Cumberland Times-News

Columns

January 31, 2012

Somewhere over the rainbow starts here

During a break in the program Sunday night, former Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Bob Robertson sat at a table backstage sharing some stories from the day when he played some of the finest defensive first base and hit some of the longest home runs in the major leagues in helping the Bucs to the 1971 world championship.

 He seemed to be enjoying himself, and it was wonderful to see the three-time Top Award winner return to the Dapper Dan festivities during the club’s 64th awards banquet held at the Ali Ghan Shrine Club. After a couple of stories and some laughs, Robertson, before returning to his seat at the front table, looked around and added with a serious look in his eye, “I pray to God one of the young athletes here tonight can take the same journey. It was incredible.”

While nobody expects to see them play on national television in a World Series, an incredible journey gets under way today for three of the athletes who were honored by the Dapper Dan Sunday night: Mountain Ridge High’s Jarrod Harper, who will sign his letter of intent to accept a football scholarship at West Virginia University, and Fort Hill’s Garrett and Dylan Clay, who over the weekend made verbal commitments to Marist College to play football, and are scheduled to sign their letters today as well on national signing day.

Former University of Maryland quarterback Mark Manges is one who has taken a pretty incredible journey himself, having quarterbacked the Terps to an undefeated season and the Cotton Bowl and seeing his picture turn up on the cover of Sports Illustrated along the way.

Manges was honored twice by the Dapper Dan with its top award for bringing the most national recognition to the area through athletics, and remains a regular at the dinners as a member of the Dapper Dan executive board.

On Sunday, prior to making several award presentations, Manges spoke of yet another of his incredible journeys, one he was about to bring to a close after 44 years — not as a star athlete, mind you, but as a fan.

“Bob,” Manges said to Robertson, who was sitting to the left of the podium, “you were a hero of mine, and you are a hero of mine.

“As a 12 year-old, I played in the Dapper Dan All-Star Game,” Manges said, turning to the crowd, “and Bob was home that summer, I believe, with an injury, and he attended that all-star game. Before the game began, they announced that any player who hit a home run would receive an autographed baseball from Bob Robertson and would have his picture taken with him for the newspaper. That got our attention.

“So, in the second inning, a kid hit one out, circled the bases, and got the autographed ball and his picture taken with Bob.

“In the fifth inning, I hit one out, excitedly circled the bases and got the autographed baseball. Only problem was they announced Bob had to leave unexpectedly, so there would be no more pictures taken for the newspaper.

“I went home after the game and Dad told me to put the baseball away in a special place, which I did. And it’s been in a special place for 44 years.”

Reaching into his coat pocket, Manges pulled out a baseball and said, “This is that baseball. And I have the Times-News photographer lined up to take that picture tonight, Bob, if you’d please?”

Robertson was more than happy to oblige, having said in his earlier remarks, “I still go to Pittsburgh quite a bit to sign autographs for the Pirates, and it’s the most important thing because the fans are the most important thing.

“To the kids here tonight, never forget that. Somebody asked me for my autograph in 1964 and I never forgot that. It’s still a thrill for me, to put my name on a ball or a piece of paper. It’s special.”

It’s special to be on the receiving end of that autograph as well, and though Robertson had already signed Manges’ baseball, the transaction between star athlete and fan had not been completed until that picture for the newspaper had been snapped — 44 years later.

Every year, for the past  64 years, the Dapper Dan Awards Banquet provides this community and the young athletes in attendance something worthwhile to take home with them and consider for the rest of their lives. Last  Sunday, it could have been any number of things — the courage of J.C. Morgan, Raekwon Jessie and Katie Llewellyn, the gratitude of Tom Keyser, the loyalty  and affection engendered by Steve Bazarnic and, as always, the love of community by the Dapper Dan Club of Allegany County.

This year we received a bonus. Mark Manges has traveled the country and played in bowl games. He has seen his face on billboards, national magazines and television, and has played in the NFL. Yet at the core of all the dedication and hard work it took for him to accomplish those things, lies the heart of a sports fan, who isn’t shy about showing his appreciation all these years later for a local great whose incredible journey likely inspired him to reach for and live one of his own.

Mike Burke is sports editor of the Cumberland Times-News. Write to him at mburke@times-news.com

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