By Peter Richmond
TORRINGTON, Conn. -- The Firefighter's Museum is shuttered, and the historic train station was torn down a few years ago (but in dusty old Jerry's Coins and Collectibles, you can still find a Pee Wee's Playhouse action figure in the original box, or a Mr. Spock's Music from Outer Space album). In Fuessenich Park, named for a formerly prominent citizen in a formerly prominent mill town which has seen better times, the eighth-place Torrington Titans of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League play baseball, and boost the morale of the place the best they can.
On Friday night, with the first-place Martha's Vineyard Sharks in town, the Titans did their job pretty well, even if, as often happens when an eighth-place team plays a first-place team, they lost. But few among the 500 or so loyalists seemed disappointed. Actually, only one guy did, and his heckles died out harmlessly in the summer-evening air, seemingly unnoticed by everyone else. We weren't there for wins or losses. We were there for baseball, free of A-Braun asterisks, beneath the bright lights of a town that needs more of them.
The only year that Fuessenich Park ever saw a pro team was the summer of 1950, when the Torrington Braves of the Colonial League were led by Musial -- Ed Musial, that is. After six years hovering between D- and B-level ball, Ed led the team with five home runs that year, then retired. But there's been baseball in Torrington in one way, shape or form ever since. In 2007 a San Diego State kid named Stephen Strasburg was the closer for the Torrington Twisters of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, with an ERA of 1.31. After that team left for more fertile attendance fields, an ACBL team moved in. Then they left, too. The last two summers, Fuessenich has been home to the FCBL Titans, whose closer is Alex DiSanto, a very polite young man heading into his final year at SUNY-Old Westbury as a criminology major. After 17 2/3 innings, Alex's ERA is 0.00. He says he wants to be a policeman, unless, well, he never gives up another run. This past spring at college he gave up one, for an ERA of 0.31.
In collegiate summer baseball, if scoutable talent is the main metric, there's the Cape Cod League, and then there are all others. There's really no point in trying to assess where the FCBL is ranked, although a Titans pitcher out of South Georgia College signed with the Mets for $550,000 last year (one of seven Titans to sign with an MLB team), which speaks fairly well of the league's talent level. Mostly what matters for the game of baseball, and for those who like watching it, is that there are almost 60 collegiate leagues like the FCBL blanketing the land, havens of the game, from Anchorage to Austin. Virtually every current major leaguer passed through one.
For most of the players, the lure is more than the long-shot chance at the golden ring; it's the opportunity to extend their spring game into summer. "It's one of the best experiences you can have," Sharks pitcher Matt Timoney told me. "It's not like school. It's just baseball, without the stress." Matt's a junior computer science major at Harvard, and he was in a surprisingly good mood for someone who'd taken a 10:30 a.m. ferry off the island, boarded a bus on the mainland and arrived at Fuessenich at 5 p.m. -- and would have to bus it up to Nashua, N.H., after this game, hopefully arriving before the sun rose. But then, why wouldn't Matt be in good mood? His ERA is 3.61, and his host family lives less than a mile from the ocean, back on the Vineyard, and for half of the summer, he plays the game on a mound washed with sea breezes. I asked Matt if, when he graduates, he has a great offer from a computer company but is also drafted for very little money in the 19th round by the Milwaukee Brewers, would it be a hard choice? He looked at me as if I'd just arrived from a distant star system. OK, stupid question. It doesn't matter what the sheepskin says you are. It's what the uniform says you are.
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"It's more baseball-y than the Cape Cod League," Titans manager Misha Dworkin tells me. "We have real stadiums. And the Cape Cod League doesn't have things like dollar-beer night. This is more like the real minor-league experience." Dworkin thoroughly enjoyed his own minor league experience as a catcher, which ended in 2007 with the now-defunct Atlantic City Surf of the Can-Am League. After we talked, he sat in a folding chair and pitched yellow Wiffle golf balls to his hitters from 20 feet away, laughing.
I bought my bleacher ticket for $5, and for another $1, a homemade cupcake with white and red frosting, painstakingly formed to resemble a baseball with stitching, in a zip-lock bag printed with little baseballs. I took my seat near a guy with a shaved head and a Betty Boop tattoo on the back of his skull, a guy with a U.S. Navy destroyer on his T-shirt and a lot of women with a lot of kids. Then the PA announcer, who also portrays a Civil War Union soldier with the 28th Massachusetts Volunteer Reenactment Organization, read the starting lineups, and the Titans mascot, Titus, waved at everyone, even though his huge mask was a little scary (and in real life, back in 79 AD, Titus was not everyone's favorite emperor).
By now, shadows were sliding across the outfield where, beyond the Naugatuck River, a large faded-brick, broken-windowed factory harkened to the days when the game left the farms and came into the vacant lots of the cities -- back when, in Torrington, brass factory baseball teams played lumberyard baseball teams. A while back, the towns of the Naugatuck River Valley used to make a lot of things.
On Friday night, after two librarians from the Torrington Public Library, a Cub Scout and a player's cousin threw out the four first pitches, the game was a satisfyingly intense contest -- Low-A level ball. Titans starter Chris Hatfield threw hard, and you didn't need a radar gun to know it, just the sound of the ball smacking the catcher's glove. Everyone ran really hard, no matter what the situation, and dove for balls hit just out of reach. The Sharks starter, an Amherst lefty named John Cook, made two artful snags on hard-hit comebackers on the first two Titans hitters.
None of the batters stepped out of the box between pitches. None of the pitchers toiled with the rosin bag. One minute and 30 seconds after the second inning ended, the third began. Between innings, they played Cab Calloway on the PA system at one point, and at another the kids sang "Sponge Bob Square Pants." There was no beer. There was no signage for beer. There were no beer commercials on a screen, because there was no screen. No one seemed to mind.
Down in the Sharks bullpen, next to clots of crew-cutted kids playing in a large inflated giraffe ("Mom, can I go to the bouncy-houses? Please?"), a Vineyard relief pitcher flicked sunflower seeds at the other pitchers, who tried to hit them with bats but generally failed.
In the fourth, Titans starter Hatfield sort of lost it and was charged with six runs, involving walks and hit batters and singles and errors. He would absorb the loss (the final was 7-4). As he walked into the dugout, furious, throwing his hat, the fans behind the dugout gave him an ovation anyway. Because they were all here just to watch kids play the game they love as hard as they can, on a warm summer night.
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Peter Richmond has written for five newspapers, been featured in 14 anthologies and spent 13 years on staff at GQ. He has written about everything from sports to murder to movie stars to vasectomies, and has published six books, one a New York Times bestseller. His most recent, "Badasses," a history of the Oakland Raiders of the 1970s, has been released in paperback.