By Mike Ryan
The Haverhill Gazette
---- — Editor’s note: The Gazette occasionally runs columns submitted by readers. One such column appears here.
The summer after my freshman year in high school, I played in a Merrimac Babe Ruth league for a coach who would generously be called “fiery.’’ This guy was all in, all the time, and he demanded that we play exactly as instructed. There was no equivocation — we were to compete in a certain way and we could never, ever dog it.
We loved playing for him.
There were several players on that team who were characters. These kids were slightly wild, unencumbered by boundaries and untethered to authority. They were into certain adult-type pursuits and didn’t mind telling anyone who’d listen — even the coach. He just shook his head and laughed.
We respected the coach because early in the season we saw how far he would go to motivate. It was during a second-inning speech when we were down a few runs to a terrible team. Coach had seen enough, so he called us together and began to drop one bit of profanity after another. His angry words fired us up because he was correct. We were getting torched by a bunch of stiffs. I don’t recall the final score, but we came back and won easily. Some of us still laughed about that speech during high school games three years later.
He was constantly strategizing, asking questions. During one of the rides to a game, a panel discussion took place about the legality and fairness of running over a catcher at home plate. Our coach explained, very intensely, that this was a good baseball play. It was allowable under the rules and, if you get a shot to score a run, take it. “The catcher is going to try and block the plate and tag you out,’’ he said, grinning. “So don’t let him.’’ His eyes added, “And make sure you take the catcher out.’’
It took one game for us to do it.
Playing at Timberlane, and down a run, I was on first base when my teammate Sean scorched one to the right-center gap. I was the slowest guy on the team. I took off for second, headed into third and got the wave to head home. I glanced back and saw this was going to be a close, real close, play at the plate. If I was fast or anybody else was running, this would have been an easy score.
The relay sailed in, the catcher caught the ball, crouched down and remained motionless for a split second. He was unprotected, no longer wearing a mask. I was chugging as hard as I could. If I slid, it was going to be an easy out. The only other choice (the fun option) was to try and run the catcher over. The kid expected a slide, but it never came. The collision was intense and the impact was perfect — the detonation of one body slamming into another. The catcher’s head snapped back, he flew three feet and landed on his side. As I stepped on home plate and started jogging to the bench I saw our coach jumping, screaming, thoroughly elated. I turned back and saw the ball had popped out of the catcher’s mitt. The umpire, Bill Pike, gave the safe sign. My teammates must have been happy, but I didn’t see what they were doing. Coach was hugging me and slapping my back.
That was his favorite kind of run — intense, risky.
We won a lot of games that hot summer. Coach screamed and we laughed inside. He never stopped battling. It was a good lesson for a 14-year-old: Don’t give up, keep hustling and stay focused. You’re never truly out of any game.
Over the years I would see him from time to time. The coach would tell stories about the juvenile delinquents he coached in Haverhill. We would always laugh about those Merrimac games, how his little sons Matt and Mike were the bat boys and how they both grew up to be great baseball players. He had great recall and could resurrect moments that I had long forgotten. Mostly, he was a guy who was fun to listen to.
Recently, I opened the paper and saw that he had died at age 61.
Sometimes, when I drive through Merrimac during the summer, I can still hear Jim Favalora’s gravelly voice, shredding the humid air during a close game on Locust Street.
Opponents thought he was crazy. We knew better. He was our coach.
Michael J. Ryan is a former staff member of The Haverhill Gazette and The Eagle-Tribune. He can be reached on Twitter @Luck.