Irv Biasi's boys from Patterson High got together the other night, 350 of the old man's former athletes, many gone gray and some grown fragile now, so naturally it was the deeply sentimental Carl Runk who put it into perspective.
"Man," said Runk, as he gazed across the big gathering at Steelworkers Hall on Dundalk Avenue, "how much money coul an AARP agent make here tonight?"
Runk's now coaching varsity men's lacrosse at Towson State University but here, on Irv Biasi's night, his mind was doing back flips to his old coach's years in East Baltimore.
Patterson was an enormous powerhouse back then, winning eight city football championships in an 11 year-period in the '40s and '50s and four basketball championships. Biasi's kids were tough and they were disciplined, both qualities a reflection of the school itself.
"Oh, yeah," Carl Runk was remembering now. "My first day of school, I was pushed over and kicked by one of the other kids. And I said to her, who did she think she was?"
Runk was kidding, but only slightly. Biasi, sitting to Runk's side at the Steelworkers Hall gathering, barely cracked a smile. He's 79 now, and he's been through a couple of heart operations and a knee operation and he's got diabetes. But, on the night they honored him, he still was talking pretty tough.
"I remember one time," Biasi said, looking out at his old athletes, "when I installed a full-court press in basketball. Nobody around here had ever seen such a thing. And the newspapers wanted to know if I was trying to kill the boys. Kill 'em? No, I just knew we had to work harder and longer and have more discipline than the big schools."
That's the thing about Patterson that pulls so many of these athletic alumni together every year around this time, to raise money for their old school and for neighborhood amateur athletics: These were underdog East Baltimore kids. Nobody expected greatness out of them. But they caught the imagination of an entire community over several decades. And the names, like Bielski and Nardone and Sansone, Pivec and Anderson and Lui, Travelini and Kosmos and Voight, Malone and Kovalevski and Karpouzie and so many others, still are %o treasured.
They came from working-class families whose lives revolved around the great Patterson Park, church on Sundays, a beer and a shot at the corner bar and a couple of decades of hard labor that followed high school down at Sparrows Point.
But, for a few moments in the prime of their lives, Irv Biasi's boys could play ball with anybody.
"I'll tell you," Carl Runk was saying now, "Irv scheduled a game for us up in Allentown one time. You gotta understand, I had never been away from Duncan Street my whole life. And here we're going to Pennsylvania, and man, we're staying overnight in a hotel.
"Coach Biasi tells us, 'We've got to leave here with something.' He meant, you know, a victory. But we figured, we're leaving with something from the hotel. One guy took the paper they wrapped around the toilet seat. Me, I remembered those tiny towels in the locker room back at school which didn't really dry you.
"So now I'm walking around the locker room at Patterson, and I've got this really big towel around me that I took from the hotel. And one of the guys grabs me and says, 'Where did you get that?' I said, 'It's from Allentown. It's a hotel towel.' He says, 'You dummy, that's not a towel, it's a floor mat.' But, you know, coach said we had to come back with something "
"Coach Biasi was about winning," said Dave Pivec, who played football and basketball for him in the early '60s before going on to Notre Dame and pro football. "Winning and discipline.
"I scored 44 points one time. But we lost. There's a big story in the Sunpapers, and Vince Bagli interviewed me. I'm feeling pretty good. But Irv put it into perspective for me. 'We didn't win the game, did we?' "
"Irv Biasi was really the key to our success," said Orioles' broadcaster Fred Manfra. He played football for Biasi in the early '60s. "He helped us grow into manhood. He helped us go deeper into ourselves, handle pressure better. And if you screwed up -- well, I've still got some dents in my old helmet. But, I tell you, he made us better adults."
At the big Steelworkers Hall gathering, somebody asked Biasi, as he stood greeting his old ballplayers, "Who was your best player?"
"Best player?" said Biasi. "I didn't have players. I coached teams. The blockers helped the runners, and so forth. Winning is a team sport."
And that was a great collection of winners who gathered to honor him.