Friday, July 28, 2006

Baseball in my blood

For those of you who have been following my blogging for any length of time, or are familiar with my book, When Towns Had Teams, you know of my interest in local baseball. In fact, not only am I interested in the grass-roots version of our national pastime, but I remain directly connected with the Twilight League, the oldest league of its type in the U.S.

For the past three years, I coached a team, while adding the title of league president to my involvement with the league. I also have done what I can to publicize the league and drum up interest from our local media, who generally aren't friendly to anything that smacks of local, at least not the Portland Press Herald and other dailies.

On the other hand, weekly papers, like the The Forecaster, have allowed me to write articles on the league for the past two summers. This gives us some publicity and also allows me to write about something dear to my heart--local baseball.

Here is my latest article in The Forecaster, on two players who continue to play the great game of baseball for all the right reasons.

For the love of the game
Twilight League veterans lead the way for Patriot Mutual
(The Forecaster, July 26, 2006)
By, Jim Baumer

For much of its history, the 104-year-old Twilight League has been a baseball way station for veterans still craving top-notch competition. Unlike the more recreational Men’s Senior Baseball League, Portland’s Twilight League requires a greater commitment from its players and provides a reliable yardstick for anyone wanting a gauge on whether they still have it.

Over the past few seasons, fewer and fewer players continue to play after leaving college. For whatever reason, many have decided to forego the four-day-per-week commitment of semi-pro leagues, like the Twilight League. Two veteran Patriot Mutual pitchers, Luke Myers and John Carriero, have continued to play long after many of their peers have hung up their spikes, or have drifted to over-30 baseball. Both continue to relish the opportunity to ply their stuff against the best young talent in the area. The need to compete at a higher level continues to be a motivating factor for each, as they spend summer evenings on local diamonds, more than holding their own against younger foes.

When asked about why he keeps coming back, Myers indicated that the competition was one of the reasons. Now in his thirteenth season of playing in a town team, or semi-pro league, the 31-year-old Myers has been with the Patriot Mutual club for the past three summers.

“There’s nothing like the competition of playing in the Twilight League,” said Myers. “I love the time I get to spend at the ballpark. The grass, the dirt, the camaraderie of the dugout; all these things make it special.”

Like many older players who’ve come before him, it’s tough to walk away from a game that you begin playing during your formative years.

“I’ve been playing baseball since I was five or six,” said Myers. “When I was younger, my dad was a big part of my baseball experience—coaching, running the local Little League (in Auburn, where he grew up), so family is a big part of the experience for me.”

Myers graduated from Edward Little High School and went on to play baseball at Skidmore College, in upstate New York, graduating in 1997.

“We were a fairly new program when I got there. It was exciting to be part of a young program and see it grow,” he said.

While at Skidmore, he played summers in the old Pine Tree League, which folded in 2001. Originally founded in 1923, the league was one of many that were once active in Maine and allowed players of all ages and abilities to compete against neighboring towns.

After the Pine Tree folded and now working in the Portland area, Myers was anxious to see if he had the talent to play at the next level.

“I’d always heard about the Twilight League and was aware of its reputation,” said Myers. “I wondered if I was good enough to compete in this league.”

In 2003, he was picked up late in the season by the old Yankee Ford club and got his feet wet as a Twilighter. In 2004, he was drafted by Patriot Mutual and has been a key member of its pitching staff since.

At the age of 31, Myers might be having his best year ever. The right-handed hurler has filled a number of roles over his three years with Patriot Mutual. This year, as in previous seasons, Myers has pitched relief, as well as making spot starts. This season, he’s started four times in eight appearances and has posted a record of 3-1, with an ERA under two runs a game.

Always a gamer, Myers continues to appreciate what it takes to play the game he loves at a high level.

“Every year, I have to fight for my spot on a talented team. There’s never a guarantee that I’ll automatically have a place,” he said. “I’m enjoying the opportunity and hope to continue to play as long as my ability allows me to compete at this level.”

Like Myers, John Carriero is a veteran playing in a league that is primarily comprised of college players. At 37, Carriero finds himself as the elder statesman of the league, or “the old man” as he sees it.”

Hailing from the Camden, New Jersey area, Carriero brings a solid baseball pedigree with him to the Pine Tree State. He played his college ball for Rider University, a solid Division I program. During his freshman season in 1987, the club advanced to the regionals where Carriero pitched against a strong Georgia club and future major leaguer, Derek Lilliquist, who later pitched for Atlanta.

Carriero moved to Maine last summer, having fallen in love with the state during previous vacation trips to Old Orchard.

“My wife and I loved the area and we thought it would be a great place for the kids to grow up,” said Carriero.

With the assorted priorities that accompany family and other adult responsibilities, Carriero was asked why he continues to make the commitment necessary to pitch at this higher level, rather than play with his peers in the over-30 circuit.

“I tried the over-30 experience back in Jersey. I didn’t think enough of the players had respect for the game, the way I thought it should be played,” he said.

He found himself back playing against younger players and seeing if his talent was still good enough for the Rancocus Valley League in South Jersey.

“We were a solid league; I played for several years for the Vincentville team down there,” said Carriero. “When I knew I was moving to Maine, I wanted to hook up with the Twilight League and see how I’d do up here.”

Carriero was a key second-half edition for Patriot Mutual in 2005 and almost pitched them into the playoffs.

This summer, the 37-year-old Carriero has been nearly perfect on the hill, posting a 4-0 record in five starts, with 36 strikeouts in 27 innings. No slouch with the bat, either, he’s provided the potent Patriot Mutual offense with another right-handed bat, primarily as a DH, batting .297, with a homer and six RBI.

“This summer’s been a lot of fun. We have a great club, with a very deep pitching staff,” said Carriero. “I played for a club a few years back in Vincentville that was 36-3 and this year’s club reminds me of them; we always find a way to win.”

Both Myers and Carriero are throwbacks to a time when local players often played well into their 30s, 40s and a few, into their 50s. Both are examples of how, when you are serious about the game, take care of yourself and avoid injury, you often get better, the older you get.

“I’ve learned so much about the game, having pitched for so long,” said Carriero.

You can be sure that once playoff time rolls around, veteran players like Myers and Carriero will be filling key roles in Patriot Mutual’s march towards their first league championship.