"We must get it done!"
--Motto of the Erie-Buffalo Baseball Club.
As the last grainy specks of day's light are absorbed into evening's uncertain darkness, the venerable Erie-Buffalo Baseball Club takes the field at the well-groomed Sports Complex in Welland, Ontario. The familiar sounds, smells, and pregame chatter are rejuvenating. Emerging from the dugout, the players take their positions at a fast trot. With tufts of graying hair (or what's left of it) protruding from underneath their custom-stitched caps, it seems almost as wishful and quietly inspiring as the surreal "Kick the Can" episode of The Twilight Zone. It's time to play ball!
But soon Erie-Buffalo's giddy enthusiasm is transformed into grim-faced reality. After building an early 15-2 lead against the Chiefs, their long-time Canadian rivals, Erie-Buffalo manages to hold-on for a 15-13 victory, ending a frustrating three-game losing skein. The win is met with less than the usual back slapping and "way-to-go" plaudits. For some players, the incessant war to stave off the physical deterioration of getting old may be nearing the final battle. At the very least, it appears to be looming more clearly with each passing game. Fiery Mike Myers, who plays first base and serves as team statistician, is overheard later, muttering something unprintable about a dubious team record being set: six (or was it seven) errors.
The hard truth is that the errors weren't mental errors or those committed by the over-exuberant hustle of youth. They were the kind of natural errors that occur when the intense physical demands of playing baseball can no longer be met. For example, chasing down a soft fly ball is less an effort to make a fine running catch than to get the ball back to the infield before an opposing runner can take an extra base on an age-weakened throwing arm.
To compensate, this gritty lot of mostly middle-aged ballplayers relies on fundamental play, perseverance, and "all-for-one" support. It doesn't seem to matter that half the players are in their early fifties. They keep competing--and mostly winning--against teams of skilled players half their age or younger. The fact that Erie-Buffalo has maintained virtually the same roster for over a decade--longer than any other amateur baseball team in western New York--is even more compelling.
Some have called the Erie-Buffalo Baseball Club "throwbacks." That's accurate. They're serious players, not just a bunch of old-timers getting together for a tour down memory lane and a few beers. More than anything, "E-B" compares to the amateur and semipro teams of the rugged barnstorming era of the early to mid-1900s. The biggest difference is that unlike barnstormers from a bygone era, E-B doesn't get paid for its time or travels. Interestingly, Myers' dad Marvin, a Brooklyn Dodger prospect, was one of only two non-major leaguers chosen to barnstorm across the country with the renowned Max Lanier All Stars in the late forties. In those days, barnstorming from town to town was a productive way for players to supplement their salaries and keep in shape for the coming season. Lanier, who pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals, added Myers to the team because of his versatility and fiery play. It's no coincidence that his son's intensity and devotion to the game has been so influential with his Erie-Buffalo teammates.
The Erie-Buffalo old-timers play with the same grit and hustle they learned in their childhoods thirty and forty years ago. They can no longer play ball on the local sandlots from dawn until dusk, but three or four days a week, E-B players rush gleefully to the ballpark after days spent as responsible adults, working at careers that range from managing a manufacturing facility to helping people with their finances.
Defying nagging aches, frustrating injuries that take longer to heal, and even career-threatening surgeries, they seem to draw strength from each other to keep playing. "There's an unspoken bond between the guys not to let each other down," says catcher Len Previte, a seven-year Erie-Buffalo veteran who himself is facing lower back surgery before the 2000 season. Enduring a relentless 80-plus game schedule that takes them from the Buffalo area to hallowed Doubleday Field in Cooperstown to the Major Senior Baseball League (MSBL) World Series in Arizona each year, the bond among E-B teammates is as firm as epoxy, and their love for the game is equally strong. "We're loosey-goosey at times," says Previte, "but we've played together so long we know when it's time to strap it up and go to work."
Outfielder Ed Warnke, the only E-B player to grow up outside the Buffalo area, was raised on the tough sandlots of Brooklyn before playing two seasons in the Independent Cape Cod League alongside prospects who eventually played in the major leagues. Facing years of minor-league travel to get his shot, Warnke decided to complete his college degree at Niagara University near Buffalo, where he married and settled.
Warnke offers another explanation for the team's unity: "Some [people] have a sort of need to compete that's beating inside. Everyone on this team feels that need, and playing baseball--as long as we can be competitive--is what keeps us going." The forty-six-year-old white-haired slugger joined Erie-Buffalo in 1994 after he got fed up with his former team's passionless approach to the game.
Pitcher Bob Ward has been the team's workhorse since it was formed in 1988. Ward can no longer overpower hitters, but relies instead on guts, guile, and a wicked changeup. The holder of Erie-Buffalo's record for most victories (123) and innings pitched, he has fought back from three major surgeries resulting from the constant wear and tear of E-B's spring-fall schedule. In 1994, cartilage removal and ligament repair were required on his right knee. Two years later he had similar surgery on his left knee. Since then he has also undergone risky surgery on his pitching shoulder that could have left his arm permanently damaged. Why would he go to these extremes at his age? "It's hard to answer that," Ward says after a long pause. "I guess I just wanted to keep playing ball." Like Warnke, he believes that the competitive aspects of the game he and his E-B teammates grew up loving to play is really what drives him. "Let me put it this way" he contends. "Some say it's denial--that we're avoiding the reality." But, he asserts, "Why quit when I'm enjoying it so much? Besides, it's pretty obvious that the people who put us down are envious--they wish they could still play too."
Beginnings and longevity--As much as Ward defines the team's persevering spirit and durability, E-B coach Ralph Proulx personifies team leadership. More than anyone, he is responsible for galvanizing the Erie-Buffalo Baseball Club and leading the resurgence of western New York's Municipal League (MUNY) during a time when local amateur leagues were collapsing faster than a cheap umbrella in a stiff wind. Before Proulx's emergence as league president in the late 1980s, it was not unusual to see players wandering onto the field carelessly attired in soiled jeans or sweatpants. Opposing pitchers would peer in for the sign in the classic pose, with Nike jogging shoes farcically straddling the rubber. At first it was laughable, but it fast became intolerable to Proulx, who was determined to cleanse the league of slovenly indifference. "Yeah, it was funny" he explains, "but here we were dressed in quality unies, taking pride in the team and ourselves and then you realize you're trying to get some kid in a Tommy Hilfiger tee-shirt out!" It didn't take him long to institute change. "It was one of my first rules," Proulx says. "All teams are required to wear uniforms or you don't play." Now, twin brothers Pete and Paul Englert design the team's custom-stitched uniforms each year. Professionally tailored, the uniforms are the definitive standard for the league's vastly improved dress code.
At the time, interest and excitement for amateur baseball in Buffalo, as in towns all over the Northeast, were being swallowed up by the proliferation of beery "tavern" leagues playing slo-pitch softball. People were turning their backs on a sport that had been as integral to Buffalo's heritage as the Great Lakes, railroads, steel mills, and sturdy blue-collar neighborhoods. "I couldn't believe what was happening to this great game that was such a huge part of my childhood and this city," Proulx recalls incredulously. Unwilling to accept the situation, he was intent on turning things around.
As co-owner of ESI Technologies in Buffalo, a top manufacturer of industrial software, Proulx has used his business savvy to deal with player shortages, weed-ravaged diamonds and community apathy. Orchestrating the consolidation of several leagues that were fragmenting or had ceased operations altogether, he pooled players from MUNY A, MUNY AA, and Buffalo's failed Major Senior Baseball League (MSBL) franchise, forming a united MUNY AA league. The consolidation included a firm policy on rules and conduct, and much-needed solidarity between players, coaches, and league officials. A partnership was also established with nearby Canadian leagues to create expanded schedules and take advantage of the natural rivalry with teams just across the Niagara River.
The team's only coach, Proulx put the original Erie-Buffalo roster together, inserting himself at second base, his brother Jim, known as "Perx," at third, Jim Galbo or Ward (when he didn't pitch) at shortstop, and Myers at first. In the outfield were Bob Kirbis, along with the Englert twins, remembered by some as members of the Warlocks, a popular local rock band during the late sixties and seventies. The catcher was Glenn "Short-hop" Hauptman, nicknamed for his uncanny ability to get his body in front of pitched balls that didn't quite make it the full 60 feet six inches to home plate. By the early nineties, pitcher Steve Pepi, outfielder Dan Ingersoll, Warnke, and Previte had joined the team. Pepi had a small role in the popular baseball movie, The Natural, starring Robert Redford. The movie was partly shot at Buffalo's old "rock pile," War Memorial Stadium. Pepi appeared in two scenes. One was sliding into second base and the other after Redford's character, Roy Hobbs, had knocked the lights out with a fantasy-shot home run. Remarkably, only Hauptman has moved on, leaving after the 1998 season. He is preparing to join the Senior Professional Bowler's tour this spring.
"They're a fascinating group," says rival coach John Dunn of the St. James Zeniths. "They seem to transcend age with how they conduct themselves." He refers to Erie-Buffalo's vigorous execution of the game's fundamentals as a "hammer and tongs and screw your belly into the ground" style. "I tell my players to emulate them and play with the same quality and intensity."
Terry Soldwisch, who coaches Home Run Derby, agrees. "First and foremost I try to run my team like theirs. E-B does everything first class from their uniforms to their equipment. They treat the game and each other with such great respect." More important, Soldwisch also credits Erie-Buffalo with giving the league credibility, making it easier to recruit younger players. "There's an aura about them--it's like playing against a pro team," he says. "My guys see how the game was meant to be played and want to follow their example."
Despite the years of hard work and spirited play, Erie-Buffalo has gone mostly unnoticed in its hometown. Word spreads slowly in a town where interest in a once-cherished pastime has shriveled. Bleachers sit mostly empty during games, but the few that attend are staunchly loyal. Long time Erie-Buffalo fan Ray Jezerio of Kaisertown remembers when fans and passersby would line both baselines of Buffalo ballparks, cheering for their favorite team. "People don't know what they're missing," he says. "These guys play harder and smarter than paid players do," Jezerio adds emphatically. He and his wife Carol have maintained their loyalty to Erie-Buffalo even though their two sons play for Wiechec's, the reigning MUNY AA champion.
It's hard to say how much longer E-B's original mambers will continue to "barnstorm." But what is their legacy has also become their future. The bittersweet ending at the Welland Sports Complex last July produced a natural irony that cannot be ignored. As EB's lead was slipping away, Proulx brought in Ward to relieve the tiring Pepi. Methodical and poised, Ward got the job done, earning a much-appreciated save. The first to greet him afterward was his Uncle Bob, who proudly clasped the hand of his eighteen-year-old nephew and escorted him off the field. The torch had been passed to Erie Buffalo's first second-generation player.
Mike Ward is a freelance writer and has been a broadcast news journalist for over 20 years. A lifetime baseball loyalist, he lives in Rochester, New York. E-B's website, www.eriebuffalo.com, includes schedules, directions to ballparks, game recaps, league standings, other relevant information, and a merchandise catalogue.
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|Publication:||The National Pastime|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2000|
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