The Ties That Bind…

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June 23rd, 2022

Today’s blog installment may just meander a bit. Wait…  Really? That would be a first!

The reason for said meandering is a chain of thoughts that have passed through my now 66-year old brain the last few days. And they all began with this charming photo.

44 or so years later, the tie still binds. Lookin’ good Roomie!

“What a nice couple,” you say. Yes they are.

“Enjoying the good life,” you add. Yes they are.

“Who are they?” you inquire.

Well, this is what started it. This is what caused my brain to immediately come up with the headline for this blog without the rest of the text even being slightly formulated. This photo is a perfect example of the ties that bind. And in my case, boy do they ever.

The handsome gentleman in this shot is Dan O’Connor. That name might mean little or nothing to you. It means a lot to me. His lovely bride is Richele, and she herself is clear evidence that my friend Dan completely out-kicked his coverage when they married.

Who is Dan O’Connor? He was my teammate and roommate in Bristol, Paintsville, and Lakeland in the Detroit Tigers minor league system. We all called him OC. I call him that to this day, but “to this day” includes the fact we only reconnected a year or so ago, thanks to his son Danny who made it happen after I stumbled upon the young lad on Facebook, and I quickly fired off a note asking “Are you related to Dan O’Connor who played pro baseball in the Tigers’ organization?” I’m glad I did that.

Richele posted this on FB the other day on their anniversary. It’s one of the first photos I’ve seen of OC in the present day. He must be camera shy. He shouldn’t be. Son of gun is still as handsome as he was in those minor league days.

As a player, OC was a stud. The Tigers saw a lot in him when they signed him. He was from Erie, Pennsylvania. He was big and strong as a catcher, with very good tools. He was the real deal.

If you read my book Bats, Balls & Burnouts you might remember OC from the chapters about my minor league days. The only problem was, OC was hurt when he got to Paintsville (with a chronically injured hand and thumb that seemed to refuse to heal) and through all his years in minor league ball he never got to show what he really could do. Was that fair? No, but nothing is really fair in professional baseball. You play the hand you’re dealt, even if your hand hurts so bad you can’t pick up the cards. I could see it in him, but he wasn’t able to show it.

A cropped portion of our Paintsville team photo. OC is middle row far left. I’m middle row, far right.

We enjoyed our time in Paintsville enormously. We played in a charming little town in the Kentucky coal region, we rode the bus together for every road trip, and we were followed by the most devoted fans, even if the town was so small we rarely played in front of 1,000 of them during any given game. They loved us. We loved them. That vibe made for a wonderful summer and a vivid experience. Plus, we were getting paid to do it. That’s a dream come true.

I knew all summer that OC was hurting, both physically and mentally. None of us came to Paintsville to make $500 a month doing nothing. We all wanted to play. Some of these guys were great players. Some of us were just getting by and loving every day of it. OC was stuck, often with his hand in a bowl of ice-water back at our upstairs apartment after yet another game in which he couldn’t play.

Since we’ve reconnected, the tie is reestablished. I doubt it will ever be broken. We are brothers. We shared something only the tiniest infinitesimal percentage of young men get to do. We played pro baseball.

Of course, without social media and without the help of young Danny O’Connor, this may never have happened. Social media is a scourge, for sure, but it’s also a savior when it comes to ties like this. It’s comforting to know I can pick up the phone and call or text OC whenever I want now. Even if it’s just to yank his memory chain and say “We gotta get to the ballpark. We’re LATE!”  This tie is bound. I’m grateful.

Dan’s not the only guy I’ve reconnected with from the Paintsville team, thanks to social media. My buddy Vince “The Bronze Fox” Bienek isn’t in this cropped shot because he was at the end of one row, looking very bronze and fox-like. My dear friend from as far back as our SIUE college days, Stan Osterbur, hadn’t yet joined the Paintsville team when the photo was taken. We make contact almost weekly. Those ties have never loosened.

I’m Facebook friends with Eddie Gates (aka “Boxhead” back then) and he’s the second guy from the left in the back row. Same with Pete Conaty, who is next to OC in the middle row. Pete and I somehow even ended up on the same semi-pro team in Fairfax, Virginia for one summer in the mid-80s. Go figure. That tie remained bound even if neither of us knew we’d be teammates again until we showed up to play on that talent-laden club. Mark Platel is kneeling just in front of OC. We called him “Boots” and boy could he bring it. And the batboy who is kneeling in the front with the shaggy blonde hair? That’s Rio Mihal. We’re FB friends as well, and he’s still got the hair. It fits. He’s a helluva musician and he has the same wild spirit you can see in the unabashed grin of a little kid who is loving every minute of his summer.

Those minor league ties still bind. I love that. I love my brothers. I’ve experienced a LOT of stuff in my 66 years. Crazy stuff and unique stuff. Heart wrenching stuff and things that will make the term “primal scream” come to life out of sheer 100% joy. Enough crazy amazing stuff to have written a book about it. There was nothing like playing minor league ball. We played nearly every day. We rode the bus for hours on end, often throughout the night, just to play again the next day. We were hurt, injured, sore, and bloody most of the time. We loved the hot streaks and endured the slumps. I would guess that almost all of us would turn back the clock and do it again if we could.

The ties from college bind just as firmly, but in most cases more directly. We played together for years. We roomed together at school and on road trips. We ate together in the cafeteria every day. We were good students and good friend. We were proud of our school and of being Cougars. We were truly brothers, and most of us found ways to never lose touch. Many of us support the SIUE Cougar Baseball program to this day. I’m a member of the “Dugout Club” and my annual donations (plus those of so many other guys) help the team in many ways. We’re proud to do it, and proud to be members of the SIUE Athletic Hall of Fame. Some of us are even lucky enough to be in it twice, with both the 1976 and 1977 teams. Two trips to the NCAA Div. II World Series were highlights for all of us.

The collective brotherhood was stronger than any of us as individuals

Almost all of us stay in touch, and that 1977 team induction (back in 2016 on-campus) brought us all together as a group once again. Teammate and leader Dave Schaake hosted us for a party at his house and the next night we all cleaned up and put our best jackets and ties on for the induction ceremony.

Of course, it was just a few years ago when my SIUE roomies Lance McCord, James “Oscar” Noffke, Bob “Radar” Ricker, and I instituted our beloved annual “Roomies Reunion” where we’d meet in some far-away place, see a ballgame, and never shut up. Sadly, tragically, we lost our brother Radar a couple of years ago. Lance, Oscar, and I will not let the tradition die. We just can’t. The loss of Radar and COVID put our trips on hold for a couple of years, but in August we’ll be meeting up again, this time in St. Louis. If you’re going to the Cardinals game on August 17, look for us. Our seats are just a few rows behind the first-base dugout. These ties don’t just bind. They are tied in knots any sailor would be proud of.

Baseball ties aren’t restricted to college and pro ball. Not in any way. In my case, I can state without any reservation that my ties to the Sauget Wizards are as strong as any in my life. We were a crew of former pros, or former college guys, with some current college guys added in, and we all played baseball for the love of the game.

Coincidentally, I’m the quarterback for our first ever Wizards reunion, coming up on August 20 near St. Louis. Right now, we’re at around 20 commitments but more are still to come. Not one response has been “Well, I’ll see if I can make it. I’ll let you know…”

Every response has been “I’m there. Book it. Can’t wait to see all of you guys.”

That’s how I feel. There will always be something very special about the Wizards, because we weren’t trying to make it to a higher level (most of us had already been there.) We weren’t trying to impress anyone. We just loved the game and couldn’t quit playing.

I’ve written ad nauseam about our group that beat the USA National Team down near Memphis in 1989. That was a night none of us will ever forget. The thing that made it so special was that our opponents were all on the cusp of greatness and many went on to be top draft picks and Major League stars. We were just a bunch of former has-beens who loved the game so much we’d play as many as 70 games in one summer. For free. Because the joy of playing was greater than any paycheck.

Some of the guys are sharing old photos and stories now, as we get ready to meet each other in August. One of the photos is this one below. I have a great memory, and most of my Wizards memories are as fresh as if they happened yesterday. But, when my buddy John Parke posted this team photo I as taken aback.

The rare “outfield photo” of the Wizards before we beat Team USA 6-5

It’s another team pic from the day we played the USA team. After we did the shot you’ve likely seen before, with the stadium behind us, someone obviously said “Let’s go do another one, out by the USA Baseball sign on the outfield fence.” I have no recollection of that. I must have been getting nervous about the game. But here it is, and the most amazing thing is we are all exactly as we were positioned in the first photo, in the same order, in the same poses. To me, seeing his was just a new bonus of memories after all these years. Can’t wait to see these guys and many more who wore the Sauget uniform.

There is a ton of love in this photo. Love of the game. Love of our teammates. There’s nothing like it. What is it? It’s a tie that binds.

And just to prove the point, here’s what I consider the “original” Sauget team photo from Millington. Coach Hughes clearly instilled a lot of discipline in us. This isn’t PhotoShop, we actually moved out to the fence and shot it again.

The team photo I’ve always had, shown here for comparison. Uncanny!

What other ties continue to bind?

Racing. Of course. My birthday was last week and I make it a point of pride to answer or respond to every birthday wish as they come in, all day, on Facebook. By far, the racing friends are the largest subset. Crew guys, drivers, crew chiefs, media reps, blog readers, announcers, fans, and more. 22 years in the sport will help you forge a lot of friendships. I’m honored to have so many of those friendships, and to maintain the ties that will always bind us together. Considering NHRA Drag Racing was a venture I never even knew was out there until I was nearing 40, it’s amazing how many great relationships came my way because of that enormously important part of my life.

There’s indoor soccer, sports marketing, and friends from the neighborhood, including friends from my childhood. All precious and the ties still bind.

And family. Of course. My family and Barbara’s. We have trips planned to see her side in Colorado, Florida, and Pennsylvania all in the next few months, and I’m trying to get my sister Mary to bring her husband Lonnie to visit us here in Minnesota. Hope we can make that happen. There are NO ties that bind like family ties. In terms of parents, I’m still the luckiest kid in the world. In terms of family, I’m just as fortunate.

All these ties. All the connections. All the heart-to-heart days and nights with friends of the closest sort. All of it. It’s irreplaceable and priceless.

That means you, OC. So happy we’ve reestablished a connection that was always there, but dormant. It will never be dormant again.

So there you have it. A meandering blog that came from the heart. As always, I’m always appreciative when any of you click on the “Like” button below.

Thanks for playing along…