The season took place more than a week earlier than anyone had hoped for. After the last out, Dunkirk High School baseball head coach Frank Jagoda led his players to the outfield, where the team collapsed on the grass while Jagoda and his staff quietly pointed out how proud they were.
Their team lost Tuesday to Alden, 13-7, in the quarterfinals of the class B-1 playoffs. It was an upheaval, a quick turnaround just days after Dunkirk won an emotional victory over Fredonia, a close rival. As the Marauders finished the season at 16-4, their dream had been a sectional championship, and Alden’s impressive victory left the players stunned, many in tears.
Last to speak was assistant coach Don Stoyle, 60, astride his motorized scooter. He simply thanked everyone – the seniors in particular – “for allowing me to be part of the team”.
As a single player, the players shouted âRock solid! Stoyle turned to the canoe, where many teens kissed him before retrieving their dusty gloves and spikes.
âAll of this,â Stoyle said. “It’s like being reborn.”
Until his wife Audrey sent me a message suggesting that I stop by, I had not seen Stoyle since the 1970s. He was a few years younger when we were both children in Dunkirk, where our brothers elders were close friends. As a teenager, Stoyle was one of the brightest and most cunning athletes of his age in this lakeside town – a basketball playmaker, a junior football quarterback and a baseball star catcher, his favorite sport.
One day in April 1975, he met some buddies who intended to ride motorcycles along the railroad tracks. Stoyle remembers he almost didn’t go, torn by the opportunity to play pickup with other friends. He made a decision based on the guys he promised first. He went for a ride, a 14-year-old without a helmet or protection, a passenger on a friend’s bike who got out of control near a point where the tracks crossed a road.
âIt was like everything had come together the wrong way,â Stoyle said.
He can’t remember how his friends must have taken him off the beaten track, or how an entire community feared he wouldn’t survive. He woke up in a Buffalo hospital with head trauma, a damaged spine, and no use of his legs. His first concern was to go to a store, because he had planned to buy a new glove.
Before long he had to face all he had lost.
âAt first,â Stoyle said, âI thought about the ‘what ifs’. “
In a way, the Dunkirk players have just experienced it, this thought turned into a revelation: “I always believed that the accident happened for a reason,” said Stoyle.
As a teenager, by dint of agony step by step, he learns to walk again. He had the passionate support of his siblings, parents and grandmother, Helena Kenney, who arrived in Dunkirk as a young immigrant from County Cork, Ireland after the death of her firefighter husband in job.
Familiar with trials, she kept faith in her grandson. “All of them,” said Stoyle, “were spiritual rocks.” After graduating from former Cardinal Mindszenty High School, he was working in a delicatessen when he discovered programs to help pay for his college education. This led to a social work degree from SUNY Fredonia.
The kid dreamed of the big leagues. Man has found a greater purpose. For 25 years, Stoyle was a social worker at the Cassadaga Job Corps Center, where his mission was to help young women and men – often from difficult lives, in big cities – acquire the skills necessary to build and maintain careers. .
I waited to write this piece until the World Series, this dramatic showdown between the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers. The afternoon light and the scattered leaves at the end of October always bring me back to childhood. We would run home after school to watch the end of every match, at a time when the World Series was being played in the
Stoyle realized that the patience and endurance he had mastered at such a price could be a way to bond with uncertain and often nostalgic teenagers. He figured if things had turned out differently – if he had never approached those tracks – then maybe he wouldn’t see the world the way he does now, and maybe to be that he wouldn’t have known how to help all these kids.
In Dunkirk, he spent decades training Babe Ruth. He was elected for a few terms as a city councilor. He met and married Audrey Lanski, a decision he considers the biggest he ever made.
Yet his injuries erupted again as he got older. Gradually, he lost the ability to walk, a process that accelerated a decade ago when an infection – related to internal pressure in his damaged spine – left him with sepsis. Doctors put him in an induced coma that Audrey and a legion of friends feared would not wake up.
“Hit two,” Stoyle calls him. Recovering, tired, he spent most of his time at home, a guy who likes people who choose relative solitude.
That changed after Jagoda moved in nearby. The Stoyles would sometimes meet him while walking their dog Buddy, conversations that brought back vivid memories.
In the early 1970s, Stoyle was the catcher for fierce pitcher Jagoda on some Little League and Babe Ruth all-star teams who entered regional tournaments. As teenagers, they vowed to one day win a state championship, but Stoyle was injured before he had the chance.
In different high schools, they followed separate paths. Twenty-seven years ago, Jagoda became head coach at Dunkirk. He is now three wins away from the school record held by his mentor, the late Al Stuhlmiller, a legendary coach who gave the pitch his name.
âHe taught us to never back down, to always play with fire,â Jagoda said.
The Dunkirk Field, near the rumbling trains passing by the old steel mill, is only a few blocks from Stoyle’s house. He has become a regular at the Marauder games. Jagoda strolled around talking about strategy through the backstop, renewing the essence of that pitcher-catcher bond, the conversations leading to a logical conclusion.
“Who better than him?” said Jagoda, who asked Stoyle to join a team of assistant coaches including Eric Gloss and Steve Zatorski.
That was two years ago, before the pandemic wiped out the 2020 season. Audrey was so worried about bringing the virus home to her vulnerable husband that she retired from a longtime job. at Tops. âWe were scared of the third strike,â Stoyle said.
This spring, vaccinated, he finally settled in a canoe, a volunteer who quickly became the backbone of the team. He’s done his best to speak with every player, on the pitch or on the bench, in every game or practice. He wrote down the score in an everyday notebook, using his own complicated system. One day he saw Jagoda drop a stone from the earth. The two friends joked that Stuhlmiller had left it to them a long time ago. Stoyle brought it to Audrey, who painted it, creating a symbol for Dunkirk and his team.
It was rough, barely perfect, but impossible to break.
Many players have told me that they feel the same strength in their new coach. Via text, outfielder Mike Norton explained how âhe taught us to take negativity into account and use it to our advantageâ.
For Stoyle, that meant using his own journey to emphasize perspective. He learned a long time ago that a mistake is not the end of the world, that what matters is not the mistake but who stays with you once things go wrong.
âI’m trying to get them to let go, bounce back, recover and come back stronger,â he said.
Over 40 years after we last met, we’ve spent a lot of time meeting up in Stoyle’s living room. He expressed his gratitude for having had the chance this year to share his post with the team, although he was never sure of the exact amount of sticks.
As he spoke, his cell phone kept ringing, players texting him end of season texts. He read aloud a line from Javier DeJesus, a junior who had seemed inconsolable that day after throwing and losing, until he returned home to somehow understand this. that will matter the most in years to come.
“Thank you,” he told Stoyle, “for being a part of my life.”
Sean Kirst is a columnist for the Buffalo News. Email him at [email protected]