NAUGATUCK — The sky above Peter J. Foley Little League Stadium alternated between sunshine and cloudiness Sunday afternoon, a sort of organic reflection of the sentiments shared by the venerable building’s several hundred patrons.
The opening ceremony of the league’s 61st season showcased both ends of the emotional spectrum: Joy in the baby-toothed smiles of ballplayers bounding across the diamond for the first time this spring, and sorrow in the wistful tears of almost everyone who knew Dustin Diver, the former borough baseball standout, who died unexpectedly in December, at age 31.
With members of Diver’s family in attendance—including his parents, Doug and Debbie; sister, Danielle; niece, Ariel, who was “the light of his life,” according to family; and grandfather, Dan Renzoni—PJF President Bob Dibble announced the league would dedicate its 2010 season to Diver’s memory. Dibble presented the family with a plaque indicating the same and also gave Ariel a No. 17 Giants jersey, replicating Diver’s from the 1980s, that read “Uncle Dusty,” along with a Giants cap.
State Sen. Joseph Crisco, on behalf of Naugatuck’s legislative delegation, donated to the league a Connecticut state flag, in honor of Diver, and an American flag, in honor of the late Franklin Johnson, Sr., a patriarch of local baseball.
Diver was among PJF’s best and most endearing players from 1987-90; he was a two-time all-star and won the league’s sportsmanship award at the end of his four-year Little League career. Reading from a 20-year-old newspaper article, Dibble quoted Diver, as he considered why he’d won the award.
“I didn’t yell or throw anything—most of the time,” Diver said at the time. “You have to put that: most of the time. I got along with everyone, respect my coaches and tried to help. I’ve been on winning teams and losing teams. My dad has to make a case for all the trophies.”
Diver’s passion for baseball was a theme repeated by everyone who spoke of him Sunday.
“As a Little Leaguer, I don’t know of any player that I ever coached that loved the game as much as Dustin,” said Joe Magnamo, Diver’s former PJF coach. “Whether it was practice or a game, he couldn’t wait to get there. He just loved baseball.”
“Dustin truly loved the game of baseball,” said Josh Ruccio, who called Diver his best friend and was one of more than a dozen boyhood chums in attendance, “and I’m sure he’s watching down upon us today, more than likely with something cold to drink in one hand a cheeseburger in the other.
“On this field is where lifelong friendships begin. The Peter J. Foley Little League was always something that Dustin loved, not only as a player but later in life, as he would often watch games from up on Scott Street. He would often say, and I quote, ‘This place is the gem of Naugatuck.’ And he was right for so many reasons.”
Diver captained the Naugatuck High School baseball team as a senior, in 1996, and later the Southern Connecticut State University ballclub. He worked as a custodian at Hillside Middle School and was active in several youth sports leagues.
On Dec. 1, the Naugatuck Hall of Fame board elected him president, but on Dec. 27, two days after Christmas, Diver died in his sleep, after what’s only been called a brief illness.
Deputy Mayor Tamath K. Rossi said she got to know Diver via the Hall of Fame, with which the Rossi family has long been involved, and recalled that despite encouragement to call her Tami, Diver always addressed her as Mrs. Rossi, out of respect.
Rossi connected such values to Diver’s time in Little League and said Naugatuck can only hope PJF will produce more citizens like him.
“We have no idea which young man or young gal that’s swinging a bat today may end up dedicating a lot of their time and exuberance and energy for our community in the future,” she said.
Though the ceremony is traditionally the opening of organized games—of winning and losing—this year’s incarnation relegated victory and defeat to insignificance. PJF Secretary Barbara D’Agnone punctuated the moral focus by reading a poem entitled “Alone at the Plate,” which is about a young baseball player stepping into the batter’s box for an allegedly pressurized at-bat.
“Years after this game’s ended and he’s little no more, / will he remember the outcome or even the score?” the fifth stanza reads. “No, he’ll have forgotten if he was out, hit, or a run, / he’ll only look back on his friends and the fun.”
Mayor Bob Mezzo, who said he had “many wonderful conversations” with Diver when the former was a coach in the Naugatuck Basketball Association and the latter was a custodian at City Hill Middle School, where the league plays its games, called on the PJF community to remember the poem’s message throughout the season.
“This year, I’ve made a promise to myself that I’d like all of you to join in,” Mezzo said. “Too often we take for granted the times that we’re on the field together, either as players, as parents as coaches. We get caught up in the times that practice may be a little too cold and rainy, or the sun is shining and the temperature is too hot, or we get stuck in the concession stand, like we all tend to do. But it’s beginning to dawn, as my children get older, how special these days are that we get to spend together at this great national pastime of baseball. So I ask you to join me this year in enjoying every minute that you have together at Peter J. with your family, with your friends, with your teammates.”