Saturday, June 23, 2007

Inductees Illustrate League’s Value

By Joe Jasinski (Article Appeared in the Village Reporter)

On May 19, in celebration of the Inter-Town Twilight Baseball League’s 79th birthday, league players and officials past and present gathered to induct 15 new members into its Hall of Fame, including three from the Topsfield Tories; Steve Eddy, Steve Williams, and Rob Race.

Regarded as an iron man, Rob Race amassed upwards of 125 wins in his career, which lasted from 1975-2002 (missing two seasons while living in New Jersey), making him the winningest pitcher in the league’s history.

Known through the majority of his career as “Rag Arm,” Race is celebrated as a hurler who threw strikes, changed speeds, and was an able fielder.

“He was a guy who, after you wouldn’t have one good swing at him in a game and had an ‘o’fer’ with a strikeout and a couple little grounders, you still would think you should hit him,” writes long-time teammate Rick Cole in the hall of fame induction program. “But you were wrong.”

Race was named the league’s “Most Valuable Pitcher” six times during his career. He helped the Tories win five championships, including four straight titles from 1976-1979, and then again in 1992.

Yet, at the hall of fame induction, Race was more concerned with crediting his teammates on their outstanding careers.

“Steve [Williams] is what you call the ‘classic great teammate’,” said Race. “He played all phases of the game well.”

Despite the high praise from his teammate, a conversation with Williams on his playing days could suggest the opposite. His humility is easily detected.

“God, I was such a weak hitter,” Williams said.

Yet his consistency at the plate – above .300 lifetime hitter – and expertise at second base are clear indications of the ballplayer’s value.

After playing for the Ipswich Chiefs from 1973-1977, Williams moved to Topsfield, where he hesitatingly joined Ipswich’s rival club, the Tories. In his first game with Topsfield, facing the Manchester Mariners, a bench-clearly brawl occurred. Williams threw no punches to his recollection. He would continue to play on the Topsfield squad for the next ten years, retiring from the ITL in 1987.

Williams holds the distinction of winning two league championships with two different teams.

His induction held additional significance due to the fact that Williams father was a past inductee, and played for Ipswich from 1949-1969.

While Williams remained a brawl bystander in his Topsfield debut, Steve Eddy licked his lips as the episode developed.

Eddy described the scene with wide eyes. Rob Race hit the batsman in the hip. Abnormally, the batter charged the mound, but was tackled from behind by the catcher before reaching his destination. Eddy was next at the scene, where he confronted the batter at the bottom of a massive pile-on.

“I kept the guys fired up.”

Commanding the middle infield with Williams, Steve Eddy played shortstop for the Tories from 1973 to 1993. He was a part of the same five champion teams as Race, and much like Williams, is highly touted for his exceptional defensive play (50 consecutive games without an error from 1978-1979).

Eddy’s play has even led to an amendment of the ITL rulebook. In 1992, he sent a catcher to the hospital with a concussion after a collision at home plate. The concussions persistently reoccurred over the next year for the catcher. The league found the catcher’s symptoms adequate incentive to ban runner contact with the catcher, and established the rule in 1993.

That 1992 season was a special one for both Race and Eddy. Both were veterans of the league, still proving themselves worthy of respect from their youthful peers. Eddy posted four hits on one game during the 1992 finals series. Race’s win in game two of the finals series was a brilliant 62-pitch complete game (ITL games are seven innings long). From that year on, Race adopted the new nickname, “Silver Fox,” complimentary of his “maturity.”

“Guys were saying, ‘who are these guys?’” Eddy said.

Eddy, Williams, and Race represent an age of ITL baseball that appears to be diminishing. Race reflected on the late 1970s and early 1980s as a period of tremendous dedication from the players in the league.

“Guys planned their summers around baseball.”

Attendance at games in those days was equally as impressive. Phil Tanson, a 2007 hall of fame inductee from the Rockport Townies, remembers there being 1,000 fans to see Rockport’s first championship in 1980.

“There was a cop on [Rockport’s] side [of the field] and a cop on [Essex’s] side just to control the fans,” explained Tanson, with a giddy smile, nodding with excitement.

While it can be argued that the league’s popularity has declined dramatically, the same declination rate does not apply to the talent level. Rob Race says that despite a greater distribution of interests by athletes with other sports and with jobs, the player pool remains highly competitive.

The league has never been in jeopardy of shutting down, according to ITL president Terry Poste. And it was the only league in the United States that played during all war years, as noted in records at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Games are free. Players are young. The scene is pure.

“The league gives America its favorite pastime. You can’t find that many places these days that do that,” boasts Poste.

(The ITL starts its 2007 season on May 27. The Topsfield Tories play their home games at Proctor School and have early season games there on June 1 and June 15. Starting time is 5:45.)