Life of softball, ‘Just something that has happened’
For a baseball player, Ashtabula Mike Castrilla sure turned into one heck of a softball administrator.
Many people don’t realize the guy who first started playing catch with his dad Felix (Phil) at the age of six, became a rather competitive ballplayer in the inaugural years of the St. John High baseball program in the early 1960’s. Then again as a walk-on at Youngstown (later, State) where he batted .320 as a two-year starter in the outfield. He even had some major league tryouts.
So how did he end up running softball leagues, ASA regions and USA Softball for much of Ashtabula County for the last 46 years? “It is just something that has happened”, he said.
As he turns 80-years old today (Sept. 22), I was able to sit back and reflect with Mike on his 70 years of baseball and softball. Life shared on the railroad, as a teacher, father, brother and son. It’s a lifetime of memories made with family, friends and a couple thousand of us along the way.
One of five Castrilla kids (Phyllis aka Dolly, Mike, Joe, Phil and John), Mike’s earliest memories of the game were of his father Phil playing fastpitch softball in Geneva. Towering homeruns over the snow fence and playground seeming so much further now. His mother, Mary Florence he calls “one of a kind”.
When Castrilla’s dad passed in 1977, Mary Florence took a job in the cafeteria at St. John High School to provide for her family. (We’ll get to her sausage& pepper sandwiches in a little bit.) That same year, Mike was looking for something to fill the void. He found something familiar – the ballfield.
“I was at Sons of Italy one night and didn’t necessarily plan on joining a team. I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Castrilla said, of his first foray with the Ashtabula City Recreational Softball League. Little did he know, he would leave that night with the league in his hands. From 1977 until 1992, he made the schedule and ran the tournaments.
BIRTH OF SOFTBALL CITY
After the 1992 season, Mike embarked on an idea for softball that you can’t commit to with taxpayer dollars. It was a risky plan for a complex designed around personally manicured fields – four to be precise – and run by members of his own family.
Renting property on Rt. 45 not far from Lake Erie, the then elementary school teacher and his crew layed out two new ball diamonds, later growing to four. All sponsored or commemorating people who played a part in the area’s rich athletic history: Outdoor Army, Moses Stop & Shop, John Cole and Kendall Fields. That’s also where Mike’s mom Mary Florence delighted so many of us with her homemade sausage & pepper sandwiches. A steady diet for some of us in our 20’s & 30’s for all five years at the facility.
In 1995, Mike along with a young sportswriter named Aaron Dorksen (then of The Star Beacon) concocted what would later be known as The Beacon’s Best. A culmination of the area’s best softball teams in one big tournament. A tradition he carried on thru 2008 with Don McCormack and John Kampf.
TAKING IT UP A NOTCH
When it became clear supporting a four-field facility while trying to balance family, work and personal life was more like seven full-time jobs, Mike stepped back. Unbeknownst to him, he was actually going to be stepping it up.
By chance, a longtime diamond dawg named Joe Miller approached Castrilla and said he should meet a man named Don Andrus. At the time, Andrus and his family were long invested in properties at Geneva-on-the-Lake and into Ashtabula. They’d been operating the former Nappi Roller Den, later Andrus Party Center.
Within a year, Softball City had new life – and brand new fields complete with lights, behind the Andrus facility.
“Don (Andrus) had his own team. It was almost like field of dreams,” Mike, reflected. A dream he still maintains to this day – his 80th birthday, in that same partnership with Andrus.
Though softball in Ashtabula County has slowed, the one place and man it has continued to foster remains at Softball City thru multiple coed leagues.
If you want a little reminder of it’s history, Mike can be found riding a mower several times a week, or raking a field. On Sunday’s, he takes in the games from his perch atop the concession stand – where memories of his mom’s service to the players remains. You likely will not have to ask, as he breaks out his scrap book of articles and stats going all the way back to 1959 with the start of the City Rec Softball League. Or even the city touch football league.
“I played because I loved it. This is just something that happened. A part of my life, my brothers and I. And it has all been worth it.”