Carrying on a Tri-City tradition

HAZARD — Tom Vicini leaned forward on a step in the back of the visitors’ dugout at Perry County Park as 12 Tri-City Little Leaguers sat quietly on the bench in front of him and listened while “Coach Tom” shared some of the same wisdom about baseball and life that he has talked about to Tri-City youth through 40 summers of coaching.

Vicini discussed mistakes and missed opportunities, but he didn’t dwell on the negatives or sound the least bit angry or exasperated, turning the focus to tomorrow’s game before telling the players to be sure to leave the dugout “with their heads held high.”

Postseason baseball has been a regular occurrence for Vicini during his years in the league, starting when he was approached about coaching in 1979.

“I got a call from a parent and they said they needed somebody to help because (longtime Tri-City teacher) Walter Dick was going to retire as a coach,” Vicini said. “I said no at first, but I had a lot of respect for Walter and when they said it was the Yankees, I said ‘what time is practice?’”

Vicini’s connection to the Yankees took root many years earlier.

“When I was 12 my dad took me to see the Yankees play at Yankee Stadium (during the record-breaking 1961 season) when they had Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris,” he said. “I was hooked for life with the Yankees.”

That wasn’t Vicini’s only reason for coaching though.

An opportunity to work with children helped draw Vicini to the field. He had spent 17 years before that helping with a basketball league at Lynch, the place where he grew up as a member of one of the best-known families in the legendary coal mining town.

“I just love working with kids,” he said. “That’s been my ministry in life, working with kids. Win, lose or draw I love being with kids out here.”

After graduating from Lynch High School in 1967, Vicini started his first career in the mining industry, beginning with U.S. Steel and then Arch. He also served 13 years as mayor of Lynch.

Vicini began work with Operation UNITE 12 years ago, an organization that focuses on keeping young people away from drugs. In his job as deputy director with UNITE, Vicini recently worked with former UK basketball player Jarod Polson at several “Shoot Hoops, Not Drugs” basketball camps around the region targeted toward youth. The group’s Camp UNITE will bring about 300 middle school students to the University of the Cumberlands in late July.

Baseball, however, still takes up much of Vicini’s free time in the spring and summer. He led the Yankees to their fifth straight league title this year and the first undefeated season of his coaching career. Vicini said he has never grown tired of the routine of coaching year after year.

“You always have new faces and new challenges,” he said. “I enjoy the challenge of working with kids, and I see the need for someone to care about kids and work with them. They go through a lot of things in life today, and they need to have good role models, people who love and care about them and try to help them in every aspect of life.”

“He knows the game and has been around it so long. He hasn’t changed his way of coaching over the years and he’s got results,” said Matt Duckworth, an assistant for Vicini on this year’s Tri-City 11-12 all-star team.

Several parents marked Vicini’s 40 years with a party that included current and former players.

“Tom Vicini is an absolute godsend to the Tri City Little League and the players he has coached,” said Christy Casolari, the Yankees’ team mom and a former board member for the Tri-City Little League. “His 40 consecutive years of dedication to the youth of the Tri City area is unrivaled. The long-term relationships with past players and families is amazing. He has become part of our family outside of baseball and is a true blessing to our community. Coach Tom is simply an amazing individual full of love and compassion for the youth of our area. His guidance has touched countless lives.”

Vicini takes a lot of pride in the success of his former players in high school and college. Cumberland won eight regional championships under Roger Morris, beginning in the mid 1980s during an era when Tri-City made multiple appearances in the Little League state tournament.

“I call my players my sons, so I follow them throughout their baseball career and really all throughout their lives. I get messages from people who played for me 35 years ago,” he said. “When they did well with Cumberland, or now with Harlan County, it’s a star in my crown. I really enjoy seeing them do well.”

So, who was the best Vicini has seen during his decades in the Tri-City Little League?

“Lewis Morris (Kentucky Male Athlete of the Year in 1985) didn’t play for me. He played for the Reds, but he may be the best I ever saw. He had a great all-around game,” Vicini said. “One of the best to play for me was Randall Collett and then Matt Clark, who played for Morehead. Freddie Maggard (played football at the University of Kentucky and was drafted by the Kansas City Royals) and Otis Lewis (pitched at Western Kentucky University) were among the best also. David Shoupe (who also played at Morehead) was the best fundamental player I’ve seen. There have been so many great ones, it’s hard to remember them all.”

Vicini said he has no plans to walk away from coaching any time soon even though this season’s performance gave him an opportunity to go out on top.

“We had the first perfect season I’ve ever had this year and I think some people thought I was going to retire, but that’s not the reason I coach,” he said. “I have a grandson coming up in two years, so that could mean at least six more years if the Lord blesses me with health.”

Fundamentals, teamwork and class are still important in Vicini’s world, points driven home by watching his team and how he interacts with his players.

Even though he knows the game has changed through the years, Vicini’s approach to teaching it hasn’t wavered. When a player in the dugout told a teammate to watch for the curveball from a Hazard pitcher, the same pitch that had continually confused Tri-City hitters, Vicini walked over from the third base coaching box to remind his team they always “look for a fastball and adjust.”

With his Tri-City All-Stars trailing late in a close game, Vicini reminded his players on the bench to “cheer for their teammates.” A few minutes later he quickly and quietly hushed a player who complained about a strike call on one of his teammates. There were no more comments about the umpires the remainder of that hot afternoon.

But while his expectations for them remain the same, especially about how they conduct themselves and play the game, Vicini also has a knack for instilling confidence in his players.

“He has so much experience and he thinks everybody up there is a superstar,” noted Duckworth, during a break in the action, “and he makes them believe they are a superstar, and they play better because of it.”