Recalling 20 years of memories at Freeport Invitational
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The Freeport International Baseball Invitational turned 20 this week. To recognize the anniversary, the Valley News Dispatch compiled 20 memories from regular participants of the area's annual baseball carnival, an event that rests on a simplistic love-of-the-game approach and promotes goodwill over gloating.
• While manager Tony Majors has been a mainstay with his Brooklyn team, “Major's Minors,” his assistant and former player Noel Gonzalez, also known as “Boobie,” can't get enough of the International. “Every minute I spend here drives me to want to come back here the next year,” Gonzalez said. “It's not just one thing. It's the love for baseball, playing international teams. The first time we came here, we're coming down the hill, and I see the lights; I thought I was at Yankee Stadium or Shea Stadium. We don't have anything like this in Brooklyn. I feel I can walk in here and it's like home.”
• Jeff Potter, Ellwood City native, has brought his traveling team, “Potter Baseball,” to many Freeport Internationals. The first time Potter came to Freeport, he said “OK, where's Highlands?” Someone pointed toward the top of the hill to Harrison. Why did Potter ask? He was the losing pitcher in the 1971 WPIAL title game at Three Rivers Stadium to Highlands, one of the few losses in his career. Potter was drafted by the Detroit Tigers, but he suffered a sore arm just as he was close to being called up to Detroit.
• Event founder Ralph “Sonny” Westerman met Kengo Takeno, an assistant with a Canadian team, at the inaugural event in 1995, and the two developed a bond. Takeno arranged for the International Christian University team from Japan — a team he previously coached — to attend the FIBI in 1996, which marked the first time a team from beyond the Americas participated. More than a dozen Japanese players attended. “Then it just kept mushrooming,” Westerman said of international participation.
• About a decade ago, Westerman and Frank Ballina, a former player under Westerman who became a Major League umpire, staged a prank on the starting pitcher of Westerman's Freeport team, Rat Conaway. Ballina, umpiring the game, intentionally called several walks in a row, and Westerman charged out of the dugout to call Ballina “a blind son of a gun” and criticize the calls. Westerman then took Ballina's hat off, threw it on the ground, and stepped on it. He then headed toward a dugout, and when Ballina followed to continue the argument, Westerman threw water in the umpire's face.
• Westerman recalled a 17-year-old player for a Puerto Rican team who, in the FIBI's 10th year, hit a ball over the left-field fence at James Swartz Memorial Field, which sits 390 feet from home plate. The field is also used for football in the fall. “I've been here for 50 years, and that's the only time I've ever seen that.”
• Former Major Leaguer and Pirates villain Sid Bream hit a home run during the Old Timer's Game one year that “was still climbing when it hit the trees” in right field, Westerman said. Bream wore his gray Atlanta Braves uniform and limped around third base like he did in the 1992 NLCS — to awkward applause and muttering.
• Marilyn Westerman, wife of Sonny Westerman: In 1996, a Japanese pitcher allowed a home run in the team's inaugural game in the event. He approached the home-run hitter, a Freeport player, and shook his opponent's hand right at home plate.
• Naohiko Kumegai, Japanese member of the Tri-Con Roos: When he participated in the FIBI for the first time in 2011, he went over to the house of Lucas Teagarden, a Leechburg player. What remains particularly vivid to Kumegai is the car in the Teagarden's family garage — a Ford Mustang. Kumegai got a chance to ride in it during his stay. “We don't have sports cars like that in Japan,” Kumegai said. “They are very expensive.”
• Zane Geist, a Freeport grad playing for the Tri-Con Roos, and his family hosted Australian coaches and players for the first time in 2007. The friendship forged during that experience led to four trips for Geist to Australia, including one with other Freeport baseball players in 2010. “We were impressed with how early they were using bats, and how advanced and solid they were fundamentally,” Geist said. Geist also sampled the Australian dietary staples during what served as a FIBI foreign exchange program. “Vegemite was a spread that they put on their toast and stuff,” Geist said, “and I think the first time I tried it, I spit it out pretty quick. I was not a fan.”
• Vince Russo, Freeport grad playing for the Tri-Con Roos: In addition to roaming the field, Russo started singing the national anthem before some FIBI games three years ago. Never before had he performed the song in front of people who might not know it. “It's fulfilling,” Russo said of the experience. “I try not to do too much to it, that way people can hear the anthem as it should be. It's a beautiful song, and I hate when people try to change it and do too much.”
• Dave Brestensky, FIBI board member, and Georg Bull, a coach in Germany, exchanged emails for almost a decade without ever meeting in person. Then in 2013, a German team finally attended, and Bull came with it. “We got to meet and greet and shake hands,” Brestensky said. “It was just incredible.”
• Nick Leahy, Australian member of the Tri-Con Roos: In the first of his four trips to Freeport for the event, Leahy hit a walk-off double in extra innings to end the U.S.-International players game, which concluded the FIBI in 2011. He considers that memory particularly sweet, though he also enjoyed the regular trips to Del's Custard in Harrison. “Del's Custard always is a highlight,” said Leahy, who prefers the cookies and cream flavor. “It's like in the 50s back home, and it's in the 90s here, so after a game you go over there and get some custard. It's great.”
• Sally Snyder, announcer of the U.S.-International game: “The Australians were like the Beatles of the Invitational. The girls just swooned over them. Here you have these 15- to 17-year-olds and smaller kids are asking for their autographs.”
• Snyder: “The USA-International game almost seems like it ratchets up a little bit. I think the play is a little more competitive. They really want to win that. I remember the year it ended in a tie because Sonny (Westerman) had to get the kids off the field for the fireworks. The kids were really bummed about it. They're putting out their best stuff for that one. The play is at a different level.”
• Cody Packer, Australian member of the Tri-Con Roos: During his first time at the FIBI in 2012, Packer stayed with the Geist family, who supplied him all the hot dogs he could eat. “They just taste amazing over here,” Packer said. “We have them too, but they're not as good. Here, they're smaller, and they're just unreal. The pizza, too. It's massive and delicious.”
• Carol Hale, FIBI secretary: In 2012, a downpour forced organizers to pull out the tarp at James Swartz Memorial Field. The Australians opted to stay out on the field, though: They used the tarp as a slip-and-slide.
• Chuck Sarver, FIBI president: In 1996, the first year Brooklyn-based Major's Minors attended the FIBI, the team attended without uniforms, Sarver said. A team from Puerto Rico provided a solution: The players finished their game, took their uniforms off, and loaned them to the Brooklyn team to play on the same field.
• In 2005, FIBI introduced the U.S.-International players game. “All the international coaches were the ones who came to us with the idea of playing one game for all of them under the lights,” Sarver said. “It's probably one of the better moves we made over the years, but the hard thing is getting all the kids into it.”
• Jeff Pyle, Pennsylvania state representative (R-Ford City) and guest announcer for 10 years: “I remember a couple years ago, a kid just crushed a ball that almost went to the lady's deck out beyond right field, and — I didn't realize the mic was still on — but I turned to Chuck (Sarver, who was handling the scoreboard) and said, ‘Wow, get out the stopwatch, because we're clocking hang time on this one.' ”
• Geno Pernazza, 87-year-old Freeport resident and morning games announcer: “I used to have a small radio combination that could play a tape on it. I bought tapes for all the different teams and countries so we could play their national anthems before the games.”
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