A son shares his father’s story
Editor’s Note: Matthew Ronconi heard this story from his father over and over while growing up. One day he asked his father to write it down “so I could always have it to read.” This is what Rob Ronconi wrote to his son. It has been modified for its length and other considerations.)
This is how I remember it. It was in 1964; I was nine years old and played in the San Bruno Youth Baseball League. I played on a team called Pacific Coast Blueprints. We wore gray uniforms with blue trimmings and hats, of course. The blue hat featured a white disc on the front with the letters PCB embroidered on it. (That would never happen today because we now know that PCBs are highly toxic and carcinogenic elements that have been found in electrical transformers. Not a good name for a team now.) We had the old school calipers. with stripes that have always managed to be around our ankles in the third round or earlier.
I used an old “Keystone” glove that was stiff as cardboard and sold for around five dollars at the time. Of course, my dad and I bought it from Ellingson’s Sporting Goods on San Mateo Avenue in San Bruno. I was mainly a catcher or an outfielder on this team.
It’s quite spontaneous that I even became a Blueprint. My best friend at the time, Tom Koski, said one Saturday, “Hey they’re doing baseball tryouts at the park, wanna go?” It wasn’t like I couldn’t wait to be there or signed up ahead of time or even knew the baseball league existed, I just said OK and followed Tom at the park. I’m not sure I would have ever played organized baseball without Tom. I owe him a lot.
Our trainer was a very tough Cuban named Cy Castro. He was my first coach and he had a huge impact on me. It ignited my love for baseball. He taught me how to play baseball and deal with it when things weren’t like me. It was about playing hard, doing your best and being a good sport. He had such an impact on me that when he passed away shortly after that year; I think from some form of cancer I was crushed.
My mother, Dorothy, your grandmother, was diagnosed with breast cancer about two years before the events of this story. For two years, I had witnessed my mother’s slow decimation as the cancer set in. She had gone from being a very strong person to times when she was unable to get out of bed. Despite the fact that they had detected the cancer as early as possible, at that time they had very little treatment.
Dorothy Ronconi (courtesy of the Ronconi family) I only remember this “new” treatment called “Cobalt”, but every time my mother received it she was physically sickened and weakened. I remember it was as if my mother had aged fifty years in just two. She was still tired and very fragile. Still, she was determined to be a good mother to Uncle Ron and me.
This brings us to Mother’s Day 1965. As was customary, our league played on Sundays. and Mother’s Day or not, the game would continue. I remember my mother going through a particularly difficult time. I remember she was very weak and in bed most of the time. However, that day she let my dad know that she wanted to go to my baseball game. I remember she mustered all the strength she had to walk down the two flights of stairs from her bedroom to our garage where my dad very carefully helped her sit in the front seat of our garage. Chrysler Newport 1962.
We pulled off the driveway and hiked about half a mile to San Bruno Park, the home of San Bruno Youth Baseball. San Bruno Park had two baseball diamonds, tennis courts, a recreation center, and a community pool. This is where I spent the majority of my summer days playing baseball, tennis and learning to swim.
The biggest feature was a candy stand under the bleachers of the large baseball field which was operated by the local VFW. For me, the choice was always simple and the same. I would give up my neighborhood in exchange for five packs of Topps Baseball cards, then retreat to the shade of nearby trees and carefully open each pack to see what treasures were inside while chewing this wonderful chewing gum. gum included in each package. On those rare occasions when I had a dollar, donated by Grandpa Nelson, it was 20 packs, and it was heaven.
We arrived at the park and parked in a parking space that ran alongside the park. The parking space was perfect; there was an amazing view of the baseball field I would be playing on. He was about 300 feet from home plate in left field right away. I remember my mother was happy to be able to see the field, even though it was quite far away. I didn’t realize it at the time, but leaving the car was not an option for her. She was way too weak.
The point is, I didn’t realize how sick my mom was. I didn’t even have an idea of death, so I had no idea how serious his condition was. At that point, I assumed she would be fine and return to normal. So I bounced out of the car, eager to go play ball and took a few steps before realizing I hadn’t kissed her goodbye. So I went back to the car and she rolled the window down and I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.
As I turned to leave, she said, “Hit a home run for me.
Now at this point in my career, I wasn’t what you would call a power hitter. A crushed ball for me was one that went about 20 feet into the outfield. I also had the speed to tie, so I rarely went beyond second base every time I hit the ball. My first at-bat was pretty typical, I hit weak ground on the shortstop and was beaten by the pitch to first base of about 10 feet.
At the time, we used a ball called a “hard rubber covered ball”. It was supposed to be safer than an ordinary hard balloon, but I think it was even harder and that
wasn’t heavy from the humidity while we were playing so it was always hard and dry and it traveled well when hit. In Pee Wee League, full games were unusual. Due to the time required for all the children to be gathered in each round and due to the general sluggishness of the game, games with more than two or three bats were rare.
It was my second and last at batting that day that the “miracle” happened. The magnitude of the situation never really struck me. I didn’t go to the plate thinking I must have a hit for my sick mom on Mother’s Day. Surely she didn’t think this would be the last time she would see me play, or that she would be gone in a few months.
I was just playing baseball and having a good time. In Pee Wee League, the coach pitched to the kids. I remember Coach Castro was throwing and he used to throw fastballs at us. The bad news was that they were really hard to hit. The good news is, if you hit one, it could really take off. I remember the first two courts were clay.
The third came in a belt just in the middle of the plate. I can still visualize this pitch even after all these years. I didn’t survive or try to kill it, but put a pretty good swing on it. I made contact, and the last sight I got of the batter’s surface was the ball sailing over the head of the 10-foot shortstop on a line.
I remember everyone screaming as I took off for first base. I hit the first and our first base coach yelled at me to go second. It was very unusual. As I approached the second I saw the ball and it was still in progress with the outfielder chasing it. I could see it bouncing off the walking trail about 150 feet from the field. Believe it or not, I remember seeing him drive towards our car and I could see my mother’s face in the window. As I approached third base, the coach waved me back, so I made the turn and went home.
When I scored, the ball still hadn’t been recovered from the outfield. I don’t remember if we won the game or not, but I remember being overwhelmed by my teammates at home plate. It was a great moment.
After the game, as my dad and I walked over to the car, he of course asked me what happened in my first batting fight. But it was always clear that he was very proud of my success. When we got to the car the first thing I noticed was that my mom looked better. She was smiling and didn’t look so tired. She was very excited and I noticed that there were tears in her eyes, but I didn’t understand why.
She excitedly pointed to a place about 15 feet from the car door where she said my ball had stopped rolling. She told the whole scene for me, from hitting the ball, running the goals, watching the ball rolling straight towards her in the car.
She said it was the best gift she could have gotten for Mother’s Day.