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Bobby Valentine speaks, four inducted at Amsterdam baseball hall of fame ceremony

Local baseball legends John “Jack” Pileckas and Dave Mars, and former Amsterdam Mohawks players Kevin Graber and Brendan Harris became the four newest inductees to join the Amsterdam baseball/Amsterdam Mohawks Hall of Fame on Saturday evening during the organization’s 9th annual induction ceremony and dinner at St. Mary’s Institute in Amsterdam, NY.

Keynote speaker for the event was former Major League Baseball player and manager Bobby Valentine. A cocktail hour was held before the inductions and music was provided by Hitrick and Brooks, a trio of high school boys who performed a selection of old and new musical numbers. Guests also had a chance to bid on a collection of baseball themed memorabilia in a silent auction. A dozen items including a Vespa scooter and an autographed poster of New York Yankees star Mariano Rivera were part of a live auction before the main event. Rich Becker introduced over a dozen sponsors for the event and three guest speakers who made opening remarks including New York State Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, City of Amsterdam Mayor Michael Villa, and Amsterdam Mohawks General Manager Brian Spagnola.

“From a national standpoint, Amsterdam is the place to go,” Spagnola said about collegiate league baseball. Spagnola mentioned in particular Amsterdam’s popularity with the University of Kentucky where several Mohawks players have come from in recent years.

“We had another record crowd this year at Shuttleworth Park,” Spagnola continued. “The Mohawks are a huge team effort. We can’t thank the fans enough.”

The event gave Mohawks fans a chance to reflect on a successful 2015 campaign, and look forward to the 2016 season. Over 40,000 fans attended Mohawks games in 2015 and saw a Mohawks team post a Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League (PGCBL) record 40 wins, and win a fifth straight Eastern Division title. The 2015 Amsterdam Mohawks were ranked as high as eighth in the nation among collegiate league teams. Eleven former Mohawks were drafted by major league teams in 2015, and four former Mohawks played in the majors in 2014. Among the 2015 Amsterdam Mohawks highlights were Handsome Monica (Arizona) hitting a team record nine home runs, Zach Logue (Kentucky) was named PGCBL pitcher of the year, and Mohawks catcher Scott Manaea (North Carolina State) winning the PGCBL All Star Game Most Valuable Player award.

Spagnola also gave a little preview of this year’s team, and noted that Amsterdam High School graduate and former Rams baseball standout Andrew Rouse will be a full season member of the 2016 Mohawks. Rouse, who now plays at Marist College, played in 10 games for the Mohawks in 2015. At the conclusion of the live auction, Becker returned to the podium and announced the Amsterdam Baseball /Mohawks Hall of Fame 2016 inductees.

John “Jack” Pileckas, Amsterdam Baseball Hall of Fame inductee

Pileckas was only 17 years old when he joined the Marion Diggers of the Ohio State League as part of the Chicago Cubs Organization. Pileckas played for the Diggers in 1944, served his country in the Navy in 1945, and returned to the team in 1947 where he batted .309. Pileckas played for another Cubs affiliate, the Elizabethton Betsy Cubs in 1947, and later an independent affiliate of the Appalachian League, the New River Rebels. Pileckas spent 15 years in semi-pro baseball on several teams including the Amsterdam Stars, Amsterdam A.C. Brownies, and the Textiles. While playing for the Textiles in 1962, won the New York State Championship at Mohawk Mills (now Shuttleworth) Park, and the Schenectady Twilight League title.

“I’m elated at all the attention I’m getting,” Pileckas said. “When I played ball we always played to win.”

Dave Mars, Amsterdam Baseball Hall of Fame inductee

Mars was a member of the 1974 and 1975 Section 2 NYSPHSAA champion Amsterdam baseball teams in his high school days. During a 53 game win streak that stretched from the 1973-1975 seasons, Mars, a career .390 hitter, was the only player to play in every game of that streak. The Amsterdam team went undefeated 23-0 in 1974. Mars was a member of three Class A baseball title teams and two Section 2 title teams while in high school. The 1973-1975 Amsterdam baseball teams were inducted into the Amsterdam baseball / Mohawks Hall of Fame in 2009.

“I wish my dad were here,” said an emotional Mars. “I was fortunate to play with such great ball players.”

Kevin Graber, Amsterdam Mohawks Hall of Fame inductee

A member of the first Mohawks team to win a league title (1988), Graber was part of the Schenectady Mohawks team from 1988-1990, and played baseball at the College of St. Rose, graduating in 1992. Graber’s best season with the Mohawks was in 1990 where he batted .389 and was a New York Collegiate Baseball League (NYCBL) All-Star in each of his three years. Graber was a player and coach for the Mohawks in the 1990’s, and played and managed professionally with the Prairie League’s Southern Minnesota Stars. Graber also managed the Adirondack Lumberjacks and the Saratoga Phillies in the New York Collegiate Baseball League (NYCBL). Graber was also an assistant coach at Amherst College, and coached the 2005 Amherst Mickey Mantle team. Today, Graber is in his eighth year coaching at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA where he lives with his family.

“I feel like a celebrity,” Graber said as he stepped to the podium. “When I got the call from Brian Spagnola I had a five word response, ‘What took you so long?’” he said drawing a laugh from the more than 300 people in attendance at the ceremony.

Graber went on to discuss the long list of teams that would have been on the back of his baseball card, and noted the one year that he did not put on a baseball uniform. Graber is a cancer survivor having undergone treatment for lymphoma after his college days.

“That was the only year I did not have a baseball uniform on,” Graber said. “I’m still in the game. I kept playing.”

Brendan Harris, Amsterdam Mohawks Hall of Fame inductee

Harris is one of many Mohawks to play professional baseball and play in the majors. Harris played for the Schenectady Mohawks in 1999 and attended William and Mary College before being selected by the Chicago Cubs in the fifth round of the MLB draft. Harris was a career .300 hitter in the minor leagues and made his major league debut with the Cubs on July 6, 2004 against the Milwaukee Brewers where he got his first hit, a double, in only his second major league at bat. Harris played for six MLB teams including the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals (2004-2006), Cincinnati Reds (2006), Tampa Bay Devil Rays (2007), Minnesota Twins (2008-2010), and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (2013). Harris was the starting shortstop for the Twins in 2008 and 2009, and has the distinction of being the last MLB player to bat at the Minneapolis Metrodome. That came on October 11, 2009 when the Twins lost in the divisional round of the playoffs to New York. Harris has a career batting average of .256 with 33 home runs and 167 runs batted in eight seasons in the big leagues. Harris also played in the minor leagues for the Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies, New York Yankees, Texas Rangers, and Los Angeles Dodgers organizations, and will be at Spring training when teams open camp this year.

“The collegiate league taught me about the game,” Harris said. “It helped me for life in the minors and all of those double headers.

Bobby Valentine, keynote speaker

Valentine played 10 seasons in the majors making his MLB debut with the Los Angles Dodgers, who drafted him out of the University of Southern California (USC) in the first round of the 1968 MLB draft. Beginning with the Dodgers in 1969, Valentine played for five clubs between 1971-1979 including the California Angels, New York Mets, San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners. A career .260 hitter with 441 hits during his career, Valentine was valuable in a utility role playing every outfield position, every infield position, and catcher during his career. Valentine joined the MLB managerial ranks in 1985 when he was hired to guide the Texas Rangers. Valentine guided the Rangers for eight seasons before having greater success with the New York Mets from 1996-2002. Valentine guided the Mets to the National League pennant in 2000 before losing to the Yankees 4 games to 1 in the World Series. Between 2004 and 2009, Valentine managed overseas with the Chiba Lotte Marines of Japan and guided them to victory in the Japan Series over the Hanshin Tigers in 2005. Valentine later returned to manage the Boston Red Sox in 2012. During his 16 year managerial career in the MLB, Valentine amassed a record of 1186 wins and 1165 losses.

“I did not play in this (collegiate) league as a young man because it wasn’t there,” said Valentine, who is the only person to manage in both the World Series and the Japan Series.

Valentine went on to reflect on his good fortune of his junior high school in Stamford, CT closing so he had to begin high school as a ninth grader. Valentine started at shortstop for the high school team as a freshman and was later scouted and drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“When we’re talking to young people, we have to remember that luck has a lot to do with the fortunes of mankind,” Valentine said. “Luck is a part of life just as anything else is”

Valentine took questions from the audience and remembered the first baseball game following the attacks of September 11, 2001 when the Atlanta Braves came to Shea Stadium to play the Mets. Valentine noted what happened when Mets catcher Mike Piazza hit a home run during that game.

“In those 35 seconds that it took for Mike (Piazza) to get around the bases everything changed,” Valentine said. “People were crying, my players were crying, and everything changed after that.”

Valentine and the Mets helped the survivors of the attacks in any way they could and helped bring baseball back to America during a time when the nation needed to heal.

Valentine also took time during the event to sign autographs.The Mohawks also presented the 2016 Norbert Sherbunt Community Service Award to Pete Phelps for his dedication to Shuttleworth Park and Amsterdam baseball. Spagnola thanked all the sponsors, all those who made the night possible, the fans, and especially noted Rosemary Smith, who organized the host families for many years with the Mohawks. Winners of the silent auction were announced at the conclusion of the event.

Mohawks making headlines

Two members of the 2014 Amsterdam Mohawks were recently named to the list of Louisville Slugger third team Pre-Season All Americans.

JaVon Shelby, an infielder at the University Kentucky, and Thomas Hackimer a right handed pitcher of St. Johns University were both part of the Amsterdam Mohawks team that won the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League title in 2014. Shelby was a middle infielder for the Mohawks, while Hackimer got his first taste of pitching after being primarily and infielder. Shelby returned to the Mohawks in 2015 and was part of a team that won a PGCBL record 40 games. Hackimer took his talents to the Cape Cod League. Both players are projected to be selected in the 2016 Major League Baseball draft.

About Scott Mulford

Scott Mulford has been covering local sports for over 20 years. He previously wrote for the Amsterdam Star and The Free Press of the Mohawk Valley.

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