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Thrive at the game of life

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TOOELE — To paraphrase Ol' Blue Eyes, there used to not be a ballpark right here.

That was until Angelo Cerroni started doing things "my way."

Just as the godfather of local amateur baseball pretty much always has done in more than a half century of devotion to the game he fell in love with as a kid nicknamed "Snake," the sweetest-fielding first baseman anyone ever saw at Tooele High School.

"My job is to teach kids the game of baseball," said Cerroni, 72 and still going stronger than some men half his age as manager/coach/groundskeeper/major dad and major-domo of the town's American Legion team.

Cerroni says coaching ball is his job the way Columbus might have said he was meant to seek new worlds.

Baseball has been a mission as much as a game for Cerroni.

"I don't do it for the prestige. I do it for satisfaction. You get that when you see kids take something from the game and become successful in life," he said.

But it took a lot of vision and push from a man many call "the most stubborn man I know," someone willing to move the Oquirrhs if he had to in order to bring America's pastime to the exceptional level it has achieved here in the west desert.

It took Cerroni building beautiful Dow James Memorial Park, home of the Tooele Legion team, at times with his own bare hands out of what once was a landfill.

"You came down here and what you saw was Model-Ts and rats and bottles buried in a hole," Cerroni said of the House That Angelo Built, beginning in the early '70s.

Cerroni had helped build the old Babe Ruth park here, but that became so popular the Legion team was reduced to practicing Saturdays only and playing all games on the road.

So Cerroni went to the City Council in the '60s looking for a Legion field. He had a little chin music, as they say in baseball now and then, with a lady who seemed to think the game was a waste of time and money.

"If you want property so bad, go down to the city dump," she said, or words Cerroni remembers to that effect.

To which Cerroni said, "Absolutely, we will do that."

He made scant headway with an old D-8 Cat the city had shoved on the garbage. He got some Tooele County equipment involved and men from the nearby arms depot who, like him, were part of the Tooele Oldtimers Athletic Association, to move earth and its not-so-heavenly contents.

But it took swinging a deal with a developer who brought in some heavy-duty machinery in exchange for dirt the builder needed for roads in his subdivision, to get the site ballpark-worthy.

Farm and Home Savings donated 200 pounds of seed and Cerroni sowed four acres himself, walking with a hand-cranked spreader. He dragged the field in an old 1928 Model A truck. Then he turned on the sprinkler system he'd installed earlier.

"I can't really tell you the story of how we got that," Cerroni said with a cryptic wink.

Hey, if the godfather says do it, it gets done — isn't that the story?

"I just wanted to build a ballpark that would be recognized as the best in the state of Utah and the very highest level for kids to play at this stage of their development," said Cerroni, who learned what state-of-the-art meant by long affiliation with major-league organizations as a scout and instructor.

Having made professional acquaintance with names familiar to those in the know about The Show — Red Sox manager Jimy Williams is a longtime buddy — Cerroni remains a respected fixture at the Southwest Professional Baseball School.

Situated in Mesa, Ariz., the school's teaching staff is chock-full of veteran major-league instructors. A brochure from the 1998-99 sessions at Gene Autry Field lists representatives from the San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, Milwaukee Brewers, San Diego Padres, Oakland Athletics, Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros, Pittsburgh Pirates, Los Angeles Dodgers and Texas Rangers.

Sixth on the alphabetical list in the pamphlet is "Cerroni. Hitting. Anaheim Angels."

"It's a tremendous school, but for the live-in guys who're there for the session, Ange is the guy they want to stay with," said Jeremy Harris, a former Tooele mainstay, now an assistant pitching coach. "Everyone knows how long he's been around the game. He's got all the old stories. He is the godfather of the camp."

Cerroni has sent countless kids to college and helped others get pro contracts. He's done it the old-fashioned way. He's made them earn it by learning the game "my way."

"It took a couple weeks to find out I was going to play the game the way he said," said right fielder Anthony Warren, 17, Erda. "I'm stubborn. I found out he's more stubborn than I am."

The team does everything in a precision manner, full of big-league air and flair.

Seconds before game time, Cerroni, who seems to see everything on the field at the same time, notices a stray ball near the backstop.

"Somebody," he says, pointing.

A player hops-to. Bags it.

Gloves must be lined up along the dugout properly. Infielders by the midpost. Outfielders at one end. That way, if a guy's on base at the end of an inning, a teammate knows where to find his glove and carry it out to him as Tooele takes the field.

Such obedience to ancient rituals of the game means a lot to Cerroni.

"There's a right way and wrong way to go about the game," he said.

Scarcely a young man comes through who doesn't learn to appreciate that.

"He's strict, but he's strict on the right things," said third baseman Bart King, 17, Tooele. "He's the best guy you could have to teach you the fundamentals of the game."

"He's been up there in this game, all the way, so you listen," said outfielder Kevan Blackburn, 18, Stansbury Park. "With Snake, there's never a question. He tells you flat-out, and that's how it is."

Before a recent game against the Cottonwood Colts, the entire team stands just outside the dugout, as is the custom every contest, and watches the other team take infield and outfield drills.

"Looking for tendencies," assistant coach Drew Hall said. "How's the center fielder's arm? Can we take the extra base? How's the pitcher warming up?

"Look, he's throwing the '2' (curve ball) a lot, down and in the dirt. The '1' (fastball) is sailing high and wide."

Sure enough, keying on the pitcher's tendencies, Tooele jumps him with an offensive onslaught for a 9-0 first-inning lead.

"Our system is Ange all the way," Hall said. "He's an endangered species, you know what I mean? When he goes, you wonder if a lot of this gets passed along.

"Without him, it's all a mirage here. We're all just absorbing him. He can be overbearing, but there's no chance for anyone to get a big head on this team. He'll take you down in two seconds."

"He's tough, but he's their best friend. There isn't anything he wouldn't do for them. I know. I'm 49, and I've been with him 49 years," said assistant coach Paul Busico, whose dad, Joe, and Snake were childhood teammates.

"After every practice you get 'Ange's' gospel.' We practice three hours and he talks for half an hour," said Jeremy Harris. "It's often funny, but it's also about responsibility and commitment and work ethic and being a better person."

"It's a different breed coming up today," Cerroni said. "Kids now have all the Tonka toys and the leisure life. I've changed with them, but I'm still old-school, and I think they like it that way."

"You definitely listen to the way he relates baseball to life. You know he grew up back when baseball was just a buncha guys playing in the dirt. I wish I coulda seen 'em," said pitching coach Charlie Lawless, a 24-2 pitcher when Tooele won its 1996 state title.

Cerroni is only relaying what his dad, Tony, taught him after bringing his family to this valley in 1909 and working as a furnaceman in the local smelter.

"When you're raised in the immigrant life, you have to work hard because nobody's gonna give you anything," said Cerroni.

One person who has to give him something — her blessing for being away from home so much with the kids — is Angelo's wife, Dottie.

"We've been married 37 years, but we were together seven before that. It took us that long to quit fightin'. She's Irish and I'm Italian," Cerroni said, laughing.

"The woman's a saint because, look at him, he lives and dies on every pitch up here," said Charlie Lee, who played high school football, basketball and baseball with Cerroni before leaving and building a doughnut empire in Arizona.

Lee happened to be in Salt Lake City and came to Tooele — "jeez, for the first time in more than 50 years."

The guy he had to see was Angelo Cerroni, a kid he once fought in kids' games as cross-town rivals.

"The whiteys were on the north end, the Italians in 'new town.' We'd play football against each other — straight tackle in the dirt," Lee said. "Ange was a toughie and a competitor, but always with the smile. Then we got to be teammates in high school."

He looked out at a man who seems to be beating age around the bases by a wide margin.

"Look at him. No wrinkles, no crow's feet, still out there bouncin' around. He's always been on the move, always doing something for someone else, and when he's your friend, he's your friend for life.

"You know the Reader's Digest thing, 'The Most Unforgettable Person I Ever Met'?

"That's Angelo Cerroni for me and for a lot of people."

E-mail: gtwyman@desnews.com