For the Love of the Game
Baseball in Erie has worldly flavor
A retired Scotland Yard investigator, a county medical examiner, a forensic lab expert, and a couple of charades players all wind up in the same place, although not at the same time, because baseball (or for the British, cricket) is in their blood.
If I could weave these characters into a book, it would be a tale of mystery and mayhem.
But I'm not a fiction writer, although in my current retiree role as an Erie SeaWolves' usher, I still seek out slice-of-life stories from the kind of "ordinary people" I used to write about in my Sunday newspaper column. Their stories strike happy notes and are always wrapped up with special connections — sometimes fleeting — to Erie.
When I want to read something that uses baseball as a literary device, I turn to writers like William "Billy" Walsh. Born in nearby Jamestown, N.Y., he spent four years in Fairview as a kid, playing Tri-Boro Baseball and dreaming about making it to the major leagues before his family moved to Dallas and then to Georgia.
Instead of playing professional ball, Walsh became an award-winning poet, the director of Reinhardt University's undergraduate creative writing and MFA programs and now, nearly 40 years after writing the first draft for his book in college, a published novelist.
Lakewood, his novel, is narrated by 19-year-old Robert English, who keeps a journal during the summer of 1973 as he housesits for his history professor at fictional Chautauqua University.
Critics describe Lakewood as a poignant coming-of-age novel about young love, simmering grief, and self-discovery, and some compare Walsh's style to J.D. Salinger's.
Local readers will enjoy Walsh's descriptions of Chautauqua County's environs and the occasional references to Erie.
Baseball fans will delight in Robert's devotion to the Pittsburgh Pirates — a passion shared by Walsh, who still savors his delirious joy when the Bucs won the 1971 World Series.
And bookworms will be impressed that one of Walsh's book-tour stops was at the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, S.C., about two months before he visited Erie to speak at the Lincoln Community Center Branch Library in Fairview on July 25.
At the Fairview library, Walsh, 61, read excerpts from Lakewood and from Fly Fishing in Times Square, one of his seven poetry books.
He also reminisced with former baseball teammate Dan Wingerter and Dan's sister, Judy. She reconnected the two friends with her May 2020 Facebook post announcing that Dan, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), was isolated in a rehab hospital during COVID and would welcome the gifts of "prayers, good memories, and bad jokes" from friends.
Indeed, there were grace-filled moments at Walsh's talk as he and the Wingerters reminisced about old teachers, former neighbors, boyhood pranks, the Bookmobile, their baseball card collections, and pickup games, as Walsh also explained his painstaking writing process, which begins daily at 5:30 a.m. in a comfy chair, coffee in hand.
Walsh started the novel that became Lakewood when he was a Georgia State freshman. "This has to be really, really easy," he thought then, until he realized that "I wasn't a mature thinker. I didn't understand human nature." He stuck his 1,500-page manuscript in a drawer, then rediscovered it in the bottom of a cabinet when he was "purging" his personal library during COVID.
"The first 40 pages were just terrible," he said. He rewrote those pages, got positive feedback from a friend, cut about 90 percent of his original story, renamed it, reworked it, edited it, and proofread his work until it became "a poet's novel," he said.
As for why baseball is part of his book and integral to the plot of his life, Walsh explained: "It's magical. It's our American pastime."
Carol Terry, M.D., and Tina Miller share that passion. They and two other friends drove to Erie when they were vacationing in Niagara Falls, to see Erie play the Akron Rubber Ducks on July 1. Unfortunately, they came into the Stadium Club, where I'm assigned as an usher, just as the game had been rained out. But they were here long enough for me to learn that Terry is the chief medical examiner for Gwinnett County, Ga., where Miller is the county's forensic laboratory manager.
The only investigative service I could provide to them was to recommend some downtown restaurants before their sodden drive back to Niagara Falls.
After a Niagara Falls visit, an Erie baseball game was also on the schedule for Ron and Sheila Geer and their British friends, Neil and Emma Stapley, and their 12-year-old son, Henry Stapley. The English accents charmed me, and during the game and then in a phone interview, Ron explained why they decided to attend a SeaWolves' game on their way to Southern Ohio.
The two families met almost 20 years ago in London when Ron worked for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Sheila worked for the U.S. Treasury, and Neil worked for Scotland Yard.
During the Geers' nearly 40 years in law enforcement, "We've traveled a lot, certainly to every state and dozens and dozens of countries," he said. But he and Neil often make the same observation: "There's so much in our backyard that we don't always appreciate. We can look at it as special, too."
The friends have vacationed together in St. Pete's Beach, Fla., where the Geers live, and have visited the Western U.S. but this time, they started their "destination holiday" at the Thousand Islands on the St. Lawrence River, north of Sheila's hometown of Syracuse, N.Y.
Their itinerary included Niagara Falls and because they wanted to take Henry, a cricket player, to a baseball game, they decided to visit Erie on July 15 to see the SeaWolves play the Binghamton Rumble Ponies. "We didn't want to take him to a Major League game. I feel like it doesn't have the same atmosphere as the minors, where kids are playing for their dreams and (fans are) closer to the action," he said. "We started looking for minor league games; we thought, 'We've never been to Erie, we're going to book tickets.'"
Ron, 66, grew up on an Ohio farm, south of Dayton and north of Cincinnati, and rooted for the Reds teams with Frank Robinson and Pete Rose. "The real magic was Crosley Field. You were close to the action and the (uniform) colors were just so sharp and vivid," he said. "For our generation, we were the last to see baseball in its purest form, when players stayed with the same team for their entire career."
There's that word again, magic, to describe baseball's appeal. What could be more magical than making a big romantic gesture at a baseball game?
Donna McGivern, 52, and Jeff Scarpitti, 58, met four years ago when Jeff was cleaning his boat, My Way, at Beach 11. Donna, who lives about 100 miles away from Erie in Ohio, sought solace at Presque Isle after putting down her dog Max, a black lab-Cane Corso mix.
"I took a couple of days off to get away," she said.
Jeff, a self-described "car guy," was throwing away garbage when he spotted Donna's car, a two-door black Honda coupe. "Then I saw the girl and I thought, that's a nice girl," he recalled.
Donna continued: "He saw me and asked, 'What are you doing here by yourself?' I gave him my number and we went out a month later."
The director of the health communications division for Vantage Health Care, Jeff, the father of three, runs three Millcreek Youth Athletic Association baseball programs and remains grateful that Erie SeaWolves President Greg Coleman helped him to arrange a travel team tournament at UPMC Park.
"He let me rent the ballpark out, we stayed in touch, I'd see him at the ballgame and say hello," Jeff said. "I fired off a crazy email one day. 'Greg, I've got this idea. I want to propose (at a game).'"
SeaWolves' staffers arranged for Jeff to pop the question at the July 17 game vs. Binghamton. Then Mother Nature messed things up with a fierce rainstorm in the forecast for early afternoon. The SeaWolves called Jeff: "Hey, we're moving the game up by an hour and 45 minutes," he was told. Now he had to nudge Donna to get ready early.
"Well, we'll go a couple of innings late," said Donna, unaware of the proposal plan. "You know how I am. Baseball is in my blood," Jeff replied. "I really want to be on time for the first pitch."
At the game, the ruse was that the couple would participate in an on-field promotion, a game of charades, between innings. "No, honey, I don't like being the center of attention," she protested. But Jeff prevailed, and she guessed the charades clue, "Will you marry me," answering "yes," all before the game was called as a deluge hit.
The SeaWolves lost the rain-shortened game, but the game proposal was a winning idea for Jeff, because, as it does for so many fans, the game evokes sweet memories of bygone days.
Jeff grew up hearing the story of how his parents met thanks to a baseball game. "My dad was in the Coast Guard and they sent him to a place to watch the waterway of the St. Lawrence River, protecting the shores of the United States." At the end of a pickup game, Jeff's dad, Ed Scarpitti, spotted "this '55 Chevy, blue and white. She was beautiful," the story goes. So was the girl. "I've gotta go meet her," Jeff's dad said. "That's my sister," his father's crewmate, Tim, told him.
"My mom and dad met at Thousand Islands," Jeff told me.
I'm sure it's sheer coincidence that it's the same gorgeous place steeped in history where the Geers and the Stapleys started their all-American Great Lakes vacation this summer.
It's also just a quirk that Walsh, whose novel Lakewood explores the impact of the untimely death of the narrator's young sister on his life, lives in Atlanta, where the medical examiner and the forensic investigator I met at a game also live.
There's nothing eerie about tying their stories into one piece, but there is something very Erie-centric about all of them.
During the baseball game, Ron and 12-year-old Henry Stapley, who plays cricket, chatted with players in the Erie bullpen. They learned that pitcher Chavez Fernander played cricket when he was growing up in the Bahamas. "Hey, do you want a ball?" the player asked Henry. "We didn't have to ask, he just tossed him the ball. It takes you back to when baseball was really America's pastime," said Ron.
Before heading home to England with his parents, Henry also tried his hand at a hot new game of pickleball in the Geers' neighborhood. Naturally, he was wearing his Erie SeaWolves baseball cap.
Liz Allen is savoring the home stretch of the SeaWolves' baseball season. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org