Sunday, August 1, 2004

Memories are more important than wins

By Colleen Kane
Enquirer staff writer

Dave Von Barger rounds third base for his team, Blue Thunder, in the Metro tournament. The team was eliminated Saturday.
As the players on Blue Thunder go through batting practice Thursday evening to get ready for their first Metro softball game that night, they joke and laugh about their age, their team and their softball skills. But they quietly display a more serious message.

First baseman Brett Rose pulls on a T-shirt that has the words "FDNY ... Eleven in Heaven ... Rescue 5" printed across it. And a banner hangs on the backstop behind the batters that reads, "In Memory of our Fallen Brothers. 9.11.01. Never Forget."

"That's real. This is a game," team manager Scott Tillery says of the banner. "We want to send a message to keep things in perspective."

Eight of the 12 players on Blue Thunder are firefighters in departments across Butler County. They've been friends for nearly 15 years, playing softball together on and off, after most met through the Fairfield Fire Department. This is their team's second year and first Metro tournament. And they're using all their softball tournaments and games to honor the firefighters who died Sept. 11, particularly the 11 who died from Rescue 5.

Rescue 5 is an elite group of firefighters stationed in Staten Island.

"I admire the profession as much as any other. It's something that would be hard for me to do, to put my life on the line every day. Sept. 11 just magnified that for me," says Tillery, one of the few team members who is not a firefighter. "To know these guys personally and have them as my friends, that could have been them in there. I don't want to forget what happened. I don't want anybody to forget, and we all have already, I think. It's not just what happened to those firefighters, but what they do for us every day."

So they came up with the name Blue Thunder, a nickname of Rescue 5.

"When we tried to think of something to name the team - you know how people get sponsors and name their team silly things - we thought this was perfect, because it consumed all of us," second baseman John Scranton says. "It seemed like that's all we talked about for the longest time. We thought there was no better way for us to put the message out and honor the guys, not only the guys that were killed, but the guys that made it through. ... A lot of people read it and say something to us about it."

Scranton has a special connection to the message. He has several family members who are New York firefighters. His cousin, Tony Cavalieri, is on Rescue 5. He was supposed to be on duty Sept. 11 but was sent home early because he had injured his back on a call the night before. Another of Scranton's cousins, Vinny Cavalieri, works on Ladder 105. He was supposed to begin his first day of work out of fire school on Sept. 11.

"The thing a lot of people don't know is all the off-duty people that went and all the on-duty guys that converged on those towers figured they were going to die, and still went as fast as they could into those buildings," Scranton says. "But that's what we do, as crazy as it seems sometimes."

The players plan to visit New York next year and present Rescue 5 with all of their softball trophies. They also have fund-raising plans in the works. In the meantime, they play softball wearing their memorial message.

And they've been successful enough to get people to notice.

Blue Thunder have won 30 of their last 45 games. They won one of the two league titles they were competing for this year. And they are "13 games above .500, better than the Reds," Rose said.

They had a little more trouble in the Metro. On Thursday evening, they lost their first Metro game in the D bracket 18-10 to be sent to the loser's bracket, and Saturday they were eliminated from the tournament after an 11-3 loss.

Despite the losses, they'll continue to play and honor the FDNY by remembering.

"We just don't want people to forget that tragedy of losing those brave guys," Rose says.

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