Anyone who ever played at Fountain Park for Jim Hardman CAN NEVER go back without reliving the best days of Piqua baseball – the best days of baseball in the lives of those fortunate to be in the right place, with the right man, at the right time.
Piqua – On the most miserable Friday in memory, relative to May and the peak of the area baseball season, permit me to wax nostalgic, if not eloquently, on a time from my youth that’s as relevant now as it was back then, now 45 years ago and counting.
I took some time last week to go back, for old time’s sake, and the opportunity of reliving some of the best days of my life on Forrest Avenue, in Piqua. I spent an hour, you see, walking around the baseball field that for the past twenty five years has been named after my high school coach, the man about which baseball in the city of Piqua still owes its identity…Jim Hardman. There was nobody there. Just me, the wind in the trees on the levy bank above the diamond…and the memories.
For the fact of hard times in recent years for Piqua baseball – for the fact of just the evil passage of time – a lot of the good memories of the glory days of Indians baseball under Hardman are gone. Now they belong to only a select few who played, and who still live to remember, and if asked…to talk about it.
Teammates – like John Hinsch, Chris Hardman, Audie Carnes, Tom Bodey, Rick Short, Dave Reed, ‘Punk’ Burns, and others who didn’t play as much, but benefited just as greatly from the experience. Most have gone on to very successful lives, and their own legacies. And those that have owe at least some of their success to time spent learning how to prepare life strategies on that field under the watchful eye of Jim Hardman.
My first varsity appearance as a sophomore, when summoned from the bullpen in the top of the seventh to pitch against Lima Shawnee with the bases loaded and none out…because whoever pitched before me had walked them full. Somehow I threw enough strikes to get out of the inning without giving up a run, and we won the game. In later years Hardman would remind me…that I wasn’t the most talented pitcher he had, but at least I threw strikes.
In my junior season we played Shawnee again, and in the bottom of the seventh inning Tom Bodey, a hulking left-handed hitting first baseman with immense power when he squared it up, hit a mammoth home run out to right field that bounced on Forrest Avenue and came to rest in the flower bed of Ben Jackson’s front yard. I walked it off one time and it was about 500 feet.
Speaking of mammoth home runs, in my senior year against Troy, Denny Dickensheets, who was a strong as anyone I saw in baseball before pitching to Dave Winfield in college, hit ball to left field that cleared the light tower and came to rest in Forrest Hill cemetery. A classmate, Dave Brown, actually went out to retrieve that baseball and bring it to me. Gawd…what a blast! I told him to keep it.
I think a lot about the pride that the upperclassmen before me took in Piqua baseball – Hinsch, Hardman, Reed, Ray Putnam, and Denny Siler – and how they stressed that to the rest of us. I remember the satisfaction on years when we won the Miami Valley League title, and how “Coach” would pass out those little sterling silver baseballs to each of us, that read: MVL Champs. I gave mine to a girlfriend I was dating at the time. She dumped me and kept the baseball!
I think a lot about the summer days we all spent around that field when Hardman would run his baseball camp, inviting every Piqua youngster who wanted to be there to come and hit against the pitching machine, take endless ground balls in the infield, and chase down line drives in the outfield. It ran from late morning to early afternoon every day, it seemed, and no one ever wanted to go home.
I remember an incident one afternoon between Hardman and Doc Staley, the old umpire who wore a bow tie and combed his hair evocatively between innings in case there were any ladies in the stands who wanted to notice. Doc threw Coach out of the game for arguing balls and strikes…and blew him a kiss as he (Hardman) left the field and closed the gate behind him.
I remember Rich McKinney taking batting practice with us one afternoon during one of the first strike years in major league baseball. McKinney had played for Hardman on the Post 184 Legion team, was with the White Sox at the time, and Coach always told us he was the best hitter he’d ever seen. “Everybody in the outfield,” Hardman said to those of us who were shagging balls. “And play deep.” I think McKinney hit about 20 out to all parts of the field – and several in the vicinity of Ben Jackson’s flower bed.
Last, I remember the last game I pitched for Piqua, against Greenville, for the MVL championship. I was on that day, struck out 16, and allowed but one hit. But Greenville had a pitcher named John Cecil who was on, too. Cecil matched me pitch for pitch through the first five innings. In the sixth we had three errors in the inning, all on the same batted ball, and Greenville ended up scoring an unearned run – the only run of the game. We got beat 1-0. Hardman told me aftewards, “Tough luck. He (Cecil) was better than you today.” He didn’t say anything about the three errors and the unearned run, and at the time that got under my skin. But years later I figured it out. It wasn’t that John Cecil pitched better, he just won. That’s baseball. Errors happen, and Cecil never let errors enter into the outcome. He took care of business himself.
Occasionally I see some of the guys with whom I played at Hardman Field. We still talk about the games. We still marvel at how much they meant, and mean, to us, even now.
We still share that what Jim Hardman said to us back then still has such relevance.
For instance, he’d say: “You can only play baseball for so long before your body wears out. But you can love baseball for your entire life.”
And the best thing, ‘Coach’ would add, “It’ll love you back.”
They tell me now that there’s talk of building a new baseball field, closer to the high school, and one that’s easier to maintain, etc., etc. There have been justifications for doing that for years. Selfishly, I hope it never happens.
I saw his widow, Kay, a few days ago having dinner with friends in a restaurant. I made it a point to sit down and say hello. She told me it was a wonderful surprise to see me, but truthfully, it was an even better moment for me. It made me remember, think back, and appreciate…that once upon that time we all were in the right place, at the right time, and with the right man.
And there’s still no better place for baseball in Piqua.