Hartman returns to coach American Legion ball in Mon Valley
As Tom Hartman stares into the distance and grins, memories from managing the Charleroi American Legion baseball team whisk him back to the not-so-recent past.
It was the early 2000s – when players still had to earn their way onto the diamond, not be coaxed into playing.
Hartman recalls many a summer evening when locals packed bleachers and lined outfield fences at Veterans Field in Charleroi to cheer on the Magicians.
“There'd be the same guys from town coming to each and every game. Same as they had for 30 years,” Hartman said, still smiling.
“The one thing about Charleroi is they always had a reputation. It was their team. They came because you were expected to win.”
After claiming one Fayette County League title, Hartman stepped down following the 2004 season to instruct his young sons in the game. He went from managing 17- and 18-year-olds, to tee-ball instructor.
Nine years later, the Charleroi Magicians – a community staple since the 1960s – folded due to lack of players.
However, Hartman, 47, has returned to manage the Mid-Mon Valley's only remaining American Legion baseball team: Belle Vernon. His second-oldest son, Jesse, is a super utility player on the team.
“It's much different because now I have a kid involved and all these (players) are friends of his and I've seen them all grow up,” said Hartman, a Charleroi native who resides in Fayette City.
“It was much easier back then because I had no connection, no affiliation with any kid or parent. I didn't even live in Charleroi at the time and we had kids from Ringgold and kids from Monessen I didn't know at first.”
Hartman's current team comprises 15 kids from the Belle Vernon Area School District and one from Monessen.
“Baseball was always very strong in Charleroi. Belle Vernon just doesn't have that reputation as a baseball town,” Hartman said.
“When you walked into Charleroi, you were expected to win. Here that expectation and tradition is just not there. Me? I'd rather have the bar set high.”
Belle Vernon could add to its young history in the coming days. The postseason is scheduled to begin Wednesday with Uniontown and Connellsville – both rivals to Hartman's Charleroi squads – as the top two seeds. Belle Vernon (7-9) sits in the middle of the pack.
“I don't think our record indicates the quality of team we are,” Hartman said.
“Coming into this, I thought the top three would be Uniontown, Connellsville and Belle Vernon, but we lost a lot of close games that could've gone either way, so our record could easily be 12-4 as 7-9.”
Hartman said he was saddened to learn of the demise of Charleroi's team. He said travel leagues, some in which his sons have participated, are the key culprit. If one kid plays, all his friends have to join and local teams get left in the dust, he said.
“Everybody thinks this is recreation ball and you have so many travel options now that people go there,” Hartman said.
“There's no Charleroi, there's no California, there's only eight teams now because the lack of interest in Legion baseball. I've always said this is one of the better leagues around. I still think so. Fall ball in general in the Mon Valley is huge, so there is interest in baseball.”
Since last managing at this level, the league has switched from metal to wooden bats. Hartman, for one, has enjoyed the transition although his son broke two maple bats last week alone.
“There's not much hitting so you have a lot of small ball. You have a lot of games that are 4-3 or 3-2. A couple games we had a couple suicide squeezes that worked perfectly,” Hartman said.
“I enjoy coaching at this level. It's much truer baseball. You can actually manage a game; you don't have to stop and teach a kid how to catch a fly ball.”
Hartman said coaching keeps him in shape as he pounds ground ball after ground ball at his three sons following yet another rainout at the John D. Virgilio Complex in Rostraver.
While the Hartman boys – Jesse, 17; J.J., 15; and Jared, 13 – take turns fielding, their coach/patriarch breaks a sweat, noting the action beats plodding on a treadmill.
Jesse jokes his father is still in pretty good shape and doesn't look his age despite a shock of graying hair.
“These guys keep me going,” the elder Hartman said. “You don't realize how much (exercise) you get running around with these guys. I'd like to think it helps keeps me young.”
Jesse Hartman remembers tagging along with his father to Charleroi games as a toddler. Now he's happy to be part of continuing his family's Legion tradition.
“I remember running around over at the Vets. I remember the one game the kid was in center field and whacked his eye off the fence and we all went up to the hospital,” the younger Hartman said.
“I think it's more of an honor for me that Dad is coaching me because he already won a championship. It might not be like back in the old days when he had tryouts and kids got cut. Now, you can barely get enough guys to play. But it's still baseball and there's still good teams and players around here.”
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 724-684-2635.