Wayne County Wanderings: For the Love of the Game

There was a definite nip in the air as I exited The Wayne Independent offices and headed down 8th Street.

At the corner, I made a right turn onto Court Street and followed the river toward my destination.

Despite the promise of an early spring from a certain furry “weatherman” in Punsutawney, Old Man Winter obviously hadn't released his icy grip on NEPA just yet.

Luckily, I didn't have far to go and the anticipation of a fun night helped insulate me against the icy wind.

Passing by Temple Beth Israel, I looked up and was pleased to see cars lining both sides of the street. Drawing closer, it quickly became obvious that the parking lot was full as well.

For the briefest moment I thought about stopping at the new foot bridge, maybe spending a couple of minutes communing with the ducks who always seem to be there no matter the weather or time of day.

Curiosity got the better of me, though, and I stepped up my pace. After all, it isn't everyday in the dead of winter that you're invited to an event celebrating our National Pastime...

The Giants

There was a time not so long ago when Honesdale was unquestionably a baseball town.

The National Pastime sunk its roots deep here in the Maple City, thanks in large part to the presence of 19th century superstars like Christy Mathewson and Eddie Murphy.

As the 20th century dawned, the game's popularity only increased. High school games drew crowds in the hundreds, while town team battles with rivals like White Mills, Hawley and Carbondale routinely attracted thousands.

Men like Earl Wilson, Laverne “Gov” Thornton, Mead Sandercock, Clarke Romich and Jimmy Gregg were nothing short of local legends.

Old timers still debate how far a bomb off the bat of Wilson traveled when it cleared the school building at the old Stourbridge Field.

They sing the praises of mound legends like Bennie “Pops” Hessling, Jimmy Heller and Allie Miller. They shake their heads in wonder at the speed of outfielders George Stephens and Tommy Olver.

A quip from one local diamond philosopher sums up Wayne County in general and Honesdale in particular: “Back in those days, there were just two sports around here: Spring baseball and fall baseball.”

While football, basketball and soccer have obviously made inroads, baseball has stood the test of time … as Sunday evening's event clearly demonstrates.

A Bit of History

The destination of my short Sunday stroll was what many of us here in town still call “The Old Katz Brothers Building.”

This sturdy brick structure was built at the turn of the century by Jacob, Jonas and Samuel Katz. For many decades it served as a manufacturing, warehouse and shipping hub for the company.

Back in the days when textiles were still king in New England and the Middle Atlantic, companies like Katz provided hundreds of local folks with solid, dependable jobs.

Sadly, that era is now gone, but buildings like the one Jacob, Jonas and Samuel left behind are being renovated and re-purposed.

Wayne County entrepeneur Rudy Schemitz owns the 525 Church Street property now and he's spent a great deal of time, money and energy breathing new life into it.

As a consequence, a total of eight businesses now occupy the space where generations of women once worked their sewing machine magic.

On this particular night, I'd been invited to visit one of these businesses: Sixth & River, a wonderfully unique event space located on the second floor.

My invitation had been issued by Ernie Griffis, Honesdale's energetic and enthusiastic varsity baseball coach. Griffis is in just his second year at the helm of the Hornets and he's already carving out a legacy.

Ernie greeted me at the door wearing a sparkling new Honesdale baseball shirt and a big smile. He shook my hand and quickly ushered me inside where a unexpected sight awaited.

Bright Future

Sixth & River is nothing short of extraordinary.

What once was the factory floor of a bustling factory has been transformed into a dazzling banquet facility.

Nearly 200 people had turned out on a cold winter night to show their support for Honesdale baseball, happily paying $40 a head to attend the year's biggest fundraiser.

They were enjoying delicious food, relaxing with a couple of drinks, and listening to the music of “Kat & Randy.”

Most of all, though, they were talking baseball.

Hornet coaches Mike Modrovsky and Mike Miller were holding court in one corner. Local legends Bob “Reggie” Bunnell and John “Scoop” Martin boldly predicted a 28th World Series title for their Yankees in another.

Hall of Fame catcher Billy Phillips made his case for a rejuvenated Reds squad to my left, while former HHS and DeSales University mound star Brian Gillow dissected the Mets on my right.

It was a happily chaotic setting … a noisy, swirling scene from which Coach Griffis and I had to escape for a quick conversation.

“This means a lot to me and to the program,” Coach Griffis said once we'd found a quiet corner near the second floor landing.

“It's so great to see everyone come out and support us like this. The money we raise here makes so many of the things the kids do possible.”

Last year's Honesdale squad was competitive every time it took the field. While the Hornets' overall record of 3-10 was a bit disappointing, a closer look reveals that eight of those losses were by just one run.

“We're definitely hoping to turn that around this year, turn those one-run losses into wins,” Coach Griffis said. “I'm very optimistic about the season.”

Looking Ahead

Coach Griffis is hoping to make this an annual event during the three-day Presidents Weekend.

He's very encouraged by this year's response and is confident the fundraiser will continue to grow.

“The community and the school district have been so great in supporting us,” he said. “I can't say enough about the way businesses and the administration have stepped up to help. The parents and the booster club have been fantastic, too. I'm very grateful to them all.”

Honesdale's varsity baseball season is slated to begin with a “southern tour” that will take the team to West Virginia. It's a huge advantage to be outside on a field in early March rather than being trapped in the gym or practicing on the parking lots.

“I can't wait to get going,” Griffis said. “The kids and the coaches are really excited to get started.”

So come on out and support the Honesdale baseball program this spring! Help the Hornets connect with their glorious diamond past and begin building an equally exciting future.