Each time Blaise DiNardo pulls into the parking lot at Frontier Field, he can't help but feel as if he's traveling back, back, back in time. When the Rochester Red Wings' longtime security supervisor/goodwill ambassador gazes up at the huge, electronic billboard tower at the mouth of the lot, he visualizes his grandmother's house, which once sat on this very spot. And he remembers how he and his parents called this place home for the first six years of his life. It's almost as if he can still smell that sweet aroma of Grandma's homemade spaghetti sauce each time he passes by.
"When I found out this was where they were going to build the ballpark (nearly two decades ago), I got a little emotional,'' he says. "It was like my life was coming full circle."
It was as if this 78-year-old boy of summer was rounding third, digging for home.
That they would carve a gem of a baseball diamond within a Luke Easter home run of DiNardo's old homestead couldn't have been more fitting, because the game has long gripped him the way legendary Luke once gripped a Louisville Slugger.
"I fell in love the first time I went to old Red Wing Stadium back in the early 1940s," says DiNardo, who just completed his 50th season with the team. "I was one of those Knot Hole Gang kids who screamed at the top of his lungs, 'We want a hit! We want a hit!' I walk around this park and I hear kids screaming the same thing 60, 70 years later, and I can't help but smile."
In that magnificent movie "Field of Dreams," there's an evocative soliloquy in which the James Earl Jones character tells the Kevin Costner character that the one constant in America has been baseball. Well, for a half-century the one constant in Wings baseball has been Blaise DiNardo. The former Rochester policeman and detective began working for team president Morrie Silver in 1963 and all these summers later now works for Morrie's daughter, Naomi Silver.
DiNardo has spanned generations, from the old ballpark at 500 Norton St. to the new one at 1 Morrie Silver Way. He has seen scores of players, managers and umpires pass through-including Hall of Famers such as Earl Weaver, Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken Jr. He has watched Governors' Cups being hoisted and has taken part in champagne showers. And he has witnessed millions of fans herding through the turnstiles, having a grand old time at the ballpark.
"I have people I remember coming here as kids, who now have kids and in some cases grandkids accompanying them to games," he says. "It's great to see families make a tradition of Wings baseball."
The team's indefatigable general manager Dan Mason and his hard-working, "we-always-aim-to-please" staff treat every home game as if it's a festival. DiNardo certainly does his part in helping the Wings provide Rochesterians with the best sports entertainment value in town. This soon-to-be octogenerian is in perpetual motion throughout the game, roaming the stands, foul pole to foul pole, coordinating the positioning of security guards, ushers and ticket-takers and tending to any issues, which are extremely rare. But DiNardo's greatest contribution is his interaction with the fans. He knows so many of them by name, and he's constantly stopping by to catch up on their lives.
"Don't print this," he says, smiling, "but I really would do this job for free. This isn't work; this is a labor of love. It never gets old. I can't wait to get here on game days."
His favorite season may have been 1971, when the Joe Altobelli-managed Wings won the cup and the minor league version of the World Series. Morrie Silver was so thrilled with the outcome that he ordered steaks brought into the clubhouse after the final game.
This recently concluded season has been special, too. Despite a revolving-door roster, the Gene Glynn-managed Wings made the playoffs for the first time in seven years. They also suited up the top feel-good story in all of minor-league baseball in the person of Chris Colabello. A 29-year-old first baseman who had spent seven seasons toiling anonymously in the independent leagues, Colabello never gave up on the dream. He finally received an offer from the Minnesota Twins organization and seized the opportunity, winning the International League batting title as well as Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors this summer.
"Great, great story of a great kid who never gave up on his dream," DiNardo says. "It's one of the things that makes coming to the ballpark so special. You never know who's going to grab your attention, and you get to say, 'I saw so-and-so play here before he made it to the big leagues.'" In late August, the Wings feted DiNardo with a night in his honor. Naomi Silver arranged for the county and city to issue proclamations citing DiNardo's longtime contributions to baseball and the community. "I was very, very appreciative, but they didn't need to do it," he says. "Just having the opportunity to do this job for as long as I have is reward enough."
DiNardo hasn't spent one second thinking about retirement. And why should he? He's discovered, like many, that a baseball park is one of those rare places where you can go and feel forever young.
"I hope to be back next year and for many years to come,'' he says. "As long as the bosses will have me back and my health is good, I'm going to keep making this trip."
Around the bases and back in time-to a home-away-from-home just a Luke Easter home run from his original home.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak's 16th book, a collaboration with rock 'n' roll legend Lou Gramm titled "Juke Box Hero," is available at amazon.com and in bookstores. He provides analysis following Bills games on WROC-TV and is a correspondent for USA Today SportsWeekly.
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