Perhaps Buck Showalter still can smell the kerosene burning on the Point Stadium dirt infield even after 44 years.
It’s been evident during the past week just how much his experience during the 1975 AAABA Tournament meant to Showalter, the former 20-year major league manager and three-time American League Manager of the Year.
Showalter headlined a five-member Class of 2019 inducted into the AAABA Hall of Fame as a crowd of 542 watched at the Pasquerilla Conference Center on Saturday night.
An outfielder who batted .333 for the AAABA Tournament runner-up team from Birmingham, Alabama, Showalter and the other inductees had memorable “Johnstown” stories to tell.
“We played two games outside the stadium. We were just trying to get to Point Stadium,” Showalter said. “I remember we had a lot of trouble with the rain. First time I had ever seen people put kerosene on the infield and burn it off trying to play the game. Helicopter came in. We all got sick from the fumes, but by God we played.”
Rains disrupted the 1975 tournament from the outset.
The official opener between Johnstown and Washington was wiped out by wet weather. In fact, 4.25 inches of rain fell during the first two days of the ‘75 event. From Aug. 10 to 17 that year, 5.44 inches of the wet stuff soaked fields throughout the region, according to the official tournament report.
Contending with rain – as well as the eventual champion Detroit team – were two memories.
Traveling 20 hours in a caravan of vehicles to Johnstown was another.
“Those are huge moments in my life,” Showalter said. “It was the first time I was out of the state I called ‘Lower Alabama, Northwest Florida.’ That was a big deal to me. We had to stop every 50 miles because our general manager’s wife had a real weak bladder.
“We almost didn’t make it.
“Twenty-some hours it took us to get here from Birmingham. Things I remember.”
The theme was echoed throughout an evening that included heartfelt and humorous acceptance speeches, as well as friendly rival banter between inductee Nelson Figueroa and the family of Ron Fiochetta, the Altoona L.S. Fiore manager who was inducted posthumously.
Figueroa is a former major league pitcher who played on the Brooklyn Youth Service League team that beat Fiochetta’s Altoona team on back-to-back days to win the 1994 title.
“Yes, we won it in 1994, but nobody from Brooklyn has won it since,” Figueroa said.
“There is a reason. Because this tournament is special. It is not easy to get here. It’s even harder to win a championship here. So, we take great pride that we were able to do it those two games.
“Earlier in the tournament we got mercy-ruled by (Altoona),” he added.
“We’re in the loser’s bracket, making our way back, fighting and clawing. They just put a whooping on us a few days earlier and here I am pitching. Very early in that game our backs were against the wall, we made five errors and we were down 5-0.”
Figueroa said he called a team meeting and the team responded.
“We banded together and scored a ton of runs,” Figueroa said. “Then the next day is where we kind of kicked it into another gear. But it was that night that I take that lesson with me forever, and I talk to kids and preach that you don’t know how good success is until you’ve had failure.”
Matt Fiochetta and his mother Joy accepted on behalf of Ron Fiochetta.
“He believed in fundamentals, teamwork, sportsmanship and character,” said Matt Fiochetta of his father. “He said things like, ‘Win with class and lose with class.’ He talked about ‘hustle on the field, hustle off.’ He also preached to us, ‘Shave and don’t be a goof.’ He had his little lessons.
“One of the things that he said is, ‘Good things happen to good people.’ Tonight, Dad, good things are happening to you.”
Roger McDowell, a World Series champion and Game 7 hero with the 1986 New York Mets, played for Cincinnati in the 1980 AAABA Tournament and had a win over Detroit on opening day. McDowell was one of the most respected pitching coaches in the majors, working with Showalter with the Orioles through last season.
“I want to thank the AAABA for a lot of things, first and foremost being elected to this hall of fame with these fellow inductees,” McDowell said. “This tournament is all about this community that brings together what people see for one week, but what you work on continuously for the whole year to make this thing go and give opportunities to young men around the United States to come here and play baseball. An opportunity to move on to professional baseball in any capacity. An opportunity to forge relationships and friendships.”
New Orleans’ Kurt Ainsworth was a first-round draft pick and former major league pitcher who went on to be a founder of Marucci Sports, one of the biggest baseball bat manufacturers in the world. Ainsworth couldn’t attend Saturday because he was in China working to supply bats to the professional league in that country.
His former manager Joe Scheuermann accepted on Ainsworth’s behalf. Scheuermann presented each inductee and featured speaker Roberto Clemente Jr. with commemorative bats. Ainsworth, who starred in the 1998 AAABA Tournament, provided a brief video on his memories of the tournament. The video was the first of several played. Former and current major league players and managers as well as Division I college coaches such as West Virginia University’s Randy Mazey provided memories of the tournament.
Among those were memorable clips of San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, former Los Angeles Dodgers World Series winning pitcher Orel Hershiser and Baseball Hall of Famer John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves.
“To all of you in Johnstown, I want to congratulate you on 75 years of baseball,” said Bochy, who played for Washington Stroube Mobil in the 1974 tournament. “I’ll go back to one of my favorite memories in all of my years of baseball. That was playing at the Point and hitting a home run there.
“I’ll never forget it. Thank you for running such a great tournament and a great experience for all those who played there.”
Hershiser is a broadcast color analyst for the Dodgers.
“I want to wish a happy anniversary to the All American Amateur Baseball Association. Happy 75th,” said Hershiser, who played on the 1978 championship team from Detroit. “Here from Dodger Stadium, thinking back on my career and when I was there in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
“What a great experience for me to learn that I could compete with some of the best players in that age group.
“Then also with that challenge to drive me to get better in those places where I thought I was weak. The experience was fantastic. A great part of my baseball growth. I really appreciate the All American Amateur Baseball Association, especially going to Johnstown and that great Memory.”
Smoltz is a FOX Major League Baseball analyst. He played in two tournaments with Lansing, Michigan.
“Hitting two home runs in one game, turning a triple play as a third baseman and having one of the most humiliating outings ever on the mound that actually turned me into a better pitcher,” Smoltz said of his top memories. “I want to thank you Johnstown, Pennsylvania, for putting on a first-class event and sending all kinds of stars to the major leagues.
“Without you I don’t know what a lot of us major league baseball players would have gone through without that experience. Congratulations and keep it going.”
The sentiment was shared throughout the Pasquerilla Conference Center on Saturday and will be a theme throughout fields in the region during the week.