By JOHN GORALSKI
The children’s voices carried up the hill to Gerry Massarelli’s first home on Hill Street, and the siren song began to tug at the former bat boy. He could make out every little laugh, every hint of an argument, and every cheer as a player circled third base on the old Pexto Field.
It’s no surprise that Massarelli strolled down to the baseball diamond during that summer night in the late 1950s. When coaches urged him to fill in as an umpire, Massarelli stepped behind the plate. He said that he can still remember the groans from the players.
“Oh great,” one moaned. “We have a new umpire.”
Another one joined in. “I hope this one can see.”
“I got hooked right away,” Massarelli said with a laugh. “Every free minute I had, I would go down there. That’s where it started.”
Really, it started a few decades before. As a boy in Bristol, a young Massarelli served as bat boy for a semi pro team in Forrestville. He collected broken bats and worn equipment for the neighborhood pick-up games. He learned how to fix catchers equipment and re-string the old gloves for his childhood friends.
“The big thing was to watch and listen to these guys,” he said. “They played for the love of the game. They got paid by passing the hat, and they played hard. I remember three brothers. The younger two had to strap up the older one before a game. You just couldn’t keep that guy out of the lineup.”
It was love at first pitch, and over the next 50 years Massarelli was never too far from the diamond. Fathers throw themselves into coaching while their children battle in the Little Leagues. Grandfathers line the sidelines for travel games and tournaments, but Massarelli was in for keeps. His tenure with the Northern Little League was longer than most marriages, and his impact is still felt today.
“Gerry Massarelli was basically the father of the senior league at Southington North,” said current president Bob Borkowski. “He was part of the beginning of the league, and he stuck with it. He was the father—the grandfather—that really kept it going through the years.”
There wasn’t a position or a job that was too small. He started out as an assistant coach, moved his way up to coach, manager, and president of the league. He was demanding. He was stern. He was no-nonsense, and he got things done. If you survived under Massarelli, you were battle tested and ready to play at the next level.
Sure, he had his critics, but when former players like Carl Pavano boasted about Massarelli’s coaching during interviews on the YES Network it is hard to be critical of the results. In an interview with the Meriden Record, Pavano credited Massarelli’s demanding approach as the foundation for his journey to the majors.
“I had a pitching coach when I was younger, Gerry Massarelli, a family friend, that had me running,” Pavano said in the interview. “I was 13-years-old, and I was running miles, icing, doing arm exercises and was like, ‘What is all this stuff?’ But I didn’t know any better, and I respected him a lot. I guess, after a while, you figure that those things helped.”
Massarelli makes no apologies for his demanding, no-nonsense style.
“I’ve been criticized a lot over the years for my hard-nosed way of approaching things, but I learned a long time ago that there’s only one way to get successful at anything. That’s to work at it,” he said. “Of course, if I’m going to push a kid—in any sport—and he’s not in shape, then I’m being a bully. That’s the one thing that always worried me. I had a lot of responsibility when I had somebody’s kid, and I took that seriously.”
When children would push back or complain about Massarelli’s demanding style, he would offer them an out. Just say the word, he would offer, and I’ll never yell again. According to the coach, nobody ever took him up on the offer. Perhaps it was because, at the time, Little League was almost as competitive as the majors.
“When you had a tryout for Little League—I’m talking about the North, but the other leagues were the same way—We would get about 350 kids,” Massarelli said. “At that time, we had about six teams, and they would only lose about four or five players each year on each team because of graduation. That meant that, at most, we would need about 30 kids. Let me tell you, you had to play. Tryouts went three days, and kids had to make two of them or they wouldn’t get picked.”
So when a kid survived the tryouts, Massarelli took that opportunity seriously. He threw himself into coaching, volunteering at the high school camps over the summers, picking the brains of professional and high school coaches, and working on his craft.
Of course, Massarelli’s teams rose to the challenge. In the first six seasons of the Northern senior league, Massarelli’s Phillies team dominated with six straight conference crowns, a 37-game winnings streak, and an all-star team that charged into the finals. His early teams burst out of the gates with a 103-14 record, and continued at that pace until he hung up his whistle.
Massarelli’s players went on to dominate at the high school and two fought their way to the major leagues.
“He was a hard-nosed coach. He was an old-school sort of coach. There was never any B.S. with him,” said Borkowski. “He expected a lot from his players, and he got it.”
His efforts didn’t stop at the final pitch. Massarelli threw himself into the league between games, repairing fields, and looking for opportunities to grow the league. As time when on, he served in almost every capacity from coach to manager, from president of the league to president of the senior league, and even as umpire in chief.
“He did it out of the goodness of his heart because he loved the game,” said Borkowski. “He loved the town. He loved the league, and it was important to him. It was his life.”
When the burgeoning senior league needed a place to play, Massarelli led the charge. At the time, the senior teams were forced to play at DePaolo Junior High School, and the no-frills facility was a strain on the players and the parents. Volunteers had to carry in water and equipment, set it up, and carry it out after the final out.
“The clay was so hard that, when it rained, the field became a pond,” Massarelli said. “We had to raise money with a concession stand, so we had to bring a charcoal cooker up there. We had to bring water. We used to make hot dogs and hamburgers to raise money to keep the league going. It was a lot of work.”
So Massarelli, and an army of volunteers, took on the town. For more than a decade they wrangled about extra space. Finally, Massarelli helped negotiate with the town for a small plot of land in on Woodruff Street, alongside the National Guard Armory. It looked more like a battlefield than a baseball field, but Massarelli helped orchestrate a volunteer army to attack the project. Unhampered by politics, he was able to focus on the goal.
“When you don’t have a kid playing, it frees you up to make the right decision without any worry about the consequences,” he said. “You just sit down and ask yourself what’s the problem and what’s the best way to fix that problem? Then, you do your damndest to get it done.”
“Not everyone agrees with him all the time, but he isn’t afraid to grab the reigns and lead the charge,” said former Observer editor Jim Senich in a 1982 editorial. “He is up front with his ideas and philosophy on handling youngsters in sports. He makes no bones about it.”
The plan called for a state of the art facility. It was entirely fenced in with storage facilities. There was a warning track, fountains in both dugouts, and a bullpen. Critics scoffed, but Massarelli and his crew got to work.
“I have to say that I was the luckiest man in the world. I was always surrounded by good people, and they made me look good,” he said. “We had guys that could take care of the landscape. We had guys that could design a field. We had carpenters, cement people, plumbers, electricians, and they were all volunteers. The old man that helped us with the price of the fence never put up a fence any cheaper in his life.”
On May 9, 1982, opening day was held on Massarelli Field—a name that he tried unsuccessfully to block in two town votes—and it’s no surprise that Southington’s high school teams were in the middle of a golden age. With top of the line feeder systems, players were hitting the ground running as underclassmen on the high school teams.
It was also no surprise that former Blue Knight baseball coach John Fontana enlisted Massarelli for help with his high school team. Once again, Massarelli threw himself into the challenge, developing himself into a top pitching coach and an off-the field booster like no other.
By this time, Massarelli had retired from his insurance career so that he could have better control of his time, and he used his new catering business as another way to support the high school and its teams.
“He was a hell of a booster. He did everything that he could to help our program out,” said Fontana. “He ran our banquets and things like that. Other people would have probably charged an arm and a leg. I’m sure he made a small profit, but he was all about helping the teams. He is a good man, and he did a good job.”
When the football team left for their preseason camp in Washington, Conn., they turned to Massarelli for help. He threw on his chef hat, took a week of vacation, and spent his time—from sunrise to sunset—supporting the football players as they prepared for the upcoming season.
The volunteers would get up each morning for a 4:30 a.m. bread delivery. They’d prepare food for more than 100 players and coaches, and they’d do it on the fly. Parents would be urged to pick up food on their way to visit, and Massarelli and his crew would turn those ingredients into a banquet each night.
“They’d come up with vegetables, roasts, and hamburger,” he said with a laugh. “That was my challenge. I didn’t know what was coming. It was all volunteers, but we’d make it work.”
“There aren’t too many guys today that would do what he did,” said Fontana. “He did it for love more than anything. He didn’t get paid. His kids weren’t involved. You don’t find too many guys that are willing to give up their time with their families to get involved like he did. Gerry is a very meaningful person, and he is a good guy.”
With his efforts at every level and across sports, it’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have named Massarelli as a member of the Class of 2015 for his support of town sports. On Wednesday, Nov. 11, he will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville.
“I mean this sincerely. This is a great honor,” he said. “You never think about things like this. When you’re going through it, you’re just thinking about things like, ‘How do I get that fence?’ or ‘How do I get someone to fix this or that?’ When other people remember it, it feels good. I can’t thank that board enough. It’s nice to know that people remember me.”
To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9460.
To comment on this story or to contact Observer editor John Goralski, email him at email@example.com.