Vic Zodda still knows talent when he sees it.
About three weeks shy of 90, this Peninsula baseball pioneer watched the hometown team Tuesday at War Memorial Stadium, and when Pilots catcher Chris Cowell uncorked a throw to second base, Zodda took immediate notice.
"That ball was just a few feet off the ground the whole way," he marveled. "I would have loved to have had his arm."
Back in the day, Zodda's arm was good enough to merit a Polo Grounds tryout with the New York Giants, a scholarship to Elon University and a minor-league fling with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
"We all agreed that I wasn't going to the major leagues," the former catcher said wryly.
But Dodgers executive Buzzie Bavasi recognized Zodda's grasp of the game and hired him as a general manager, first of Brooklyn's farm team in Valdosta, Ga., then of the Newport News Baby Dodgers, the first tenants at War Memorial Stadium.
Zodda later earned regional raves as a restaurateur, but Tuesday the Pilots thanked him for his baseball contributions of more than half-a-century ago.
"If it weren't for you and those who were with you, we wouldn't have this (team)," Pilots owner Henry Morgan said as he introduced Zodda to fans.
Zodda threw out a first pitch, a little low and inside, and then settled into a box near home plate to watch the Pilots and Edenton Steamers in a Coastal Plain League game.
He said he hadn't been to the park in more than 40 years, an absence not intentional but the product of a non-stop life that today finds him residing in Williamsburg and still hitting a white ball, this one smaller and without seams.
"Just an ordinary father, grandfather and great grandfather," Zodda said.
He grew up in New York, about 30 miles from the city, then home to the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers.
"We're talking the Depression," Zodda said. "Very seldom did we get to the city and the ballpark."
After the Giants tryout, he landed with the Lawrenceville squad in the Southside League, which also had teams in Suffolk, Emporia and Lynchburg. A Lawrenceville teammate was headed to Elon, and Zodda followed.
World War II intervened, and Zodda served on a Naval escort ship in the South Pacific.
"We never saw the enemy," he said, "and I (must) say that I didn't miss them."
Zodda left the Navy in February 1946 and headed to Florida for the Dodgers' spring training. Prior to the war, he had spent half a season with Brooklyn's farm team in Durham, N.C., where he caught Rex Barney, a renowned flame thrower and later a beloved public-address announcer for the Baltimore Orioles.
Many catchers have a sixth sense — World Series-winning managers such as Mike Scioscia, Joe Torre, Joe Girardi, Bruce Bochy and Jim Leyland played behind the plate — and Bavasi recognized Zotta's. He spent five years in Valdosta before heading to the Peninsula for the 1951 season.
The Newport News Baby Dodgers were among three Hampton Roads teams in the Class B Piedmont League, along with the Norfolk Tars and Portsmouth Cubs. The Dodgers were formed in 1944 and played at Shipyard Park until War Memorial's 1948 opening.
Zodda recalled the Baby Dodgers averaging about 1,500 fans per home game, and in 1954 they won the Piedmont League championship with a roster that included future big-leaguers Norm Sherry and Roger Craig.
Brooklyn disbanded the Baby Dodgers after the 1955 season, but Zodda had found his adult home. He opened a restaurant, Vic Zodda's, and later started Victor Management Company, which operated more than 30 hotels and employed nearly 3,000 people.
Minor-league baseball returned to War Memorial in 1963, and Zodda remained loosely affiliated as Cincinnati Reds prospects such as Bernie Carbo, Johnny Bench and Lou Piniella played here.
"Now there," Zodda said of Piniella, "was a character."
No question, and the same holds for Zodda. He's remarkably spry, with a strong voice and steady gait. He's quite modest, prouder of his five children, seven grandchildren and four great grandchildren than himself.
"Pasta and garlic," Zodda said with a smile.
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