Ralph “Pops” Riggitano needed a boost.
The pandemic had wreaked havoc on the 82-year-old. Although the longtime Cape May resident did not catch COVID-19, the threat of it happening had confined him to his home for months. That meant nothing to occupy his time except his three TVs, which he used to bet on horse racing from various tracks.
That left a lot of time to think. Eyes would fill with tears at the memory of his daughter, Laura, who passed away from cancer in 2017 at age 53. Various physical ailments made him frustrated. He needed something to shake him out of his funk, something to make him smile and laugh again.
He got it last Friday, when Lower Township’s version of the “Boys of Summer” joined their coach at the Rusty Nail on the Cape May beachfront for a touching reunion.
“I can’t tell you how much this means to me,” Ralph said toward the end of evening. “It means the world to me.”
The Cape May/Lower Township Whalers were formed in the summer of 1976, with the late Mario Franco serving as the primary sponsor and president of the team. Ralph was the manager, with assistance from legendary Lower Cape May Regional High School coach Jack Weeks. A few years later, we were sponsored by the late Jay Barnes, owner of the former Gloria’s Saloon.
The team was called the Whalers because the Town Bank section of the community along the Delaware Bay once housed a vibrant whaling industry that dates back to the 1600’s. Either that, or it was because Ralph would whale at the water cooler with a Louisville Slugger when one of us committed a costly error.
The history was also reflected on one of our early uniforms, which catcher/outfielder Steve Steger brought to the reunion. The tops were blue with a white whale emblazoned across the front. We’re not talking about an angry orca, but rather a cheerful creature of the sea.
The original team consisted primarily of former players at LCMR. Shortstop/pitcher Frank Ackley, late pitcher Clark Batchelor, third baseman Art Fournier, Fulcher and outfielders Brendan Rosenberg and Jeff Rutherford, and second baseman Carl “Puff” Roth were standouts on the LCM team that won the Cape-Atlantic League championship in 1973. Outfielders Paul Fournier, Marty Franco and Mike Moore; first baseman Frank Riggitano (Ralph’s son), infielders Joe Genovese and Allan Swoyer; Steger; and a certain left-handed pitcher (me) also played for the Caper Tigers in the mid-to-late ‘70s.
The early team also featured third-baseman Don Mumma, a Cape May resident who was a U.S. Army recruiter, and pitcher/infielder John “Suds” Vogel, who worked during the summers with me and Steve for Steve’s grandfather at Steger’s Beach Service.
The Whalers were not admitted to the Atlantic County Baseball League until around 1979, though we played a number of those teams, plus the old Pleasantville A’s and various other independent squads the first couple of seasons. For home games, Ralph would arrive a couple of hours early at LCMR to rake the infield and line the batter’s boxes and base paths with lime.
Road games mean piling into outfielder Joe Fulcher’s van for trips to Ty Helfrich Field in Pleasantville, plus other exotic locales in Linwood, Margate, Northfield, Newtonville and Somers Point.
We even made a trip on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry for a doubleheader against a Delaware team, though the Whalers were missing one pitcher that day. On my way to the terminal, I decided to stop at my girlfriend Karen Newton’s house a few blocks away just to say hi.
I wound up missing the boat, much to Ralph’s dismay, but my ship came in years later. A day after the reunion, Karen and I celebrated our 39th wedding anniversary.
Over the years, players came and went. Steve is believed to be the only one who played all eight years, from 1976 to 1983. He also insists he never missed a game, declaring himself the Cal Ripken of the franchise.
Catcher Mark Seim joined the team in the late 1970s and stayed for a couple seasons. Wildwood High School graduates George Harry (catcher) and Jeff Tomlinson (pitcher) played for the last three or four years.
Most of us are in our 60s now. The brown or blonde hair that used to jut out from the backs of batting helmets is now gone or gray. Tales of games and moments from those days were interspersed with recommendations for surgeons who perform hip and knee replacements.
Scores and statistics have faded over the years, but other memories remain vivid.
Brendan told a story about a game against Middle Township in the early years. Ralph became so incensed over our lack of offense that he inserted himself as a pinch-hitter. Then in his 40s, he lashed a line drive to center field, but pulled both hamstrings on his way to first base and was thrown out.
After a couple hours, Ralph grabbed his cane and walked to the car with his son Frank, an autographed Whalers jersey tucked under his other arm.
“My baseball family,” Ralph said. “Outstanding guys who never quit. I love each and every one of you young men.”
For the first time in months, he was smiling.
David Weinberg’s columns can also be found on his Dave Weinberg Extra Points Facebook page and blog, as well as on 973ESPN.com. His podcast, Dave Weinberg’s Tequila and Touchdowns, can be heard on Anchor, Facebook and Twitter. You can also hear him 5:10 p.m. every Monday at Newstalk 1400-AM WOND and WONDRadio.com on Off the Press with Scott Cronick. His Weinberg Wednesday segment airs at 6:15 p.m. weekly on 97.3-FM ESPN.