'We are Family:' Lawrence Legion's gallant run will be remembered for years

MIKE SPRINGER/Staff photoLawrence Legion manager Julio Ramos holds back his emotions after his team fell to Shrewsbury in the American Legion Northeast Regional championship game on Sunday. The dedication of Ramos was a major reason Lawrence was even able to field a team.

WORCESTER — The book was almost complete.

A “Legion” baseball team, without a real American Legion sponsor, struggling to raise money, putting a city on its shoulders, a few innings from the World Series berth, eventually learning more about their sport and the true meaning of family along the way.

Lawrence was five outs away, leading 1-0, from an all-expenses paid trip to Shelby, N.C. Maybe even a parade.

But the possible New York Times best-seller — really just the last chapter — got waylaid at Fitton Field, on the campus of Holy Cross.

A 6-foot-8 pitcher (John West) committed to Boston College, who throws it 90 miles-per-hour, and a veteran Legion team from Shrewsbury that played in this Northeast Regional three straight years entering yesterday’s finale, outlasted Lawrence’s incredible story.

There were, of course, tears. Enough tears on the Lawrence side to fill up the Merrimack River.

Miguel Matos, the Game 1 star, who hasn’t lost a baseball game since June. Armani Paulino, yesterday’s Game 2 starter. The Batista brothers, Ivinson and John, second baseman Anibal Pena … and so on.

The biggest crier of them all was Lawrence manager Julio Ramos.

His story is well-documented. He played for Lawrence High. He played Lawrence Legion. He pitched at UMass Amherst. He came back to help coach the Legion team under Kevin Bartlett, now his trusted assistant.

But the best part of the story is the revived Lawrence Legion. He got help with money, including Bartlett and his friends. And the best part of his story was the fact he had to drive for Uber to help pay for umpires.

To think about where this program has come in less than two years is worth crying over.

“We’ve always had talent in Lawrence when it comes to baseball,” said Ramos. “But it doesn’t always come together. This team, this group came together. It’s amazing what can happen when people have a common goal.”

Ramos started getting emotional again.

“If you’re from Lawrence, you’re born into adversity,” said Ramos. “Baseball is a release for a lot of us. It’s a beautiful game.

“But doing what we did this summer was special because it felt like family, for all of us. We really were a family. And nothing is better than family.”

That’s were Ramos comes in. If you’re a successful coach in Lawrence, you do more than show up at the field and wait for your players.

You pick them up. You lend them money for a cab. You buy their Big Mac. You know about their problems.

The payback is what we saw the last month, a state championship and momentum we haven’t seen in Legion baseball in more than decade.

The Shrewsbury Legion manager Frank Vaccaro was still soaking from his Gatorade shower when he was asked about the team his group played three times in the last three days.

“Lawrence? Let me tell you something about Lawrence Legion. I love that team. I love those coaches. I love the way they play the game,” said Vaccaro. “The game we played them the other night, the 6-4 game? That was one of the best Legion games I’ve ever been associated with.

“We got a little luck, which is part of the game. But then they come back today and fight, like we knew they would. We had to earn this. They didn’t give it to us. We are so fortunate to beat them. What a team.”

Vaccaro has heard about the plight of Lawrence Legion baseball and the fact that money to play has been hard to come by.

“The funny thing is I have an office in Lawrence — Master Staffing, Inc.,” said Vaccaro. “I am going to sponsor Lawrence next year. That’s how much they impress me. Last year, we were in their position, losing this game. It hurts. But they’ve got something going, an energy. I’m a big fan.”

Ditto. There are many more in the Merrimack Valley like Vaccaro, impressed with the baseball product.

But that’s a discussion for another day, future teams. This one, the 2019 Lawrence Legion team is owed a debt of gratitude.

Thanks for the memories.

Thanks for reminding us the importance of family.

“I will hopefully play a lot more baseball in college and in the pros,” said Matos. “But this team will always stick with me. Always. These guys are my family.”

You can email Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.