One of the many ways I misspent my youth in Wisconsin was playing baseball for a summer league team called The Pewaukee Sentrys. We played for the most part in Tea Party country where rival teams were often called The Minutemen or The Patriots. Our team had no such noble origins. We were named after the grocery store that sponsored our uniforms and, not coincidentally, was owned by the coach’s father.
The coach was Tom Kopecky. In his high school years, Tom had been a star athlete, a four-sport letterman at Pewaukee High School weighing scholarship offers in basketball, baseball and track. In his senior year, in one of the last track meets of the season, he landed wrong in the pole vault event and became, in that instant, a paraplegic for life.
Playing The Game in His Head
Six years later, he came to our high school as a basketball and baseball coach.
We were a small private school, one of the smallest in the state. By any measure of sports prowess, we were also one of the worst teams in the league. Tom was 24 at the time and this was his first paid coaching job. With encouragement from Marquette’s Al McGuire, he had lifted himself out of a state of deep depression and embarked on a career where he could, as he said, “play the game in his head” while we ran around like pawns on his chessboard.
Coach’s long convalescence added 100 pounds to his weight and left him confined him to a wheelchair. He had no control over his legs and only slowly did he regain enough control of his arms to swing them about like hambones. If he wanted to diagram a play, he’d have someone put a pencil in his hand and crudely draw it out like he was writing with his shoulder.
But he never lost his mental faculties. He was a joy to work with in practice, always up for a practical joke. (He staged our photos for the basketball guide by having us all jump off a desk to dunk the ball.) His humor quickly disappeared when he thought his team had been wronged. If he disagreed with a referee’s call, he’d shout, “wheel me out” and argue until he was blue in the face. For all those traits, I came to know him as a friend and role model.
Coach’s first season with the team would be my last. I was a senior going off to college, but our school was so small I was recruited to play on both the basketball and baseball teams. Even with a schedule that included the Wisconsin School for the Deaf and Wales School for Boys, our basketball team ran up more losses than wins; and our baseball team fared even worse. That’s why I was surprised when summer came and Tom invited me to join his summer team, The Sentrys.
There were a lot of reasons why I should have said no. I had a job that summer in a foundry, a girlfriend I would probably never see again come the fall, and I was a really lousy baseball player. I stumbled for a polite way to decline.
“But coach, I can’t hit a curve,” I said.
“Yeah, but they don’t know that,” he laughed. “And most of them can’t throw one.”
A Team of Ringers
At our first practice, it was clear Coach was not pinning his hopes on the players he brought over from the school team. Besides myself, there was a big left fielder named Richie Rix who still had visions of playing in the majors and a few others with modest talent. The bulk of our summer team turned out to be players Coach had scouted out from all over the county. Anyone who ever dreamed of playing pro ball got a visit from him that Spring. Join the team and you’ll be seen by every major league scout inside of 200 miles, he promised, and he made sure they were.
Of all Coach’s recruits, none were more talented – or quirky – than our two pitchers, Mike Shields and Pete Dischon. One had just been drafted by the Minnesota Twins and the other by the Philadelphia Phillies, and both were home awaiting assignment to minor league teams. Shields was a quiet sort who showed up, pitched his innings, then cleared out as soon as the game ended. His mechanics were smooth as glass: good fastball, wicked curve, great pitch placement.
Pete was a different breed. A tall farmboy with an easy smile, he pitched like he was throwing hay. He just wound up and chucked it in there daring the hitters to take a swing. As the innings went on, he got stronger and meaner. He was the first (and only) 18-year-old I ever saw chewing tobacco on the mound. He loved to get rallies started by wearing his baseball cap inside-out and spit tobacco juice through his front teeth as he stepped to the plate.
My job on the team, as I came to understand it, was to stand behind them while they struck out the side and fill out the batting order until their turn came around to hit. Coach played me in right field because there weren’t that many power-hitting left-handers in the league. (And when a team loaded up with lefties, he moved me to the opposite field.) He also made me the lead-off hitter on the assumption the opposing pitcher would be cold at the start of the game and probably walk me.
A 45-Game Schedule
To give his kids the promised exposure, Tom signed us up for three leagues that summer: The Waukesha Land o-Lakes, Milwaukee Semi-Pro League and American Legion tournament series. A crowded schedule meant conflicts for many players, so I often turned out to be the crucial 9th man Coach needed on the field to avoid a forfeit –– and once even pitched. You just never knew with Pete when he would show up. Or what excuse he would offer when he didn’t. Usually, it involved some farm chore he didn’t finish in time to get to the game.
I remember one night when Coach was reviewing assignments for the next day’s game and designated Pete to pitch.
“No can do, Coach,” he said.
“And why’s that?” Tom asked incredulous.
“I got to help my little brother set up his 4H exhibit at the county fair,” he said.
“You think maybe someone else can do that?” Coach asked.
“Not and win,” Pete said. And that was that. When Pete didn’t want to pitch, Pete didn’t pitch.
My Brush with The Bigs
As if working on foundry floor by day and playing ball at night weren’t enough, Coach loved to take his team to Legion Ball tournaments on the weekends. They were held in places like Ft. Atkinson and Sheboygan, usually in conjunction with some pancake breakfast or bicycle parade.
If you were one of the lucky teams, you could start playing ball at 11 AM on Saturday and not finish until 5 PM Sunday, which meant you got four or five games in before you had to go to work the next morning. The thing about Legion ball is that a scout can see 8 or 10 teams in a single weekend at a Legion tournament, so a good number of them gathered there.
My dad had the privilege of sitting next to a scout from the Baltimore Orioles at one tournament, and his heart raced when he saw him underline my name as I stepped to the plate. I don’t remember much about the game, but apparently I hit a slow roller down the third base line and beat it out to first. “Good speed,” the scout wrote.
On the next pitch, I took a hefty lead off first. The pitcher eyed me cautiously. When he turned back to the plate, I broke for second. Bad idea. He tossed an easy lob over to the second baseman. Just in time I high-tailed it back to first. Therein ensued what is affectionately called “a pickle” where I ran back and forth while infielders chased me down with the ball. Finally, I dove back into first, knocking the first baseman on top of me but nevertheless crawling the last few feet back to the safety of the bag. “Dumb as a brick,” the scout wrote.
No Award Ceremonies
There were no award ceremonies when the season ended. Everyone on the team just sort of drifted off to whatever we intended to do before we joined The Sentrys. No one that I know ever made it to the big leagues. But that fall I got a letter in the mail saying I’d been named to the third string All-Star Team in the Land-o-Lakes League – to which Tom appended a note: “No Curve Ball Division.”
And that was the last I heard from him until a few summer later when word passed among his old players that Coach Kopecky had died. He had succumbed to complications from his earlier injuries before reaching the age of 30.
There is a baseball field in Pewaukee today called Tom Kopecky Field in his honor. It is not a field of dreams. It’s not much more than two dirt diamonds and a vast expanse of grass. But it is used every day by kids ages of 8 to 18 who want to learn the game. It’s a field for batting practice and pepper, fungo bats and rally caps, “Play ball!” and “Bring ‘er in” –– where you make your hits and errors, and horse around, and meet a bunch of people you’d never think you’d know, and gather the memories that stay with you for life.
And even though you know there are serious times ahead, it never hurts to remember: you can’t beat fun at the old ballpark.