DuBOIS — Festivities surrounding the 2019 Pennsylvania American Legion Baseball State Tournament got underway Friday evening with the 56th Annual Sports hall of Fame Banquet, which was held at the Roy H. Hunter Activity Center at DuBois Christian School.
The event featured a Who’s Who of Pennsylvania American Legion dignitaries, hall of fame inductees and their families, umpires and players and coaches from all eight teams competing in this year’s double-elimination tournament at Showers Field.
The banquet featured remarks from several local and state Legion officials, including new Department Commander Bob John and New Western Vice Commander Jack Tully, both of whom have only held those posts for a couple weeks.
The main part of the event was the induction ceremony for this year’s five-member class of Robert Bozzuto, Jason Bush, Jack Kochu, Edwin Lawrence and Mike Ryan. Each inductee, or a representative for the inductee, then gave speeches about their American Legion baseball experience and what meaning and affect it had on their lives.
Following the induction ceremony, Jonathan Wiest, the Director of Pennsylvania American Legion Baseball, presented the American Legion Graduate of the Year award to Pine-Richland grad and former Pittsburgh Pirates first round draft pick Neil Walker.
Wiest was not available for comment about the tournament following Friday’s ceremonies.
Walker, who is currently playing for the Miami Marlins, was not on hand but his father father Tom Walker was to accept the award on behalf of his son.
The elder Walker, a first round MLB draft pick himself, conveyed what Legion baseball meant to his son and also spoke about his own baseball experiences — including the story about how he played winter ball in Puerto Rico with the late Roberto Clemente and how he was nearly on the plane that crashed and killed the formes Pirates standout.
Tom Walker helped load the plane that fateful day on Dec. 31, 1972, that was filled with supplies for earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Three previous planes full of supplies had reportedly been intercepted by the military, so Clemente planned to personally deliver the fourth load of supplies.
The elder Walker said he asked to go along, but Clemente told him the plane was full and to go enjoy himself with it being New Year’s Eve. Walker learned later that evening about the crash that kille everyone on board, including Clemente.
Heartbroken at the time, Walker said he later came to terms with the event and realized that if not for Clemente telling him to say in Puerto Rico, he nor his son Neil, would have every gotten to experience the lives they have.
The program wrapped up at DuBois Christian School with the coaches from each team participating in a coin flip to determine who the home teams would be for the first games on opening day Saturday.
From there, everyone made the short trip up Maple Avenue for a free concert at Showers Field put on by The Ride.
The Hall of Fame inductees and all eight teams were introduced to the crowd on hand at Showers before The Ride finished off the night with their final set.
Following the brief ceremony at Showers Field, John and Tully both spoke about the tournament and everything surrounding it.
“It’s a chance for people in this part of the state to experience this (states), and you (DuBois) have a fantastic venue here ... that’s for darn sure” said John. “If I had something like this when I was a kid, I’d still be playing.
“I think the kids are going to have a great time here and may the best team win. I’m just happy to be here. I’ve only been Commander for two weeks, and this is actually my first official (event) outside department. I’ll be back Wednesday to catch the championship game.”
“I work for Bob for the Western Section, and again we’re both newly installed in the last two weeks,” added Tully. “It’s brand new to us, and we’re excited and energetic about it.
“At the dinner tonight, we mentioned to the kids about seeing a lot of veterans here, and the opportunities those veterans gave those kids ... about seeing the flag flying and hoping it brings a sense of pride to them and be glad to be an American.
“Things we do in the military are kind of different from somebody in civilian life, and sometimes civilians can’t understand we do things a little different.
“I’m a Gold Star father and lost my son (Michael) in 2007. Although he played sports in high school, he really never got the level to play in something like this. When I see the young ones now, I see my youngest son at that age and sometimes it’s difficult to handle it.
“But, I know he’s probably looking down and saying, ‘Hey, enjoy it.’”
And, that’s just want everyone involved with the tournament hopes to do the next couple days.