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PONTO STORIES TOP THE TALES OF GLORY DAYS

So you want a good Art Ponto story? "Where can we start?" asked Duke McGuire.

Well, there was the time Art climbed up a fire escape and over a 4-foot wall to wake up Joe Lang for a tournament. Or the time he ripped the water cooler out of the wall in Pennsylvania. Then there are the times he began spitting up blood before games.

"The man was intense," said McGuire. "I remember once we played our opener at Delaware Park and the field was in terrible condition. Terrible. They presented Art with the trophy for winning the league the year before. He was unhappy with the playing conditions. So he drop-kicked it."

He didn't kick the trophy Wednesday night. Ponto accepted it with tears in his eyes and joy in his heart. Ten years after retiring as manager of the Voyageurs, ending local amateur baseball's great dynasty, Ponto was inducted into the Western New York Baseball Hall of Fame at Fontana's Banquet Center in West Seneca.

Ponto was one of 18 individuals so honored, along with the Town of Boston teams of the 1960s. Boston won six suburban titles in the decade. Under Ponto, the Voyageurs won 14 consecutive Muny championships from 1977-90.

The Voyageurs were more than a team; they were one man's obsession. Ponto outfitted his team in black-and-gold uniforms, just like his beloved Baltimore Orioles. He wore the No. 4 of his idol, Earl Weaver.

Ponto's motto back then was "You gotta love the game." That could have been the theme of Wednesday's induction ceremony, attended by 550 people. Former UB sports great Bob Miske, the ticket chairman and a 2000 inductee, said he had to turn down 200 requests for tickets.

The dinner has become one big reunion. Everyone - coaches, players, officials - shows up to honor the inductees and to celebrate what baseball used to be, when it was the true national pastime.

"It's not the same," said Ponto, now a bartender in New York City. "I come back in the summer sometime and I umpire. I hate to see it, but it's bad. But you look at the big leagues. You look at college baseball. It's all down. I don't know what kids are doing. Playing soccer? It's hard for teams to get nine guys out there now."

In his heyday, Ponto got the finest ballplayers to play for him, men like McGuire and Lang, Joe Charboneau and Joe Hesketh. Three of his players went into the Hall with him: Mike Groh, Jim Mary and Rick Oliveri.

"I have to thank the guys," Ponto said. "It's not me who won 14 years in a row. It was the players. You can't replace those kind of personalities. It's not the talent, it's the guys themselves. I miss it once in awhile. Sometimes when I'm umpiring, a guy will say, "That was a terrible call!' I'll say, "You know what, pal? I'll take nine guys out of the parking lot and beat you.' "

He could have grabbed nine guys from a table at Fontana's and done OK. Orv Cott, Bob Noal, Ken Siejak, Joe Harrington, they all went in Wednesday. Connie McGillicuddy, too. He could have helped manage.

Ray Bellet, a '98 inductee who pitched in Muny ball for 38 seasons, looked like he could throw a few innings. So did Earle Hannel, who started with the Simon Pures as a 16-year-old in 1949, and Vince Vara, who lost a leg when he was 18 but was good enough to get into the Hall in '99.

"People say I pitched with a wooden leg," said Vara. "I say no, I pitched with my arm."

Vara introduced the late Ed Crowe, who played for the Simon Pures from 1917-38. Vara had a scrapbook, with clippings of full amateur baseball box scores from the newspapers in 1936. There was a time when 75 to 100 teams played amateur baseball in three separate leagues. Now there's one league, the Buffalo Muny AAA, with 16 teams.

The Town of Boston doesn't even have its own team anymore. But 40 years ago, amateur baseball defined the town. On a Sunday afternoon, hundreds would show up for games at North Boston Stadium. Some 150 showed up to see Boston honored Wednesday.

Kids grew up dreaming of playing for the town team. One of them was Kevin Kobel, who pitched his first game for Boston at 15 and is the only player from the town to make the big leagues. He pitched six seasons for the Brewers and Mets, compiling a 18-34 record and a 3.88 earned run average.

"I played a lot of baseball in my life," Kobel said. "The guys from Boston played as hard as anybody I ever played with. They knew how to win. They were what you called gamers."

Kobel said it had been years since he'd talked about these things. It was great to see old friends and reminisce. After what happened in this country a week ago, it was especially nice to celebrate.

Kobel is a fireman in Phoenix. Like all firemen, he feels as if he lost a lot of his comrades in New York City. Ponto knew two firemen and a cop who were lost in the disaster. Seeing all his old buddies was a welcome diversion.

"This is very emotional," he said. "I live in New York, so I don't see a lot of these guys. You can't replace those guys. You'll never see people like that again."

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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