Ballplayers: Make Good Choices!
Since my wife is home on vacation, my lawn needs to be mowed and I have a book to write, I decided to take a much needed break from work today and stay home. Well my wife had to head to the Bronx since her aunt fell and separated her shoulder, the grass is too wet to mow and instead of writing my book, I find myself writing this article. What should I write about? I could write about the SABR 19th Century Base Ball Conference in Cooperstown last weekend. I could write about how my Mets keep letting me down. I could write about Dan Uggla going 0 for 21 for my fantasy team. I could also write about the Indians calling up Tony Sipp from Columbus. No to all of the above. There is only one thing I can write about today. I must write about a person that is not in any record book, who is not a famous athlete and only known to the people that grew up with him and the ones that knew him after his youth. I am one that did not know him after his youth. His name was Joe Nagy.
Joe Nagy first caught my attention in middle school. As I recall, he was in my math class in 7th grade. He had longish hair and was in great shape. He was the only guy I knew who could bench 300 pounds in middle school. He liked to egg on others to do stupid things in class which often landed someone in the principal’s office. I also remember him being a “bookie.” He walked around getting, and many times forcing, fellow students to bet on games with impossible odds of winning. For example, the person betting on a game would get Tampa Bay winning by 21 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Any football fan from those days would know that Tampa Bay was not going to beat the Steelers in 1980, let alone win by 21. Needless to say, Joe had lots of cash. I always found it comical that people went along with it. I for one can say I never placed a bet with Nagy.
This is a baseball website, so why am I writing about Joe Nagy? Simple. Joe Nagy was a great athlete. Someone that caught everyone’s attention. A leader. A kid that could crush a ball like no other in my youth. I recall going to watch a game at my old grade school since John Clark, my next door neighbor and best friend, was the second baseman for Nagy’s team. Nagy was the catcher. The highlight of the game for me was watching Nagy hit a ball in the air that hit the rock mountain beyond the outfield. I can’t recall anyone else hitting the “rocks.” I was awestruck. I think he did it more than once that day. How far was it? I can’t say, but the average player was not going to hit it that far.
Joe was not just a baseball player. He was a New York State go-cart champion at 13 years old. A Pop Warner football star who later was a top player in high school. He could also bench around 400 pounds and won a bunch of weightlifting trophies. He was also a great drinker. Here is where the real story starts.
As I stated above, Joe was a leader. What Joe said or did, others would follow. If he said punch that guy, someone would. If he said, burn that dumpster, someone would. If he drank 10 beers, someone else did too. People were also scared of him. People would give him their cookies at lunch, afraid Joe would pummel them. I recall, at the end of our freshman football season, Joe starting a brawl against the opposing team. Everyone got involved. I remember punching someone in the helmet with my bare fist. How stupid was I? Luckily I only cut up my hand and didn’t break anything. Not only did the players and coaches jump in, but parents ran onto the field to break it up. I recall a player on my team hitting a parent over the head with his helmet. The fight brought our team together. See Joe was a leader, but not always in the right way.
After the football season in 9th grade, I became good friends with Joe. Our close friendship lasted for a year. We didn’t have a falling out. I just chose another path. Unfortunately Joe did not. Although we did some crazy stuff, the moments I enjoyed most with him were when we were one on one, of course with some beers, just talking about life. Joe’s parents had divorced and he was hard to keep in line. Joe did what he wanted, as did I. I recall him talking about playing college football and having goals in life. He wanted to get his grades up so he could pursue those dreams. I too talked about what I wanted in life. My goals were simple. A house and a family. That is all I recall wanting. I was lucky and accomplished that in my early and mid-20s. Joe never played college football. I don’t know much about what he did after he dropped out of school and I left for college. I do know he drank.
I sat with Joe at lunch in 10th grade. We had a table to ourselves in the front of the cafeteria. The lunch attendants always kept an eye on us and our “guests”. Joe was keeping his head bald then and I was sporting a crew cut. Joe ruled the school from a fear standpoint and I was in the middle of it. Joe had his favorites to “prey on” and many enjoyed Joe’s antics. Most of the time it was good natured. Yes they would give him their cookies, but Joe supplied a lot of laughs too. See Joe was not all bad. Many knew to be careful but most liked being around him. In fact, I do not recall Joe physically hurting anyone in our school. It was about what might happen and the excitement surrounding it.
Getting back to sitting at lunch together. Joe would tell me about lifting, doing steroids, getting in fights with his stepfather and most of all drinking. He would tell me how he drank 16 beers on a school night or about sitting at the local bar in the back consuming a few pitchers. Again, this was during a school night, almost every night and he was just 16. Although I drank early in high school, I knew drinking as much as he did was not right. I knew he was heading in the wrong direction. Sometime that year I discovered the opposite sex and stopped hanging with Joe outside of school. I remember the last night we hung out. I recall drinking beers at the middle school in some bushes near the gym. It was just me and him. That night we did talk about him playing college football and life in general. We never had a serious conversation again. I could tell in school that he was disappointed that we were no longer hanging. I just knew. I chose a different route and I believe he knew why. He stayed on the same path, hanging with all kinds of characters, which included heavy drinking.
Again this is a baseball site so why am I writing this? See Joe could have been anything he wanted. He was good looking, smart, had leadership skills and to others he had “it.” He could have stuck with baseball and been one hell of a high school catcher and home run hitter. Maybe even a college player. Instead he chose to drink and drink and drink. See after years of Googling Joe and trying to figure out where he was, I discovered last week that Joe had just passed away. He was 42. His obituary said that he had lost a 25 year battle with alcoholism. I was stricken with grief. I knew this day would come. I felt guilty in 10th grade for stopping our friendship. Our friendship was more than just drinking and doing stupid stuff. However I knew it was the right thing for me. For people reading this and especially to people that may have known and loved Joe, this is not meant to speak badly about Joe. It is meant to warn others. It is meant to warn young ballplayers to think before they drink. I’m not stupid and going to say all people under 21 should never drink. That is not reality. But what I am saying, think about what you are doing. Think about how it affects others. What about your future? Are you making your parents proud? How do you want to be perceived? In the moment it may seem like the right decision to do something, but later on down the road it may come back to haunt you. I chose not to bet with Joe when he was playing bookie and I chose not to bet with Joe with my life. Make choices that are best for you in the long run. As my wife says, make good choices!
Joe Nagy was a friend, a good person and someone I will miss even though I have not seen him in over 20 years. Joe, you gave me lots of memories that I still reflect on today. May you rest in peace. You will not be forgotten.