After the Hamden American Legion baseball team was eliminated from the state tournament, the scene behind the dugout at Ceppa Field in Meriden was a familiar one.
Coaches thanked players for a terrific season and everyone said goodbye to their summer teammates.
Except with this Hamden squad, the hugs lasted a little longer and the tears flowed a little harder.
This was no ordinary summer for the players or for their coach, Ray Guarino.
Memorial Day weekend, Guarino was diagnosed with cancer on his ribs and down his spine.
Guarino never thought about stepping away from the Hamden team he has led for the past seven seasons.
In fact, he knew being around the game he has always loved would be strong medicine.
“This summer has been so special to me. What these guys have done for me is something I will never forget,” Guarino said. “These guys kept me going all summer. With what I have going on, coming and being around these kids gave me something to look forward to everyday. Coming to the park and being around baseball keeps my mind off things and keeps me busy. It has been awesome and I can’t thank these players enough.”
The radiation treatments Guarino received all summer, sometimes just prior to games, slowed him down physically but did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm for the game.
This weekend in the American Legion Super Regionals in Meriden, nobody would have guessed Guarino was fighting a much bigger battle than any baseball game.
He was just coaching.
Encouraging his players, chastising a missed bunt attempt and, of course, giving the umpires some guff.
A questionable call on his pitcher prompted Guarino to bark at the home plate umpire, “That’s not down. Tell me it’s in or out but not down. I’ve been around the game too long for you to tell me that was down.”
He was not thinking about cancer or treatments, he was more concerned with the strike zone.
The game was the only thing on his mind.
Guarino grew up in West Haven playing baseball.
He coached at Foran and West Haven, where he helped guide the school to a 2009 state title and No. 1 state ranking.
He is currently an assistant coach at Yale while leading the Hamden Post 88 Senior Legion team in the summer.
This summer, Hamden went 20-6 in Zone 2, reaching the Southern Super Regionals before bowing out with losses to Stamford and Cheshire over the weekend.
His team and the many in the Hamden community wore white t-shirts emblazoned with “Play of Ray” along with his number 21 and the logos of Hamden Legion, Yale and West Haven.
In addition, two former Yale baseball players set up a GoFundMe page on behalf of Guarino, raising $97,880 toward the goal $100,000 through this weekend.
Tyler Osborne played his final game in a Hamden uniform Sunday.
That would be enough of an emotional pitfall for anyone but hugging Guarino after the game hit Osborne hard.
“This has been the best experience in my life. He is one of my favorite coaches I have ever played for,” Osborne said. “He’s such an inspiration going through what he’s going through but still being here with us every game. His condition hit everybody hard and made us work even harder. I will never forget playing for him, this summer. Everything is for him because he means a lot for everybody. Everybody loves him and he’s an inspiration to everyone.”
Osborne’s sentiments were shared by everyone in green and gold has they embraced after the game Sunday, burying their tears in each other’s shoulders.
The Hamden players coming back next summer are hoping for many more years of playing for Ray and maybe even winning him a state championship.