Friday, August 22, 2008

Shipbuilders' Legacy Lives On

Shipbuilders' Legacy Lives On in ITL Mariners
By Dom Nicastro


Cal Grimes spends many nights umpiring baseball games around the North Shore. But for the retired Essex police sergeant, there’s no better night than when he breathes the air coming off the marsh behind the outfield grass at Essex’s Memorial Field.

Any night at Memorial Field is grand for Grimes, the Intertown Twilight Baseball League Hall-of-Famer and all-time home run champion (18) who once dominated the league on that very field for the Shipbuilders.

Today, Grimes’ playing days are over — and so are Essex’s. A rite of passage in town as sacred to many as the fried clam in the 20th century, baseball in Essex has been a rare commodity the last seven years.

The Shipbuilders folded after a 70-year-plus history after the 2000 season because of what ITL officials saw as a lack of leadership and interest of Essex natives to play summer adult baseball.

Baseball is back today — Manchester and Essex merged to form the Mariners — and the team hosted Game 3 of the league finals against Hamilton Wednesday night at Memorial Field.

“It was devastating to me at the time,” Grimes said of the team’s collapse eight years ago. “Especially when we were among the strongest organizations in the league. It just didn’t work. They just didn’t have the roots in town any more.”

Neither Grimes nor top league officials have any romanticized notions of seeing the Shipbuilders return any time soon. The days when hundreds of natives stood on the grassy hill down the right-field line in front of Town Hall may be gone forever, in fact.

Today, the team wears Manchester navy blue and white, though Grimes says “that’s gonna change,” and is leading the charge for a return to Shipbuilders’ red and gold.

A revival seems even less likely considering the roster consists of two Essex natives — player/manager Bryan Lafata and Ty Haskell. The rest are mostly Gloucester and Manchester residents.

Even though some longtime fans may yearn for it, the parades on fire trucks through town and Shipbuilders bumper stickers may not return.

“With the merger of the two towns in the school system, I don’t see us splitting them in the ITL,” said Terry Poste, the league’s president. “When guys are used to playing with certain people, they tend to want to stay on the same team, which would cause roster problems all over again.”

But this is August. And there are balls flying out to the marsh for home runs, foul balls skipping near the police station behind home plate, and nine local guys taking the field on, “the pit,” or what Grimes said they once called, “the place.”

That is quite enough for Lafata, who grew up on Pickering Street and as a kid rode his bike down to Memorial Field to watch the Shipbuilders. The 32-year-old joined the team when he was 14.

“It’s a great place to play, and the town has done a great job with the field,” Lafata said. “And in the past two weeks, it’s been the most people I’ve seen at games. I would say 200 people came to recent playoff games. You definitely see more of an interest in town.”

As much as Lafata would like to see Essex return as its own town team, he is not spearheading a charge to get it done. Right now, he has a solid championship team of young players mixed with key veterans, like himself and Nate Bertolino. And they had a 2-0 lead Wednesday night in the best-of-five series with Hamilton after they knocked off Rockport in the semi-finals and prevented the Townies from reaching their 11th straight championship series.

The league as a whole is strong and competitive as ever. Six teams battled for playoff spots, and last-place Topsfield did not exactly roll over for teams (it beat Hamilton in the final regular season game, knocking the Generals from second to fourth).

“It just makes sense with the two towns combining for Little League and schools,” Lafata said. “This coincides with that. But I know for the real baseball purists who know the league, they want to see a true town team. This hurts.”

But that will take recruiting more players, getting town support and finding a leader for the team that doesn’t have Lafata at the helm.

And that will not be easy to do, Grimes said.

“It all comes from leadership,” Grimes said, “and Bryan has done a great job bringing the team back together. It helps they’re in the championship fold. Everyone wants to be part of a winner.”

A revival? Or is the partnership with Manchester too strong for a return of the Essex Shipbuilders, whose fate may be frozen in time in black-and-white images in old newspaper clippings?

For Grimes, smelling the breeze off the marsh only gives him more strength to try. The first step is getting back the red and gold of old Essex.

Said Grimes, “We’re trying to make it a revival of sorts in Essex.”