MIDDLETOWN >> In the moments after the final out was recorded Saturday night, Bob DeMayo took a deep breath, gazed around at the celebration unfolding around him and then hugged each of his assistant coaches.
He’d eventually get around to congratulating each member of the North Haven baseball team, answer dozens of questions from the media, and pose for a team photo in front of the Palmer Field scoreboard.
As he made his way in from the outfield, two North Haven seniors escorting their coach on the long walk back, he was greeted by Bette, his wife of 39 years, with a hug and a kiss.
If this was the final game of his extraordinary coaching career, one that began during the Eisenhower administration, he’d just secured a finale fit for Hollywood.
It wasn’t just the fact that, as an 80-something coach, he’d just won his fifth state championship in his 57th season, and first in a dozen years, with a thrilling 3-2 victory over East Lyme in the CIAC Class L state final.
What made it so special was that he did it in the most improbable way, having missed most of the previous year recovering from major knee surgery, mulling retirement, returning to the bench and then rolling to the title with a team that entered the state tournament with a ho-hum 11-10 record.
“I always tell the kids, if you can get in the tournament and get used to what goes on, then it’s a marvelous run,” DeMayo said. “They bought it, I guess. I can’t say that we weren’t lucky, or that we were the best team. But it’s a seven-inning situation and we had as good a chance as anyone.”
Each of DeMayo’s previous state titles featured a memorable storyline. His 1975 club handed New Britain ace Jeff Greenwald his one and only loss in 26 career decisions. On the way to the 1982 title, the Indians knocked off a flame-throwing Southington pitcher named Rob Dibble. In 1985, pitcher Dave Mikos collapsed during warmups on his surgically-repaired knee, begged DeMayo to let him walk it off, and then fired a shutout. The 2003 title also doubled as his 700th career victory, which so happened to come on Father’s Day.
The enduring memory of this championship will be a heart-stopping double-play to end the sixth inning, left fielder Mike DeRosa catching a fly ball and unleashing a pea to nail a tagging runner at the plate to preserve North Haven’s 3-1 lead.
In the seventh, East Lyme closed to within 3-2 and put the tying and winning runs on base. Reliever Richie DePalma, after calming words from DeMayo on the mound, reared back and struck out Miles Coe for the final out.
DeMayo, who became Connecticut’s all-time leader in baseball coaching wins a full 24 years ago, added another chapter to an incredible career.
Jim Penders took in Saturday night’s game from the Palmer Field bleachers. A member of his family has coached baseball in Connecticut every season since his grandfather, Jim Sr., started at Stratford High in 1931.
Penders, in his 12th season as UConn’s baseball coach, is among the legions who marvel at DeMayo’s longevity. Penders noted that DeMayo coached against his grandfather from 1959 until he retired in 1968. DeMayo also outlasted the entirety of Penders’ father, Jim Jr., whose 43-year career ended a few years back.
“That he’s still here, in a state championship game,” Penders said. “It’s remarkable.”
DeMayo endured the physical pain of a major injury when he slipped on ice last March, tearing a quadriceps muscle and later requiring surgery. He made it back to the dugout by late spring, on crutches and taking on an advisory role to assistant Muchie Dagliere.
But make no mistake, he is no figurehead on the bench. DeMayo was in complete control Saturday. He called every pitch from the dugout; relayed every bunt and steal signal from the third-base coaching box, just like he did during his first official game in 1959.
When starting pitcher Mike Kurk found himself in a bases–loaded, one-out jam, DeMayo went out to talk him down. Kurk minimized damage, inducing a sacrifice fly and pop up to end the inning.
The competitive fire hasn’t been doused. When Mike DeRosa blasted a two-run homer in the second inning to give the Indians a 2-1 lead, DeMayo whirled around to see his exuberant team inching a bit too close to home plate and screamed at them to back off.
Neither has the baseball shrewdness. When his team started the second inning with a triple, homer and single in consecutive at-bats, each driven on the screws, DeMayo called for a sacrifice bunt. It caught East Lyme off guard, its pitcher fielding the ball and making an ill-advised and unsuccessful throw to second base.
Then, DeMayo had the very next batter lay down another bunt.
If the National Federation of State High School Associations record book is to be believed, DeMayo, in his 57th season at North Haven, has been coaching high school baseball longer than anyone in the country.
We qualify that only because DeMayo should be ranked 10th amongst active coaches in career wins, but is inexplicably not listed. But it’s hard to believe there’s someone else out there whose been at it this long.
DeMayo says he’s still undecided on whether he’ll return for a 58th season next spring. Sure, it would be great to go out on top, like Ted Williams going yard in his last game or John Elway capping his career with a Super Bowl. And his style of coaching leaves him exhausted at the end of the day.
Still, listening to him on Saturday night, it sounds like he’s already made the decision to come back.
“Right now, that’s the feeling I have,” DeMayo said. “I love the challenge. I’ve been doing it so long; it would be a real void in my life. I feel I can still do the job, and the kids are still getting something out of it. Once I lose that, I’m gone.”
Maybe that Hollywood ending will have to wait.