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Sarasota Wednesday, Jun. 30, 2021 3 months ago

What a catch! We love baseball's beauty.

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Stars shine in America's pastime, but the burning love begins in our back yards.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

It's not Shoeless Joe, or the Babe, or even today's El Niño, who have solidified our unconditional love of baseball.

Sure, local baseball fans will profess their adoration of the game's biggest stars, such as Joe Jackson, Babe Ruth or Fernando Tatis, Jr. Still, the reason why baseball remains our national pastime, and will remain relevant another 100 years into the future, can be explained by peeking over many of your neighbor's backyard fences.

Seth McGarry, who rose to the Triple A professional level, said he spent countless hours playing baseball with his dad.

There, in the grass, without a base, home plate or pitcher's mound in sight, will be two or three players. Whether it is mom or dad, son or daughter, or two buddies, doesn't matter. Only a pair of gloves and a ball are needed to have a catch.

"My dad (Tim McGarry) introduced me to the game," said Lakewood Ranch's Seth McGarry, who reached the Triple-A level of professional ball with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs before being released in January. "It was great just being able to do something with him. We spent countless hours at the field.

"You can always play catch with dad."

As the nation celebrates July 4, many local celebrations will include sandlot baseball or softball, a simple game of catch, or perhaps a watch party of the local big league teams, which are certain to be active on the holiday. In watching the major league baseball players, we begin to realize baseball has grown even above its lofty status as America's pastime.

Major League Baseball announced on 2021 Opening Day that 256 foreign players were on rosters, representing 20 countries and territories. Baseball's reach is worldwide.

Jonathan Prieto, who works at Sarasota's Elevation Prep Academy as a baseball coach for the Florida International Baseball Academy, said baseball long has been the biggest sport in his native country of Venezuela.

Prieto, who lives in Lakewood Ranch, became a minor-league baseball player in 2003, reaching the Triple-A Nashville Sounds before he became a scout and coach with the Philadelphia Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates systems. 

"It's just the nature of baseball," Prieto said about the game's popularity. "People love to compete and they love to be around family. I grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, and my dad took me to all the games."

The Venezuelan Professional Baseball League was established in 1945 and it became an off-season home to many major leaguers, such as Dave Parker and Omar Vizquel. Prieto, who now gives private lessons to kids who have dreams of playing professional baseball, fell in love with baseball as he watched those stars.

Fame and fortune certainly draws youngsters to the big league stars, but the pure fun of it captured their imagination long before they realized the big leagues existed.

Lakewood Ranch's Brandon Cush, 15, gets lessons from Jonathan Prieto, a former Triple A player who now teaches for the Florida International Baseball Academy at Elevation Prep Academy of Sarasota.

When Bradenton Marauders player Eli Wilson, a 22-year-old catcher, was a kid, his dreams started to grow in his Seattle, Washington back yard and not because he was watching major league stars.

"I played a lot of Whiffle ball with my brother and dad," he said before the Marauders' game June 8 at LECOM Park in Bradenton. "It was pretty raw and we didn't have a lot of rules. In our back yard, the only rule was that if you hit a window, you were out.

"But I always loved the thrill of getting a big hit or diving for the ball to make a big play."

Wilson, who played college baseball at the University of Minnesota and now plays for the Class A team, said people who think baseball is slow don't try to understand it.

"It's a good game, if you want to think through it," he said. "If you are a student of the game, it's not boring."

On June 8, Wilson was one of the big stars to a group of youngsters from Lakewood Ranch who came to the Bradenton ballpark to celebrate Ethan Burnstein's 9th birthday. To Ethan and his friends, it might as well have been Yankee Stadium.

Sweetening the pot was the fact the Marauders allowed Burnstein to throw out the first pitch. Think that will be a moment to stick with him?

Sarasota's Jack Zimmerman said even at 77, he is trying to learn new skills on the diamond.

Baseball offers many moments that stick with its players and fans over a lifetime.

Sarasota's Jack Zimmerman, who at 77 still plays in the Sarasota Senior Softball League, grew up in Boston watching Red Sox legend Ted Williams.

"He was larger than life," Zimmerman said. "Seeing him ... I worshipped him. I was 8 and wide-eyed. I thought that baseball was the only game."

Zimmerman and his friends would collect baseball cards of their favorites and then flip them to win more cards, or lose them. Everything they did revolved around baseball.

"For me, baseball was so different than anything else," he said. "I always wanted to be a baseball player. Never a fireman, never a doctor, never a policeman."

Although he eventually earned his living in the garment business, Zimmerman is still a player late in life.

"I have been working on trying to go the other way (for a right-handed hitter, that means hitting to right field)," Zimmerman said as he took the field. "There are not many things I work on at this time of my life, but I'm living the dream here. I still love baseball. "

Also playing in the Sarasota Senior Softball League is Greg Dickinson, who at 74 continues to be active because he loves the camaraderie that develops in softball or baseball.

He wishes even more people would watch baseball and give it a chance.

"Baseball has a perfect set of rules," he said. "And baseball is in no rush."

McGarry agreed, saying baseball is a complex game with lots of small things happening each pitch.

Now he gives private lessons and he spreads his knowledge of those complexities with aspiring stars, such as Lakewood Ranch 10-year-olds Sara Hanie and Lily Bertrand. Their fathers were watching at Lakewood Ranch Park as McGarry was putting them through fielding drills.

"Sara has loved it since the day she picked up a bat," said her dad, Jim Hanie. "I don't have the time to watch baseball anymore, but I love watching the kids play."

Lily Bertrand's father, Scott Bertrand, said he loves the life lessons his daughter learns while playing softball. Whether it's baseball or softball, he said kids learn how to deal with failure and how to respond.

Lily Bertrand plays in the Miss Manatee Softball league and with the Riptide, a travel team. Her heroes, though, aren't Major League Baseball players.

Baseball and softball still make up a large part of each day for Sarasota's Dave Wulfsohn, who is 88.

Scott Bertrand noted the Lakewood Ranch High softball team just won the state championship.

"Her dream is to play for Lakewood Ranch High School," he said. "She has the game and she constantly is asking me to throw and catch. We go in the backyard. It's something we bond over."

Young or old, the love of baseball continues to burn bright.

At 88, Sarasota's Dave Wulfsohn knows his best days as a player are far gone, but he still loves competing on the diamond as a member of the Sarasota Senior Softball League. He has played in the league for 24 years.

"I like being here," he said. "It's relaxing for me."

Wulfsohn finished two games on this particular day, playing catcher. After the games, he didn't have any time to waste. He needed to get home.

His Chicago White Sox were on TV. It was time for baseball.

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