Former DHS teammates share field as opposing coaches
COOPERSTOWN – Friday’s varsity baseball game at Doubleday Field, in Cooperstown, between Cairo-Durham and Dunkirk, marked the first and only time that Mustangs’ coach – and Class of 1977 alum – Tom Karnes got to coach against his alma mater.
But the end result was bittersweet as Cairo-Durham, a Class C school situated in Section II between Poughkeepsie and Albany, defeated Dunkirk, 9-7.
“This is my last year,” Karnes said. “So it was a little bittersweet. You want to win, but you don’t want to win, too. You want your former school to win sometimes. But it was great.”
The game, which was a year in the making, was played on one of the most hallowed baseball diamonds in the world, a field that has hosted some of the sports’ most legendary players.
“I’ve been wanting to do it all my career,” Karnes, who is in his 29th year of coaching the Mustangs, said of playing Dunkirk. “We just never could find a date really. I thought about going to Syracuse and maybe meeting them halfway. But then this came up as an opportunity and it was great. It was one of the best memories I’ll have.”
The man who Karnes got to coach against, Frank Jagoda, was more than just a normal opposing coach. Karnes and Jagoda have a history that dates back nearly four decades when the two played together under coach Al Stuhlmiller.
WHERE IT BEGAN
The 1977 Dunkirk Marauders were as strong a team as the program had ever seen before, or since. And two of the main contributors on a team full of talent, were Karnes and Jagoda.
“We were just strong one through nine in the lineup,” Karnes said of the 1977 team. “And we had Frank and Mark Balzer, who were our aces and it seemed like we were unstoppable. We just had a good team, good camaraderie and it was great. We wished that we could have gone farther, but there was nothing else.”
“We had a very, very good team,” Jagoda said. “We set the standard at one point for wins. We had Mark Wisniewski, who was an outstanding shortstop, and Dave Bradnick, who was a great catcher. Joe Brenecki was a good hitter at third and Bill Crocoll set the record for hitting. And I never saw anybody throw as hard as Mark Balzer. Even today. But what Mark had on the mound, was he had an attitude that no one could touch him. And Mark taught me a lot, when I was on the mound, about attitude.”
Dunkirk finished 21-7 that season, winning the Class BB title, 14-1 over Lake Shore and the Class B-BB Super Sectional over Albion, 2-0, behind a strong effort on the hill from Jagoda and a 1-for-3 performance at the plate by Karnes.
“That Albion game, I was very, very proud of,” Jagoda said, noting he pitched in considerable pain. “Simply because I was a young buck on a veteran team and ‘Stu’ gave me the ball when I was hurting. And I was really, really hurting. The in-step and my arch, it was a bad injury.
“(He had) a lot of guts,” Karnes said of what he remembered about Jagoda as a player. “He had a hurt foot (during the season) and players, they just don’t make them like that anymore. We had guys throw with sore arms, sore feet and everything.”
Were it not for the fact that there were no state playoffs, the ’77 team may have been the first Dunkirk team to bring home a state baseball title.
“I thought we hit the ball really hard,” Jagoda said of the ’77 team. “Not me particularly, but the guys in our lineup, we hit the ball real well. And we played very, very good defensively. (Tom) was at second base and Mark Wisniewski was just an outstanding fielder. Mark Balzer was an excellent pitcher, but we got pitching from other guys. Steve Treni, that year, threw a no hitter and Brian Benamati pitched a shutout. Mark and I did the bulk of the pitching, but when guys had other games, they were at the top of their game too.
“Tom was a gritty player,” Jagoda continued. “Second baseman and at the plate, he was a tough out. He did what he needed to do every time he got up to the plate. And at second base, he understood the position, where you didn’t have to make a fancy play, you just had to get in front of the ball, knock it down and get it over.”
INFLUENCE OF AN OLD COACH
Both Karnes and Jagoda admitted that they took a lot away from how Al Stuhlmiller coached the game of baseball. And both can see some of Stuhlmiller in themselves.
“Oh yeah,” Karnes said when asked if Stuhlmiller has influenced the way he coaches. “I probably have the same signs as him. He just instilled good baseball in people. He loved baseball and I try to share that with my kids and I know Frank does too. He was a big influence. He was there a long time.”
“First off, (what he taught) was the integrity of the game,” Jagoda added of Stuhlmiller. “And secondly (he taught), the intestinal fortitude and the desire to come to a ball park and, quite honestly, beat your opponent. That’s what it was about, beating your opponent. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
They can also see Stuhlmiller in one another.
“Same mannerisms,” Karnes said with a laugh. “But overall, just to keep Dunkirk baseball on top and keep the program, it’s hard to do in this day and age, because the kids don’t want to do it all the time. But as coaches, we strive to do it.”
“He does use the same signs,” Jagoda added of Karnes. “I don’t know if he uses the squeeze bunt sign the way ‘Stu’ did, but I was going to use it (Friday) the same way. He does a lot of the same things. I noticed, even in the first inning, he had his shortstop up and his second baseman back and I know ‘Stu’ used to do that.”
Jagoda added that he didn’t know if Stuhlmiller would be as appreciated as he was when he coached himself and Karnes during their days playing on the diamond that now bears Stuhlmiller’s name.
“If you did something wrong, he was right there to tell you,” Jagoda said. “And if you didn’t hear him, he was right behind you telling you again until you turned around and said, ‘yes, sir.’ And you don’t really get a lot of that right now. But it is what it is and we work the best we can.
“A lot of people talk about how the kids don’t want to do this and they don’t want to do that,” Jagoda continued. “But the end result is, they need to understand that their expectation level needs to change with attitude and desire to get to a certain point. And you can’t expect greatness, and you can’t expect success, without putting in the time and effort.”
HOW SPECIAL IT WAS
Karnes had been waiting for the chance to coach against his alma mater for almost 30 years, but when he finally got the opportunity to do so, it was the man in the other dugout that made the wait even more special.
“It’s even more special,” Karnes said of getting to coach against Jagoda. “Having a former player that you played with, and friend, it’s nice to play against somebody like that. I have a good amount of respect for him as a player and coach.”
“It was good,” Jagoda added. “Like he said, we’ve talked about it. We were going to meet a few years back in Syracuse. But I kept on going to Myrtle Beach and we just didn’t have enough time on our schedule. But getting out here (is nice), especially it being his last year.”
Since moving to Cairo in the early 1980s, Karnes has been able to keep up with how his old school has fared, as his mother-in-law has bought him a subscription to the OBSERVER for Christmas.
“I still look online when I can,” Karnes said. “And I know a few years back they made some good runs. So it was always nice to follow them and the other western New York teams, because I have a special place in my heart for them.”
He has been especially pleased with the job his old teammate has done since taking over the Marauders’ program from Bill Walters in 1994.
“Awesome,” Karnes said of the job he thinks Jagoda has done with the program. “You don’t see coaches stay around that long anymore and it’s great. You can see what he does with the program. They’re going to be good.”
Jagoda has been keeping tabs on Karnes’ career as well.
“I’ve read some real nice articles on him in their local newspaper on what he’s meant to their program,” Jagoda said of Karnes, who led the Mustangs to a Section II Class CC title in 1988 and currently sports an overall win-loss record of 269-247. “Wins and losses aside, I think Tom is a better person than what is important in the game of baseball. It’s not about wins and losses all the time. It’s how you project as a coach and that was obvious here (Friday). I thought that he has a great respect from the parents and the kids and I wouldn’t doubt that ever. He just was a tremendous gentleman when we played together at the time and he’s obviously a super guy right now.”
“I’ll miss it,” Karnes concluded of coaching. “It’s been my whole life in the spring. But it will be nice to kick back a little bit and enjoy a little retirement too.”