‘It’s like walking into a scrapbook’: How Pittsfield’s Wahconah Park has endured
PITTSFIELD — The game is about to start, and in the spartan clubhouse of the old ballpark, half-dressed twenty-something players sit in front of red-painted lockers and then stir to line up to make their pregame meal of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
Atop venerable Wahconah Park — this summer celebrating a 100-year anniversary — Billy Madewell checks his microphone in the broadcast booth high above home plate and eagerly promises me a game of power hitting and savvy base running.
Down the third-base line, home team manager Matt Gedman is watering down the infield before handing off the hose and heading for home plate for the pregame meeting with umpires dressed in blue.
It’s time for the players to take the field again, joining a storied roster of pitchers and catchers, infielders and outfielders who have laced up their cleats here, players with names like Lou Gehrig, George Scott, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark Grace, and Greg Maddux.
“It’s like walking into a scrapbook,’’ said Michael Lieberman, the 48-year-old general manager of the first-place Pittsfield Suns, the latest baseball custodian of this place of a well-worn wooden grandstand, $5 hot dogs, and – on this sultry summer’s evening – free commemorative T-shirts.
“This is a place where you went to see heroes,’’ Lieberman was telling me from behind his desk in his office in a trailer just outside the grandstand. “People who became heroes. People who became legends of the game of baseball like [Carlton] Fisk and Maddux. But for others, this is the place where you chased down foul balls when you were 10. The place you came with your father and your grandfather.’’
In other words, an old municipal jewel, a repository of memories that has as much to do with childhood chums and adolescent shenanigans as it does with towering home runs and fabled sun delays — necessary because of the park’s unusual orientation toward the west. Batters are sometimes blinded until dusk finally takes hold.
Those memories spill out as the Suns take the field against the visiting club, the North Shore Navigators, one of whom is playing catch along the right-field sideline with a 7-year-old kid who doesn’t drop a ball tossed to him as he leans over the fence.
Not far away, another 7-year-old, Robert Kirschmann, is settling in fresh from Little League practice, already reciting his ball yard bona fides.
“I had just turned 3. I came here three days after I turned 3,’’ the kid, straight out of central casting and still wearing his baseball uniform, said. “And I got a ball almost every single game last year.’’
His dad, 37-year-old Rob Kirschmann, runs a company that helps kids get into college. He moved here six years ago from Connecticut, quickly becoming a Wahconah Park fixture.
“When we first started coming, it was mostly for the baseball,’’ the elder Kirschmann said from his seat along the first-base line. “But there’s a certain charm here. You get to know the players. They do a lot in the community.’’
In fact, during the 56-game season, Suns players can be found bunking with host families like Kate Teutsch’s. She’s standing along the right-field line with her husband and their children, Seth, 5, and 7-year-old Zoey, who have become adoring fans of the team. The Suns compete in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League of New England, a summer league for college players.
“All the kids in Berkshire County think these players are from the Hall of Fame,’’ Teutsch said. “They’re just amazing.’’
Suns right-handed pitcher Michael Portella is staying this summer with the Teutsch family, sometimes sprawling out of the floor to play Legos with the children. And he knows the rules.
“Don’t do anything wrong,’’ Kate Teutsch said. “It’s a small community. We’ll find out. Respect your host family. If they ask you to do the dishes and do the laundry, do it. Our player is amazing.’’
Teutsch has been coming to the park most of her life. As a 6-year-old, she was part of a family scheme to capture as many foul balls or home run balls as possible.
“My brothers would sit in the back tree during batting practice,’’ she recalled. “And I would sit over here with a walkie-talkie and tell them where the balls were hit out. We probably collected 250 balls a season and sold them back to the ballpark.’’
That up-close-and-personal feel to this blend of baseball in the Berkshires is one of the intangible beauties to this place where Kevin O’Hara, a Berkshire Eagle contributing columnist, once accompanied his then-fiancé there to see singer Bobby Goldsboro perform in 1973.
“We were dating and she said, ‘Why are you so nervous?’ ’’ O’Hara recalled. “I said, ‘This is the first time in my life I’ve ever paid to get into Wahconah Park.’ There’s just something magical about the place. You’re so close to the players that you could actually talk to them in the batter’s box for Pete’s sake. And, back in those days, they’d talk back.’’
Joe Ryan remembers those days. He’s 78. He graduated from Providence College in 1963 and worked as an IBM systems programmer. He also spent 16 years on the Pittsfield City Council, five of them as president.
These days he’s known as “Banjo Joe,’’ performing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame’’ during the seventh-inning stretch as he has for the last 15 years.
“When a banjo’s playing and you know the song, you cannot not sing,’’ he told me.
Ryan has been coming to this old ballpark since the 1940s, at first accompanied by his aunt who was also his godmother.
“As things went, she became older as did I,’’ he said, settled into the grandstands. “We’d come up when she was in her 50s and 60s. She was in her 90s and I was still taking her up here. She loved it. I would go out and get my first beer and I’d say, ‘Two glasses.’ And I’d bring it in and I’d pour her a little bit out of it.’’
Surely Mary Hoffman, who was born the day Fenway Park opened, savored that baseball beverage.
And with that, the latest victory for the hometown team — a 7-3 win — slips into the Wahconah Park history book.
When I remind Gedman, the team’s manager, that the Suns retain their status atop the league, he shoots me something between a grin and a grimace.
And then the son of former Red Sox catcher Rich Gedman issues an age-old admonishment familiar to ballplayers everywhere:
“Don’t jinx it!’’
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.