkins, Makenzie Jo Anderson, Mecia Reed, omg Mecia and Grace Medley from Marshall County High are all some of my favorites kids, along with Kelsie Wortham and Taylor Wolaver from Cornersville and Mary Taylor Hickman from Lynnville.

And let's not forget Heather "Dirty Girty" Hart from Cascade, Kendall Durard from Shelbyville and my favorite softball player of all time, sorry Kiyoko, Alissa "The Beast" Hunter from Summertown.

You have all taught me a lot.