Pilot Field becomes 'The Natural' places for baseball reunion New York Knights, others in cast mark 10th anniversary of movieOF MOVIE - The Buffalo News

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Pilot Field becomes 'The Natural' places for baseball reunion New York Knights, others in cast mark 10th anniversary of movieOF MOVIE

The New York Knights ran onto the field Saturday night for one more time, and once again a final game-winning, light-busting home run towered over the outfield fence.

But this time, it was in Pilot Field, not the Old Rockpile.

Still, it seemed, well, natural.

The original scene was played out 10 years ago, as a group of local baseball players dropped everything to take part in what has become the high point of Buffalo's cinematic history, the filming of the movie "The Natural."

Although Robert Redford, Glenn Close and the other Hollywood stars didn't make this reunion, the Buffalo participants in that movie did. And they had plenty to reminisce and talk about.

"It was one of the greatest times of my life," recalled Rick Oliveri, who played on both the Knights, the movie's fictional team, as well as professionally for the Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Dodgers. "It compares with playing professional ball."

Oliveri played the role of Tommy Bivens, a teammate on Redford's team.

"It was a dream come true," said Phil Mankowski, who played for the Detroit Tigers and New York Mets. He was living in New York City and responded to an ad in the Village Voice for extras for the movie. The movie's location in old War Memorial Stadium had special meaning for the Buffalo native, who played many childhood championship games in the Old Rockpile.

Joseph Strnad proudly pulled out from his wallet a worn photo of Redford and himself. The former pro umpire took his place behind the plate in the final scene of the movie.

"He still hands out those photos, after 10 years," said his wife, Sara. "He still has the glory of being in a picture with Robert Redford."

Members of the cast, who met for a VIP party in Pilot Field's Club level Saturday, had nothing but good memories of the movie's stars, Redford, Close and Wilford Brimley.

"Glenn Close would bake them cookies in their trailer," recalled Paula Oliveri, Rick Oliveri's wife. They even exchanged recipes. Larry Couzens, who played an extra on the Knights, remembered her coming out and hitting the ball around with players during free time.

"They were very nice people," Couzens said.

Tom Dryja recalled Brimley bringing a case of beer and playing cards with the players. And Charles Bolic, who sometimes drove Redford to the set, said the star joined cast pizza parties along with the extras.

"Redford was very cordial to my family," said Steve Poliachik, who made his mark in the film as the man who did the off-screen pitches for Redford. In the movie, you see Redford wind up, but when the player gets struck out, that's actually Poliachik on the mound.

"It's back to the good old times," he said of the reunion. "I haven't seen some of these guys since the movie."

For Dryja, the reunion was more than just bringing together folks from the movies.

"I grew up with a ton of these guys. I've known them since we were 12 years old," he said.

"It was really exciting to see all the old faces again," said Peter Terreri, who played a member of the Pirates team in the movie but in real life played outfield for the Orioles.

Dryja filled many of the endless hours during filming that extras spent waiting by soaking up the mechanics of film-making. He said he listened to discussions between Redford and director Barry Levinson and stood behind the cameramen. He watches movies from a whole different perspective now, he said.

Although Redford's baseball experience is unclear, the men who filled the roles of the Knights had plenty of professional experience. Even the extra umpires, such as Peter Calieri, had worked professionally.

But Sibby Sisti lent an air of authenticity to the film. Sisti began his professional career in 1939, the year in which the movie is set. The Buffalo native played for 13 seasons for the Boston Braves and Milwaukee Braves.

In the movie, he played the role of manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the final game. In Saturday's re-enactment, Sisti took on Wilford Brimley's role as manager of the Knights.

Other festivities included a look-alike contest for those resembling Redford, Close and Brimley. There was big-band music and home-run and speed-pitch contests before the game to bring the audience in on the reunion. John Finnegan, who played Sam Simpson, Redford's agent in the film, appeared before the crowd during the contests.

There was also an exhibit of photos and memorabilia from the filming. It included autographed baseballs, a "Wonder Boy bat" and behind-the-scenes pictures of Redford and Close with extras such as Sisti and Oliveri.

The photos stood as evidence of the rare opportunity for these real-life players. Some boys dream of playing in the big leagues. Other kids hope to be in movies. In Buffalo, a select few had a glimpse of both.

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