By Marc Sgrignoli
Special to the Tribune
In lawn chairs, shielded from the sun by the gentle sway of maple trees at David E. Hastings Baseball Stadium at Exhibition Park, sit three best friends.
Every day at 11 a.m., former Guelph Royals players, Brad DiCarlo (1972–1983) and Paul Ante (1973–1994) meet their good friend, and fellow senior Intercounty baseball fan, Ralph Shapiro, to talk about the history of baseball in Guelph, player development, and their grand vision for the stadium they love.
DiCarlo, 63, relaxes cross-legged in his vintage 1970s lawn chair – the plaid strapped kind that would probably sell quickly in a local consignment store.
He drinks a coffee, while breaking off bite-sized bits of a double chocolate chip cookie.
“I’ve lived around here my whole life. Before we (referring to his wife Jeannetta) bought the house on Robertson, we lived on Home Street. I love the proximity to the park,” says DiCarlo.
Ante, 59, is a member of the current Royals coaching staff, who finished their 2014 season by losing to the Brantford Red Sox in the first round of the playoffs.
He is tall, and accustomed to removing his favourite Guelph Minor Baseball Association cap before ducking low door frames.
He relaxes with the group, diet cola in hand.
“Our gatherings started in the winter of 2007, at a local coffee shop. I just had hip replacement surgery, and Brad asked if I wanted to get together for coffee once a week. Now we’re at the park from April to October. We sit in the grandstands each day from early spring, before taking up residence down the right field line when the weather gets good,” says Ante.
Shapiro, 62, is a former University of Guelph varsity football star, and a valued member of this late morning social club.
Before moving to Guelph in 2003, he had been driving from Cambridge to watch Royals games since the mid 1990’s.
He’s the group techie.
The tablet computer he carries is DiCarlo’s and Ante’s best hope of connecting to any type of Internet-based content, which Shapiro uses to deliver Intercounty baseball updates not available to them otherwise.
“I sat on the wooden bleachers beside the visitors dugout for 10 years, getting to know Paul, Brad, and Baseball In Guelph founder Bill Craven in the process,” says Shapiro.
With a good-hearted smile and a wink, Ante calls the people who sit there, “the cognoscenti of the right side bleachers,” a term of endearment, which makes everyone laugh.
The three became, and have remained friends, because of their connection to the stadium.
“I fell in love with this park immediately,” remarks Shapiro.
“We’re the only players from the old days who continue to come to the games here,” says Ante.
“Passion for the game, that’s the bottom line. Passion for the game, passion for the park,” DiCarlo adds.
Ante has been with the Royals for the past 41 seasons – as both a player and coach.
In the last couple of years, he has also helped coach the Guelph AA Pee Wee boys All-Star, and Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic high school baseball teams.
“I guess you’ve got a Baptist helping the Roman Catholics now,” says Ante, to Dicarlo, who recently retired from the Wellington Catholic District School Board custodial staff.
DiCarlo is no slouch in the coaching department himself.
“I’m not bragging here, but I think I’m the only guy in Guelph who’s coached teams from T-ball right up to the Royals – Tyke, Pee Wee, Bantam, Midget, Juvenile, and Junior included,” says Dicarlo.
He is not currently coaching, but would like to.
“I’d like to coach 10 year olds. It’s their first year of pitching. That’s when they’re introduced to real baseball. They aren’t hitting off a machine. They have to learn stuff,” says DiCarlo.
The topic of discussion goes down one of the groups customary eddies when Shapiro says, “Ten’s early, I knew nothing when I was 10. I got cut from my house league baseball team at 10, and 11, but made it at 12.”
It’s hard to tell if Shapiro is saying this in jest, resentment, or some combination of both.
“Ten’s early, but we got some talented 10 years olds in the city,” says DiCarlo.
“I knew nothing at 10,” Shapiro reiterates.
“That’s why you need good coaches to show them!” says Ante.
It takes a while for them to get back on track, but when they do, the discourse moves in the direction of a favourite topic – park improvement.
The three have a lottery dream, in which they use their newly acquired wealth for the benefit of those who come to play and watch baseball at Hastings Stadium.
City of Guelph park staff who work at the diamond refer to them as “The Three Wise Men,” because of the breadth of their knowledge concerning the field, and its upkeep.
“I’d put up a new fence in the outfield, make it closer to major league dimensions, with some nooks and crannies out there, blow up the bunker-style dugouts, and replace them with actual dugouts,” says DiCarlo.
“Ya, with three steps down, so people sitting behind them can see. Just like the big leagues,” adds Ante.
“I’d turn it into a nice little complex. I’d build the grandstand out over the dugouts, horseshoe style, and put in a good concession booth for Ralph,” says DiCarlo.
It’s apparent that this fantasy is well rehearsed.
“Behind the new dugouts, you would have the clubhouse covered by 12 to 15 rows of seating. The outfield would never be 397 and 403 in the left center and right center power allies again – 380 to 385 at the most. Home plate would also be moved back 10 feet toward the grandstand, so no more cheap home runs could ever again lazily sail over the 291 and 297 signs down each line,” Ante asserts with carefully measured confidence.
In a rush of excitement, DiCarlo turns to Ante and Shapiro – a light goes off in his eyes – and says,
“Sorry to interrupt, but I forgot one thing. We need a Jumbotron. Wouldn’t that be something! We would have the only one around, and visitors would be amazed.”
Then, in near perfect unison, Ante, DiCarlo and Shapiro turn to one another and agree: “The lawn chair seating on the sidelines has to stay. That’s what really makes this park special.”