Long before there were Sabres, Braves, Bandits or Destroyers, long before Bisons baseball died then was resurrected, even before Ralph Wilson and the modern-day Bills arrived, the Royal Printing Baseball Club was on the Buffalo sports scene.
Friday night at Casa di Pizza on Elmwood Avenue, the Royals will celebrate a half-century of baseball with a reunion party. Players, coaches, opponents and friends of the team will gather for a night of celebration and reminiscence.
Many men have worn the team uniform over the years but when you think of the Royals one name comes to mind -- Tovie.
Ottaviano "Tovie" Asarese is the founder, sponsor and still the manager of the amateur baseball team. The Royals have been his pride and joy since he returned from service during the Korean War in 1953 and opened a print shop on Grant Street.
Since then the shop has been cranking out wedding announcements, business cards, brochures, fliers, posters -- and baseball teams. Royal Printing sponsored teams in Muny, American Legion and other leagues and for the last 36 years in the All-American Amateur Baseball Association. Triple ABA, as it's commonly known, is a league for players 21 and under -- college and senior high school age.
Ask Asarese how he has been able to endure for so long and his stock answer is:
"Being single helps. So does owning your own business."
Some suspect the reason Tovie went into business was so he could sponsor his own team.
But baseball is more than a hobby in this bachelor's life. With Asarese it's a passion, maybe even a civic duty. Asarese sponsors his baseball team for the same reasons he's coached parochial league teams on the West Side since 1958, organized the West Side Ponytail Girls Softball League 28 years ago, founded a street hockey league at the Asarese-Matters Center on Grant Street, and developed playground facilities when there were none.
"I think I know what's good for kids," he said. " Sports and athletics keeps them from hanging around on street corners and getting involved with the wrong people."
As far as Asarese is concerned, there's nothing better for kids than to get into an organized league, where standings and records are kept, schedules are adhered to, where competition is fair and at the end of the season awards are handed out at a banquet.
Friday's reunion, though, is about the Royal Printing baseball team. Tovie estimates that more than 1,500 young men have played for him in the last 50 years. Other teams and organizations boast about accumulated championships. What Tovie seems most proud of is 50 years of unbroken service. Loyalty is important to him.
That's not to say that Royal Printing teams did not have their share of success.
Tovie is most proud of his 1976 team, the first in local AAABA history to go through a 14-game league season undefeated. From 1975-77, Royal Printing won two championships, finished second once and represented Buffalo in the AAABA nationals in Zanesville, Ohio.
One of the stars of that team was infielder Pat Raimondo, who went to the University at Buffalo and signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, advancing as high as Triple-A.
"Pat Raimondo is perhaps the best player I ever had but there have been an awful lot of good ones," Tovie said.
Sam LaNasa, Rollie Cercone, Scott Raimondo, Phil Ganci, Vinny Girardo and Rick Dillinger also were on those powerhouse teams that developed great followings and heated rivalries.
"I remember a game against Lamm Post at Houghton Park under the lights where we had 5,000 people watching," Asarese said. "For a game against Al Maroone's at Delaware Park we had 6,000."
Besides Pat Raimondo, pitchers Ed Retzer, George Ray and Joe Winkelsas were other Royals who played professionally. Retzer pitched for the Oakland A's.
Tovie and several former Royals -- Ted Wyatt, Tom Dryja, Bob Stanko, Vin Vara, Steve Poliachik and Joe Serafine -- are members of the Western New York Baseball Hall of Fame.
In the last 15 years, Royal Printing has made the AAABA playoffs 12 times. The Royals were playoff runners-up four times. In 2000, they finished fourth in the regular season then made a surprising run to capture the playoff championship and represent Buffalo at the national tournament in Johnstown, Pa., where they finished third.
During Royal Printing's Muny League era, the club boasted two of the most courageous athletes in local baseball. Pitcher Tom Finbar played with only one arm and Vara pitched with an artificial leg. In 1967, Vara, with his array of offspeed pitches, silenced the bats of the mighty Simon Pures to end its 63-game unbeaten streak and win one of the most historic games in Muny history.
Tovie got support and encouragement from his late parents, Alfonso and Theresa. He credits his father, who helped with equipment, with instilling a love for baseball. At age 92, his mother accompanied the team to Johnstown for the nationals.
He has had a lot of support over the years, from assistant coaches to employees who keep his business going while he is managing, running the West Side Ponytail Girls Softball League and coaching boys and girls basketball, baseball and softball at the Catholic Academy of West Buffalo.
And he has given a lot in time and money. This year's team will spend more than $5,000 for new uniforms, bats, balls, league fees and umpires.
"There's nothing extravagant or colorful about him, Tovie is just a good person," said Vara. "He must have helped thousands of kids on the West Side by giving them a chance to play ball for his teams in Muny, AAABA, the Midget League and all the other leagues he organized."
Asarese admits that he hasn't changed much over the years. He manages and organizes his teams the way he always has. His style?
"Conservative," he quickly replied.
For a man who has spent most of his life dealing with young people, Asarese is sensitive about the age-gap between himself and his players.
"Don't put that in the paper," he replied when you ask his age. "If they think you're old, kids these days don't want to listen to you."
Maybe so, but when old Royals players come back to visit or to help the team out, they marvel at the energy and dedication of their old manager.
" 'You never change,' they tell me," Asarese said. "I tell them, 'That's because you thought I was old then.' "