Perhaps it's only fitting that the upward trajectory of softball/fastball in the Sudbury region was highlighted, in part, by the arrival of a young gunslinger from Windsor.
It was late winter, 1959, when Metro Szeryk accepted the offer of International Hotel owner and lover of all things sports, Adam Borovich, to join a Sudbury fastball scene that was starting its rise to prominence. Born in Saskatchewan but having moved to Ontario at the age of six, Szeryk was nearing the completion of high-school when his father passed in October of '58.
Having garnered some well-deserved notoriety in southwestern Ontario while still in his late teens, the soon-to-be 82 year old resident of London acknowledged that given the circumstances at home, it seemed that there was little downside travelling to a part of the province that he knew absolutely nothing about.
"I left school in grade 13, things were rough," said Szeryk, who opened the floodgates to a glut of imported pitching talent to Sudbury that included the likes of Booker Thomas, Gord Haidy and Percy McCracken. "I had a gift as a pitcher, a rise ball that shot straight up. When I started pitching in Windsor, the mound was 40 feet (distance from home plate), but they gradually backed it up to 43, then 46."
"That only made me that much more effective, because my rise ball would move that much more."
Spending five years in the nickel city (1959 - 1964), Szeryk would set the wheels in motion for a career in fastball that would culminate with his induction, in 2004, to the Amateur Softball Association of America Hall of Fame. His reputation would spread right across North America once he made his way south of the border, helping lead the Raybestors Cardinals (Stratford, Connecticut) to three national titles and a second place finish.
Yet through it all, with additional fastball stops in Providence (Rhode Island), Shreveport (Louisiana) and Poughkeepsie (New York), Szeryk's time in Sudbury was never forgotten - for many a good reason.
"Going to Sudbury was one of my better moves, because I learned so much there," he said. "Adam had put together a great team and I improved, in Sudbury, developing a drop pitch. A lot of really good fastball players could hit the drop, sometimes, but they really had trouble with the rise ball."
"When I went to the States, I had the package I needed."
Still, there was a much more personal connection to the area. "I loved Sudbury, the people were phenomenal," said Szeryk. "I did meet my sweetheart there (Carol Pandke) and we were married in 1962." Once his fastball days were done and the family had returned to Canada, the Szeryks trekked north, pretty much every summer, spending time at the Pandke camp near Killarney.
For those whose leisure time enjoyment included taking in the fastball classics that were being contested at O'Connor Park in the sixties, Metro Szeryk remained a legend. After just one season with the International Hotel crew, he would join Fred Nurmi and the Pepsi Cola squad, eventually making his way to the Silver Six travelling team - by necessity.
"I was not allowed to pitch anymore in the Royal Trading League (in Sudbury), because I was too dominant," said Szeryk, a very soft-spoken man, with no hint of ego, who was merely stating a fact that was obvious to countless others.
And as the name implied, the Silver Six were but a six-man team, one which included the likes of Al Telfer, Dave Scott, Steve Smith and Leo Bertuzzi and that played exhibition contests right across Ontario, in the genre of Eddie Feigner (King and his Court).
"The quality of fastball was something that you could only dream of, and it didn't cost us anything to go and watch the games," recalled Ron Dupuis, long-time city councillor, but a huge fan of fastball, long before that. "The crowds at O'Connor were unbelievable, stacked five and six deep all around the fences."
"They had a couple of bleachers, behind each bench, and a little caboose in the middle, behind home plate where they would announce the games," added Dupuis. "You had guys like Steve Smith who would put it into the houses on Dell Street, Ray Jolicoeur would launch it into the Laberge Lumber yard."
"It was the best ball."
And it was made great, in part, because of a homegrown set of opponents that could offer Szeryk and his crew a worthy test. "Ezio Bevilacqua was a great, great pitcher," said Szeryk. It was their head to head battles, pitting the hired gun opposite Bevilacqua and the notorious Capreol Mazzucas, that became the lore to tales that easily withstand the test of time.
Jim Cappadocia remembers that era well. Currently 74 years old, the life-long Capreolite was one of the younger players when he first cracked the roster of the revered rail-town summer dynasty, the Mazzucas a perpetual threat the lay claim to the provincial Intermediate banner.
Yet the root of fastball in Capreol was far different than what Szeryk and others witnessed in Windsor. "In Capreol, growing up, we played minor baseball," Cappadocia reminisced. "We played in the local leagues - that's how guys like me started playing ball. A lot of the players who grew up playing baseball moved on to play softball and fastball."
"That was the natural flow."
Though there was no denying the inherent differences, with the fastball mound much closer than the baseball version, and the incoming sphere delivered from a polar opposite launch angle (underhand windmill for fastball; overhand for baseball), Cappadocia insisted that navigating either environment, as a hitter, was more than do-able.
"I think if you were inclined to play baseball or softball or fastball, I think you had it, and you just adjusted," he said. The fact is that there was likely very little time spent by the young naturally athletic lads north of Sudbury deliberating over the alternatives.
"There were other sports that might have been popular in Sudbury, but I spent all my time either on the ice, in the rink, or on the ball fields - and a lot of us were like that in Capreol in those days."
Those days that gave rise to some of the best fastball our country has ever known, an ascendance of the sport that shot up more quickly than a classic Metro Szeryk up-shoot.