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A tribute to a former major-leaguer and more importantly, a lifelong influence—the late Reno Bertoia

Good Friday is a good a day for me to remember an individual who left an indelible mark on my life.

The individual, a man by the name of Reno Bertoia, died last week at the age of 76. I was just made aware of Reno’s passing in the last couple of days.

We have probably all had people in our lives, outside of our own family, who have somehow helped shape our values and our lives for the better.  Well, for me, Reno Bertoia was the closest thing to knowing someone like Montreal hockey legend, the classy Jean Beliveau.  Reno was a man with grace and class—someone who continually treated others they way he would like to be treated, and probably even better.

My sport as a young man was baseball.  (I followed hockey passionately, and played tons of “river hockey” on the ponds near our house in my little home town of River Canard, near Windsor, Ontario, but I wasn’t much of a player at the competitive level.)  I probably wasn’t particularly gifted but I played hard and worked at it and tried to get better all the time.  I was maybe 5 foot 5 and 110 pounds, if that, when I first met Reno in 1967.  He was a teacher at Assumption High School in Windsor and I was just heading into Grade 9. 

Reno was born in Italy but came to Canada with his family when he was maybe two years old.  He became a local legend in the Windsor area, a fine local sandlot ballplayer who signed a contract to play in the major leagues with the “local” team, the Detroit Tigers, when he was only 18 years of age.  Reno was signed in the days of the so-called “bonus babies”.

He went on to have a modest but nice professional career, spread over parts of maybe ten seasons.  While he didn’t have staggering “numbers”, he was known as a slick-fielding third-baseman, a dedicated and hard-working professional.  (One of his closest and dearest friends from his earliest days in Detroit was then future Hall-of-Famer Al Kaline.)

He had a great first couple of months in like, 1957 or thereabouts, when he led the American League in hitting for a few weeks.  But just the fact that he played in the majors, a Canadian kid, and a non-pitcher at that (which was basically un-heard of in those days, the 1950s) was something special.

He retired for good by about 1962, played briefly in Japan but returned to Canada and got on with his life after baseball.  Along the way he had been working toward earning his degree.  He became a history teacher and he was outstanding in the classroom.  He was way ahead of his time. He pushed us to think, analyze, research and interpret—not just memorize.  We worked in groups, on a variety of “special projects”.  He understood if we were having a tough time at home, or were having a bad day.

He treated us, teenage students, as young men—always.

He helped Fr. Ron Cullen’s (who also passed away in the last year, and is another member of the Canadian baseball Hall-of-Fame who I played for from 1967-1971) Assumption teams on occasion.  He would drop by a Saturday morning practice and provide hitting instruction or tips on fielding or base-running.  Again, he treated young people with respect.  He was a part-time scout with the Tigers.  He had standards and expectations, but he had a way of wanting you to meet his standards- as high as they were.  He didn’t have to yell and scream—in the classroom or on the playing field.

Reno was a man’s man.  He was athletic and handsome but in many ways shy and very humble.  He never discussed his athletic achievements unless you raised it and asked him questions.  I’m sure he was proud of his baseball accomplishments but there was so much more to him than baseball.

I can’t really do justice to the impact he had on me as a young man in the 1960s and early ‘70s.  He carried himself in a way that commanded respect.  He was simply a guy with integrity.

In later years, I maintained a bit of a relationship with him when I would visit my home town.  When my wife and I were a young married couple and experienced the loss of a child, he was one of the people we spent time with.  He was so genuine, so kind in his concern for us and how we were doing.

There are many ways his influence has stayed with me my entire life.  I probably have not been able to live to the standard he set, or that I aspired to reach, but it wasn’t for lack of effective role-modeling.  He provided that in spades.

I always remember something he shared with me, when we were alone and just talking.  I share it now because it was a life lesson for me, and maybe others will see the value in the story, now, these many years later.  I was maybe 20, visiting my old high school where he was still teaching, of course.  It was probably 1973 or thereabouts.  We spent time just talking about all kinds of things.

The conversation turned to a situation that had privately hurt him.  A sports writer in Detroit had, maybe ten years after Reno’s playing career was over, mentioned him in a column in a dismissive way.  You know, one of those throw-away comments that writers think are funny.

Here was Reno, a guy who had probably never had an enemy in his life and had scores of friends, and some columnist made an off-hand remark (essentially implying Reno wasn’t much of a ball player compared with some then active player) years after Reno had been on the field of play.

Maybe to this “writer”, Reno hadn’t been a “star”.  To those of us who knew him, he was a star, yes, but not simply because had had been a fine ballplayer.  He was establishing himself in the education field, a well-regarded professional, and he had to see his name splattered about by a guy just trying to make a caustic reference to some former player that jumped to mind.  He just happened to pick Reno’s name.

The story made me realize that words can hurt, especially thoughtless words  When you write about something, or someone, a real person, the reality is that their families, their friends and many other people read the things that are written.  To pick a name out of a hat, and be critical for no reason, is not necessary.

In fact, it’s weak. And it’s way more of a reflection of the person writing, than being written about.

Performance criticism of a guy playing professionally, here and now, is one thing. And under certain circumstances it is warranted and fair—and part of being a reporter or columnist or analyst, and yes, part of what comes with being a professional athlete.

But this columnist, forty years ago (and I remember who it was) never played a game in his life.  Never knew the pressures of being a professional athlete.  But his words, uninformed, gratuitous and stupid— hurt.

Remembering my conversation that day with Reno, it has always stuck with me.  I try to be fair and balanced when I write about something, or someone.  It’s too easy to be critical, just to try and go with the flow and take a jab because you can.

I had my last conversation with Reno a couple of summers ago.  He had just returned from Italy, having been invited by baseball authorities there because he apparently was the last living Italian-born major-league baseball player.

I wrote to him last summer.  I didn’t know he was ill, if he was at the time.  But I wrote at some length about how much I appreciated the tremendous influence he has been, and the wonderful example he set for me- and countless others.

Now that he has passed away, it’s a blessing that I took the time to say write those words.  He wrote back and thanked me.  It was our last communication.

Others will write much better than I can about Reno's life, but I just wanted to share a bit about someone who was a tremendous influence for good in my life and set the bar high.  We likely all have them in our life, and if we have a chance to thank them, we should probably take advantage of that opportunity—while we can.

1 comment:

  1. Extremely well said, Michael. Reno was an All-Star to a lot of us. May he rest in peace knowing what a great teacher and, yes, friend, he was to so many people.