April 12, 2012

Repeating History: Baseball’s No-Hitters

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It was 1965 and my senior year of high school when the Cornell University baseball coach said that he was interested in having me come pitch for him and that I might be eligible for scholarship assistance. I had already applied to Lehigh and Bucknell because financially the Ivy League was out of the question; however, with the scholarship help, the idea of attending Cornell was a winner — especially for someone from the relatively small town of Hamburg, NY. A discussion with my high school guidance counselor resulted in the conclusion that, since I liked math and science, I should apply to the Engineering School. That turned out to be a huge mistake, but that’s a story for another time.

Upon arriving on campus, I immediately joined the freshman football team, coached by the same man who had recruited me for baseball. He made it clear that he did not relish the prospect of a baseball recruit being injured playing football, but I asserted my rights under the team’s no-cut policy — another mistake and another story. Once the football season ended — as well as my short- lived football career — it was time for baseball practice.

Bacon Cage was the first stop. About the size of the infield and with a dirt floor, there were baseballs flying in every direction. The upperclassmen were doing their thing and we freshmen were becoming acquainted with each other. The freshmen pitchers included Larry Rafalski, Eric Shafnisky and myself. Another freshman was the biggest infielder I had ever seen, a super nice guy named Ken Dryden. There was a rumor that he was also a pretty good hockey player. Hoy Field was somewhat nondescript with home plate at the northwestern corner and a huge set of bleachers that never seemed to have more than a dozen fans watching the games. My four years of playing Cornell baseball were highlighted by, among other events, an exhibition game against the Buffalo Bisons of the International League, featuring an 18-year-old outfielder named Johnny Bench; a no-hit game pitched by Larry Rafalski against Hartwick in 1968 and coming within one game of reaching the NCAA District playoffs in 1969. My claim to fame was leading the 1969 pitching staff in appearances and earned run average.

In the Spring of 1969, sitting on a stone bench in the Arts quad overlooking Libe Slope and the city of Ithaca, Karen, an Oneonta student and my future wife, and I were discussing how nice it would be to someday return to the area and live here. Forty-one years later, we moved into a house in Lansing and that dream came true. Karen had taught elementary school for 20 years in the Smithtown, Long Island school district and I had retired from the Suffolk County Probation Department after 26 years. I had also spent two years in the U.S. Army, having won my only lottery to date — the Draft Lottery during the Vietnam era.

One of the things I hoped to do upon my return to Ithaca was to contact Ted Thoren, the Cornell legend who had recruited me for baseball. I was surprised to hear that Ted was still around and even more surprised when we spoke over the phone. His recall was amazing and he agreed to my lunch invitation, provided we wait for the weather to warm up — something that could take a long time in Ithaca. While waiting for warmer weather, Karen and I attended Cornell baseball games. We were told that Ted attended some of the games and hoped that we might run into him; however, we never saw him at any of the games, and before I decided to renew my invitation for lunch, Ted passed away. We didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but, as I’ve gotten older, I realize that there would have been no Cornell experience in my life without him.

Watching last year’s baseball games was interesting, to say the least. Hoy Field is nothing like I remember. Where in the world is Bacon Cage? Where did this parking garage come from? There is artificial turf, an announcer and music? Where do they keep the water bucket with its communal ladle that would occasionally freeze over during the course of a game? However, the enthusiasm and youth of the players was impressive.

The experience of watching these games carried over to this season. The team seems much improved and the level of enthusiasm is even greater. Unfortunately, the weather has been pretty much the same. Karen and I sat through the cold and wind of the first game against Harvard on March 31. The next day, it was a little colder and had the added element of rain. Watching a game in Lynah Rink is cozy by comparison. As a result, I attended the game against Dartmouth solo. I watched the first few innings from the shelter of the parking garage and realized that something unusual was developing. Cornell pitcher Connor Kaufmann had not given up any hits. I moved to my favorite spot in the stands behind home plate. As a former pitcher, I believe one can only truly appreciate what is being thrown from that vantage point. Kaufmann was throwing hard and seemed to be in complete control of his pitches. By the fifth inning, my excitement grew as it dawned on me that I had been in this situation 44 years ago. Larry Rafalski, fellow pitcher for Ted Thoren, threw the first nine-inning complete game no-hitter in Cornell baseball history. I was about ready to jump out of my skin when Kaufmann retired the last hitter and threw the second complete game no-hitter in Cornell baseball history. The realization of what I had seen elicited overwhelming emotion that I did not expect.

After the game, I introduced myself to Kaufmann and informed him of his accomplishment. In a gracious, polite and humble manner, he thanked me for the congratulations and stated that he was not aware that he was only the second Cornell pitcher to accomplish this feat. I walked away with a tremendous feeling of nostalgia, pride and wonderment. Could I have ever exhibited as much class as Kaufmann when I was his age?

This experience has moved me to the point that I wrote to Rafalski — a person with whom I have had no contact since 1969. As I write this, I anxiously await his response. It’s great to be back!

Original Author: Jim Piersanti