Dapper Dan baseball is a sporting institution as important to a small town as any other.
Sitting in the press box at John D. Long Field at Constitution Park during the championship series in July brought back my own memories of little league baseball, memories I didn’t even realize I had.
Memories of smiling faces I can’t even place names to, hot dogs and snowballs and end-of-season pizza parties. My memory bank is full of on-the-field moments too, but my visions of friendships and coaches are the most vivid.
Game 2 of the Major Division title series between the Tigers and Phillies was the first Dapper Dan game I’ve seen in person, and it didn’t disappoint. As the sun set, the Phillies walked it off to force a decisive final game, which the Tigers, in turn, won via a walk-off homer by Trent Lapp.
The ball was good, and so were the crowds, lining the ball field in numbers that surprised me, given it was a little league game. It didn’t surprise others, namely Jim Zamagias and Rock Cioni, who have called Dapper Dan games together for WCBC since the early ’90s.
Zamagias’ days of calling little league go back even further, as he began in 1983 with John Cunningham. There was no press box then, so the pair sat on top of the dugout in lawn chairs to discuss the events as they unfolded.
Rock and Jim also have illustrious managerial careers, and both played in the league as children. Cioni has five Major Division titles, and Zamagias captured three as a coach.
With all that in mind, I thought, who better to tell the story of the league, and what makes it special? It’s been alive since 1950, operating every summer continuously until the COVID-19 pandemic took the 2020 season from us.
Jim estimates that he’s worked more than 300 games as a commentator, and he managed for 32 years.
“I love baseball,” Zamagias said. “The strategy, the effort of the kids, the small field. The kids aren’t swallowed up like they are in Hot Stove. Everybody can have a good little league experience, and that’s not true at every level.
“As you get older, kids that you’ve coached have wonderful memories. My little league manager, that I had 50 years ago, he showed up at my dad’s funeral. It’s really special.”
For both men, and many others who grew up in this area, their love of baseball was born on the sandlot.
People in my generation only associate the sandlot with the movie, but pickup games were very real. That’s how Zamagias, Cunningham and Allegany College’s Chris Ruppenkamp spent many a summer night, playing at Gephart or Mapleside playgrounds, or at Washington Junior High.
That continued into Dapper Dan, which featured more than 20 teams with 20 kids each during the 1970s. More than 400 kids ages 9-12 spent their summer evenings playing America’s game.
While the numbers are down in recent years, as are the numbers across most sports, the magic of the Dapper Dan has remained the same.
“I just ran into one of the best players I ever coached (Angelo Bascelli), his son’s playing now,” Cioni said. “His 12-year-old year was 1992, and every time I see him, it’s like bumping into an old friend.
“It’s a heck of a good feeling when they get older and realize they had a good experience in little league, beyond wins and losses. How they were treated, how they grew as a person and as a player. And that they just had a good time with their teammates and coaches.”
The allure of the 12-year-old year makes coaches’ eyes sparkle. For those unaware, that’s the final year of little league, and the final year before moving up to the bigger fields of Hot Stove.
It’s an unwritten rule to make those kids’ final seasons a special one.
“If you’re just kind of an average athlete like I was, your 12-year-old year of little league is where it’s at,” Zamagias said.
“If you’re doing the right thing as a coach, you consciously try to make that 12-year-old year for kids something meaningful,” Cioni agreed. “Whether it’s a kid that’s been bugging you for two years to pitch, and he can no more pitch than a man on the moon, but you find a way to get him in. Kids don’t forget that.”
With how entrenched little league baseball was in the lives and upbringings of Zamagias and Cioni, calling games on the radio was the natural progression to that.
There aren’t many little leagues with play-by-play. Mine certainly didn’t have it. There’s something remarkable about being able to turn on the radio on a given night and hear a Dapper Dan game.
I’ve said this before, but this region does a great job of making its local athletes feel like big leaguers.
“I had a friend who came up to do a business meeting in Cumberland 15 years ago, he’s from Baltimore,” Cioni said. “I say, ‘You doing anything tonight?’ He’s staying in a motel, and he says no. He was an Oriole fan, and we say, ‘Come up, we’re going up to the ball yard.’
“He thought we were just going up to watch a game, and when he saw it was on the radio, I don’t think he ever recovered. Little league on the radio, he thought that was as cool as it got.”
It’s so cool that kids sometimes get recordings of games that they can listen to fondly in their adulthood.
Zamagias probably wishes he had a recording of his first year managing in 1981, when down 2-0 in the bottom of the sixth against Vic Marrale’s unbeaten Athletics, Zamagias’ Pirates scored three runs to spring the upset.
Or Cioni in 1994, when he captured his first title coaching the Athletics. If Cioni doesn’t have an audio recording, he doesn’t need one. It’s like it happened yesterday.
“I can still remember those kids, and who pitched,” he said. “I knew it was going to be joyful to win it, but as an adult, I don’t think I really anticipated how good it would feel. To see the smiles on the kids’ faces. How hard you practiced, it was kind of surreal.”
There have been many stars to grace the diamond at Constitution Park over the years, from Barry Page, who still holds the rebound record at the Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament, to Ty Johnson and Mikey Allen, and countless others.
The greatest individual performance over the years may have been by Shawn Metheny of the Phillies, who, in one six-inning game, hit five pitches over the fence for five home runs.
If I was the opposing coach, I’d have probably pitched around him after the first three, but that’s not what Ray Haines did.
“He thought in little league, you should pitch to kids,” Zamagias said. “The opposing manager allowed him to hit those home runs.”
That’s what little league baseball is all about.