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Alumni night a step back in time


St. Pat’s Ball Field was different from how Wilbur Sparkes remembered it.

Photo by Nicholas Mercer/The Compass

The steel bleachers, refurbished infield and the extended dugouts werent around when the Bay Roberts resident first stepped on the venerable field.

In the interest of full disclosure, he is my grandfather.

Stepping onto the field for the first time in a decade, Sparkes remembered days when the bleachers and the hills on Carpasian Road and Empire Avenue were filled with eager fans waiting for their chance to see a Sunday afternoon ball game.

Sparkes pitched for the Guards in the St. John’s senior baseball league in the early 50s and travelled to provincial hot spots in Corner Brook, Grand Falls-Windsor and Stephenville with the St. John’s Caps. It was good enough to earn him a St. John’s Baseball Hall of Fame nod.

On July 31, he attended an alumni night at the park. Any player who previously played in the senior league could come out, snag a couple of ground balls and share some stories. It served as a lead in to the annual St. John’s Capitals-Corner Brook Barons senior A provincial showdown.

It took Sparkes all of five minutes to ascend to the top of the pitcher’s mound and toe the rubber. Clutching his hands to resemble a glove and a ball, he peered towards home plate and awaited the signs of an imaginary catcher. He was probably imagining throwing to his Guards’ catcher, Herc Phillips, or maybe Joe Kenny and Junior Rumsey. Agreeing to the pitch in his mind, Sparkes went into his windup. For a couple of brief seconds, he was back in the 50s and delivering to the plate in a playoff game. The windup wasn’t as smooth as it once was, but it was like he never left the ball park. In its first year, alumni night only attracted a handful of veteran players, including Sparkes, Mike Hagerty, Greg Hagerty, Steve Phillips, Gordon Breen and Wayne Comeau.

While the turnout was relatively small, there was no shortage of excitement as most of the assembled group broke out their Gonzaga Vikings or Holy Cross jerseys and stepped into the batter’s box for a round of batting practice. Even some of the older folk got in on the action.

Afterwards, the group headed to the Joe Wadden Room for some adult beverages and friendly conversation.

Sports reunions are a lot like any other time a couple of old friends get together. There are the customary ‘how are you,’ ‘how are the kids’ questions. They’re quickly done away with, however.

This leads to the juicier stuff. The tall tales, ones that got away and trots down memory lane.

The St. John’s reunion was exactly like that. With every swing of the bat, a new story came out.

Remember player X?

Man, he was good one. He had the fastball that really jumped out of his hand and a nasty change.

There were plenty of stories like that. Ones that made you visualize what they were telling you as if it was happening right there.

For two alumni, the night was something more than just a chance to relive past glories on the diamond. Sparkes and Breen were rivals in the 50s during league action but teammates with the Caps come provincial play. One was a Guard, while the other played for Holy Cross. On the road, they were close friends.

I’d hung out with these two before but not since I was a kid on one of their many old timers baseball tournaments in various ports of call. On July 31, they embraced like brothers, their handshake a little firmer than normal.

 

In that moment, they were brought back to the doubleheader Western flick they caught in Corner Brook the night before heading to Grand Falls-Windsor for a date with the senior club there.

As they reminisced, others at the reunion stopped and listened.

They listened for tales of what baseball was like when thousands came to the park to watch. They listened for stories of the great players lost to the passage of time and just how life was different in days gone by.

My grandfather speaks so highly of St. Pat’s — it was special to watch him relive those cherished memories.

Nicholas Mercer is a reporter/photographer with The Compass. He lives in Bay Roberts and can be reached at nmercer@cbncompass.ca.

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