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BUILDING MY EMPIRE
GROWING UP -- ALL THE SKILLS YOU NEED (1970-1979)
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The Seventies were a very tumultuous time for me, as they were for our country. I entered the decade as a four-year-old child without a care in the world, and left it prematurely an adult with my entire world shaken and changed. My parents often said, "that which does not kill you makes you stronger." This was certainly the case for my childhood in the Seventies. What started as a time where nothing could go wrong, ended in a time where nothing could go right. The best thing I can say about this decade is that it taught me how to cope with adversity, to never lose the will to fight for what you want, and to just accept the things you can't change and move on.
The first few years of the decade were relatively uneventful for me. I started school in 1970 and right away I had a measurable dislike for it. I very much wanted to be back at home playing with friends, or just going out on day trips with my mother. As a result, my first few years in school found me branded as "difficult", "unwilling to learn", and the inevitable "slow." My parents tried to work with me to enjoy school more, pointing out all the high points of education and learning social interactions, but I refused to listen. To me, school was taking up valuable time that I could be spending on things I wanted to do. I think this rebellion against authority and drive to do things my own way have stuck with me until this day, for better and for worse.
At home, my dad slowed down to holding just one job, selling appliances at Sears, and continued to provide the stability in our household that allowed me to grow up in a secure environment. My mother flitted from interest to interest, leaving "Sugar and Ames" in 1970 and briefly playing some of her own one woman shows in the area. By late 1971, she had moved on from the music scene and discovered political activism. She spent most of 1972 working on the McGovern campaign, which caused a great deal of tension when my dad, an ardent Nixonite, would have to interact with the dozens of liberals who assembled at times in our home. My father seemed to always tolerate, if not encourage, my mother's follies, however, and I think he actually lived his wilder side vicariously through her.
At a party at our home in summer 1972
While my dad's hard work kept us firmly in the middle class, it was my mom's aborted experiment in music that brought us an unexpected windfall. Even though she gave up performing several years before, the legacy of "Sugar and Ames" lived on into 1972. Years before, as the group began writing their own meaningful music, my mother penned a rather catchy folk tune called Love, Rain, or Me about a on-again/off-again relationship that seemed to grow and ebb with the fickle, ever-changing springtime weather. Although it was a staple at their performances, not much was ever thought of it. However, a strange and twisted road of fate began with Sugar and Ames' Gary Krajicek performing the song with a few of his newer groups and ended with a phone call from representatives of Pete Townshend of "The Who" calling to request permission for Pete to rewrite and re-record the song as part of an upcoming rock opera. None of us expected at all the success that would ensue for Love Reign O'er Me (which, after its rewrite, bore very little resemblance to my mother's original) or for the entire Quadrophenia album. This success, coupled with the extremely generous royalty deal that my mother received, resulted in a nice supplement to our family's means. By the end of 1974, the royalties had generated sufficient income to move us across town into the Rotterdam area. My dad continued his job, as he had reached floor manager by then, and, to his credit, never once showed the slightest bit of insecurity that he was no longer the primary breadwinner for the family.
BASEBALL: MY FIRST LOVE LOST
To me, our move into a bigger home in the heart of suburbia simply meant leaving all my old friends behind. Even though the move was less than 20 miles, to a nine-year-old it seemed almost intercontinental. I found myself in a new school with a complete new crowd of kids. As a result, I withdrew even more from classes and education and focused more and more on outdoor activities. I had developed a fondness for baseball years before and, since pitching a ball was something I could practice alone, I spent hours each day both after school -- and occasionally when I should have been in school -- practicing my baseball pitching. Whether it was through a tire hanging in the back yard, at a chalk square drawn on the garage wall, or to my dad holding a mitt, to my young, imaginative mind, it was game seven of the World Series in Yankee Stadium.
It seemed like years after the move before I developed a new circle of friends. In reality, it was only 9 months or so. But in those 9 months, baseball was all I had. It was sometime during that period that I developed my childhood dream, to pitch for the New York Yankees. While now I know that practically every child has the dream of being a professional athlete, then it seemed that for the first time in my life, I had a goal, something I wanted to be. Even after I re-entered the social scene, I had my dream, and I still spent hours and hours working towards it, although now I had others practicing with me. My mom persuaded my dad to sign me up for a local Little League baseball league in 1975 and led me on the road to some of the greatest and some of the worst moments in my life.
Top row: Coach Stevens, Todd DiMielo, Me (Steve Adams), Frank Milazzo, Joe Milazzo, Pat O'Donnell, Richie White, Bobby Hillier, Coach Calhoun
Bottom row: Tom Fraceski, Scott Cullinan, John Marco, Scotty Simms, Joe Gold, David Hartman, Pat Farri
Other All-Star Team Members (not pictured): Joe Ziobrowski, Stan Ziobrowski
Replacement players (not pictured): Jeff Durant, Bob Schroll, Wrandy Seaburg
I first played Little League baseball in 1975, and I took to it right away. Our first coach, Mr. Leonard, who I still keep in contact with today, quickly placed me onto the pitching staff and for the first time in my life, I actually pitched against live opponents. I credit Mr. Leonard -- Al, as I call him now -- with doing more to help me accomplish my pitching dream than anyone else. He spent long hours with me providing encouragement and, more importantly, honest advice. I enjoyed the competition and wanted more than anything else to succeed -- to exceed what others expected of me and to rise to the highest level that I could. Our team finished last in the Carman Little League in 1975, and I learned for the first time the agony of defeat. My drive to succeed above all else began then, growing from that horrible feeling of failure. By 1977, my third year in Little League, our team had improved, but so had the rest of the league. We found ourselves fighting for first place with the perennial champs. I had become the most dominant pitcher in the 11-12 year old division, but I had a horrible tendency to try to do everything myself, and became very angry with my teammates when they couldn't perform at the same high standards to which I held myself. Basically, I was outstanding as an individual, but horrible as a team player. Over the course of a summer, that changed dramatically.
By the start of that year, I had improved to the point that the coach of the perennial first place team, Mr. Calhoun, invited me onto the Traveling All-Star team. All of the sudden, I found myself playing on the same team with many of the players I considered my mortal enemies on the field. I also found, however, that I was playing with a group of people who performed at a level that was more in line with my own expectations. As we spent every weekend together playing other area All-Star teams, I grew closer and closer to my teammates, who I once considered to be the most despicable kids on the planet. That long summer, I learned that while the spirit of competition is important, those you compete with or against are just other people with their own feelings, strengths, and weaknesses. I also learned that the most important thing in sports, as well as in life, is to play as a team. I was our primary pitcher that summer, but occasionally, Coach Calhoun would sit me out, or put me in the outfield, and pitch Frank Milazzo. For weeks, I viewed Frank as a threat and refused to interact with him at all. When we lost our first game, with Frank on the mound, I felt almost a sense of joy that he had failed. But the more I thought about it that evening, the more I realized that we were both working toward the same goal, and it was just as important to win the game with Frank pitching as it was with me pitching.
Our All-Star team crossed much of central New York that summer, winning all of our games but the one I mentioned before. This earned us our first real trip -- and my first overnight journey without my parents -- to the Upstate Little League Championships in Buffalo. I was slightly hurt that my parents could not attend, but that quickly gave way to the excitement of a week-long trip with a dozen other 12 year olds and minimal adult supervision. Looking back, one of the toughest things that Coach Calhoun had to do that weekend was to keep us focused on baseball with all the distractions of the trip. Somehow, though, all of us managed. We played four games, three of them pitched by me, and won all four. I had my first taste of real accomplishment, but it was short lived, as we needed to travel yet again, this time downriver to Newburgh for the Little League East Regional Tournament. At stake was a trip to the Little League World Series, and, as Coach Calhoun emphasized, maybe a chance to play on TV.
The motivation of appearing on TV consumed me. It was as if I could accomplish my baseball dream that summer rather than having to wait the 10-15 years I thought. That motivation alone drove me to give everything I had that week. With my parents in tow this time, we, and eleven other teams, arrived in Newburgh. By the end of the week, I had been the winning pitcher in all four of our games -- starting three -- and had given up only three runs. We won the regional tournament and were headed to the International Little League World Series.
The two weeks at home between the Regional Tournament and the World Series were the longest and most anxious two weeks of my life. But it was during these two weeks that I began to understand the adult world, and how it impacted and pervaded even a child's game. One week before we were scheduled to head to Pennsylvania to play three other U.S. teams and four teams from around the world, the forms came. In order to establish eligibility, we had to document our residence, proof of age, proof of identity, and medical qualification. With all the legalities and paperwork handled, I went to my doctor for the medical exam that would change my life.
Two days later, the results came back. I still remember my mother reading the words and my own disbelief: "Chicken Pox. Disqualified." I was devastated, of all the times to be stricken by this bane of childhood, it had to be now -- I had not even begun to show any symptoms. But even as the pox grew and spread on me, frantic calls by my parents and coaches to the doctor and the league did no good, they would not allow me to play. The situation for our team became even worse when two other players, Tony DiMielo and Scotty Simms, also tested positive, hardening the league's fear of an outbreak. Days later, when I could actually start to handle the intense disappointment and crippling sadness that went along with having my dream yanked from my fingers, we were invited by Coach Calhoun to travel separately to the World Series and attend as guests of the team, to watch them perform with the three substitutes they were allowed to take. I refused, and in fact, I dropped out of Little League and refused to set foot on a baseball field for years.
I followed the progress on the evening news and in the newspaper, as our team lost to El Cajon, CA in the semi-finals, then won the consolation game against Venezuela -- all with Frank Milazzo pitching. But "The Pox Curse", as the Schenectady newspapers emblazoned it in their pages, afforded me less of an opportunity to draw on the sympathy of the community than it did an opportunity to draw back within myself. The cruelty of fate shocked me, and caused me more to withdraw than to accept the challenge. Somehow I felt that I was doomed, that the cards were all stacked against me; a feeling that would be reinforced further in my near future.
FAMILY: MY SECOND LOVE LOST
I looked at being held out of the World Series as the worst thing that could ever happen to me. I literally became angry at the world around me and felt cheated. Less than a year later, it was as if God himself punished me for my foolish arrogance. On a Saturday night in June of 1978, while I sat at home listening to disco with my babysitter Jackie, my parents headed off to a dinner party about half an hour away. They never came home. The official explanation was "an alcohol-related single-car accident." To me, the explanation was irrelevant. For the second time in ten months, my life had been shattered by a cruel world which I had no control over.
A memento of childhood's end. I miss you both.
My memory has blocked out most of the events that followed this tragedy. I do recall seeing family parade in and out of the two-day viewing and funeral and then discussing with me where I would go to live once everything had settled. As it turned out, by the end of July, my old house had been sold, I had been shipped off to live with my aunt Sandy and uncle Sal in suburban Los Angeles, and all I had left of my parents were two boxes of keepsakes and a moderate trust fund that I couldn't touch for 8 years.
If I thought my previous move was hard, this relocation left me completely bewildered. I missed the entire school year of 1978-79, which led to me becoming even more of a social recluse. My aunt instead opted for home tutoring so that I would have more time to spend with my therapist -- the California way, I suppose. Regardless, I fell back on my previous love and time killer, baseball. Although neither my uncle Sal or my eighteen year old cousin Jeff was willing to practice with me, I still found the time and means to get in a few hours of pitching practice a day. That, combined with exploring my new hometown of Rialto on the bike they had bought me, occupied most of the time that I wasn't being tutored or counseled by what seemed like dozens of interchangeable sympathetic adults. When I was finally deemed "ready to rejoin society" in the fall of 1979, I was fortunate enough to mix in with the hundreds of anonymous faces in your typical California high school.
A DECADE OF TURMOIL
So my decade ended 180 degrees differently than it started. Security replaced with insecurity; a close-knit family replaced with one that barely knew I existed; summers playing Little League baseball replaced with summers of therapy. But looking back, this was my call to adulthood. At fourteen years old, I had seen adversity, faced it, and lived to tell the tale. I had scars already, but I learned that they were not fatal. And, although I don't give my aunt and uncle much credit for contributing to my life, their insistence that I withdraw from society for a while and deal with my problems, with the help of trained professionals, probably allowed me to not just survive the crushing blow of my parents' death, but to learn from it as well. All in all, the diversity of highs and lows in my life throughout these years helped me grow into a more adaptable person -- a survivor, some would say. Although I wouldn't wish my experiences in this period on anyone, I certainly think they built in to me the confidence to know that I could make it through anything and not to shy away from risk, since little could happen that would be worse than what I had already been through.
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