“Wonderful,” exclaimed Bernice Weiss
“Awesome,” enthused Alyssa Sodini while her older sister, Layla added, “very cool.”
“Holy cow. Amazing,” emphasized Frank Sunday. “I’d give it 100%.”
Not since saving the seventh game of the 1979 World Series and clinching the championship for the Pittsburgh Pirates has Kent Tekulve received such rave reviews. The submarine-throwing pitcher was the keynote speaker at Major League Memories — an event held at Country Meadows of South Hills in South Fayette.
In conjunction with the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Pennsylvania Chapter and the Pittsburgh Pirates, the engagement for people living with the disease or dementia was designed to connect those in the community with MLB teams through the joy of shared nostalgia.
“We love social engagement programs like this,” said Alyssa Marsico from AAGPC. “Any time we can get anybody with Alzheimer’s and related dementia out and interacting with other people is a win. We have found that through the Major League Memories program that people remember their baseball.”
At Country Meadow, they don’t just remember their baseball, they love their baseball.
In fact, residents schedule their lives around the Pirates.
“Everybody here watches baseball all the time,” Marsico said. “They have every Pirates game on.”
Jessica Ciancio concurred.
“The Pirates are an essential part of our community and the activities here. It’s a religion,” said the executive director of member’s support program. “It’s always being played on the televisions here. Every game,” emphasized the Upper St. Clair native. “The residents are always wearing their Pirates’ gear.
“Baseball is just something they grew up on,” Ciancio added. “So, obviously, they were super excited about this event.”
The residents were so enthused they assisted with all the details. They made centerpieces for the tables set up outside under a white tent festooned with black and gold as well as purple and white balloons, signature colors for the Pirates and Alzheimer’s.
The tables also held mason jars containing baseball favorites such as peanuts, popcorn and miniature Baby Ruth bars. Bobbleheads of players from every era, as well as a Charlie Brown figurine, accompanied the arrangements as well as purple and white pom-pom shakers, “Raise The Jolly Roger” towels and MLB paper lanterns.
Crackers Jacks abounded and the scent of hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill wafted through the air as residents engaged in a sing-a-long during a seventh-inning stretch in the program.
Ciancio and Marsico said the setting and environment stimulated the residents’ consciousness. It is one reason why baseball is an agent for those with memory issues.
“Any type of activity that keeps them engaged is a vehicle to help people with Alzheimer’s. So anything that can bring back that memory. Whether it’s music. Whether it’s sports, a photograph. Kent talking about his experiences as a Pirate. Anything could trigger that memory,” Marsico said.
Ciancio agreed. She said hearing “Take Me Out To the Ballgame,” eating the “Cracker Jack” and being in that environment brought back nostalgia. Seeing and hearing Tekulve talk about his career, which included 16 years in the big leagues and 722 games with the Pirates, put the residents back in the bleacher seats at Forbes Field and Three Rivers Stadium.
“This is what they grew up on and some of their favorite memories involve baseball so this event was wonderful because it brought back that nostalgia and the adrenaline of being at the games. Those memories that were part of the best times of their lives they will remember. Absolutely, yes,” she said.
When Ciancio showed a laminated copy of the front page of the Oct. 14, 1960, edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mr. Sunday returned to his youth as he recalled where and what he was doing that autumn afternoon only hours earlier.
“I was there,” Sunday exclaimed as he perused the paper. “My best memory is being at Forbes Field when (Bill) Mazeroski hit that home run to win the World Series.”
The reflections continued.
“When Ralph Kiner was playing for the Pirates, we went to every game. I got in free. I had a baseball cap on. It said the Pirates. I went with my uncle. He was a big fan. Kiner and Hank Greenberg were my favorites,” Sunday said.
While residents mentioned Josh Bell and Starling Marte as their current favorites, Tekulve was the man of the hour this day at Country Meadows.
“He was great,” Weiss said. “He presented himself just beautifully.”
Teke to the rescue
After the residents viewed a highlight video, Tekulve took the stage to discuss a career that spanned 16 years in the big leagues with three different teams –the Pirates, Phillies and Cincinnati Reds.
Tekulve owned a 94-90 lifetime record with a 2.85 ERA and 184 saves. His 722 games pitched as a member of the Pirates are the second most in club history. Tekulve led the National League in games pitched in 1978, 1979, 1982 and 1987. His three saves for the Pirates in the 1979 World Series against Baltimore helped preserve the World Series championship.
Tekulve quizzed the residents, asking about their favorite things. When they responded home runs, he reminded them he was a pitcher and didn’t care too much for the long ball.
He inquired about their heroes.
While many answered Roberto Clemente, Tekulve indicated Willie Stargell was among his favorites particularly because of his way of saying ‘thank you’ to somebody. Rather than signing autographs, which Stargell believed was not “personal” he handed stars. He did this, too, to the players, awarding them “Stargell Stars” for their outstanding contributions in games.
Tekulve received them for wins and saves. He received an extra one once for playing outfield in a game. In 1979, Tekulve had so many stars that he ended up with two rows all the way around his baseball cap. He noted after the World Series and after picking up his 45th star, the people from the Hall of Fame wanted two things to display at Cooperstown – the Stargell’s home run ball that clinched the seventh game and Tekulve’s hat.
“When you donate things to Cooperstown, you never get them back,” Tekulve said with a sigh, “but that hat has been on display for 40 years in the same place. I am so proud of that. I’m proud of what we were able to do. I had the good fortune to go out and play baseball with a bunch of great friends and I was lucky enough, too, that my friends were great baseball players. Obviously, that is why we won.”
The Pirates won their last World Series in 1979 in part because of Tekulve’s pitching. He shared that as his secret to success.
Tekulve said his unusual style of pitching sidearm was a necessity rather than a novel way to stand out among the crowd.
While according to doctors, his throwing motion put less strain on his arm than throwing overhand, he stressed to the crowd, that is not why he threw that way. He also noted his young fans wanted to throw like he did and he cautioned them not to do it.
“I don’t do it because I think it’s cool,” he said. “It’s because that is how I could get people out. You throw the ball the way you can get people out.
“If you are a pitcher and if you can figure out how to get people out on a regular basis, you are going to get to play a long time and they are going to hand you some nice size checks,” he added. “If you can’t, you are not going to play very long and not get those nice checks.”
While Tekulve continued to share his baseball memories by conducting a discussion of the memorabilia he brought along as well as answering further questions about his career, he had achieved his goal for the event.
While he professed not to be a professional, he felt that for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia and memory issues, “anything that you can do, that can stimulate remembering things from the past has to be good. To be able to come here and present something that helps them remember and gets them talking about has to be a good thing.
I don’t know if I made anybody’s life better today,” he added. “Hopefully, I made them smile.”
Kathy Sodini of South Fayette did smile and that made her daughter, Jill, cry. At 69, Kathy is at the end-stages of the disease and under hospice care. She has lived with Alzheimer’s since her husband passed away from a heart attack at 58 nearly a decade ago.
Jill noted she looked forward to the event at Country Meadows. She felt it was something her whole family could connect to because baseball has been a big part of her mother’s past. Her parents took she and her brother, Michael, to games. Jill brought her two daughters, Alyssa, 10, and Layla, 12, to the event as well.
“An event like this helped us all but it was something I could bring up things about with my mother and say, ‘hey Mom, remember when we used to go to Pirates games.’ She would smile and say ‘yeah’ and this brought that back. I am sure they were just fleeting thoughts but little memories that made her smile, made her happy,” Jill said.