Joining us today is author Steven Reilly. He is a lawyer and youth baseball coach in Connecticut's Lower Naugatuck Valley. We'll be chatting about his youth sports memoir, The Fat Lady Never Sings: How a High School Football Team Found Redemption on the Baseball Diamond.
Welcome to The Book Connection, Steve. It's a pleasure to have you with us.
Thank you for letting me stop by. The pleasure is all mine.
Before we get into your book, let's talk about you for a minute. How long have you been coaching youth baseball? Has any aspect of your law career helped make you a better baseball coach? Are you fascinated with any sports outside of baseball?
I've been coaching baseball about thirty years now. I've coached Babe Ruth league, Senior Babe Ruth league, American Legion and high school players in the spring, summer and fall.
Being a lawyer makes game decisions somewhat easier to make. After I help people make far more important life decisions, making a strategy decision in a high school baseball game does become a bit easier or at least it allows me to put it into perspective. But even to this day, I still lose quite a bit of sleep thinking about every possible thing that could happen in a game about to be played and how I will be able to deal with it. In the courtroom, there are no scripts and one has to develop the ability to adapt to how a case plays out; one must prepare as much as one can for whatever will be faced. Similarly, the beauty of a baseball game is that it has to be played. Those coaches who can adapt to what's happening during the game are far more successful. Preparation is key in baseball as well as the courtroom. High school baseball is unique since you cannot draft or recruit a player. You have to play with the cards you are dealt so to speak.
Law is an extremely competitive arena where losing is unacceptable and where skills of negotiation as well as litigation are developed over time. The analytical skills required in practicing law also help me in dealing with umpires and the interpretation of the rules of the game. Law has also taught me not only when to speak, but when to shut up before I make things worse.
I like a number of sports outside of baseball, but I wouldn't say I am fascinated by any one of them. Football and basketball probably are my next best favorite sports followed by hockey although I never played either football or hockey competitively. I did coach an eighth grade Catholic grammar school basketball team once and enjoyed it. I almost forgot, I was also a co-captain of my high school bowling team in addition to being a co-captain of my high school baseball team, but I haven't bowled in quite some time.
Tell us a bit about Derby, Connecticut, which is the setting for The Fat Lady Never Sings. Why is youth sports such a big part of that community? How competitive are these youth teams?
Derby is the smallest municipality in Connecticut land-wise. It covers only about 5 square miles. Like a lot of small towns in America, Derby used to be a manufacturing town with many blue-collar residents. It is still a blue collar city. In Derby in the late 60's, 70's, 80's and early 90's it would more accurate to say that it was the sport of high school football that was a big part of the community.
I think football became a big part of Derby's community as a result of a combination of factors. Football is kind of sport that requires a certain mental as well as physical toughness to play so I would imagine that in a blue collar town you are more likely to find football more popular than you would for example golf or swimming. Derby didn't have a golf course and the only public swimming pool(which was actually in the basement of City Hall), wasn't regulation size. Back when I was at Derby High, however, they did have a number of sports besides football including those two.
In addition, I think that it was due in large part to the football coaches who created and sustained a winning tradition, in particular, a coach named Lou DeFillipo who was overqualified for the job and became an icon in the city and deservedly so. Big Lou, as he was called, was among other things, captain of a Fordham University team that made it to the Cotton Bowl. He played for the New York Giants in the 40's, was an assistant with the Baltimore Colts and was a friend of Vince Lombardi's. Never mind the fact Big Lou had already established himself as a high school football coach with championships on Long Island before he got to Derby.
I also think whenever you have a high school that bears the name of the town it is in, the high school is going to be a barometer of many things. High school football is a sport that allows for the largest number of students to participate, hence parental following and, if you're successful, fan following with its resulting benefits, i.e. gate receipts to help fund other sports at the school. Football players are athletes and in a small town like Derby successful ones become popular and popularity breeds attention and adulation. Derby wasn't just successful back then. They were very successful winning multiple league and state championships. After a while, people began to think it would last forever. The school could've had a losing season in every other sport, but as long as we kicked butt in football, everything would still seem in order.
Take us to Thanksgiving Day in 1991--the day the Derby High School Red Raiders football team lost after 28 years of winning seasons. What was it like for these kids who played their hearts out only to know they would forever be branded losers?
Derby had been undefeated and won the 1990 overall state championship the year before and lost quite a few players from that team to graduation. After Ben Bartone, the quarterback of the 1991 team, broke his left wrist in the third game of the season playing defense, everybody began to fear the team might have a losing season. Many players on Derby's team played both ways and in addition to playing quarterback, Ben also played defensive back. The break in Ben's wrist was a bad one and required the insertion of surgical hardware to help it heal along with a plaster cast from his wrist to his elbow. Eleven games were scheduled that year so there could be no 5-5 season, Derby either had to have a losing season or a winning one. Derby was not(and still isn't) a large school so for it to lose its first string quarterback was devastating.
Fans started to look at the schedule and think about which games were winnable and which the team was likely to lose. When the losses started to accumulate, there was no room for error and the pressure to win mounted. The High school football season is a long one and you only get to play one game per week. It's not like the baseball season where if you lose you get to play a game two days later to try and redeem yourself as a team. The halls of Derby High were very quiet with each loss.
There was talk in town debating whether or not Ben should still be playing despite the wrist fracture. Some people felt he should be on the field anyway, at least as the quarterback. Ben did come back to play quarterback for the last three games, but he couldn't even take snap without fumbling the ball. The coaches inserted a shot-gun offense to try and help Ben but he still couldn't manage the snap consistently.
Unfortunately, the last game of the year was against one of Derby's biggest rivals who were ranked as a top ten team in Connecticut that year and Derby would have needed a minor miracle to beat them. It didn't happen. The Thanksgiving Day game is a game where a larger than normal crowd shows up and you usually see alumni football players rooting on the current players. To "blow the streak" in front of a large crowd made it all the more difficult for that year's players.
The Fat Lady Never Sings centers around three seniors from the Red Raiders football team, who join the baseball team the following spring. What can you tell us about Gino DiMauro, Ben Bartone, and Donny Shepard? Why will readers relate to them? Why will they cheer them on?
Ben is now a police officer for the City of Derby. I think readers will relate to Ben because he had the weight of both the football loss and the state championship baseball game on his shoulders. He not only was a tri-captain of the baseball team, a relief pitcher and shortstop in the championship baseball game, but he also found himself up at bat in the last inning with two outs, two men in scoring position and down by two runs. If he doesn't get a hit, he will be remembered as the quarterback who blew the streak as well as the baseball player who wasn't clutch when it counted. One of my polls on the book's website of the same name asks who should play Ben in any movie version of the book. So far, Keanu Reeves is winning. Whoaaaaahhh. (Voters have already picked Danny Devito to play the head coach of the team and Jack Black to play a fellow assistant coach of the team and James Gandolfini or John Goodman to play another so what does that tell you?).
Gino is now also a police officer for the City of Derby. Gino is a very likeable character, since he wasn't as much of an athlete as the others(the only second baseman I ever knew who wore protective goggles) but made the most of his abilities. I nicknamed him "the pizza box maker" because he used to work at a local pizza restaurant. He is also a sympathetic character since his father was the mayor of the city that year. Derby was the kind of town where if its high school football team lost, people would blame everybody, including the mayor for presumably not supporting the school enough. Gino's grandfather was formerly the football team's mascot. In full Indian garb donning a multicolored headdress and holding a spear, "Papa Gino" would ride near the bench and root the football team on.
Donny is also a very sympathetic character, since he never played football until his senior year in high school. He was more or less cajoled into playing because he was an athlete and the team needed him. After he was talked into playing, he ended up being a starting receiver and defensive back and returned punts and kickoffs. Donny was the kind of kid who had his arm blessed before the baseball season started. In the final baseball game, Donny was our starting pitcher who had a 9-1 record. He ran out gas and was removed from the game. After our second pitcher(Ben)had to be removed because of a pitcher limitation rule in extra innings, Donny was reinserted onto the pitcher's mound. Although he could barely throw the ball, he had to hang on.
You must have a lot of great memories from all your years of coaching youth baseball. Where do the events portrayed in The Fat Lady Never Sings rank in your list of highs and lows?
Although I've been privileged to coach many great teams and players in three different towns, I'd have to rank that 1992 team at the top because of the adversity they faced. I often wonder how different their lives would be if they had lost. I jumped on that victory pile that Friday night not just because they won, but because of the way they won; they never quit in the face of near certain defeat and battled every extra inning.
Second to that would be the teams and players who played with a lot of heart despite the fact they didn't win a championship and my 1977 Senior Babe Ruth team who did win a district championship because they were just a bunch of "wild and a crazy guys" as Steve Martin would say. The weekend I took that team to Maine, could be the subject of a whole book.
What was it about these three young men and how they reinvented themselves that made you want to write their story? Is there a lesson for young athletes to learn from Gino, Ben, and Donny?
I think part of it was their vulnerability. After all, they were just young men going through their high school years. A lot was expected of them in Derby.
Ben was not your typical football player. He was good at it, but when he was young he was the kind of kid who couldn't wait for fishing season to begin. I think baseball was his best sport and, in fact, he went on to pitch in college. After that state championship game, Ben asked the head coach of our baseball team, John DeFrancisco, "Am I a loser now?" That made me realize the amount of weight that was on his shoulders that year.
Gino was just a likeable kid. On many a practice day, I could tell he was arriving at the fieldhouse because he would let out a loud bird call that sounded like, "Cacaw! Cacaw!" Sometimes it's the oddball things kids do that reminds me they are just kids. As the season wore on, I could see how much Gino was maturing into a young man. He became the consummate team player and did everything we asked him to do without question. There are few players like that today.
Donny Shepard grew up in a congested neighborhood of Derby not far from where I grew up. Donny took baseball very seriously. (What high school pitcher do you know that would ask his Reverend at his church to bless his arm before the season began?) But Donny was prone to bouts of frustration whenever he didn't succeed. He was his own worst enemy sometimes. It was the way that he dealt with that last inning that made me want to write about him. At first, when he was reinserted into the game to pitch for the second time, he didn't want to go back in. But he knew we really didn't have anyone else to pitch so he accepted what he had to go through and still tried to win.
There is a lesson to be learned by young athletes from Gino, Donny and Ben. They found out what it was like to go out and do their best. We ask our young kids today to "just go out there and do your best". I think many times we take those words for granted and downplay them to mediocrity; the rising of lowered expectations. I think many times young teenagers don't know what "their best" is. Heck, many times I don't know what my best is, but I think we as coaches have to show young players how to reach that level so they can strive for that in everything else they do; it's part of the educational experience. But as I was taught by a man much wiser than me, it's a simple formula. "Don't quit." Everything else falls into place from there whether its baseball or anything else.
Where can readers purchase a copy of The Fat Lady Never Sings?
What's up next for you? Will you write more about your years coaching youth baseball?
I started working on a screenplay for the book. I'm hoping there will be interest for a baseball story that's the equivalent of Hoosiers in overtime with the stakes ratcheted up. After that I'll go back and probably write another book.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Check out the book's website to learn more about the book and vote in the polls or contact me on my MySpace site. (You could also click on my friend Buttermaker's site and become his friend too.)
The book also comes with a total satisfaction guarantee. If you buy it and aren't thoroughly entertained by the story, let me know and I'll be happy to buy it back.
Thanks for talking with us today, Steve. I wish you much success. Good luck during the rest of your Virtual Book Tour!
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