I grew up living in a few different places in northern New Jersey before my family finally settled in the town of Ramsey. Now, Ramsey's big claim to fame is...well...come to think of it, it has no claim to fame. It is the epitome of the upper middle class, white, bedroom community, suburban ghetto. It isn't rich or special enough to have famous people live here nor is it poor enough for anything nasty to transpire here leading to infamy. Anyway, I could not get out of this place fast enough when I turned 18, going away to Boston first for college and then to live. But, of course, in the usual It's A Wonderful Life cliche turn of events, I came back here to live seven years ago - and have been plotting, in vain, to leave ever since. So, if you were to ask me what my hometown was, I would reluctantly yet firmly say "Ramsey, NJ."
I was surfing around some card blogs a night or two ago (stay with me, the point is coming) and I hit upon an especially odd group of players being discussed and in one of the comments, a player was given props merely for being from someone's hometown. That little defense got me to thinking of my childhood. Going further in the WABAC, I was a pretty terrible athlete as a kid. At first, I was short and chubby, than after puberty hit me (like a ton of bricks), I became lanky and awkward. While I am tall and wide, I lost the overall natural lottery with an overall goofy body with no discernible center of gravity. All in all, though, I was very enthusiastic about playing sports and went out for all the teams, sometimes even making them. When I was in middle school in the late 80's and then high school in the early 90's, Ramsey was known as a local hotbed of athletics. Unfortunately, it was the classes behind me and ahead of me that had all the good jocks (it seems the mid-70's were not a particularly fertile time for those kinds of genetics in this town). The late 70's and early 80's had brought a couple county champions in baseball and one state champion. That state championship team featured a player that was spoken of in hushed tones in my hometown: Mike Laga.
Mike Laga is by far the most famous baseball player to come out of Ramsey. There was a brief time when he was thought of as one of the best prospects in all of baseball. You could just ask Sparky Anderson (except he's dead) and my long time local high school baseball coach and they would tell you all about it. Unfortunately, Mike flamed out and never amounted to much. He had power to spare, but never got that contact or defense thing down. He is known in card circles, sadly, for his awful airbrushed 1987 Topps card (oh the pink! see above) and in baseball circles for hitting the most impressive foul ball in Busch Stadium history. Not a grand legacy...but in my hometown, he is still held in high regard. I got that autograph on the 1986 Donruss card in person at a card show in Ramsey High School sometime in 1987 or 1988 and, I can say from experience, Mike is a very nice guy...the very definition of a hometown hero.
The other three cards on that page are of Frank Eufemia, and 64 silver dollars to you if you'd ever heard of him. He is, though, a bit of a North Jersey legend. He made the big leagues in 1985 (as you can plainly see by his three 1986 cards) with the Twins. He got hurt and bounced around the minor leagues for years trying to get back. Around 1991, he was the star of the local Hackensack Troasts, a semi-pro team. Having family and once even having lived in Hackensack, I knew the team well. On more than a few occasions, I got to play catch and warm up Frank Eufemia, my closest brush with the big leagues. For a 15 year old, this was a pretty big deal (his time with the Troasts led him to being signed by the Mets in 1992, but he never got higher than AAA). I never got up the nerve to ask Frank for his autograph, but he does teach gym a few towns over now, so maybe if I am ever bored, I could go over and make up for that oversight.
Fast forward a decade or so to when I lived in Boston and, as I have described before, I worked in a baseball card store. I actually lived in a suburb of Boston named Somerville. At around the same time, a slugger named Paul Sorrento was bouncing around the American League. He put together a pretty decent big league career all through the 90's. He was even an original Devil Ray:
So, one day I had this big, happy Italian customer in the baseball card store and when he handed me his credit card, I saw his last name was "Sorrento" - for whatever reason, I mention Paul Sorrento and asked if he knew of him. "Know him, he's my cousin!" was the reply and he went on and on about his cousin Pauly. I then had a customer for life and he came in the store all the time. One afternoon, he walked in and introduced me to his cousin, Paul. Both of them were big, goofy, friendly guys. Turns out, I also lived about three blocks from Paul's parents. I ended up becoming pretty decent friends, for a time, with the entire Sorrento clan. Very nice people, definitely hometown guys.
So, those are my hometown people and a couple of interesting little brushes with greatness. As I said, I was not great, or even a very good, baseball player. Luckily, by the late 80's, that didn't matter. Most little league teams got their own homemade baseball cards, myself included:
I think I was 12 in that picture. The other two homemade-type cards are of my cousin (Robbie) and a childhood friend (Jared). They were nice enough to autograph their cards for me. And yes, I signed my own card. Sad, sure, but practicing your autograph is what you do at 12 when you just know, with a few breaks, you'll make the majors. Alas, my cousin and my friend never made the majors, either, but their autographs are priceless in my book. In an odd twist, another one of my cards had an awesome brush with greatness:
It is very hard to tell, since it is blue sharpie on a blue jersey, but there is an autograph on that card, and it isn't mine. My mother was traveling through Baltimore on business one time in the late 80's and there was some kind of meet and greet in her hotel with local famous folks. She saw one of them was a baseball player and, not having anything for him to sign, she pulled out my baseball card from her wallet and had him sign that. She had no idea who he was (my mother is not much of a baseball fan) but that card has a unique place of honor in my collection. The player? Brooks Robinson.