Big B

Must be that I’m getting old, because it seems that the characters from my South Deerfield roots are dropping like flies these days. Pint Szelewicki, Henry Boron, George Gromacki, Billy and Leo Rotkiewicz, Paul Whalen, Mike Rura, Paul Giorgioli, all the downtown fixtures gone but not forgotten by those of us who patrolled the four corners of old downtown “Sow-deer-feel.”

Now this: The “Big B” is gone. Bernie Redmond himself. Sixty-nine years old. Too young. But the Big B did it his way, with style.

I wouldn’t consider Big B a downtowner, although you could find him at the Polish Club or, in the old days, at Whalen’s Hot’l Warren. Not only that but he was stationed for many years at the Candlelight Restaurant, known in the vernacular as “The Bulb,” when older brother Francis owned it, on the site of the current “Butterfly Zoo.” But my fondest memories of Bernie Redmond were the days he spent umpiring on Pioneer Valley baseball diamonds. He and Franny did many a country ballgame on a Sunday afternoon, and they did it with a flair that’s been lost for some time at the old ballyard. As I recall, Franny played the role of the straight man and the Big B, well, he was just the Big B, and he stayed that way till the bitter end despite health problems that complicated matters.

The Big B worked hard, played hard, and died hard … with a smile on his face. When the doctors took half his leg off a few years ago, the result of circulatory problems brought on by adult sugar diabetes, a close friend who had been pleading with him to change his lifestyle visited him in the hospital.

“Still drinking, B?” he asked.

“Is the Pope Catholic?” was the response.

Say what you will about that answer, but it was classic Big B, always colorful with a heavy dose of stubborn. And it was this streak of color that separated him from his umpiring colleagues in the valley.

If he gets behind the plate in the life after, somewhere up there in the heavens, he’ll wreak havoc with the old Lake Hitchcock bed. The bedrock will shake with his emphatic, baritone “Steeeeeeeee-rike-ah” rattling the ledges. I’ve heard that call bounce off the red rocks of Mt. Sugarloaf as a Little Leaguer, and I’ve heard it echo off North Sugarloaf’s ledges of the same color on a hot, humid Sunday afternoon in July at the old Frontier Regional School diamond, where he and brother Fran would be doing an American Legion Baseball game.

Although the unique strike call was his trademark as an umpire, the Big B had many other unforgettable quips in his repertoire. Perhaps the best was his response to the commonly issued “You missed that one, Blue,” barb from the dugout, or better still, batter’s box. His response was priceless, not to mention highly effective. “Not with a bat I wouldn’tuv!” he’d bellow. End of discussion.

Or how about his memorable called third strike, when the time was right. It’d be “Steerike-ah three — dig, dig, dig for the dugout.” Tell me, how could anyone argue with that one? It was his way of congratulating the pitcher for freezing a batter with an unhittable two-strike pitch. And it was his way of keeping a sometimes tedious game moving, spicing it up with a gourmet touch.

The Big B even had a comeback for the fellas behind the backstop accusing him of being blind or needing glasses. He could take the barbs from back there with the best of them, but on the few occasions when he’d heard enough, he’d remove his mask, walk back toward the hecklers, point to the sky and say, “You see that sun up there? We’ll it’s 20 million miles away and I can see it just fine. I can assure you that I’m having no problem with a ball right in front of my face.”

Perfect. Classic Big B.

Now he’s up there somewhere, near that blinding sphere he used to point at. And he’s undoubtedly still calling them as he sees them. … No! Forgive me. I almost forgot. The Big B was clear about that, too. “I don’t call them as I see them,” he barked at more than one loudmouthed ballpark junkie, “I call them as they are!”

There was only one Big B. Now there are none.

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