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"No, there's nothing I'd change about growing up, except maybe to have made life a little easier for my mother. But what did I know back then? I was alive and well and playing sports, and that's all that mattered. It seemed weird to me when I finally did have some money. People ask me about the Hall of Fame. Well, it doesn't seem that easy for a defensive player to get in, although I wasn't exactly an automatic out. I had more than 2,000 hits. And I did hit that home run. But I do think the players who could do everything—Mays, Aaron, Musial—are the ones who belong in the Hall. Still, it seems like some one-dimensional offensive players are getting in lately, and if they can, why not a defensive player?
"Anyway, I have one thing. There aren't many people who can say they were the best in the world at something. And I can say that. For a long time there, you see, I was the best there was at making the double play."
Tiltonsville High, a brick building with stone columns at the main entrance, is now called Buckeye South High School, and the teams are called the Rebels, not the Blue Ramblers, as they were in Maz's time. Actually, in Maz's time the school was Warren Consolidated High School, just as Martins Ferry High was really the Charles R. Shreve High School. It's just that nobody ever called either by its right name. They were always just Tiltonsville and Martins Ferry, and forget the fine print. But Buckeye South is a whole new ball game, and from the looks of the trophy cases, it would appear the past there did not begin until the first Buckeye graduating class, in 1973. Maz does not seem to have left much of a mark on the old alma mater.
But he is much in evidence down at Bill's bar, a mile south toward Martins Ferry on Highway 7. Maz is there at the front door, depicted in one of those absurd sleeveless uniforms so much in vogue in the early '60s, and he is inside on the walls, handclapping his way around the bases as the Yankees stand dumbfounded. You can get a drink in Bill's for a buck, and the barbecued spareribs for under five. Del Vecchio's insurance office is just around the corner, next door to a closed-down tanning salon. White-haired and leonine, dressed for business this day in a bright purple sweater and tan trousers, Del Vecchio sits in a cluttered office where he sells services ranging from insurance to hunting and fishing licenses. He has lived in the Valley all his life and wouldn't consider leaving. "There are beautiful people here," he says, "hardworking and honest, the salt of the earth. And as far as business is concerned, I can gauge how the mill down the street is doing by the soot deposits on my doorstep. This morning, for example, I had to sweep a pile of it off. Business is obviously looking up."
At Martins Ferry (or Charles R. Shreve) High, which sits above the town atop Hanover Street, history seems more secure than in Tiltonsville. Dominating a hallway trophy case at Martins Ferry is an enlarged photo of the state championship Purple Rider basketball team of 1941, with its star center, big number 38, Lou Groza, looming large in the front row. Coach Floyd Baker looks on proudly.
Van Horne, who grew up with the Grozas in Martins Ferry, has covered sports in the Valley since 1941. "Oh, we have our horses' asses here, just like any other place," he concedes, "but there's a warmth, a sense of community I haven't found anywhere else. I agree we're not producing star athletes the way we once did, certainly not athletes like the Grozas, the Niekros, Havlicek and Maz, but we still have good high school sports here. It's true that economically we're a little down, but there's hope. We still have the kind of people who pour a lot of energy into whatever they do. That's a quality common to the great athletes we've been talking about. All of them were humble, and hard workers. All of them had a love for their hometowns. None of them has forgotten his roots. I don't buy the theory that these men worked as hard as they did just to escape the mines and the mills. No, they worked hard to become big leaguers, and if that's what you're going to be, you have to get out of here someday."
There is a billboard on Interstate 70 just outside of Bridgeport advising westward travelers that Lansing raised and Bridgeport educated the Niekros, Havlicek and NFL linebacker Bill Jobko. And Bridgeport High has a "Wall of Fame" outside the gym on which hang dramatically enlarged portraits of the same four, as well as of Olympic wrestler Bobby Douglas (now head coach at Arizona State) and Johnny Blatnik, Bridgeport's first big leaguer, a Phillies outfielder for three years in the late '40s. Sadly, there's not much new on that wall, nothing much at all from the last 25 years.
Down the hill from the high school, west a mile or so on Route 40, is Perkins Field, home of Bridgeport's football and baseball teams, where, at one time or another, Lou Groza, the Niekros, Hondo and Maz all played. There is a brick wall at the far south end of the field that had once been the leftfield fence but now, with the construction of new outfield fences, serves mostly as a barrier to the creek beyond. The old fence is a cool 465 feet down the line. "Maz hit a ball that hit those bricks on one hop back when he was playing for Tiltonsville," says Bridgeport baseball coach Steve Wojcik, gazing at the distant wall. "Hit it off Phil Niekro. They're still talking about that around here."
Wojcik, 36, was raised just across the river in Wheeling, so he has a strong feel for Valley tradition, which he conveys eloquently and often to his young charges. Bridgeport was to have played a doubleheader at home this Saturday in mid-April, but a sudden chill that swept through the Valley, dropping temperatures into the high 30's, caused postponement of both games. But some of the Bridgeport players, bundled in sweat clothes, stayed on anyway, to work out informally on the field and in the fieldhouse. Wojcik points to a plaque on the fieldhouse wall, which reads WEIGHT ROOM COMPLIMENTS OF NIEKRO FAMILY, 1983. "Phil and Joe donated $10,000 for that addition to the fieldhouse," he says. "They're a great family, and I never let these kids forget it. At the start of every season, I remind my players of what Phil once said: 'It takes only three hours out of a day to play a baseball game, so that leaves you 21 more to improve yourself in life.' The days are over here in the Valley when a kid could finish school and go right out and get a job in the steel mills or the coal mines, so I tell my students that they better get a college education, because it's a tough world out there."
It is a message his players have taken to heart. "The Niekros have always been kind of my idols," says Kevin Krob, Wojcik's husky senior catcher, inside the fieldhouse. "My grandparents knew their mother real well. We all take pride that they're from the Valley. I get in fights with my girlfriend all the time when I ask her how many famous people have gone to her school. She can't think of any. I know there's been a decline here, and a lot of people have moved out. Still, it's a nice place because everybody knows everybody else. But me, I'm going on to Ohio State."