I’ve had this love for baseball pretty much my entire life. My dad belonged to the local fire company, and they would run bus trips every year to either Yankee or Shea Stadium, depending on what tickets were available. He took me to quite a few of those games when I was a kid.
So it was no surprise that when I turned 10 years old, I tried out for Little League. I got picked up by a team called the Buffs. The manager of the team was a good friend of my dad’s, a fellow by the name of John Martin. John had gone to high school with my dad at Red Bank Catholic, and all his adult friends called him “Marty”.
“Marty” was at his best coaching -- a competitor, always angling for any and every advantage during a game to eke out a win. Unfortunately, I was not one of the best players on his team, and I rode the bench for most of the two seasons that I played for him.
The reason I was so bad was pretty simple – I was afraid of the ball. Each and every time I stepped up to the plate, the bat would never leave my shoulder. You could count on two things with me – I’d either strike out or walk. I was petrified. I could play the outfield pretty well. I had a rocket for an arm, but when it came to hitting, my abilities were non-existent.
But even though I couldn’t hit and played sporadically, “Marty” always encouraged me and made me feel like I was part of the team. He had me keep stats when I wasn’t playing. I later used those skills for the St. Jerome Blue Angels when my brother Joe played for them a few years later.
Towards the end of my second season with the Buffs, something happened that prematurely ended my Little League career. After every ball game, the manager and coaches would spring for ice cream at the Dairy Queen in West Long Branch (where the Fiore Funeral Home now stands on Broadway).
But after this one game, instead of travelling to DQ, “Marty” decided to buy us all ice cream from an ice cream truck that was parked across the street from the ball fields on Parker Road. Without looking, I ran across the street to the ice cream truck and got hit by a car. The force of the car carried me across the street, and I lay sprawled on the ground, screaming in pain.
What was worse was that my parents, who were attending the Shore Regional graduation ceremony that night (my dad was on the school board at the time), were driving down Parker Road towards Locust Avenue and saw the whole thing happen.
Luckily for me, I didn’t have any broken bones, just some cuts and scrapes, as well as a contusion on my right hip. I spent three days in the hospital and saw that as a sign to give up the game.
Years later, at my dad’s surprise 70th birthday party in November 2005, Marty gave a speech, recalling his years knowing my dad and how they both related to one another on several different levels – their love of baseball, Red Bank Catholic High School, and living as neighbors in West Long Branch. It truly was a heartfelt speech, and I could see that my dad was genuinely touched by his words.
On September 15, John Martin passed away in his sleep after suffering from the ravages of cancer for the last five years. He was 77 years old. When I read his obituary, I noticed something that blew my mind – Marty and I shared the same birthday (January 25). I never knew that.
To his sons, Johnny and Patrick -- my sincerest condolences. Your dad was a hell of a guy
RIP, Marty -- you've rounded third, now safe at home.
(You can also follow Kevin Cieri’s blog on his Facebook page, “Jersey Shore Retro” as well as on Twitter at @jsretro).