Thirty years ago, they were big baseball players back at Bethel Park High School. Yet those Boys of Summer don’t sit around trying to recapture a little of the glory of their PIAA championship. Their scrapbooks stowed away in attics, they are not left with sharing boring stories with those who will listen as that fellow does in Bruce Springsteen’s classic “Glory Days.”
Time, indeed, has passed by in a blink of an eye, and they are now grown men in their late 40s, raising families and succeeding in business – all because of those glory days.
“I can’t believe how long ago that was,” says third baseman Chris Futrick on Bethel Park’s 13-6 win over Wilson on June 17, 1988, in the PIAA Class AAA championship game. “A lot of good memories.
Noting that none of the 18-rostered players enjoyed professional baseball careers like their rivals, Taylor Meister, who served as assistant coach says, “I can’t say we didn’t have talent to go to the big leagues. It’s not that they didn’t have the talent like Sean Casey and Kevin Orie, but these kids wanted careers. (In high school), they did what they wanted to do and that was play baseball and then they moved on. They knew where they were going.”
The starters certainly did move on and they have gone places far beyond the diamond. Many are successful businessmen. Some even own their own corporations and companies.
The players acknowledged their key to success in life and work dates back to their glory days of baseball.
“Just the team aspect is a life lesson that helps anybody,” says second baseman Curt White. “It’s something that you use in life every day because even on teams you have people you do not like but a great team is able to work together. Chemistry is why we were successful."
Futrick concurs, agreeing that the one thing, the main thing, the players learned was about being part of a team. “A team is made up of diverse personalities and you get many diverse personalities in the work force. You have to be able to get along with all types in industry in order for your dreams to come true and for your team to succeed. We did that as a team. We worked so well together. We challenged each other and we knew how to get the best out of each other.”
Mike Mistick adds that perseverance is imperative, too. “In baseball and in life, you learn that there will always be ups and downs, wins and losses, but good things happen when you keep on trying.”
The 1988 club certainly kept on trying. They never gave up on their quest for gold. They had come so close the year before.
In 1987, Bethel Park captured its second WPIAL title in three years but frittered away its PIAA title hopes. Leading 5-3 in the top of the seventh inning, they needed only three outs to grab that brass ring. Instead, the Hawks committed enough errors that enabled Penn-Ridge to tie the game and force extra innings. Penn-Ridge won the state championship, 6-5, in nine innings.
“I looked out on the field and there they were all on the ground in their positions. So sad,” says Meister of that scene on Seth Grove Field in Shippensburg in 1987. “I felt so bad. They worked so hard. Then again, you can’t always win. But those kids told me ‘we are coming back next year, coach’ and they did. The next year when we won, I thought about that and what a great comeback to go from such a devastating experience to such exhilaration.”
In between, there was plenty of sweat, as the Hawks toiled to replace critical cogs from that state runner-up unit. Gone were AJ Lutz, who was 13-2 as a pitcher, third baseman Dave Kunkle and outfielders Bobby Beam as well as Mark Thompson. Futrick took over the hot corner, Brian Schmucker, a sophomore, earned the starting spot in left, and Ron Kitchen took control on the mound. A South Park native, he had lived in Maryland but transferred into the school district in the fall. He compiled a 12-0 record, which included the semifinal win, 12-2, against Bald Eagle in five innings, and the championship, in relief of Chip Gaddis.
“Some of our success is due to those other guys on the 1987 team,” White says. “They are a very important part of it even though we were now different kids. It all went back to that loss and what we set out to do. The common thread when I think about the past is the amount of fun we had and how loose we were as a team. It’s not one thing I remember but the excitement and feeling knowing what we accomplished.”
The Class of 1988 was quite accomplished on the diamond. Their lead-up to the state title commenced when they were 15- and 16-year-olds playing Colt League baseball. Under Tom Gasper, Jim Rider and Pat Lutz, Bethel Park won the first of two titles in 1986 when 10 of the players on the roster would go on to play for the 1988 state championship club. Cornell Ghise, John Callery and Mike Futrick coached the team in 1987, the same year the Hawks defeated North Allegheny, 7-1, for the WPIAL title.
“Most of us all played baseball together growing up and that was so important,” says shortstop Chris Buzzi. “We worked so hard. Teamwork and the ability to work with others led to life-long relationships and our success.”
“No. 1 was the chemistry,” White says. “First and foremost, that made us successful. Obviously we had good players, but we were having a blast playing.”
“We were a unique team at a unique time. Carefree and competitive,” Futrick adds. “We were pretty loose and we had a lot of fun. Chemistry and how well we all got along were keys to our success. We played freely and got along. You don’t see that at any stage of a lifetime.”
Not many teams witnessed such novel training tactics. Meister proved to be the engineer behind the successful program developed by Ken Hodgson. The pair coached 20 years together with Hodgson at the helm before retiring after the state title. Five years later, he passed away at age 50.
From 1969 through 1988, Bethel Park rolled up a 329-121 record complete with 11 section titles, nine runner-up banners. The Hawks appeared in six WPIAL title tilts, winning two in 1985 and 1987. They were Western Regional champions three times, yet state champions but once in 1988.
“We had good teams and great kids,” Meister says. “In my mind, they didn’t make them any better than (the 1988 team) but they weren’t any better than other kids. You just knew that you could count on them. My fondest memory is the fact that these kids were so dedicated and determined. They were going to win.”
Meister remembers back in 1969, telling Hodgson that when they were picking teams – and back then 170 kids tried out for baseball – to keep the kids who will listen. “If you have kids who listen, it makes it easier to win, because smart wins over dumb all the time. These kids listened and we kept them. They wanted to be better and they also knew that we had hundreds of others other than them waiting to play.”
So the 1988 Hawks listened and practiced.
Because Bethel Park opted not to have a booster club during the Hodgson era, Meister did most of the fundraising for the team. By selling donuts before school started, Meister raised $12,000 to $15,000 a year. Half of the proceeds benefited student council and the other half went to the baseball program. With the funds, Bethel Park purchased pitching machines and ‘lots of balls’ and ‘nice’ uniforms.
“The only way in my mind to get better was through doing,” Meister says. So he put hockey masks on the players and with two pitching machines cranking out pitches, the players fielded 300 ground balls as well as faced 300 pitches during practice sessions. “The idea was if you get that many catches a day and that many at bats a day, then you are going to get hits and you are going to be able to field. You are going to get better."
In eight playoff games, they pounded the cork out of the ball, averaging almost eight runs; 10 runs in four state playoff games. They pounded out 44 hits in 26 innings. And they did so against the best pitchers.
For example, designated hitter Mike Hahn smashed homers against South Park’s Brian Sackinsky, who went on to Stanford. He had a two-run round triple against Blackhawk, which boasted a pitcher who went on to play Class AAA ball for the Pirates.
In the first-round of the state playoffs, the Hawks put the squeeze on Boston Red Sox draftee Andy Rush. The Somerset senior was 8-0 with 118 strikeouts and a 0.42 ERA before suffering a 5-2 loss at IUP.
And, in the state final, Bethel Park faced Kerry Collins, who was 7-1. Buzzi pounded out a triple and a double, Hahn tagged a two-run triple and Futrick drilled three hits in three plate appearances against the future NFL star and NCAA Hall of Fame quarterback.
“That’s still startling. And we beat (Collins) good,” Buzzi says. “We were a hitting marvel as a team. We took a lot of pride in our offense.”
Buzzi and his buddy, Craig McRoberts, were not surprises at the plate because of the extra effort they put into their hitting. The pair used to go to Cool Springs and hit at the batting cages after practices. The extra practice paid off as both gained all-section acclaim for two years in a row thanks to their acumen at the plate. Buzzi actually led the WPIAL with a .615 average in 1988 while McRoberts batted .339 after a .451 showing as a junior. Schmucker (.581), right fielder Bill Taylor (.332) and catcher Randy Highfield (.361) were also members of BP’s Bash Brothers during that championship season.
The Hawks also had great pitching with Kitchen and Chip Gaddis, who managed a 7-3 record with 61 strikeouts.
“Ron Kitchen was a big force on the team. We don’t win without him. We would have never won a state title. He made us better. We didn’t walk many because our kids had great location,” Meister says. “By the same token, we emphasized to our players that a walk is a run. If you have a great pitcher that is one thing, but we felt we had kids that did the little things.”
Meister noted the things the Hawks did on defense, too. He recalled how Taylor made one of the greatest plays of all time when he caught a ball hit to right field with a guy on third base and “threw a bullet to the plate” to get the out at home for a double play. Ditto for Wilson who made a “fantastic” catch to preserve a playoff win against Bellefonte, which was ranked No. 10 in the nation in 1987.
Reminded of the fact that the victory came a year before the state title, Meister, who is now 80 and spent an additional five seasons as BP manager after Hodgson’s retirement, says that the years blend together but the kids stay the same.
“But is hard to imagine that in all those years there’s been no state championship until this one,” he adds with a touch of awe in his voice. “We’ve had a lot of teams (at Bethel Park) as good as the ’88 club, but that team made it their goal after that loss to win a PIAA title.”
Indeed the Hawks were on a quest. Even a loss, 10-7, against Plum in the WPIAL championship game didn’t deter Bethel Park from its objective.
“We were on a mission because of the disappointment of losing like we did against Penn-Ridge in nine innings the year before in the state final,” Buzzi says. “Our goal was to return to states. We had that goal from that day forward.”
Futrick agrees that losing in the ninth inning the year before “lit a fire” within the group. “There was no way, if we were fortunate to get there again, we were not going to feel that way again,” he says.
After blanking Blackhawk, 10-0, Bethel Park returned to Shippensburg for its second straight Final Four appearance. In the semifinals, the Hawks dispatched Bald Eagle, 12-2. Kitchen tossed a six-hitter while both Hahn and Wilson collected a double and a triple. Schmucker also doubled in the five-inning affair that set the table for the final.
In the showdown against Collins, Gaddis and Kitchen combined for the victory. Though the Hawks took the lead, 3-0, in the second inning, Wilson narrowed the gap to one in the bottom of the frame. The Hawks used four runs in the third, a single tally in the fourth and a five-spot in the fifth to clinch the victory. Taylor and White tagged homers. Highfield and Wilson both banged out three hits while Buzzi, McRoberts and Futrick each added two safeties.
But, it’s the last out of the game that the players recalled. Despair had disappeared; replaced by jubilation.
“It was shear elation,” Futrick says. “When we knew we had won it, that was outstanding.”
“That’s the one thing I remember,” White says. “The excitement and feeling knowing that we accomplished what we had set out to do, even after a year and after that loss.”
It didn’t come easy. Bethel Park won the section title, but with three losses. They managed six, one-run victories over the course of their 28-game season.
“You never know what will happen. If you will get another chance to do it again because baseball is such a difficult game,” Mistick says. “We played against a lot of good players and good teams. When we lost to Plum in the WPIAL championship game, that made it especially harder. You figure if you don’t get a hit in one game or you don’t get that run then you are not going to make it back. It’s all over.”
“When you think about it 30 years later,” Futrick interjects, “you realize how tough it was to get back there and win it. You realize that you have to take the time and energy to celebrate these accomplishments and appreciate how so important the friendships you developed are and the history of it.”
There is only one PIAA baseball banner hanging in the Bethel Park High School gymnasium.
“It was a dream team. The right people at the right time coming together,” Hahn says. “When you consider how long baseball has been around here and how close other teams have come, this one had to have something special.”
Indeed, special players and sincere camaraderie that has spanned three decades.
Here is a look at where some of Bethel Park’s Championship Boys of Summer are today:
“Memories of a lifetime,” Miester says. “I have a million of them thanks to these kids. I had a lot of fun and I hoped they did, too.”