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COMMENTARY

No surrender: Baseball's Mindszenty Monarchs, 'destina' and what may never be again

Sean Kirst

Brian Dimmer hasn't told his son, Jeff, about the Georgetown Cup.

Not yet. Not the whole story. Maybe, here and there, the kid has heard some snippets. The 10-year-old can't miss the photo his dad keeps on the wall. It shows Dimmer and all these other guys hanging out the windows of their school bus, screaming like they're feeling something no one else can feel.

Jeff knows this much: That was just after his father's baseball team won a big high school game.

But the boy doesn't understand how big. That takes some time.

This championship was about fathers wearing factory clothes who left work for that brief, sweet chance to watch their sons play, and living up to the older brothers whose feats seemed unmatchable. It was about a park where you could fall into a fountain while chasing a foul ball, and friendships that began almost before Dimmer remembers.

Many of Dimmer's childhood friends never went on real family vacations. There were no PlayStations, no DVDs, no e-mails after school. Their release, their escape, was baseball and each other.

That world, at least most of it, has passed away.

Still, it remains the purest time in Dimmer's life. It explains in some fashion why he never moved away, all of which is far too much to tell his son in one conversation. Instead, he often takes Jeff on the short ride from their Fredonia home to Mullet Street in Dunkirk, to the two-story wooden house where Dimmer grew up.

Father and son walk one block to the old Fourth Street softball diamond, where a boy with a stone and a good arm could stand near the backstop and hit the freight trains that often rattled past.

Dimmer would go there as a child on gray spring days. He'd hurry from school to grab his glove, ready to shag fly balls hit by his brothers. The field stank then from the smokestacks of Marsh Valve, a nearby factory that employed hundreds of Dunkirk laborers.

After a while, the kids got used to the smell. Marsh Valve was simply there, a plant whose deep mechanical heartbeat never stopped. In those days, the city maintained Fourth Street field for adult softball leagues. Now it goes unused, left to the crows or the gulls coming in from Lake Erie.

In school, Dimmer was a near-sighted kid. He rebelled against thick glasses, often squinting as he jiggled with the numbers on his locker. He loved baseball more than books, more than anything else. He turned himself into a defensive star in centerfield, a guy with an uncanny instinct for the ball.

When Dimmer was a senior at tiny Cardinal Mindszenty High School in Dunkirk, surrounded by these friends he'd known since he was a small boy, his team won the Georgetown Cup ....

The Catholic championship of Western New York.

For a kid from Dunkirk, Buffalo was the big town, an hour's drive into a place with real skyscrapers and expressways filled with traffic. Dunkirk, then and now, had no shopping mall, no professional sports team. The tallest landmarks were the smokestacks of the factories. The area did not even get its first McDonald's until the 1970s.

To understand Dimmer's story, you must understand his childhood world: Mindszenty played in the Bishop Smith League, which consisted of Western New York's smaller Catholic high schools. The school had fewer than 300 students. The Georgetown Cup championship covered everyone, including all the big Buffalo Catholic high schools: St. Joseph's, Canisius, Timon.

Dimmer's brother had played on a Mindszenty team that lost in the cup finals, in 1969, to St. Joe's. His brother Bobby was an outfielder on Mindszenty's first Georgetown Cup champion, in 1974.

Three years later, after winning the cup by beating St. Francis of Athol Springs, 12-4, Brian Dimmer and his friends were singled out by the Buffalo newspapers and television stations.

"We're tough from the top of the order to the bottom," their coach, Ed Eaker, told The Buffalo Evening News that day, even as parents popped champagne bottles and his players rolled in the dust. "I could have reversed the order and we would have been just as strong."

That was it. That was the key. A team that succeeded without a standout star had collectively lifted itself beyond the railroad tracks and factories of its childhood. Adults helped them get there, but the goal belonged to them, the deepest wish in their hearts, carved there in childhood.

Until the day they die, they won't let it go.

The players went out for a team meal and party. There was a spontaneous parade through Dunkirk. They remember every minute. They could not do any better. Their faces show it in that photograph, frozen in time, as they hang out of the bus.

That was May 31, 1977, 25 years ago this month.

Mindszenty closed two years later, shut down by the Diocese of Buffalo. Across Dunkirk, at roughly the same time, the plants lining the railroads began closing their doors, too. Many of the kids Dimmer grew up with moved away. One year there'd be a migration toward Houston, then Phoenix, and now the siren song is from the Carolinas.

Dimmer was like most of his classmates. He didn't leave. Eight of the nine starters on that Mindszenty team remain in Chautauqua County. Four of them -- Dimmer, catcher Jimmy Noto, first baseman Joe Pucciarelli and right fielder Bruce Tarnowski -- stayed in Dunkirk or neighboring Fredonia, a college town.

They were key figures in winning the championship, and they see each other often, more brothers than friends. They go to the same parties and gather at the men-only Lakeside Club. They vacation together, and they coach against each other in Little League.

Twenty-five years later, they will single out their births of their children as exceptions. Beyond that, they will all tell you -- searching for words that sound much the same -- that winning the Georgetown Cup was the most formative, most celestial moment in their lives.

Yet there is more to it. The cup is a symbol, the triumphant opposite of "For Sale" sign in front of their closed high school on Dunkirk's Central Avenue. The championship sits on the exact point between what they knew and what they are. As adults, Dimmer and his friends have dug in their feet against the forces of industrial decline and exodus, a quest that is beautiful or hopeless.

Or both.

"There's nothing like a great comeback," Dimmer says.

For more than 20 years he has worked at CPS, an ink plant in Dunkirk. Away from work, he does not talk much about his job. It is baseball that animates him. Dimmer coaches Little League. He searches the Internet for coaching tips, for ways to keep children from growing bored with baseball. He speaks of the game almost as theology, although he has not told his son about the Georgetown Cup.

Not yet.

Dimmer has not told Jeff about the game-saving double that he ripped in the playoffs, a shot against one of the region's best pitchers. He has not explained how he will always feel the impact deep within his palms, the way he hit the ball so hard that he barely felt it in the barrel of the bat, just a slight ripple through his hands into his hips and straight into the ground, the kind of hit in which the body becomes a lightning rod.

If it goes beyond words, it's not something he carries alone. Ed Tofil was the Mindszenty pitcher who retired the last St. Francis batter. He caught a ground ball tapped back to the mound, turned and threw to first. He can't tell you how often he sees that in his mind.

Tofil's life hardly came to a halt after high school. He played baseball in college, has a wife and family and is a respected investigator with the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Department.

At heart he will always be a Dunkirk guy, a product of the city's old Polish First Ward, and the last out is never far from his waking thoughts. This spring, as he talked about the Georgetown Cup, Tofil's words came to an abrupt halt. He remembered that last inning, how he turned toward third base to see tears running from the eyes of his teammate, Pete Zaccari.

Twenty-five years after Tofil fielded that last grounder, he had to stop and compose himself before speaking of the moment.

"That game still pops into my mind," Tofil finally said. "It was amazing. It was our one little spot in the world."

Dimmer wants to explain that to his son, but he knows it may take years - even a lifetime - to do it right. The lessons begin at the Fourth Street diamond near the lost factory, where Dimmer pitches to the boy and lets him send line drives skittering across rock and gravel.

Only there, in a place where nothing seems beautiful, can his son hunt for the beauty that became the Georgetown Cup.

The quest

The whole season really boiled down to one inning.

The 1977 Georgetown Cup playoffs began on a May Saturday in Cazenovia Park. Mindszenty beat Bishop Timon in the quarterfinals, 5-4, behind a 400-foot double by Joe Pucciarelli, a first baseman big enough to play offensive line in football.

That meant Mindszenty had to get past Bishop Neumann of Williamsville to make it to the finals. The lead went back and forth. Neumann scored two in the sixth to take a 5-4 lead. Then Neumann turned to its ace, Gene Dudek, one of the most overpowering pitchers in the region.

Bruce Tarnowski, the Mindszenty right fielder, watched as Dudek picked up a quick first out. Tarnowski was crying on the bench. He took off his spikes and put on his sneakers.

"I was thinking, 'We didn't make it again,' Tarnowski said.

Three years earlier, a Mindszenty team that included several older brothers of the regulars on the '77 team had won the Georgetown Cup with a dramatic 2-1 victory over Bishop Timon, the first overall Catholic championship in the little Catholic school's history. At the time, Mindszenty, Dunkirk and Fredonia - three high schools within a small area with less than 30,000 - were all regional baseball powers.

In both 1975 and '76, Mindszenty had strong teams - but got knocked out in the playoffs. The '77 squad had a young pitching staff, and there were questions about whether it could repeat the success of its predecessors.

Those Monarchs had one strength at their core:

Top to bottom, they could they hit.

A case in point: Joe Pucciarelli.

To surprise her husband for his 40th birthday, Donna Pucciarelli went into the basement one day after Joe had left for work. She collected photos and clippings from the 1977 season, brought them to a place that makes specialty videos and created a little tribute that she set to Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days."

"Glory Days" is Springsteen's story of a high school pitcher who becomes a lost and pathetic factory town phantom, wandering the bars in hopes that someone will buy him a beer in honor of his long-vanished "speed ball." If that song had truly fit Pucciarelli, the video would have been a cruel joke on a landmark birthday.

Joe Pucciarelli is hardly lost or pathetic. He gets up every morning and goes to work at a state "shock" prison in nearby Brocton, where he oversees inmates who learn machine skills while repairing buses and vans. The state paycheck is welcome security. He had two plants close down beneath his feet in Dunkirk in the 1980s. A third factory put him on permanent layoff.

For Pucciarelli, the perfect part about his job is getting out by 3 p.m. It allows him to spend most of the day with his family, and it frees him up to coach two Little League teams.

"His glory days are right now," Donna says, "spending time with our four children."

Joe Pucciarelli pitches during batting practice to his Little League in Fredonia Wednesday: April 10, 2002. (Mark Mulville/The Buffalo News)

The Mindszenty players were devoted to Springsteen back in the "Born to Run" days of the mid-1970s. Pucciarelli and his friends would drive hours to watch Springsteen perform in the big arenas of Northeastern cities.

"His music was about factory life, and that was something we could relate to," Dimmer says. They also recognized Springsteen's two distinct working class characters: the furious, heroic runaways who had to "get out while we're young," and the lost souls who stayed behind in a "town full of losers."

Pucciarelli, after high school, decided there was dignity in some choice in between.

He went away to play baseball at Monroe Community College. He got homesick, came back and became one of the top Division III hitters in the nation at Fredonia State College.

"Maybe it's something to do with being first-generation," he says, "but I never wanted to go far from my family."

No, he says, he never missed what he hasn't seen. As for the Georgetown Cup, Pucciarelli admits that it's often in the back of his mind. His daughter Angela, a 14-year-old basketball player at Fredonia High School, laughs while listening to her father.

"I've heard about it so much that I block it out," she says.

Pucciarelli knows that moment was a place in time impossible to duplicate. He was the spiritual heart of a championship team forged in a town -- and a kind of childhood -- that no longer exists. His whole persona as a 42-year-old is the same as it was at age 10: a large and very gentle guy who seems to know, and always knew, every living being in Dunkirk.

He grew up in a house with a big porch, across the street from Dunkirk's Washington Park. His father, Fortunato Pucciarelli, and mother, Gioconda, still live there. Fort, at 76, is short and broad-shouldered, a guy from the shovel plant with an iron handshake. He moved into the house in 1957, coming alone from Salerno, Italy, getting off a train at the Dunkirk station in the middle of a Lake Erie snowstorm.

Fort's father was already in Dunkirk, a success in real estate who also worked in one of the plants, and the old man told his son there were good jobs to be had. Fort came to the city, found a job, sent for Gioconda. She arrived in 1958, with their infant daughter, Maria.

Nine months and five days later, Joe Pucciarelli was born.

Joe is a big guy now, well over 200 pounds. He lives on Middlesex Drive, a Fredonia street of one-level homes and sprawling yards. Dimmer is a neighbor. Their address is at least one grudging concession the Mindszenty guys made to changing times.

When they were kids, Fredonia was the cultural enemy. Dunkirk had the factories and the bigger population. Fredonia was a college town. Whether it was true or not, kids in Dunkirk liked to believe that Fredonia kept its nose turned up in the air, and the result was a fierce rivalry that began in Little League all-star games and continued into high school.

Now, Fredonia has almost as many people as Dunkirk. Dimmer drives his son back to that lonesome Fourth Street diamond, where he'd catch fly balls as a child, on a kind of anthropological mission to help Jeff understand the Georgetown Cup.

Puciarelli -- everyone called him "Pucci" -- has twin brothers, Henry and Anthony, only one year younger, while the youngest is a sister, Rosalia. The Pucciarelli house became a magnet for neighborhood children. Gioconda Pucciarelli -- who, at the time, spoke only Italian -- would come downstairs in the morning and find little boys all over her porch. She'd open the garage door and there'd be kids inside, playing cards.

If she knew how to speak English, she says now, she might have told them to go home.

After school, the whole crowd crossed the brick street to play baseball.

The great battered statue of King Neptune dominated the fountain in Washington Park, located almost exactly between two makeshift baseball fields. Sometimes you'd have to keep one eye on the king as you ran for a fly ball.

Fort didn't know much about baseball. Soccer was his sport, and he'd torture the dials on the radio trying to get the scores from Italy. Still, he wanted his children to be Americans, and he'd wear his green work pants while he pitched to his three sons, who'd soon be joined by a neighborhood mob. When they finished, in the dusk, they'd all run to a cinderblock store on the corner to buy nickel candy from the old storeowner, who taught them how to swear.

The Pucciarelli boys became good friends with Dan Scaglione, Pete Zaccari and Jim Noto, who all would play on the Georgetown Cup team. Joe Pucciarelli went to Dunkirk's St. Mary's Elementary School, where he met Dimmer, who also began hanging around the park.

As wise-guy freshmen at Mindszenty, irreverent in class and often distracted from their studies, the group was labeled the "Park Gang" by history teacher Joe Damiano. He said it half in amusement, half in weariness.

Fortunato Pucciarelli, now retired, still lives in the same house he moved to shortly after arriving in America. There's talk around Dunkirk of returning Neptune, newly restored, to his old place in the fountain. But even Neptune couldn't bring back what's missing.

Thirty years ago, dozens of children pedaled toward Pucci's every day, baseball gloves dangling from their handlebars. Now? Fort shrugs. He gestures across the street.

"The park is dead," he says. "No one plays there anymore."

The catch

Dimmer wasn't supposed to be a hitting hero against Neumann. He earned his playing time for his defense.

Most of the seniors remembered a catch Dimmer made as a sophomore. Mindszenty was playing a home game at Veterans Field, a baseball diamond about 1,000 feet from the black glass and brick walls of the old Allegany Ludlum steel plant, whose 4 o'clock whistle once dominated family life and corresponded with the first pitch of more than one Mindszenty home game.

Dimmer and his teammates were leading 1-0 in the top of the seventh, two outs, a man on base, when an opposing player slashed a shot into the right-center hole. It was a line drive, a sure game-tying double or triple. At the last second Dimmer threw himself horizontally, snaring the ball in the tip of his webbing before landing hard, belly-down, on the dry grass. He held onto the ball. The game was over.

The next day, a tough and fearsome nun named Sister Alice, a Cardinal Mindszenty math teacher never afraid to swing her ruler, stepped away from the chalkboard and said, "I think we should all congratulate Brian Dimmer on his catch."

Looking at the sky

Every year, Joe and Donna Pucciarelli take their four children for a week's vacation at Allegany State Park with Bruce and Karen Tarnowski, who have seven children of their own. Bruce is the head maintenance man at Dunkirk City Hall, where he knows every cop, judge, clerk and secretary. He was also the right fielder on that Georgetown Cup team, the one crying on the bench in the last inning of the Bishop Neumann game.

When the kids wear down and the campfire is burning, Pucciarelli and Tarnowski pop open some beers and rehash the Georgetown Cup, from start to finish.

The Tarnowski family (L-R) Garrett, 17; Karen, the mother, holding Reid, 2; Tayler, 7; Bruce (the father); Makenzie, 4; Kyleigh, 12; and Josh, 15, in Dunkirk, April 10, 2002. Missing from the picture is daughter Lindsey.

Karen Tarnowski has come, with time, to enjoy that back-and-forth. When she first met her husband, she thought the whole thing was a little odd and overdone. Bruce Tarnowski had a copy of a Georgetown Cup highlight tape made by Dan Palmer, a sportscaster at WDOE, the local AM radio station in Dunkirk. Palmer made the tape as a tribute in 1979, when the diocese announced that Mindszenty was closing down.

"I made it as a demo tape," Palmer recalls. "At the time, I had dreams of going on to a bigger market."

He didn't. Something about Dunkirk still holds him, too. The Mindszenty players loved the tape, which took them inning-by-inning through the championship game. They'd stand around each other's kitchens at parties and listen to Palmer's voice. No one loved the whole routine as much as Bruce, a self-described team clown who would occasionally stand on his head in right field.

"My kids knew it by heart," Karen Tarnowski says. "Bruce would listen, and he'd get excited, and they'd get excited with him."

Bruce and Karen married before either of them turned 21. If at first Karen thought the Georgetown Cup memories bordered on the obsessive, she now sees it in a different way.

When Bruce needed a car battery jumped, or furniture moved, his teammates were there. If he wanted to "slide out for a beer" after the children were in bed, she knew exactly where he was: with his Mindszenty buddies at the Lakeside Club. Jimmy Noto, the Mindszenty catcher, is a bartender.

"When we were dating, it seemed like that's all we talked about," she says. "But now I wish I had friends like that. We get together every Memorial Day. For New Year's Eve, I know I'll see at least some of them. It almost makes me jealous I never had friendships like that."

Donna Pucciarelli also understands the power of those memories. Not long ago, in a nostalgic mood, she asked her husband where he'd go if he could transport himself to any one moment in his life.

He knew she wanted him to talk about their honeymoon, or the day they met.

Pucciarelli couldn't do it. He couldn't lie.

"I told her I wished I could be 12 years old and back at Washington Park, lying on our backs, looking at the sky, taking turns playing pitcher-catcher," Pucciarelli says.

Second chance

One down, nobody on, Neumann two outs away from the championship game. Anthony Pucciarelli, Joe's little brother, laid down a bunt single. His father was in the crowd. Fort often left his lunch breaks at the now-closed True Temper shovel to watch his boys. Not once did he ever tell them "good game." He never even told them that they played well.

He simply showed up, every time he could.

Neumann's infield huddled on the mound to reassure Dudek. Nobody called time-out. Pucciarelli broke for second and slid in, safe.

Just like that, season on the edge, the tying run was halfway there.

Destina

There is a dual reality to digging in your feet and staying in a place like Dunkirk.

If you've spent 40 or 50 years of your life in the city, you're aware of certain demographics. You realize, since your birth, the city's population has plunged to about 13,131, a full 25 percent loss than 1960.

Maybe you see it in a corner tavern, now boarded-up, where your parents bought their fish fries during Lent. Maybe you see it when you go past the open space of a downtown flattened 35 years ago to make room for a mall that was never built. Maybe you see it in e-mails from friends in Florida or Arizona who decided to get out.

A part of you feels a defiant loyalty. Someday, you think, the city could turn around. But there's no chance of that if everyone who loves it gives up and moves away.

Then comes another voice deep inside, one that in the night resembles panic. It whispers about places you haven't seen and wonders if your friends who left got it right.

Jim Noto, the catcher on the Georgetown Cup team, has felt both forces inside of him. Twice he was involved with women who told him he was welcome to come, but they had to get out of Dunkirk.

Both times, Noto told them goodbye.

"They felt they had to move away to grow up," says Noto, who set school records in 1977 with 33 hits and 33 runs batted in only 24 games. "I felt I could grow up fine right here."

Noto, whose older brother Chuck played on the first Georgetown Cup team, might bring to mind more "Glory Days" imagery -- a guy who limited himself to the one small place where people applaud him for high school hitting feats.

There's one problem: Noto evolved and grew in Dunkirk.

Anyone who knew him as a child will agree. He was a tough kid with an angry tongue and an aura that could radiate contempt. Many Dunkirk children did not like Jimmy Noto.

Noto will tell you himself. He changed without moving to the big city, or joining the military, or going through some religious conversion. The change started because a junior high basketball coach at St. Mary's School named Al Andre hated Noto's attitude. Noto was a fine playground basketball player. Andre cut him in sixth grade, then cut him again in seventh.

In eighth grade, as a penitent, Noto made the team and was a star.

His mellowing was a remarkable process that continues today. Noto loves the idea of "destina," a word his Italian-American mother used as a form of comfort. He would ask her about life, if someday he would play in the major leagues, if someday maybe he'd have children of his own. His mother would smile and say, "Destina, Jimmy."

Only if that is your destiny.

His dream became following in Andre's footsteps. For more than 20 years, he has coached the junior high basketball team at Northern Chautauqua Central School, which merged the old neighborhood Catholic schools in Dunkirk and Fredonia.

Those young ballplayers have become his "children." He coaches after working his day job with developmentally disabled young adults, a job he found because he was laid off from a factory. He loves that work, and he speaks of his clients with protective pride.

When he was a boy, his mother worked at St. Joseph's School for Exceptional Children, a residential school in Dunkirk. She would bring small boys and girls with profound disabilities to watch Noto play Little League.

"I started to think that maybe they were the normal ones, you know what I mean?" Noto says. "Some of the other kids sometimes would make fun of them, but with these people I work with, what you see is what you get. They tell the truth, right to your face."

Noto never saw himself locked inside any Springsteenian "death trap." He hangs pictures of teams he's coached on his wall, alongside a photo of that Mindszenty team from his senior year, which shows everyone clustered around Noto and Pete Zaccari.

The two euphoric seniors hold the Georgetown Cup.

Showdown

Still one down, in the last inning of the semifinals against Bishop Neumann. Senior Tim Burns, hitless so far that game, came up to bat. Burns hit a one-hopper in front of the plate. The ball rose up, up, up. By the time it came down, Burns had an infield single.

Now it was one out, two on, Dimmer up to bat. Tarnowski, through his tears, stopped lacing his sneakers. It was a game again, but no one on Mindszenty had really tagged Dudek. The Neumann ace was deep into the bottom of the order, facing a nearsighted center fielder who squinted at him from the plate.

War Daddy

Zaccari, the third baseman, is the only starter on the Georgetown Cup team who lives hours away from Dunkirk. He moved to Cleveland, but he often gets back to see his friends. The Georgetown Cup, he says, is one big reason he comes home. He remembers standing at third for the final outs in the last inning of the championship game, how he glanced over at his parents in the stands and tears came to his eyes.

"Oh God, I still refer to it all the time," Zaccari says. "The big thing is that it was done with people I'd known since I was 4 or 5 years old."

This is the kinship they all struggle to explain. The championship was about much more than baseball. Not all members of the "Park Gang" were star athletes. One of the regulars was a kid named Scott Wortham, the first among them to get his driver's license. He happily drove his friends around the city. He came and watched the games, but he was no baseball player.

Wortham had a wild grin, cockeyed glasses, a tangled shock of black hair. Even as a kid, he always went too hard at parties. He had a reason. His only brother, Barry, took a walk on a Dunkirk breakwall as a teenager during a fierce storm. Barry was swept into the lake and drowned.

Wortham was a little boy on the night when the phone rang at his parents' house. He didn't talk about Barry that much, but his friends understood how deeply he felt the loss.

Not quite two years ago, Wortham died in Jamestown of a drug overdose.

His death brought most of the Park Gang back together. Dimmer organized a tribute at Point Gratiot, a Dunkirk park whose cliffs are being slowly eroded by the lake. They invited Wortham's father and sister. Dimmer wrote Wortham's initials on a handful of golf balls.

One by one, the Park Gang members hit the balls into the water.

They also planted a sapling in Wortham's honor. Last spring, on a rainy afternoon, Dimmer drove to the park with some fertilizer. He  was recovering from knee surgery, so he pulled his car onto the grass. The tires sank into the mud. Dimmer was stuck. Picnickers tried to push him out. It didn't work. The tires spun. Things only got worse.

The police arrived and charged Dimmer with criminal trespassing. He went to court, where a judge heard the story and dismissed the charges.

How could a man be fined for keeping boyhood faith?

Understand that, and you begin to understand the Georgetown Cup.

Resurrection

Dimmer doesn't remember the count, whether he was nervous or if Dudek's pitch was a fastball or a curve. He just remembers hitting the ball perfectly, driving it hard and long, that whole sensation going deep into his hands. He saw the left fielder turning his back in desperation. The ball rolled into Cazenovia Creek, for a ground rule double.

For Mindszenty, that one swing saved the season.

Dimmer's hit left runners on second and third, game tied, still one out. Rob Gilray, the designated hitter, tipped a little roller to the mound. Dudek looked Tim Burns back to third base, then tried to throw to first. Not soon enough. Gilray was safe. Burns had already taken off for home.

The throw to the plate was late. The game was over. Mindszenty would play Smith League rival St. Francis for the Georgetown Cup.

The Titanic

Pucciarelli and his friends can't help drive by their boarded-up high school almost every day. The building remains a kind of painful haunted house for them, vacant since the diocese shut it down in 1979. For awhile, parents and supporters, including Ed Eaker, lobbied to get the school reopened. Pucciarelli has a video made by that group, built around footage shot inside the building.

For those who went there, it's like a video tour on the wreck of the Titanic. Pucciarelli has seen that video too often to count. He leans forward when he watches it, upset and transfixed, while his children shake their heads in sympathy.

The drive to reopen Mindszenty, at least in the same building, ended when the diocese sold the property to a private developer in 1998. A few weeks ago, players from 1977 gathered at their old school for a photo. They watched a man put up a "For Sale" sign on behalf of the company that now owns the building.

The company is called Renaissance of W.N.Y.

A father's blessing

In their collective memory, the championship game against St. Francis remains almost perfect, played in May sunshine and 85-degree heat. Eaker asked lefthanded pitcher Rich Cerrie to give him "three or four" good innings. By the fourth, Mindszenty led 7-0. It was their last game together. The drama was more among themselves than in the game.

Mindszenty won, 12-4. The game ended with Tofil, in relief, fielding the grounder and throwing to first, where Joe Pucciarelli was buried by his teammates. As they hugged and rolled in the dirt, Pucciarelli looked up from the pile. His father was walking onto the field, wearing the neat white shirt and dress slacks he always wore outside of work.

In 10 years of baseball, Fortunato Pucciarelli had never once praised or criticized his boys for the way they played. He simply showed up, watched, then made sure he drove them home.

Now he stood in the bedlam at Cazenovia Park, a few feet away from his tired, jovial son, whose tiny high school, doomed to close, had just become the diocesan champion of greater Buffalo.

"Congratulations," Fort said, and then he shook his son's hand.

Memorabilia from the Cardinal Mindszenty Georgetown Cup champions, 1977. (Mark Mulville/The Buffalo News)

Completion

The Mindszenty players from that 1977 team have had many reunions over the years. Seventeen of 18 players showed up for the last one five years ago. They're hoping for every one this year.

"I thought about leaving a couple of times," says Ron Siracuse, the team's second baseman, who now reads water meters for the Village of Fredonia. "But then I saw all my friends and family here, and I thought how could I really find someplace better?"

They're all there still there, gatekeepers to the days when their mothers dried the sheets out in the wind and when baseball gloves dangled from their handlebars. Dimmer, who coaches the Firemen team in the Fredonia Little League, recently learned that the league wanted to switch team colors. Dimmer's direct and passionate letter went out within days. The change was not acceptable. For 40 years, he wrote, the Firemen have always worn green.

He is adamant. This is beyond tradition. It is a secret from childhood, the way a flannel uniform felt on a warm day, a mystery too complex for Dimmer to set to words. It is enough, once you know it, to give you faith in your hometown, to reveal the hidden music in factory walls and railroad tracks.

It is why Dimmer pitches to his son on that ruined diamond, where freight trains roll past and the gulls wheel in the sky, where the father tries to give the boy the greatest gift he knows.

He can't describe it but he drank from it, in the Georgetown Cup.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News and a 1977 Mindszenty graduate who was there when Dimmer hit the ball into the creek. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

 

 

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