Twist and Shout

Twist and Shout
Life is never straight (Joey Kulkin photo)

Thursday, January 30, 2014

From Pownal to Post 13: Q&A with Jamie Carey

Jamie Carey accepts the MAU Baseball MVP trophy
from Coach Al Plante (Tim Brown photo)

Fiddlehead at Four Corners
Fiddlehead on Facebook (here)

BENNINGTON -- Jamie Carey of Pownal still dreams about playing Major League Baseball. Dreams like a little boy. But at 43 he knows it's too late, and the new coach of Bennington American Legion Post 13 wells up when a visitor mentions what might have been.

"I'm not conceited enough to say I would have made the major leagues," Carey said as his eyes glossed. "All these years later I struggle with it. I just want to know why I wasn't given a chance to prove myself in the minors."

It wasn't Carey's short stature at 5-foot-9 because 1,027 players who stood or stand 5'9 or 5'9+ made the majors through 2012 -- including Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, the 5-time All Star, 2008 American League MVP, and a $100 million man. It wasn't his hitting or speed because Carey holds the North Adams State single-season batting records for average (.500) and triples (7). It wasn't Carey's arm because here's what Joe Zavattaro, the Hall of Fame coach at North Adams State, told the local rag in '93:

(click all photos to enlarge)

Jamie Carey of Pownal, he said, "is best center-fielder in New England, Division I, II or III."

Zavattaro got his shot with the Pittsburgh Pirates in '51 but floundered in their low minors for the next 5 years, from Iola to Grand Forks (.245, 212 hits, 25 homers).

Decades later, in '93, Zavattaro was in the twilight of a 493-win coaching career that included 11 Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference titles and numerous trips to ECAC and NCAA Division III tournaments. 

A guy like this saw it all and doesn't throw platitudes to the wind.

The 81-year-old winters in Naples, Florida, and has a scratchy voice that jumps for joy when the person on the other end of the long-distance call begins by saying that Jamie Carey is the new summer ball coach in Bennington.

"That's great! He'll be an excellent coach."

And then we get down to business.

"He had very good speed, he was very coachable and he knew the game," Zavattaro said. "And when you said something to him it registered. You'd tell him something and he worked on it. You get a few of those guys -- and he was one."

Then he defined the difference between a bona fide center-fielder and Joe Breadcrumbs as it related to Jamie Carey, best center-fielder in New England: the first 2 steps. "And his first 2 steps were as good as anyone I've ever seen, including pro ball."

Pittsburgh Pirates scouts saw Carey's first 2 steps during a tryout in Bradenton, Florida. Marlins scouts saw those first 2 steps during a tryout in Egg Harbor, New Jersey. Reds scouts saw those first 2 steps at Bleecker Stadium in Albany. At yet another tryout at Albany's Heritage Park, scouts for 26 teams saw Carey's first 2 steps. He played for the Schenectady Blue Jays in a wood-bat league, and dominated with his bat. Was told he was good enough to play in the Cape Cod League. A good friend who played at the University of North Carolina said he easily could have started for the Tar Heels. Yet the 3-time All-New England performer wasn't asked to sign.

"If they gave me 2 chocolate chip cookies and a stick of gum I was there," Carey said.

Was it that he couldn't hit the curve? You don't hit .500 your senior season at one of the better D-III colleges without bonking a few curves. Did he carry a bad attitude? No, because the 493-win coach called Carey a leader of men in North Adams. And those first 2 steps!

"It just came natural to me," Carey said.

Which is why it stops making sense after awhile.

"So often," Zavattaro said, "guys should be given a shot for at least one season in the minors and aren't. I've asked why many times. I've asked scouts and they say they let people go that shouldn't be let go. I've argued with scouts over and over.

"He had the speed, the arm and the knowledge of the game."

And ...

"I enjoyed watching Jamie hit to see him run the bases," Zavattaro said. "It's important to know how to take that turn -- not the wide turn but the short turn -- and he could make that short turn. I used to love watching him run or steal a base."

Al Plante -- known as "Mr. Baseball" in Bennington and a member of the Vermont Principals Association Hall of Fame -- coached Carey at Mount Anthony High, three years on the varsity. Plante named Carey MVP in '88 after the Patriots reached the Vermont Division I title game (lost 7-6 to Missisquoi). Carey did not allow an earned run in 42.1 innings (79 K's, 18 walks) on top of a .551 average with 5 doubles, 3 triples, 2 homers and 10 stolen bases.

MAU spent $7,000 for a left-field fence to protect the homes on the other side of County Street but that didn't stop sluggers like Carey, who smashed the first homer over it in '87. In the last game of the '88 season, playing for the D-I title at UVM's Centennial Field, the aggressive hitter struck out swinging his first 3 at-bats. Next time up he knocked in the go-ahead run in the 6th.

"Jamie was a great kid, was willing to learn, very athletic, had great speed and a great arm. He'd pitch or play the infield, the outfield -- anywhere you needed him," Plante said during a phone call. Of Carey's 0.00 ERA over 42 innings, which is hard to do no matter how good you are because of baseball's unpredictable nature, Plante said "It was a good team and he was a great part of it."

Great. Bennington is a baseball town forevermore and special guys such as Gary Parmenter (who pitched for the Cubs' Triple-A team in the '80s) and older brother Walt Parmenter (who pitched for the Cardinals' A team in the '80s) and John Hart (who pitched for the Royals' A team in the '70s) and Zach LeBarron (who pitched for the Angels' Arizona Fall League team in 2012) are part of Plante's legacy at MAU.

Yet Plante struggles to find an answer as to why Carey didn't make it like those guys did.

"I don't know why," Plante said. "I thought he had the tools to go play in college, which he did. What he did in college should have given him a chance. I thought a couple of scouts liked him."

Here is a 25-minute chat with Carey in his office at Anytime Fitness:

The more questions you ask about Jamie Carey, the more you learn.

"The biggest thing," Terry Carey said about his son, "is that in his later years at North Adams he hurt his shoulder. When he was playing for the Schenectady Blue Jays I talked to some scouts, I think from the Reds, and they said he's an excellent ballplayer but heard he hurt his shoulder and said, We just can't take a chance."

Jamie had emailed me a few hours earlier, before that chat with Dad: "I did have shoulder surgery after I stopped playing for the Blue Jays. Rotator cuff."

My reply: "You mentioned that a few months ago when we first broached the story. So what happened after the surgery?

Jamie: "My throwing arm. I didn't play baseball for a long time. I healed and started working construction."

My reply: "Did you lose your shot because of the surgery?"

Jamie: "No, I had the surgery after I stopped playing. It continued to bother me after I had stopped, that's when I knew something was wrong. I just thought it was normal my arm got sore after a game. I would see the trainer to ice it, take Ibuprofen and move on to the next game."

"It was tore up pretty good," Terry Carey said. "But they can fix those things."

Terry dropped out of Benn-High to join the Marines and played a little "pick-up" ball in California. Got a sniff from the Cleveland Indians but post-Vietnam migraines ended any hopes and desires to play pro ball. He came home and settled in Pownal. Got married and had kids. Taught Jamie and Shawn the game before they could walk. 

"I knew they were going to be real good players," he said. "When they were able to stand I'd throw balls to 'em overhand. My wife would yell out the window to throw underhand but I said, That isn't baseball -- it's softball.

"You watched their moves. Natural moves. They just had the moves. You could tell if you know what to look for -- the footwork, how they pick the ball off the ground to throw it."

Bill Pember, who died a few years ago, scouted for the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bennington. He set up a tryout for Jamie Carey at Spinelli in '88. That went well and led to another tryout in Manchester, New Hampshire, and that led to the tryout in Bradenton.

Nothing came of it. Terry Carey talked to Pember often over the next year or two.

"I told him, Jamie plays a heckuva lot better than the boys you're scouting. They hardly have any talent yet they're getting into programs. And he didn't have an answer. It did make me kind of angry. We had nowhere to go and no one wanted to talk about it."

For years it burned him to watch guys whose talents were "so far off the bark" because he knew his son was better.

Jamie Carey replaces Walt Parmenter, who replaced Plante as MAU's varsity coach in 2013. Parmenter coached Post 13 for 3 years in the '80s -- Carey was on his team -- and then for the last 7 summers.

Post 13 reached the Vermont title game the last 4 years but lost all 4. "It's so depressing. No rhyme or reason," Parmenter said by phone. "For years I had great kids but it wasn't meant to be. I had so much fun and I know Jamie will, too."

Several men applied for the Post 13 gig. "I put in a good word for Jamie because I thought he was the right candidate," Parmenter said. "He has a good repertoire and knows the game of baseball. And he's younger -- and that's what the kids need. I felt my time was up and it's the right time for him because he has a son coming up the ranks. It's perfect timing."

Walt Parmenter pitched in 59 minor-league games (2 starts) with Erie (NY-Penn League) and Gastonia (South Atlantic League). His record was 5-10 with a 3.79 ERA in 99.2 innings.

"It was a great opportunity and I tried to go and run with it," he said. "But then I hurt my elbow. Things change after that and it was the same with my brother, who had to have shoulder surgery. That's just the way it is."

But boy, what a ride. Single-A? Early '80s?

"We had two different Greyhound buses. One had no air conditioning and the other had no toilet," Parmenter said laughing. "You ever see the movie Bull Durham? That's minor-league Single-A baseball, but I had a lot of fun. I met great people on those runs. I played against Hank Aaron's son and Roger Maris' son was one of my teammates.

"I have no regrets. I just wish it lasted longer."

Don't get Jamie Carey wrong: He cherishes every second of every day with his gorgeous wife, Amy, and his athletic 14-year-old son, Blake; he own 2 homes, including a log cabin in Pownal; and he owns a construction business (28 years) and 24/7 gym (4 years) that is packed almost every day. He lives like a king and wouldn't change a single thing about it.

But those glossy eyes belie another truth. Like his Post 13 predecessor, Carey would love to say "I didn't have any regrets" because he would've had a chance to swing for the fences.

Walt Parmenter, a 1974 MAU grad, understands Carey's torture. "I didn't see him play high school ball but I read the clippings and he was a good ballplayer with a good head on his shoulders. He could've had a shot but there's so much politics in everything -- even then."

He didn't know about Carey's torn shoulder till recently. 

On one hand, Carey probably could've gotten shoulder surgery earlier. On the other hand, you're so torqued up on adrenaline and want to stay in the starting lineup that you'll let Cortison shots numb the pain. What may have hurt Carey most, Parmenter said, was the decision to attend North Adams State.

Carey desperately wanted to go down south but chose North Adams for practical reasons.

Letters arrived daily but his family didn't have the means to afford southern schools that didn't offer a full ride. Plus, Jamie wanted to stay close to Pownal so his dad could watch him play. He was the first member of the family to go to college.

"It's tough," Parmenter said. "A lot of it is where you're at. That's why I went to Coastal Carolina University because you play anywhere from 65 to 82 games."

Sure, but North Adams State went to spring training in Florida, and played several D-I schools so that counts for something, right?

"But that's only for 9 days," Parmenter said, "and it's so cold up here that once you get down there it takes a few days just to crank your arm up."

Q&A with Jamie Carey

Preface: Jamie said that if he could change one thing about his teenage years it would be that he studied harder and took his academics seriously. That's why his approach to this story was endearing when all I sought was a simple Q&A about becoming Post 13's coach.

Jamie went above and beyond by providing scrapbooks his mother saved over the years and filling a new binder with his cover letter to the Bennington American Legion board and resume, along with several pages of thoughts. There was a bit of a subconscious thing going on, as if he was making up for lost time in the classroom. He wrote deep sentiments about his parents and John Armstrong (one of his first coaches in Pownal) and Al Plante and Walt Parmenter and Pete LaFlamme (middle school science teacher and his coach on the Bennington Generals) and Joe Zavattaro.

Meanwhile, reading and photographing his newspaper clips took me on an emotional journey because I joined the Banner sports department 7 years after he graduated and was part of a duo (with Jon Potter) that covered MAU the same way Tim Brown did, and Mike Estrada did, and Todd Schmerler did -- with great passion and urgency.

Speaking of clips, Holy Moses was Jamie Carey a stud of studs. He is by far the best athlete ever to come out of Pownal and probably one of the Top 25 athletes ever at MAU. So many headlines touting a 13-strikeout performance, a 14-strikeout performance, a 15-strikeout performance. The standalone picture of him in a Patriot football uniform wide-grinned next to 1987 Homecoming Queen Lynn Martinka because he was her escort. He played on the 1988 Vermont Shrine football team that rallied from a 21-7 deficit to beat New Hampshire 24-21 -- thus ending a 7-game losing streak. Here's what Tim Brown wrote about the tectonic shifts in the game courtesy of MAU players:

"The turning point of the game was to come two plays later, and Mount Anthony's Dan Main proved to be the man of the hour. When N.H. quarterback Peter Labbe spotted a receiver with single coverage 40 yards down the field he unleashed a rare Granite State pass under pressure. But Main turned for the under-thrown aerial, back-pedaled to within inches of the receiver and leaped high in the air for an acrobatic finger-tip interception.

"The play brought the Vermont crowd to its feet, and it set the stage for Vermont's dramatic turnaround. On the very next play, Mount St. Joseph's Dave Parento bolted off tackle and escaped a pair of hand tackles to dash 56 yards up the left sideline for the tying score. Wheeler, in the locker room afterwards, praised the running of Parento, who finished as the top rusher on the day with 80 yards on the just nine carries. But he credited the touchdown to an MAU player.

"Jamie Carey's block sprung that play, and Dave just kept fighting and fighting," said Wheeler. "That helped us get over what seemed like an unsurmountable mountain."

"The tackle and the tight end are supposed to cross block on the play and I was the lead halfback out of the backfield," said Carey, explaining the game-breaker."I kicked the linebacker in and Dave cut outside. It was the highlight of the day for me."

He saved his best baseball highlight for last, too, when, as a 23-year-old wood batsman for the Schenectady Blue Jays, he went 4 for 4 with 2 doubles, a triple and a home run. Here's what he said in the Soundcloud interview above:

"My coach came up to me and asked if I was quitting because of my girl. I said no, I still love baseball but I'm so discouraged. I said I need to get my life going -- and I stopped."

Without further ado ...

Q1: You own and operate a successful business with Anytime Fitness, which requires much of your time and energy. Why do you want to take on the extra burden of coaching summer baseball, which is a huge time commitment?

A1. Coaching baseball is my solace, my way to break away from the everyday stresses of owning a business. I don’t see coaching as a burden at all, I see it as a blessing. What better way to spend your time or to end your day by teaching a game that I loved as a kid and still love today! This game has helped to create my life’s story and has helped mold me into the person that I am today. As a coach I hope to teach the kids what I know to make them better players, better people and help them to develop a love and appreciation for baseball.

Q2: As a little boy in Pownal, what attracted you to the game of baseball? Do you remember the first lessons you learned?

A2. I used to sit on my Dad's lap watching Major League Baseball. I always wanted to be one of those guys that hit a three-run homer, stole home or threw that last strikeout for the win. I loved to watch the team run out of the dugout onto the field and hoist the hero onto their shoulders. It looked so exciting! Everyone looked so happy! I wanted to be that guy. Some of the first lessons I learned were the most important. How to catch the ball, how to throw the ball, how to hold the bat, where to place my feet, how to throw my hip at the ball when I swung. You know, the basics.

Q3: Who from Pownal and Bennington were the biggest baseball influences in your life, and why? Who were your favorite MLB players growing up, and why?

A3. My Father was my biggest influence. He taught me the game and showed me how to play it. I used to watch him play fast-pitch softball in North Adams when I was young. I thought that he ran fast for an old guy. Listening to his baseball stories and playing catch with him are great memories that I will always cherish. My cousin, Scott Buck, was also a strong influence but I don’t think he knows this. I used to go to the Bennington Generals games with my dad and watch the game when he was playing. I remember watching him crush the ball over the left-  and center-field fence and hit houses. I thought WOW I want to do that! I was so envious. I never thought that I would ever be strong enough to hit the ball that far. Turns out that I did get strong enough. One of my favorite players to watch was Ken Griffey Jr. he had the best, smoothest, sweetest swing and his arm was a cannon. Believe it or not, I don’t have much time to watch baseball, I’d rather be on the field coaching. My all-time favorite baseball player ever is my son, Blake. He is an awesome baseball player, who I have to say, has a great swing and hits the ball pretty darn hard. Like my dad did for me, I teach him all I know. He is a great baseball player but is a better person. I am so proud of who he is and love him very much. I have had the pleasure of coaching him since he could walk and still coach him today.

Q4: By the time we get to high school we think we know it all, but from a baseball perspective what did you learn about the game in high school that surprised and humbled you?

A4. I realized that I had to work harder and practice harder to compete as I matured. In the earlier leagues before high school it seemed easy to succeed but as I moved up in the ranks the competition got stiffer, the pitchers threw harder, base runners ran faster, outfielders had better arms. I really had to start thinking more in every aspect of the game.

Q5: What are your 3 favorite memories of playing baseball at MAU, and why? What are the 3 least-favorite memories, and why?

A5. My favorite memory from high school was when they first put up the outfield screen over the original fence to protect traffic and houses. I hit the very first home run over the newly raised fence in our first game of the season. The principal at the time came up to me the next day and acted upset that I had put a ball over the net after spending $7,000 to have it put up. He then hit me on the shoulder and said with a laugh “great job." I always love telling people that. Another memory was the day after a game that I had pitched and won. In the article about the game in the paper, one of the opposing team’s players was interviewed about the game. They asked him how it was to face me as a batter. He said that the first curve ball that I struck him out on was the best curveball that he had ever seen, until I struck him out again with a second curveball. I think the most important memory for me is that I played a game with a bunch of guys that became close friends with. I developed friendships and memories with them on and off the field that will last all of us a lifetime. I wouldn’t trade that for the world.

I have to say that my least favorite memory was at the end of my high school career. It was the state championship game, we lost the last game by 1 run in the last inning. It would have been a great finish to a great year by all who were on the team but it just didn’t work out in our favor. It’s a good life lesson to lose once in a while, it builds character. I can honestly say that memories of playing baseball were all great ones, even the losses.

Q6: Why did you play Post 13 baseball when you could have had the summer days to mess around?

A6. I just love the game. I played baseball my entire life. I didn’t know a summer without baseball. Could you go a day without breathing? That’s how I felt about baseball, I couldn’t live without it. It made my summers fun, baseball was my messing around. I still had time to do the things I loved to do and see the people that I wanted to.

Q7: Why do you feel the coaches named you MVP of the 1993 North Adams State team?

A7. I always gave my best effort whenever I played, in any sport. I never left a game with a clean uniform. I was a very fast, aggressive baserunner. Anyone that knows me well knows that I am very vocal and can get really excited from time to time. I played the game with everything that I had and “left it on the field” as they say. I always tried to fire up my teammates and get the most out of them. I was able to perform at a high level with great success (most of the time). I believe this is why I was named MVP in both high school and college. I live my life this way and I coach this way.

Q8: Your coach at North Adams State, Joe Zavattaro, said that you not only were the finest D-III center-fielder in New England Division III, but the best center-fielder, any division, which is a bold statement. Did you really think he believed you were that good, or was he motivating you? What made you such a good center-fielder? What was your best moment at North Adams State? Worst? Did you face anyone who went on to play in the bigs?

A8. Joe Zavattaro told the press in an article that he felt I was the “best outfielder in all of the northeast, Division 1, 2 or 3." His exact words. He didn’t say it to me he said it to the press. I was very flattered and very proud when I read this because I have such great respect for him. He is a serious man with a great sense of humor. When he spoke about baseball to anyone he was very sincere and professional so I feel he meant what he said.

My speed, ability to read the pitch and batter so I could tell where the ball was going to be hit, my ability to catch almost everything that was hit in my general direction and my arm is what I think made me a great outfielder. I felt very comfortable and very confident in my ability to play the outfield. There was no better feeling than running down a linedrive that everyone thinks is going over your head, then gunning down the runner because he forgot to tag up. I miss it terribly.

I had many great moments at NASC. One moment that stands out for me was during a game that we were losing. It was around the end of the game and I had hit a ball to the shortstop. Because of how I played and never gave up, I ran as hard and fast as I could to first trying to beat out the throw. I was thrown out by one step, but what stands out was that I remember the other team's coach was so impressed at my effort to get to first that he yelled at his team for not running hard like I did, even when we were down. It was an odd feeling because I was out but yet I felt proud to be recognized for my efforts by the other coach.

My worst memory in college was my last year at NASC. Voting for the All-Star game, which was to be played at Fenway Park, was taking place and I had an excellent chance of making the team. The final vote for my position came down to me and another young man from another college. I had a great year, my stats were very good and I felt very confident that I would be chosen. It turns out that the young man’s father was on the board that chose the team and he chose his son over me. Coach Zavattaro called me into his office to break the news. I was so disappointed. It was probably one of the greatest disappointments of my life. He expressed his disappointment as well and told me that my stats and play were more deserving and I should have been the one chosen.

I have to say that I honestly don’t remember any of the opposing team’s pitchers. A pitcher is a pitcher. I approached every pitcher with the same mindset -- hit the ball hard somewhere. I am sure that I faced someone who had made the pros.

Q9: You thrived in Little League. You thrived in high school. You were one of the best college outfielders in America. Why didn't you make it to the big leagues?

A9. I ask myself that question almost every day. I have to say that not making professional baseball is my life’s greatest disappointment. This is a void in me that can never be filled. I felt that I was good enough to at least make Single-A ball and then I would have to prove myself from there. I have set records, made All-Star teams, led teams in offensive stats, earned trophies and awards, been invited to tryouts, everyone tells you that you are good enough to play pro ball but no team gives you a chance. I wish that I had a chance to prove myself. I still dream of playing Major League Baseball even though I know it will never happen.

Q10: Do you have any regrets baseball-wise?

A10. My biggest regret is not focusing more on my education and grades in high school. I did fine in school but like most everyone could have studied more and worked harder to get better grades. I am sure that if I did study more, got better grades and scored higher on my SAT's I may have had more college choices and possibly gone to a school down south somewhere. If you go to school in the south, the baseball season is much longer and the scouts are more prominent. Maybe I would have had a better chance with more opportunity to be seen.

On the other hand, if I didn’t go to NASC, I would have never met the love of my life, Amy. I wouldn’t have a fantastic son, a fulfilling career owning Anytime Fitness and living a very happy life. Now that would have been my greatest regret.

Q11: What are your hopes and goals for Post 13 baseball?

A11. Coaching gives me the chance to stay involved in baseball. My hopes and goals for Post 13 and for MAU is to pass on my love and passion for playing the game and to create some of the same memories that I have. Let’s not forget, baseball is a game and games are supposed to be fun. I hope that every kid that I coach walks away having played for me a better person, a better baseball player and says “playing for Coach Carey was one of the greatest times of my life.”

Here are some of clips and items in the scrapbooks of Carey's life (click to enlarge) ...