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Sandlot

Mike SteffanosSunday, February 12, 2006
By Mike Steffanos


I wrote my post from earlier today while watching snow pile up outside of my window. The heavy snow outside combined with the knowledge that spring training gets under way this week made me a little nostalgic for the sights, sounds and smells of baseball -- the sport of summer.

After I finished that post, I had to go outside and shovel the white stuff. We got dumped on to the tune of nearly two feet of light and fluffy snow. It wasn't really heavy, but had drifted in places (like my driveway) to three or four feet. While my 47-year-old body was taking a beating shoveling away at that, my mind continued on a nostalgic bent -- this time in self-defense.

I thought back to my youth (when shoveling snow was actually fun), growing up in the late '60s and early '70s in Hamden, Connecticut. The neighborhood that I lived in was a typical working-class one of the times. The houses were fairly close together and there were tons of kids from the tail end of the baby boom years. The group that I hung around with was very sports oriented, with a number of excellent athletes in a five block radius from my house.

My brother George and I lived on the imaginatively named First Street, Joe Lockery lived just around the corner on Dixwell Avenue. Dennis Lee and his younger brother Terry lived a block away on Second Street. George Barone lived two blocks further on Fourth Street, and Tom Ney lived just down the hill from George on Beaver Street. Just typing those names brings me back more than three decades.

I guess all of us have a tendency to look back on our childhood as a golden time, especially as years go by and we get further away from it. Trust me, not everything back then was wonderful. I grew up without a father in an era when divorce was rare, and was raised primarily by my grandparents. My grandmother had a heart of gold, my grandfather's was made of a somewhat cheaper metal. Let's just say that he didn't treat my grandmother very well and was not happy to have kids around and leave it there. I really don't dwell on those things.

What I remember most was the sports. The names I shared earlier were the core group of an after-school sports scene that went year round. There was basketball and street hockey in the winter and early spring, football -- either "touch" in the street or "tackle" on the grass -- in the fall, and sandlot baseball in the summer.

The sandlot games were primarily played a couple of blocks away on the fields of Eli Whitney technical high school. The infield had a lot of bad hops in it, and the outfield grass wasn't mowed regularly in the summer. The bases were smashed cardboard boxes or people's shirts, and the uniforms were whatever you were wearing, usually shorts and t-shirts. The bat was wooden, pock-marked and taped up where a slight crack existed. The lack of umpires led to some interesting "discussions" at times, and the lack of lights didn't stop some battles from waging long after sunset.

Sandlot baseball and the other sports mentioned were played in all sorts of weather ranging from blazing heat to winter's cold. These sports were played almost every day. Sometimes there would be a lot of kids involved, sometimes just a few, but you could almost always find a game. The fact that I am still in decent shape in my late 40s is a testament to a life spent enjoying athletics.

When I drive by those same fields and basketball courts that dominated my youth, they almost always seem to be empty now. Today, it seems you need organized leagues, uniforms, paid officials and fancy equipment to get the kids to put the video games down and sweat a little. In fairness to them, there just aren't as many kids in a typical neighborhood as there used to be. The world has changed to where parents aren't comfortable having their children out of sight for hours at a time. I feel somewhat sorry for these kids for what they are missing.

So thank you, Joe Lockery, for your huge back yard perfect for touch football and basketball games, and your parents that put up with the noise. Thanks, Dennis Lee, for your wonderful athletic gifts and for being truly cool without having to try. Thanks, George Barone, taken way too young, for your irrepressible sense of humor and your terrible George McGinnis jump shot. Thanks, Tom Ney, for your gifts as both an athlete and a leader. I still think of all of you, and the way it was back then, quite often.

No, the world wasn't perfect when I was growing up. The clothes were pretty stupid, and there was no cable television, cool video games or instant messaging. But there was always a game, and I wouldn't trade that for all of the cool stuff the kids have today.

Comments (15)

Mike, as a fellow writer I have to say that was excellent. As a 29 year old who remembers those days as well, I agree with you 100% and want to thank you for going back to those memories upon which I frequently dwell.

I can't forget those games. I remember the one time I actually hit a homer. No one could believe it. The first and only time I actually palyed hockey and some kid felt the need to smash my shins repeatedly, though I was no where near the puck or the time when I broke my nose while making the game winning interception. I remember those days and like you, I would never trade them for anything. Again, my thanks. Great article.

Thanks Kevin. Maybe someday I'll get to read your recollections of those times.

Mike, I read your article and it brought back a flood of memories from my childhood. I grew up in your general area and know of all the men you wrote about. I remember Peter Ney reffing basketball games and Mr. Ney, his father, standing behind the plate calling balls and strikes. Tommy Ney and Dennis Lee were imposing figures and very difficult to rebound against. Terry Lee, was quick and an excellent shot. I have lived away from the Highwood area for many years and did not know that George Barone passed.

The area was a safe place to "travel" by walking or riding my bike. The best was walking to Bell's Pastry Shop and ordering up a serving of Italian lemon ice after a hot summer day of sports. I also reminded myself of my age reading your article. The difference now, other than age, is that there is no snow where I live and the temperature is wonderful year round. I am probably the only UCONN and Yankee fan in these parts. Those around me are just jealous. Oh yea, when I need my dose of cold or snow, I just flip to the Weather station or call my relatives.

Bell's Pastry Lemon Ice -- that brings back some good memories for me, too. I don't think Bell's is there any more. That neighborhood has changed a lot since we grew up there. Let's just say we all left Highwood at the right time.

Do you remember the summer playground programs, at each elementary school that the Parks & Rec Department sponsored? I always hung out at MLK's school yard. Now, if Bell's brings back good memories, then what about Venice's pizza? We had that tasteful pie every Friday or Saturday night that I can remember.

Yeah, I used to hang around MLK's playground. I have another one for you. My grandmother used to send me to the Lupi-Legna bakery to pick up hot, freshly baked italian bread. She always bought one more than she needed, so I could devour a loaf on the way home...

Let me tell you something...you can't find any bread, like Lupi Legna's, here in the desert. We fought over who got the knuckle as part of their grinder. Did your grandmother ever send you to buy groceries at Milano's? Simply put, the best of everything Italian. I'd take Milano's any day over Italian Importing or any other type deli. I'm wondering if you are a UCONN fan? They gave me the unroyal treatment out here when the Huskies lost....and then again when the Lady Huskies lost. I kind of deserve it though because I do more than my fair share of ribbing.

My grandmother bought groceries from a place on State Street, don't remember the name. They're not around anymore. She'd bought her stuff there since she was married.

Lisa and I are fans of both men's and women's Huskies. Not a great year, but I think we're still ahead of the game.

You have fond memories of lupi-legna bakery. All I can remember is how Billy Lupi murdered my 4 year old cousin. Remember that Billy?????

I'm sorry for the loss of your cousin, but my fondly remembering warm Italian bread was not meant to be an endorsement of Billy Lupi. I went to school with a couple of the Lupi girls and they were good people.

I apologize for my bitterness. One bad seed does not spoil an entire family. I am sure it is an excellent bakery. I was just not expecting to see the family name while reading your blog. Some things we never get over.

No apology necessary.

Whoa Mike,
I read your sandlot post. You just described my childhood to a tee and I couldn't agree more. I am 49 years old and I grew up in Sacramento California during the late 60's and early 70's. My brother Charlie and I grew up three houses down from a family of four brothers, (Eddie, Andy, Howard and Mason Stoll). We were all atheletic and basically played baseball and football everyday until chasing girls was more fun than chasing line drives.
We played at the local jr high school, did not have umpires and every game usually ended up in a fight over a disputed call.
We had so much fun playing baseball, football, wiffleball, bike tag, Hide N Go Seek, war,(lots of waterballoons) matchbox cars, etc. Like you, our parents just threw us out of the house in the morning. They were not afraid for us. I wouldn't trade my childhood with anybody's. It was great!

It was great. Even with all that today's kids have, I wouldn't even consider trading places.

Saw Joe Lockery last night and he told me I had to read this. Good story, even though your brother George was the only one in the story you never thanked. This even though my knees still twinge from running into hundreds of parked cars while catching your always strong but rarely accurate football tosses...

The market our Grandmother always shopped at was the "East Rock Quality Market" near the corner of Welton and State Streets in Hamden.

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