Oldies But Goodies: Johnson, Bidwell Have Been Around Twilight League Forever

MARLBOROUGH – The sun is inching down toward the tree line, the opposing team is ready to play and the umpires have signaled it is time to begin this Greater Hartford Twilight League baseball game.

Foss Insurance manager Gene Johnson is fidgety. There are only eight players in the dugout. Johnson, 77, the greatest hitter in the history of the league, hasn't been a regular in the lineup for about 30 years, but he won't let this become a lost evening.

"I love being at the bleepin' ballpark," Johnson said.

He didn't actually say bleepin', but Johnson's course vocabulary has a way of coming across as inoffensive, innocent. Gruff but gentle, part baseball lifer and part classical pianist, he swears his way through reactions and descriptions of everything, usually with a smile. It's actually endearing.

The dugout conversations on this day touched on his professional career, his family, his team, the Twilight League's storied history and whatever bleepin' concert Dave Bidwell, the best pitcher in the history of the league, was off attending in Woonsocket, R.I.

Johnson finished scribbling out a lineup card and reluctantly walked to right field so the game could begin. He pounded his fist into his glove before every pitch. A few fly balls were hit to right-center, including one center fielder Mark DiTommaso sprinted more than 100 feet to catch. Noting that he was coming closer to actually being part of the action, Johnson yelled aloud that the ninth bleepin' player better arrive soon.

Foss scratched out a 5-0 victory and Johnson, in the league for a 52nd consecutive season, said, repeatedly, "Good bleepin' game."

Then he went home to his piano.

"I started taking lessons when I was 11," Johnson said. "My mother had a Baldwin. Semi-classical, classical music — Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin. I love that music. It's just a wonderful expression. I love that no matter how I feel after a bad day or a bad game that I can make such nice sounds come out of my piano. I still practice every day."

Five days later, 10 players are on hand for a game against the Meriden-based Expos. First pitch is scheduled for 6 p.m. and at 6:30 no umpires had arrived. Johnson, exhausted on one of the most humid days of the year, isn't feeling well and the umpire situation isn't helping.

"They bleepin' told me bleepin' they would be here. They're not bleepin' here! Un-bleepin'-believable."

Bidwell, in his 40th season, is scheduled to pitch. He's at the other end of the dugout, talking about the Commander Cody show he attended, saying how the 70-year-old country rock musician was complaining of sore, arthritic fingers.

"It was kind of sad," said Bidwell, who has followed Commander Cody to just about every show within driving distance since the mid-1970's. "He was kind of in the dumps. He's a painter, too. He does fantastic portraits of jazz and rock musicians. I bought one. It was this beautiful portrait of Jim Morrison's face. He's legendary. Anybody who's my age, or 40-70, knows Commander Cody."

Bidwell, 58, set the league record for victories before most of his teammates were even born and earned another as Foss beat the Expos, 13-4. Afterward, during a walk to the parking lot, where players dig into a case of beer, Bidwell continues a discussion about music. He attends concerts quite often with his older brother, Mel, 60.

"I love live music almost as much as I love baseball," he said. "One of our favorites is Chris Duarte. Hell of a nice guy. Seen him 40 or so times. And Ana Popovic, the best female guitarist I've ever seen. Look them up and listen to their music. It will blow your freakin' mind."

Bidwell talks about these musicians with the fascination and passion that a baseball fan might have for his longevity.

"Maybe the real baseball connoisseurs, I guess," he said.

Like Family

In some ways, Johnson and Bidwell couldn't be more different. Johnson is gruff, cantankerous. Bidwell is chatty, free-spirited, a one-man party who still wears rock 'n' roll T-shirts under his jersey.

In other ways, they couldn't be more alike. Both are fiercely competitive and committed to a sport and a team. They're basically family now, after all these innings and years spent together as part of the most successful team in the Twilight League's 85-year history. Together, they have 135 years of life experience and nearly 100 years of Twilight experience.

"I treasure it," Johnson said.

Johnson was raised in Hartford and Manchester and played professional baseball for seven years in the farm systems of the New York Giants and Milwaukee Braves. He returned to the Hartford area and, with wife Helen, raised a family. The couple has six children (three boys, three girls) and 14 grandchildren (seven boys, seven girls).

Johnson, a third baseman who eventually made a career in car sales, began playing in the Twilight League in 1953 and won numerous batting titles, several times hitting close to .500 for a season. In 1975, he recruited Bidwell, who had pitched at Assumption College.

"Gene won the batting title that year at like .472, something ridiculous," Bidwell said. "He had the respect of the umpires. They would never call a third strike on him. It used to piss everybody off. Hey, he had that respect. He played the equivalent of Triple A, which they didn't have in 1960. But that's the level he was at, behind Eddie Matthews. He just mashed the ball."

Bill Holowaty, whose legendary 45-year run as coach at Eastern Connecticut ended when he resigned in 2013, attended a game recently. He coached Gene's son Jeff at Eastern. Johnson coached Holowaty's son Jared in the Twilight League.

Jeff Johnson, another of the great Twilight hitters from years past, and Mike Johnson, another of Gene's sons who played at UConn, both played professional baseball.

"Jeff was a big pain in the ass and a vicious competitor, just like Gene," Holowaty said, laughing. "Gene has been the backbone of the league. There were guys in the '60s and '70s who were old-school baseball guys who you could really learn from. They taught me to compete [during one season for Hamilton Standard, another Twilight team]. My son said when you play for this team, play for this man, you play to win. This guy teaches you how baseball should be played."

Outsmarting Batters

Bidwell, a Manchester native who still lives in the town, was never a power pitcher. Johnson said over the years Bidwell's fastball has gone "slower, slower, slower – stop! But he always threw strikes. He refuses to walk anyone."

Bidwell, an intimidating 6-foot-4 pitcher with a Fu Manchu and a mop of gray hair, has walked just two batters in 35 innings this season. He's succeeding the way he always has, by mixing a curveball, slider and knuckleball with the occasional fastball at about 75 mph. Young hitters in their prime, fresh out of college, swing out of their shoes thinking they'll hit the ball 450 feet against Bidwell and, more often than not, pop up or hit a weak ground ball.

"David is very sly," Johnson said.

"He knows how to pitch," said his catcher of the past seven years, Kevin Clements, who played at Manchester Community College and the University of Bridgeport, graduating in 2008. "It doesn't matter who he's facing, he's always ready to kick ass. A lot of players in this league have faced him more than enough times, but he continues to keep them off balance. He's not blowing anyone away. It's just that they don't know what's coming."

Bidwell became the league's all-time winningest pitcher in the mid-1980s and earned his 100th victory in 1989. He picked up No. 200 in 2003. He now has more than 250 victories and about 80 losses and has never had an arm injury despite throwing well over 2,000 innings. Only one person kept the exact statistics.

"My dad had it written down in his estimate book," Bidwell said. "It would say, 'This guy needs a roof, this guy needs siding, these are David's wins year-by-year from 1975.'"

Bidwell's father, Melvin "Ted" Bidwell, attended just about every game with wife Betty over the years until his death in December 2012. He ran a home improvement business for 60 years.

"Rubber arm, still, and certainly knows how to pitch," said Vernon Orioles cleanup hitter Jack Champagne, who is playing his 20th and final season in the Twilight League. "He can spot the ball, changes speeds so well, and he can throw any pitch for a strike. You sit their and say, 'OK, he's going to throw me a curveball.' And that's exactly when he throws a fastball right in there and you're like, 'Oh, man!'"

It's Still Fun

Every year on March 1, Bidwell begins to prepare for the season by throwing a lacrosse ball against a wall for a few weeks. He stretches at home before games and works a midnight-8 a.m. shift afterward as a security guard at Kaman Corp. in Bloomfield.

He says he will continue to pitch until he's incapable, and there's really no sign of him slowing to the point that he would be overmatched. Johnson says he will manage until it's no longer enjoyable. Over the years, games became family events with wives, parents and children consistently attending.

The playoffs begin Tuesday at McKenna Field in East Hartford. Foss, which at 10-6 is in second place behind Vernon (20-1), has 17 championships with Johnson as manager. Evan Chamberlain, a Hebron native who pitched at Eastern, and Ryan Pacyna, a New Britain native who pitched at Becker College in Worcester, will likely be the first two pitchers called on by Johnson. Bidwell is expected to pitch either the third game or work out of the bullpen.

Both Johnson and Bidwell hope they don't outlast the league, which is down to six teams and, it seems, hanging on by the stitching of a baseball.

"Gene is more nervous this year than any, just about having enough guys," Bidwell said. "It sucks that we put him in that position. I understand guys have other commitments. Work is one thing, but if you're going to miss a game on a Sunday because you're going to the beach and you can't come back in time, you're not committed enough. It never used to be like that. My first 20 years in the league, we'd have the same guys in the order all the time, write it down. The only thing that would change is the pitcher."

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