* The Etobicoke gang gathers (from left to right) Bob Smyth, Mike Gauthier, Nick Rico, Greg O’Halloran and Steve Breitner. All are or were Etobicoke Rangers coaches except for Gauthier, who was a player and all learned from Rico whose final service is Thursday at Lynett Funeral Home.
By Bob Elliott
No one is bigger than the game.
Not a retiring 10-time, three-time MVP headed for Cooperstown.
Not a manager with four World Series rings.
Nick Rico understood that.
He also understood a few more things: the gift he had of being able to teach hitting, the ability to teach how field a ground ball or the 101 nuances of the game.
And Nick knew he wouldn’t be coaching forever. knew he wouldn’t be here forever.
After a game or a practice he’d say to Etobicoke Rangers coach Bob Smyth and then Naeem Siddiq “take me for a coffee I need you to tell me that you know it.”
The coaches would say they had it.
That they understood.
Nick would grill them.
He’d planted the seed and wanted to see it grow.
Nick knew what he knew. He knew it should not be protected like the secret recipe at Kentucky Fried Chicken. He knew it should be passed on to others.
* * *
Most people who stepped on a ball diamond in Etobicoke or before that at Christie Pitts knew the legendary Nick Rico, who will be given his final rites on Thursday.
Whether it was helping a high schooler named Joey Votto, who grew up to be Canadaâs highest-paid athlete, or Etobicoke Rangers coaches like Steve Breitner et al, major leaguer Greg O’Halloran, or a High Park Braves Little League player, Rico always had time.
“I met Nick Rico early in my youth career,” Votto said. “He taught me and my teammates some of the basics. Basics that I still use to this day.
“Much of what I learned in baseball came from Bob Smyth, who attributes almost all of what he knows to Nick Rico. Iâm grateful for his imprint on my life and career.”
* * *
The Etobicoke Rangers were in Kentucky one summer and a coach complimented Smyth and Siddiq on their team: âhow do you guys manage to keep producing great players?â
“Connorvale Park, we have a great place to play,” answered Siddiq which was a complement Smyth, part coach, part grounds keeper and full-time task maker. Smyth who the infield look like the practice fairway at Augusta and each blade trimmed to the exact same length of grass, the lines perfectly drawn. And DON’T WALK ACROSS THE LINES!
The U.S. coach walked away.
“Hey … you know you didn’t get that right,” Smyth growled at Siddiq.
The answer was not beautiful Connorvale.
“Bobby told me the answer was Nicky,” Siddiq said. “Bobby was right. Everything good about Etobicoke baseball all traces back to Nicky.”
* * *
Who was this Johnny Appleseed who grew up near the Columbus Boys Club?
He was the son of Vincenzo and Filomena Rico.
He had siblings Emily, Dona, Jimmy and Curly.
Nicholas J. Rico was born in 1930.
He was signed in 1949 by the Philadelphia Phillies and sent to Bradford, Penn. in the PONY League (back when the league had clubs in Pennsylvania, Ontario and New York). Bradford was one of 15 Phillies affiliates … FIFTEEN. Count em: triple-A Toronto Maple Leafs, class-A Utica, class-A Portland, Terre Haute, and Wilmington, class-C Salina, Schenectady and Vandergrift, plus class-D Americus, Appleton, Bradford, Carbondale, Klamath Falls, Pulaski and Seaford.
Nowadays teams either have five or six affiliates.
At Bradford, he played for manager Danny Carnevale, who is still scouting for the Cleveland Indians. He was an infielder, mostly a third baseman.
Rico played five seasons in the minors (1949-53) in the Philadelphia Phillies (class-D Bradford, class-D Lexington), St. Louis Cardinals (class-D Hamilton) and Cincinnati Reds (class-D Lawton, class-C Magic Valley, class-C Odgen) organizations. In all he played 283 games and he had about 10,000 stories about each game — all memorable.
He had 48 doubles, five triples and 11 homers in 283 pro games. He hit .282 with a 1.046 OPS.
* * *
Greg O’Halloran remembers Nick telling the one about the player from Scranton … one we heard him tell a few times at AM Star over coffee and Diet Coke.
“Nicky said how they had put up a banner in the guy’s home town when he left which read something like ‘See you in the Big League,’ they gave him a going-away gift, a nice Samsonite bag … and after three days the guy was sobbing. He knew he wasnât good enough to stick.
“And the guy sat on the bench crying and said ‘I’m going to kill my scout when I get home — he said I could play in the big leagues. I CAN’T PLAY HERE — HOW CAN I PLAY IN THE BIG LEAGUES.’”
And then Rico would laugh. It was one of those laughs where everyone at the table was laughing. The waitress one section over was laughing. She hadn’t heard the story. She had heard the laughter.
“That guy might have been a good amateur player, but he wasn’t a pro,” Rico would say. “I never did hear if he killed his scout. He realized pretty quick he wasnât going to be a major leaguer. I always wondered if they made him give the suitcase back.”
Nicky would tell the one about his first year manager Danny Carnevale getting so upset over an error he would throwing bats around the dugout. Nick was sitting in the dugout laughing.
In his darker days O’Halloran coached hockey.
“The difference I notice between hockey and baseball is that in hockey you get there an hour before the game, you play the game. Itâs very different in hockey, you get to the rink, the kids get barked at and most people go home with a frown on their face,” O’Halloran said. “But think about baseball … you are there so early, you spend time on the bench together, you practice for hours and you stand around the parking lot talking. You have to laugh.
“Guys like Nick, or Jim Ridleyor Bobby Smyth of coach Mike Mayne who I played for at Orange Coast … when you think of baseball guys I can’t think of any who have been it a long time that don’t like to laugh.”
They passed on their knowledge … long before Pay It Forward became a movement.
* * *
Smyth was 14 when he first met Rico at Christie Pitts. Carmen Bush, the godfather of baseball in Toronto, told Smyth to listen to Rico.
Four years later Smyth was both playing junior and coaching 16-year-olds.
He’d get the RR (The Rico Review) after each game … what he did right? What he didnât do? Did he think us getting the pitcher out a hitter early? Why didn’t get get No. 12 into the game?
Bush was Rico’s mentor.
Rico was a mentor to Smyth and Siddiq.
Smyth and Siddiq were mentors to dozens and dozens.
The Rico tree has deep roots.
It was Nick who gave Smyth the nickname Nifty Ned (from a character in the Dick Tracy comic strip) although he always called Smyth “Bobby.”
Smyth said Rico was one of the best amateur players in his day along with the likes of Ron Cabot (Mississauga, Ont.) who still sits in the bullpen Monday nights at Greg Cranker Field in Mississauga and Walt Jefferies (Paris, Ont.) who played in the Cardinals system.
Rico played for the Clinton Tavern and hit a ball over the clubhouse at Christie Pitts. Next time you are down there take a look. The clubhouse has not moved. The plate has not moved.
“Nick’s motto was the same as Carmen’s: think of the other guy,” Smyth said. “Sure you want to win the games, but 20 years after the game was over you wanted to be able to sit down with the other guy for a drink. Didn’t matter who it was — Nicky’s approach was that guy’s not getting down.’
“Nicky was the best baseball person ever saw,” said Smyth on the phone from Ladysmith, BC, his voice cracking with emotion. “People think it was all baseball related. Nicky taught me everything I knew about baseball. Our relationship was a about whole bunch of other stuff.”
* * *
Years ago Nick was asked to scout for a club. Send in your reports, we’ll come, take a look.
Rico declined. He told the club: give me a budget, I’ll sign the players and send them to you.
Of course it doesn’t work that way.
You’ve seen those detailed scouting reports on Baseball America leading up to the draft?
Rico’s reports would have been like those the legendary Chicago Cubs and Phillies scout Huey Alexander… two words on one line.
Either “canât play.”
Or “can play.”
* * *
One year Team Ontario was having its tryouts at Bond Park.
Rico was asked to help.
He rolled in wearing a jacket which looked more like a potato sack. Inside the cage some phenom was over striding.
“Hey son,” Nick said “lift it an inch and hit it a mile.”
The teenager began to argue. Rico jumped into the cage … took a hack and the ball went to the track. Nick walked out, got in his car and drove away. This was roughly 20 years ago when he was in his mid 60s.
* * *
Howie Birnie has been running the Shrine, known as Talbot Park for over 50 years. Birnie knew Rico.
“Nick truly passed on wisdom about baseball and life that he learned from Carmen Bush, his mentor at the Columbus Boys Club,” Birnie said. “So many coaches and players in west end Toronto had the benefit of Nick’s insights from Bob Smyth to Naeem Siddiq of North Albion Collegiate to Joey Votto and so many others.
“His great smile and big heart and understanding of what Carmen called, “ the cosmic unimportance of the game.”
Birnie said it was fitting that Toronto Baseball Association inducted Nick in 2003 as a member of our Carmen Bush Signature Club.
* * *
Saddiq recalls a day he was at Christie Pitts.
Rico began working with him.
Bush was watching. Bush told the youngster “come with me” and off they walked and walked past the outfield fence and past the clubhouse. Bush pointed to the ground and said “Nicky hit a ball that landed here, it bounced it off the roof … now do whatever he tells you to do.”
Before the coaching certification programs and all the clinics which are available each weekend Rico was a special resource.
“Back then it was a hidden mystery how the game was played, Nick was the one person you could ask questions,” Saddiq said. “Nicky passed it on.”
The favorite Rangers team Saddiq coached was nicknamed “The Smurfs.” Not a lot of prospects. Not a lot of big guys.
“People would ask them ‘why are you following this team … there aren’t any prospects,’ and they’d answer ‘watch the way they field ground balls.’ Even though it was my team they called it Nicky’s team. Nicky taught them how to field.”
The Smurfs almost won the Gold Bat in Sarnia one year.
“The success of Connorvale and the Etobicoke Rangers it’s Bobby with Nick, it’s not one without the other,” Saddiq said. “A mother phoned today remembering how she came to practice and Nick hit her son ground balls for two hours.”
Nick used to say when they’d got tired “hitting is easy I’ll teach you hitting in the parking lot with the lights off … we’re working on ground balls now.”
Ken Dryden took ground balls from Nicky.
* * *
O’Halloran recalled Nicky saying “look at me, I worked in the bananas business for 30 years … baseball is supposed to be fun.”
He used to help out working at High Seas Fish & Chips on Islington. O’Halloran wondered how much cash was spent as people dropped in “just to say hi to Nick.”
Rico would come to O’Halloran’s Mississauga North and Etobicoke practices.
Someone would say “who is that guy?”
O’Halloran would answer … how the guest coach had played pro for five years and was a great student of the game.
“Yeah I’ve heard about that guy.”
“Nick hit ground balls to several generations, he hit ground balls to Votto, to me, to teachers and doctors,” O’Halloran would say. “Nick Rico is one of those helped out a lot of kids, he was never a national team coach, he was community coach who passed down knowledge.
Just listen to him.
Don’t look at the physical features.
“He’s trying to help you get better, he wants what is best for you,” O’Halloran said.
Rico was fond of saying âthe game doesn’t change, it hasn’t changed in 100 years.”
And yet Etobicoke will be changed this summer.
No Nick Rico.
But the thing is … Nick Rico prepared the coaches, prepared the players for life without Nick Rico.
* * *
Rico, 86, was called to “his Field of Dreams” on Saturday as his obit reads.
Sympathies are extended to Kelly, Nick Martella and the members of Team Rico, who as the obit reads âwill gather in the dugout Thursday at 10 am.
Visitation will be at the Lynett Funeral Home (3299 Dundas St. W., a block east of Runnymede Rd.), with a service to follow in the chapel. Donations can be made to High Park League.
* * *
There is talk of building a new park behind in left field fence at Connorvale.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to be there for the dedication of Nick Rico Memorial Park.
* * *
* * *
I am one of most likely thousands of Toronto amateur ballplayers who was privileged to know and learn from Nick. I played for Bobby Smyth from the age of 15-21 and then for Steve Breitner until my mid 30’s. My teenage years were spent at Connorvale Park being taught by Bobby, Nick and Bobby Hunter. What an eclectic group of teachers! Although it brought a tear to my eye when I heard about Nick’s passing it was immediately followed by a smile thinking back to my youth and what a profound impact Nick had on me not only as a player but as a young man. Memories of Nick started to enter in my mind and a few stood out I would like to share.
1986 – During one of our practices Nick was standing at the cage watching one of players who struggling in a BP session. Nick pulled the kid aside and starting talking about hitting rhythm. He got in the cage and said watch my body and my hands and proceeded to hit balls. After a few pitches he hit 4 balls that one hopped the warning track. Through it all he was talking about the rhythm of hitting and I remember like it was yesterday him saying “look at me, 60 years old and can still hit”. Guys jaws were dropping watching him. It was a thing of beauty.
I’m not sure how many ground balls Nick hit to players over the years with his trusty fungo bat, most likely millions, preaching butt down and glove out front. When players would struggle or boot a few balls he would continue to preach that philosophy followed by one of his famous lines “that’s why you’re blowing it”.
My favorite recent memory was in 2009 during the World Baseball Classic week. This was the first time Bobby Smyth was back in Toronto since he left for BC. One evening Greg O’Halloran invited a few of us to his place for a BBQ. Nick Rico, Bobby Smyth, Steve” Whitey” Breitner, Greg and myself sat in his backyard for hours talking baseball. It didn’t take long before a bat was in Nick’s hands and he was teaching the rhythm of hitting. 81 years young and still at it. What a great night!
Thanks for everything you do to promote the game of amateur baseball. In a world of millionaire athletes it’s important the story of a Nick Rico be told. For every Joey Votto there’s someone like Nick Rico working behind the scenes dedicating his life to amateur baseball. Not because he had to or was paid to do it but because it’s what he loved to do.
Graeme Swift was nother great teacher who learned from Carmen and Nick. Taught us to respect the field we played on. Hence the margarine containers to pick up rocks in the infield.
I have being living in Wisconsin with family for the past 3 years and unfortunately won’t be able to make the service and celebration of Nick’s life. Rest in peace Nick.
He was doing the same thing at Queensway Park before “The House That Smyth Built” was created. (Damn I’m getting old).
Rolling ball after ball and telling you to bend your knees, keep your butt down and glove open out front.
The rocks in the infield didn’t have much effect on the balls when he rolled them!!!!!!
RIP Nick and say hi to Carmen!!!!
* * *
First off, Nicky was like a grandfather to me. Being a child of immigrants who never knew his grandparents I always imagined Nicky was kinda that person for myself.
When I first met Nicky, Bob Smyth sent me out to the outfield to take ground balls. He hit me 50, I missed none but didn’t get it just right until the last. I didn’t realize until much later that Nicky was preparing me not just for playing infield under the watching eye of Smyth but to be a coach. As I turned 22 and instead of continuing playing it became apparent that there was a desperate need of a coach. In fact, for 4 years I coached a team by myself. But I was never alone. Nick was always there at all my practices and all the home games. Countless hours were spent at Obie’s and donut shops where he drilled in my over and over the Zen of the pivot, the simplicity of the stride and of course the beauty of the fungo. I have been coaching for 25 years now and think of him every time I take a fungo out of my bag.
“Now you got it”, he would say to me making me go over it again and again. Back in those days there were no teaching schools, paid instructors or you tube. I realized then he was passing on what he knew in hopes that in some way he would live forever. Which he will.
“You have to keep teaching this stuff after I am gone.” “Yes Nicky don’t worry.” I would assure him always.
“And remember, the game is that simple, people will keep trying to tell you there is a new way to play it, but they are trying to reinvent a game that has been with us 100 years. It will always be this simple.” Yes Nicky, I get it.
“But most important remember the lessons that Carmen Bush taught us. After you teach them to play, remind them it is not about the game but what kind of man they become.”
Despite being a ex-pro, he did not think the game owed him anything. I found out over time how amazing a played he was. Someone who would have made millions today. In his 60’s he was hitting shots that would get any kid noticed by a scout today. He was always more proud of the teammates and players who became good people and made the world a better place.
“You need to teach people how play and help them grow into fine young men. You can do it.” “Ok Nicky I will try.”
I worked with Nicky at High Park and then helped him start his own camp with the Lions club. While logistics were not his strong suit, he made sure we taught them all how to do it right, and have fun at the end of it.
My two favourite memories of Nick (other than the time spent talking about baseball alone) included watching him spray young campers with a hose on a hot day. Only to have them turn the hose on him while he laughed and blinked away.
My other was when he came to one of our games and fell of the bench laughing when a ball hit the catcher in the middle of the chest. The catcher ran in 3 circles looking for the ball while it sat on top of the plate. The runners all advanced two bases and the ball never moved. I was angry at the boy but starting laughing right along with Nick. “Don’t take the game too seriously.” he said. Every time after that he would say “Naeem put that boy into catch again, that was funny.” “Not today Nicky, not today.”
Nicky was a gift to all if us. Taught us all how to play, coach and what mattered most how to treat people.
Take 2 and go the other way.
Thanks Bob for all you are doing to help honour his memory.
North Albion. C.I.
* * *
I have many fond memories of Nick and so many great times but one will always stand out to me……
In my first year at Connorvale playing midget we had a workout on an extremely hot Saturday afternoon. I walked in the park and seen the batting cage set up and thought to myself – great we get to hit to hit today! On my way to the cage Bob quickly redirected me out to behind second base where Nick and his fungo were waiting for me. I figured in this heat I would take a few ground balls with Nick and then get to go hit … Was I ever wrong!!
For the next 2 hours in sweltering heat Nick hit me ground ball after ground ball, finding something wrong with each one I took. Nick must of been in his early to mid sixties at the time, and as I was taking all these ground balls I thought to myself how long can he possibly go on for?? After what seemed like the millionth ground ball I took that day, I physically couldn’t take another one and went and lied down in centrefield. As I was lying down I could still hear Nick yelling at me to come back for more and him and Bob laughing hysterically at the fact he easily outlasted me.
I absolutely loved Nick’s teaching methods and his passion to get the best out of us. He was one of a kind and I will always be extremly grateful to him for the things he taught me and the passion he brought to the park every time he was there.
Stay Loose Nick
* * *
We should all be thankful of the great coaches we had threw our playing day and the friendships that have been created threw the years.
* * *