Stories From the Smokey Joe

BALLPARK DAY OF FAITH began with a few friends sitting around a grill before the game, sharing stories from the journey of life. In that same spirit, we present to you "Stories From the Smokey Joe."

 

HEADING HOME

by Sal Bando

I GREW UP in a middle class, blue collar area of Cleveland, OH. Sports was my passion and my parents supported my passion. My parents believed God came first, family next, and then your work interest. Our Catholic Faith was very important in our home and I never questioned my faith or my desire to grow closer to Jesus.

Given the opportunity to attend Arizona State University and play baseball was a dream come true. Going away to school brought me closer to Jesus since I was leaving my close knit family for the first time. I was blessed to do well in college and get drafted to play professional baseball with the Kansas City A’s. My faith continued to play a major role in my life. After two years in the minors, I made it to a major league team and moved to Oakland, California. We were a young team with talent. As we improved, we became a great team winning three straight World Series in 1972, 1973, and 1974. I was Captain on those teams and a key player.

 

In my mind, I continued to believe in God first, then family, and profession but my actions didn’t reflect my beliefs. My focus and attention were on my work and being successful. I justified this by saying God had given me this talent and that I had to perform the best I could. My priorities were now baseball, baseball, and baseball. My work had now become my god. But my wife, also from a strong Catholic Family, tried to point out my lack of attention to the family and our God. She deeply wanted me to be more present as a husband and father.

 

After three great years as champions, my season in 1975 became a struggle for me. I asked God where he was. I prayed, worked harder, and made changes, but nothing worked. I was moved in the batting order from third to seventh. What a blow to my ego. Yet the team continued to win, even without my contributions. That late August, home alone, frustrated and lost, I got down on my knees and asked God to forgive me for making baseball my god. I made a commitment to God he would be number one in my life. I promised him that my wife would have her husband back and my children would have their father back.

Recommitting my life to Christ brought me back to my family. I now was present mentally not just physically. I wasn't thinking about the next game or the last game. My mood wasn't based on my performance or if we won or lost.  I was all in, enjoying my family God had blessed me with.

I'm grateful that God was so patient with me and sent me that wake up call. Looking back, I know that Jesus was there at my lowest point, waiting to bring me back to him and to my family. Since that day, I have continued to grow in my faith and continue to be blessed as a husband, father, and grandfather.


GOING THE DISTANCE OF LIFE

by Hectór Colón

I GREW UP near the south side of Milwaukee. My parents came here from Puerto Rico for opportunity, specifically in the manufacturing industry. They worked very hard while my grandmother helped raise my sister and me.

When my parents first moved to the near south-side, we were only one of two Latino families in the neighborhood. I remember when I was nine years old another kid from the neighborhood started bullying me, calling me derogatory ethnic names and gave me a bloody nose. When I showed my father my bloody nose he said, “Next time you can call him some names back and I am going to teach you how to box so that you learn how to defend yourself.”  The next day, he took me to the United Community Center to learn how to box. I wasn’t interested in boxing at the time (I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps to play baseball.). But as I started boxing, the coach there told my father, “Your son is going to be a champion.”

I trained for my first boxing match and lost. I wanted to give up but my father and coach encouraged me not to. I trained for my second match and lost again. Still, they encouraged me continue.

 

My mother and father divorced when I was 12. Things were a lot different after my father left. I felt alone- even abandoned. My mother worked two and three jobs to support the family. The financial burden and helping to care for my sister who had behavioral health issues, made me grow up fast. The neighborhood was plagued with drugs, gangs and other negative activity. Most statistics would predict me falling through the criminal justice system the way many of the kids in the neighborhood did at the time. I had to learn street smarts and how to overcome challenges at a very young age.

 

I tried to visit my father every other year in Puerto Rico to maintain a relationship but the long distance was a challenge. It wasn’t the same. I yearned for the relationship we had when he was in Milwaukee. The emptiness I felt, however, strengthened my will to succeed. I focused on boxing.    

Through this time, I continued to box.  I became a seven-time national champion in seven different weight classes traveling all over the world with the United States National Boxing team. In 1992, I was favored to go to the Olympics but lost to Jessie Briseno whom I knocked out the following year in 1993 for the US Welterweight Championship.

Losing in the 1992 Olympic trials was devastating for me.  My hopes and dreams were  to win a gold medal and turn professional.  Once I lost, I was no longer hearing from the big promoters that I once heard from.  That’s when I started to understand what it would be like to pursue a career in boxing; when you are not on top, things will change.  Looking back, I realize that it was during this point when God came after me. He wanted to bring me closer to him, to give me a deeper joy and love than I ever had. During this time, I examined my career, friendships and relationship with my father.  Soon, I met my wife. In God and in my beloved wife, I have found an even deeper joy than the world has ever offered me.

I am so grateful that my father got me involved in sports, specifically boxing which helped me set goals, focus and stay on a healthy path in life. The dedication, determination, and discipline I learned from boxing has given me a platform to excel as a father, husband, and professional.

When I was younger, I looked for my father. When I got older and started a family with my wife, my father wanted to be closer to us. My father and I had many heart to heart talks which increased understanding, healing and rebuilt our relationship.  We see each other more frequently now and the relationship is healthy and strong.  

Mentors like my boxing coach Israel Acosta, Ricardo Diaz from the United Community Center, and Father Rick from St. Patrick’s Parish took me under their wing and pushed me to work harder than I imagined I could.

Today, I reflect on where I came from and the steps I have taken to get where I am. Deep faith in God and my commitment to live by my faith have filled my life with miracles - the healed relationship with my father, the achievements from boxing, a family that gives me tremendous strength and the chance to serve my community every day as a leader doing the right thing for some of our most disadvantaged citizens. Through God’s loving plan, there is clarity to my life and a passion that motivates me every day to do more.


DRINK FOR THE THIRSTY 

by Bob Simi

I WAS A YOUNG 2ND and then 1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps when I was ordered to deploy on a ship to the Mediterranean Sea as a force in readiness before, during, and right after the 1st Gulf War in the early 1990’s.  Each deployment was about six months in length.  I was the combat engineer officer for a Marine Expeditionary Unit or MEU.  A MEU is a forward deployed rapid response unit that is essentially ready for combat at a moment’s notice.  There are about 2,200 Marines as part of a MEU and we live and work on three or four U.S. Navy amphibious warships for these six months.  They often refer to these units as “the President’s 911 force” as these units can respond with remarkable speed and force with just a call from our commanding generals and civilian leaders. This meant that at the ripe young age of 25, I was responsible for preparing 40 Marines and millions of dollars of weapons and equipment for combat should we receive that “911” call.

Deploying to the Mediterranean theatre (or more often referred to as “the MED”) meant our ship had scheduled stops to countries all around the Mediterranean Sea to include countries in Europe, Northern Africa, and the Middle East. The ships would either have a scheduled training port where our focus was military exercises, many times with host nations like Israel, France or Turkey. We refer to these ports-of-call as “working or training ports.” However, given the intense lifestyle associated with being forward deployed in the Marine Corps and Navy sometimes or commanding officers would declare a “liberty port,” meaning the primary purpose would be for the Marines and sailors to get some rejuvenating downtime.  On an average six month deployment a ship may pull into 15 – 20 different working or liberty ports around the MED. I always said that a MED deployment was even better than going on vacation to Disney’s Epcot because you didn’t have to even walk to the next country. The ship would leave its port in Greece and two days later there you were pulling into a port in Italy and there we were walking off the gangplank to the pier.  

On my first six month deployment one thing always bothered me when liberty was sounded after we pulled into a particular port. The local vendors would bring their food and beverage carts to the piers to offer the Marines and sailors some of the local fare. That in itself didn’t bother me. What bothered me was that they often charged $2.50 or more for a beer. Understand that alcohol is forbidden on U.S. Navy ships. So we could be underway (i.e. not in port) for sometimes 30 days or more without the ability to have a thirst quenching cold beer. So when the Marines and sailors would finally get into port, they often and naturally wanted a nice cold beer as their first purchase off the boat.

 
 

So, I set about figuring out how to start my own bar. Recall that being a bar owner is at this time not my primary duty. I still have the mission and task of preparing Marines for combat while forward deployed.  I had no formal business training (I was a political science major) and always kind of hated accounting. But, hey, how hard could it be?  All I knew about having a successful business was that I needed to have more money coming in than going out.  Marketing and sales? I was selling beer to a bunch of Marines and sailors – usually thirsty ones – sometimes after not having a beer for over a month.  So how hard could that be?  My Marines volunteered to run the stand, taking turns each night – so my labor costs were non-existent. To top it off, the entire purpose was to have the Marines and sailors only pay a dollar for a beer so I was “coming to market” with my product priced 50%, 100%, sometimes 200% lower than my competitors.  And to top that off, my bar (really it was more like a beer stand) was painted camouflage

 

So came the first night of operation. The port was Marseille, France. I got my Marines all set up with 80 cases of beer and some soda and lots of ice and a walk-in portable cooler.  We built what looked like a sophisticated Lucy Lemonade stand out of plywood and two x fours.  My only instructions to my Marines was to not drink all of the beers themselves and they were to charge only $1 for a beer and only 50 cents for a soda.  Even Marines can do that math, I thought.  I went back up to the ship, intentionally avoiding going on liberty that night in case something went wrong on our first night of operation. At 2100 (that’s 9:00 p.m. for you civilians) I was in my rack (that’s what the Navy calls a bed – also for you civilians) and another Marine officer knocked on my stateroom door and asked me to come outside and see what was going on next to the ship right on the pier.  Even though this officer was calm and even somewhat upbeat, my mind immediately thought of the worst case scenarios.  “Is there a fight at the bar?  Did someone somehow get hurt?”

“No, no,” he said. “Everything’s fine. As a matter of fact it is great. But you gotta see this. Just come outside and look over the side of the ship and check out what you started.”  

So I got up, got dressed, went outside and looked over the side of the ship.  The scene that I saw that moment almost knocked me off my feet and is still to this day etched in my mind:  With the beer stand up and operating, some sailors took it upon themselves to start a grill and an impromptu hot dog and burger stand. Another enterprising sailor brought out some speakers and DJ equipment and started an impromptu dance floor on the pier and there were 75-100 people dancing. And to top off the scene there was a crowd of people on all three sides of the beer stand, four or five deep, waiting to get their $1 beer or 50 cent soda.  All I could think of was, “if we are in port for another eight days, I didn’t order enough beer.”

Needless to say, my worries of “breaking even” financially quickly faded. In fact, my new worry became the exactly the opposite – we were making too much money.  In fact, we were making thousands of dollars every port-of-call.  My problem then became what to do with all of this money.  Then another idea came to me.  We could put all of this “excess” beer money toward subsidizing the cost of the tours.  These tours were professionally guided one, two and three-day tours designed to help the Marines and sailors see the historic and cultural sites near each port-of-call. They were pretty awesome tours to see the sites and have lodging and food for rare trips to exotic places like Pompeii, Jerusalem, Istanbul, Corinth, The French Alps, etc. – The downside is that they were expensive and in many cases cost prohibitive for these young Marines and sailors.  Enter beer money.  What we did was take the excess “profit” made from selling beer and then put it back into subsidizing the tours.  As an example, I specifically recall a three-day tour Rome originally costing $260.  Only a few higher-ranking officers could afford such a trip.  But we literally had so much money from selling beer that we subsidized the cost of that tour to only $60.  That is right, food, two nights lodging and a professionally guided tour of Rome for only $60.  I was particularly proud of this “reallocation of funds,” because what it meant was that these sailors and Marines got to take full advantage of being overseas to see sites that they would probably never again have the opportunity to do.  

Why do I share this story with you?

Primarily because some of my friends asked me to. They believe that my coming up with idea and selling beer to American Servicemen for a dollar was an act of compassion. It’s kind of like what the Church calls “the Corporal Works of Mercy”: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, burying the dead, sheltering the traveler, comforting the sick, and freeing the imprisoned. Maybe we could add an eighth Work of Mercy and call it: “providing Marines and sailors a beer for a dollar?” Think the Pope would go for that?

They believe the same of my taking the profits from the beer stand and putting them toward subsidizing the tours for those Marines and sailors. I never really thought of it in that light before, but now that I am forced to reflect more deeply about it while writing this, I guess there is something to that. Throughout my life, I’ve always had a deep desire to bring people together in an environment where they are comfortable going a little bit deeper.  

I guess in many ways there also may be a parallel to why we started this Ballpark Day of Faith initiative. Just like inviting Marines and sailors to the bar on the pier in different Mediterranean ports – we wanted to invite you to our party here in the parking lot of Miller Park.

Through the generosity of our gracious sponsors, we are able to bring the cost down to be very affordable day at the game for a family. I suppose for all of us that have put our time and resources into hosting this event, it is indeed somewhat of an act of compassion: We know our own thirst for joy, for friendship, and for beauty. That makes us want to invite as many others as we possibly can to the table.

I guess in many ways there also may be a parallel to why we started this Ballpark Day of Faith initiative. Just like inviting Marines and sailors to the bar on the pier in different Mediterranean ports – we wanted to invite you to our party here in the parking lot of Miller Park.

Through the generosity of our gracious sponsors, we are able to bring the cost down to be very affordable day at the game for a family. I suppose for all of us that have put our time and resources into hosting this event, it is indeed somewhat of an act of compassion: We know our own thirst for joy, for friendship, and for beauty. That makes us want to invite as many others as we possibly can to the table.

So ... if you had fun and enjoyed the day, then next year please do invite someone else to the party.

And my wish for you, is that you too will find drink for your thirst.