By Bill Burt
---- — Quite frankly, the Andover Nationals couldn’t have done it without them.
While they were technically 12-year-old boys, Ricky Saggese and Toby Guzowski McGrath, they played like men. They threw the ball faster (both were lefties, too) and they hit the ball harder than almost every Little Leaguer within 30 miles of here.
The yellow brick road the Andover Nationals walked — the districts, sectionals, states, East Regionals and eventually Williamsport, Pa. — almost always had Saggese and Guzowski McGrath leading the way.
“You need two superstars to make some noise the entire way,” said manager Jim Arnold then and now. “We had two of the best in Ricky and Toby.”
When they got home, particularly at the parade after the bus arrived from Williamsport, they were treated like rock stars.
“It still is the most incredible experience of my life,” said Saggese, now 37, and living in Naples with his wife, Lisa.
Guzowski McGrath concurred, “It was amazing, all of it ... What we did, together, will never be forgotten ... We were all on top of the world.”
The Norman Rockwell-esque story and pictures ended soon after for the two Andover stars and tragedy trumped baseball.
Within a year after the Williamsport journey, Guzowski’s mother, Ann McGrath Guzowski, was stricken with cancer and eventually died.
Less than three years later, Toby’s father, Dick, died after suffering a heart attack. Both his parents were gone when he was 16.
Saggese, whose family moved to Florida a year after the Williamsport trip, lost his dad, Rick Sr., to a freak accident while throwing batting practice to some of his teammates before a game. He took a line drive off his temple. Minutes later an aneurysm burst and he was dead on the field. Ricky was 15 years old.
“It took a long time to get over it,” said Saggese. “He was my best friend.”
Guzowski recalled a close kinship with his mom, Ann, at a younger age. In fact, he later changed his name to Toby Guzowski McGrath to honor her place his life.
“My mother was very involved in politics,” recalled Guzowski McGrath. “If there was a inequality, environmental, education or other issue to champion she did. I still recall being seven years old and being dragged to New York City to march with a million other people in Central Park against the proliferation of nuclear arms.
“It left quite the impression,” said Guzowski McGrath, “especially since we slept on pews in a Manhattan church that evening with other families.”
His mom eventually lost her battle with cancer, but according to Guzowski McGrath, she didn’t go quietly into the night. When treatments in some of the top hospitals in Boston didn’t work, she moved Tijuana, Mexico for a summer to try different medicines that were not FDA approved.
In fact there’s a baseball connection with her exodus south of the border.
“My mom had written to me that summer telling me how she watched those boys out her window each day playing baseball and she thought of me,” said Guzowski McGrath.
“That’s why when I went to visit her I brought my mitt, a couple of balls and a bat.
“I actually played some pick-up baseball with the local kids in Tijuana when I went to visit her,” said Guzowski McGrath.
“We played on a makeshift field with heaps of trash just beyond left and center field. Beyond the right field line was the Pacific Ocean. What an amazing contrast.”
When his mother passed, Guzowski McGrath recalled becoming very close to his dad, as they lived alone as his older brother and sister were in college.
“There’s no question he was my best friend,” he said. “During this time period was also the advent of basketball teams competing more and more across state lines. I spent my springs and summers on basketball teams traveling throughout New England and played in the Junior Olympics in Tennessee and Kansas. My dad never missed a game or practice. We put plenty of miles on the family car and had just as many conversations.”
Near the end of his sophomore year at Andover High, Guzowski McGrath got news his father suffered a heart attack.
“The thing was, he was cleared to go home,” he recalled. “The problem was we had to keep him in the hospital until after the upcoming weekend because my sister’s college graduation was in New York and my dad couldn’t be left at home and couldn’t make the drive to New York.
“Our intention was to attend the graduation and then my brother, my sister and myself would pick him up on Monday,” said Guzowski McGrath. “Unfortunately a couple of days before the graduation my father had a fatal heart attack in his sleep. We had just celebrated his 50th birthday a month before. It was startling to say the least.”
Guzowski McGrath says he is forever indebted to his sister, Kim, who graduated a few days after their father’s passing.
“Kim should have been a newly minted graduate with diploma in hand taking on the world,” he said. “Instead, she put her life on hold to take care of her kid brother. She came back to Andover and taught at Phillips Academy while I finished up high school. Those times were really hard for me and I imagine her. I wasn’t exactly on the best behavior at first. Eventually I turned it around which I owe to my sister and really to the town of Andover.”
Yes, the town came through again for the ex-Little League star. It was amazing how many people came to help him in a great time of need.
“What a tremendous and caring community I was fortunate to grow up in,” said Guzowski McGrath. “Everyone was looking out for my best interests – my brother and sister, family, friends, teachers, coaches, neighbors, police officers, firefighters, anyone and everyone was looking out for me whether I knew it or not. I lost two parents but gained an entire town of guardians. As they say, it takes a village.”
Guzowski went on play a little football at Bowdoin College, but sports were always a diversion for him. Like his mom, Guzowski McGrath became heavily involved in activism. He is currently married (Molly) with two boys (Jonas, 7; Owen, 3) and is the Deputy Chief of Staff to U.S. Senator Angus King.
“Between my mother’s planting the early seeds of helping others and living in a community which wrapped its arms around me,” he said, “it’s no wonder I’ve chosen a career in public engagement.”
Saggese left no doubt about what he wanted to do with his life, even as a Little Leaguer.
He basically wanted to be involved with baseball ... the rest of his life.
“He wanted to be a major leaguer,” said the manager of the 1988 Andover National team, Jim Arnold. “And you know what? Nobody doubted him. He was an incredible athlete and he loved baseball. If anybody was going to be a major leaguer, it would have been Ricky.”
So when the Saggese family — father, Rick Sr., mom, Cecile, and sister, Tammy — moved to Florida a year after the run to Williamsport, it was a great place for Ricky to chase his dream. Florida is not only the Sunshine State, but it’s the state where baseball is played 365 days a year, sans the rain of course.
On this particular day, when Saggese was a sophomore on the varsity team in high school, his dad offered to throw some extra batting practice for a few of his teammates before a big game.
Coincidentally, Saggese’s Barron Collier High was facing Miami Westminster High, which had a player named Alex Rodriguez on it.
While Saggese shagging balls in the outfield, he recalled hearing some yelling with players and coaches around the mound. When he got there he saw a coach giving his dad CPR.
“I was told by the player that hit the ball that my father initially said he was OK, but we later found out the aneurysm bursted soon afterward and he never recovered,” said Saggese.
Talk about changing course. Saggese went from having a doting father to realizing he needed to replace his father, somewhat, as a leader in the family.
“We coped by pulling together as a family,” said Saggese.
“I made sure it motivated me to accomplish everything we had visioned together. It pulled my mom and sister closer. I felt I had to step up and be the man of the family and watch over my mom as I continued to stay focused on my dream and goal ... and that was to be the best baseball player I could become.”
Baseball was the engine that brought Saggese closer to his dad than most sons and fathers. Now he was going to have to go it alone, in some respects.
Despite some difficult times, Saggese never wavered. He became one of the best players in south Florida in high school and received a scholarship to play at the University of Miami and later, at Florida International.
But three major injuries to his knees, which started in high school, slowed a career that could have taken him to pro baseball.
His best year was his first at Miami in 1996, averaging.339 with 14 homers and 51 RBI in just 57 games. He also played in National Championship game at the College World Series, losing a ninth inning walk-off homer to LSU, but was named an All-American.
During the summers of 1997 and 1998 summers, Saggese started for the Hyannis Mets in the Cape Cod League and competed against the likes of Eric Hinske and J.J. Putz.
Saggese credits his dad’s presence for his successes and dealing with his struggles.
“I always knew he was guiding me from above,” said Saggese. “You can’t control what happens in life but you can control how you react to what happens and I keep that fresh in mind as I continued my career without him.
“I am glad the road took me to where I am now,” he said. “I am at peace I feel I have a lot to give back from what my dad taught me and that’s what I am doing now, teaching kids and players from all over the country what ‘Saggese Baseball’ is all about.”
While Saggese wasn’t able to make the reunion over Arnold’s house in June, he feels a kinship with everyone on that team, and in particular with Guzowski McGrath.
“Toby was a special player,” recalled Saggese. “He had the special qualities to pitch his best games when they meant the most. We couldn’t have made it as far as we did without the left arm of Toby.”
As for their agony at such a young age, the two former Andover National stars dealt with it on their own terms, in a different manner.
“They were different. Are different. Ricky has always been quiet and introspective. He channels his emotions through playing and teaching baseball,” said Arnold. “Whereas Toby was always an extrovert and he confronted trauma verbally.
“They had unique character as boys,” said Arnold. “And they drew on that same strength when they forced to grow up too early. I am so proud of them.”
Special section coming Thursday On Thursday the Andover edition of the Eagle-Tribune and Andover Townsman will have a special section devoted to the 1988 Andover National baseball team that went to Williamsport, Pa. It marks the 25th anniversary of their run which was chronicled by Eagle-Tribune executive sports editor, Bill Burt. The section includes stories by Burt and the three coaches, a Q&A with each former player and story on the "Lunch Bunch," mothers of the Little Leaguers that will get together once a month.