Friday, May 22, 2009

Emerson, Burnham and Brown earn ITL Hall of Fame nods

Emerson, Burnham, & Brown Earn ITL Hall of Fame Nods
By Dominic Nicastro (from Cape Ann Beacon)

CAPE ANN - For many, the 12th inning tells the story.

Justin Brown, then close to 40 years old, labored through 11 innings on the mound and nearly won his Manchester team the 1999 Intertown Twilight League baseball championship.

The next day, he came back for inning No. 12.

Brown had thrown 160 or so pitches — about the same as Rockport counterpart Scott Bouchie — and pitched again less than 24 hours later in the second game five, played a day after the teams remained locked at five after darkness rolled over the green hills of Evans Field in Rockport.

“I was warming up with him, and he says, ‘My arm feels pretty good,’” recalled Mike Athanas, Brown’s former teammate. “He took the ball. It was an easy decision. That’s the kind of guy he was.”

Brown actually lost that game. But his Herculean efforts like the night in Rockport throughout his 20-plus ITL career landed him in this year’s Hall of Fame class. He and fellow Cape Ann ITL greats Bruce Emerson of Rockport and Donnie Burnham of Essex also were inducted in an event Saturday night in Essex.

Between each of them, there are more than 60 years of ITL baseball and about 25 championships.

Brown was a dominant closer and pitcher on the Manchester teams that, starting in 1986, made the finals for 16 straight seasons, winning 10.

Emerson, an All New Englander out of UMass-Amherst, played on eight championship teams and was the manager on three, earning a reputation as one of the best pitchers and pure baseball players the league has seen.

And Burnham was a mainstay known for his versatility on Essex teams that rivaled Rockport.

“I would like to congratulate this year’s inductees and say that they are all fine young men as well as good athletes,” said Essex’s Cal Grimes, the Hall of Fame, all-time single-season homerun champ of the ITL. “I am happy to say that I have played with coached or umpired with them all. I know that they have played with and lived with the high ideals that the ITL stands for: high competition and sportsmanship.”

Bruce Emerson: Student of the game

No one knows Emerson better than Brown, his former teammate at UMass-Amherst. Brown said Emerson carried the Minutemen on the mound his senior year. And throughout his ITL days, he and Bard Marques were the lights-out 1-2 punch on the mound, Emerson with the overpowering fastball.

“Rockport won championships because they rode Emerson and Marques,” Brown said.

Emerson, a 48-year-old athletics director at a private school in Beverly, played since he was 15 and remembers riding his bike to Evans Field to watch the greats as a kid.

Emerson took time off from the league in the early ’90s but came back and was as dangerous as ever at the plate, though he stepped down from pitching duties because of arm trouble.

“Bruce is right up there with Bard Marques as the smartest I’ve ever played with,” said Mike Frontierro, who played with and coached in the late ’90s with Emerson. “His knowledge of the game is unsurpassed. I had the privilege of being his coach at the end of his career. He always put his team ahead of himself and had a work ethic like no other.”

Emerson said what kept him competitive was being surrounded by such great teammates — the Bobby Muises, Marques, Mike Cusumanos and John Parisis.

“They were just baseball guys,” said Emerson, whose two sons, Michael and Cory, followed in Dad’s footsteps as a Rockport High School athlete. “They were just a great group of guys that made the game fun. It wasn’t just the two hours of the game, either. It was going down there getting the field ready and staying after the game.”

Emerson recalls the history of the league and Rockport even better than the game. A historian of the ITL, it’s hard to put a fact past him. He remembered the 1980 Rockport team that trailed the championship series, 2-0, and won the whole thing. And the 1985 team that made a similar comeback.

“Bruce Emerson has been around either as a player, coach or board member for many years,” said ITL President Terry Poste. “Not only was Bruce a good ballplayer, he has a memory that won’t quit. Ask him about a Townies game from the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s, and he’ll give you the play-by-play of the entire game. Even though he is retired, we can count on him to make sure our season gets off a good start. Bruce played against Justin Brown in college and through their careers in the ITL. I can’t think of a more fitting way for them to be inducted into the Hall of Fame than putting them in together.”

Donnie Burnham: All-around ballplayer

Burnham said he is forever grateful to have played in the ITL with teammates whom he calls lifelong friends: Peter Ferriero, John Davis, Mike McCarthy, the Story boys, the Woodmans, Kendall, the Ellises. He said he can’t possibly name them all, but they certainly kept the Essex native coming back to Memorial Field year after year to play for the storied Shipbuilders.

“We played through the years together for so long, and we’re all still real close,” Burnham said. “There were guys I played with when I was 7. That’s what I appreciate as much as anything.”

The former Salem State College baseball player and owner of Burnham’s Catering also recalled the fierce, yet friendly rivalry with Rockport. The rivalry was so intense some Essex fans (or perhaps players) stole Bobby Muise’s Rockport jacket and burned it.

“I’m sworn to secrecy on that,” said Burnham, whose two children, Chandler and Drew, attend Manchester Essex Regional High School. “They were always our No. 1 competition. We had some pretty good battles. There were always big crowds.”

Poste called Burnham “a loyal Shipbuilder.”

“He had a good baseball mind,” she said. “He was always there when you needed him, either as an assistant coach or player.”

Burnham played a little bit of everything — and Essex was always better off for it.

“Donnie Burnham was a key member of the Essex teams of the late ’70s and early ’80s,” Frontierro said. “He could beat you on the mound or at the plate.”

Justin Brown: ‘Papelbon of the ITL’
It’s getting dark, and Manchester has a slight lead.

That was Brown’s cue. The pitcher with the sneaky fastball and the slider not many could hit was a key cog in Manchester’s unprecedented three-decade run of championship appearances.

There was summer, sun, tourists on Good Harbor Beach and Brown on the mound helping the Mariners win a title. That was summer on Cape Ann from 1986 to 2002.

“No one was more intimidating,” Frontierro said. “His reputation alone could beat you.”

Brown said he was a late bloomer; he hadn’t played summer baseball since Little League when he joined the ITL in 1978. He didn’t pitch in the early part of his career but made his way to closer and starter when the team needed him toward the end of his career.

Poste called him the “Papelbon of the ITL.”

“It was a very comfortable position to be in,” Athanas said of when Brown took the mound. “He would come in during the seventh, and it was pretty much an automatic save.”

The most amazing thing, ITL veterans say, is Brown pitched most of those years at tiny — and now defunct — Hyland Field, which had a fence no more than an average pop-up away from home plate. (It was 300 or so feet to center, which legitimately should be 375- to 400-ish).