Ump's Depression no match for lure of Little League.
It is a venue that always belongs to the kids – Little League baseball with all of its dreams played out on green carpets that make memories for the ages. And so it was last week at Reeves Field.
Brian Sousa, a smiling rather large 12-year old with a lethal swing will tell you as he bombed a grand slam home run off the roof of a now freshly dented white car in center field. Mike Milius will tell you as he also went yard in the opening week.
Big, lasting moments etched into the memory banks. But they were background noise this time around. Nope, the kids and home runs had to take a back seat for the beginning of the 2010 season. The biggest guy on the field owned the biggest story and it brought a smile to a lot of faces that have spanned the years.
The big guy was back, a little heavier (who isn’t) and a little grayer but clearly the large 6-foot-6 presence that straddled the third base line for most of the week was indeed Rich Axelby.
He had been gone for a long time, a dozen years to be exact. To be honest some had thought maybe he had passed on. Not so as his presence indicated. But, the journey from his home back to the field which measures about three-tenths of a mile as the crow flies has been has been a debiliting odyssey taking more than torturous decade to complete..
Depression will challenge any journey, turning the path from the bedroom to the living room into a major maneuver, blurring the line between living and existing. And the future is anything but certain.
But for right now it is like old home week and everyone is reveling in the big guy’s return. If you’re Thomaston pedigree, the name needs no introduction. If not let me introduce you with this. Probably nobody has given more to the youth of Thomaston over the years for less that Axelby.
There was a 26-year stint with the Little League, that included a turn as the league’s president, coaching Hartley’s with the late Gene Torrence and working as the player’s agent. Only illness halted the run.
“I remember them saying that the only thing I wasn’t doing was umping and calling strikes,” laughs Axelby.
He went on to do both in fact his last game was working an age 13-15 girls softball game in the Eastern Regionals in 1998. That would be enough, but there was plenty more.
Axelby took over the Little Kids Basketball program from Ken Koval and worked with countless youngsters on dribbling and shooting and growing up. He coached in the youth Flag Football League and still chuckles at some of those memories.
“I said to (referee) Mike Breen, how can it be fourth down when we’ve only run two plays,” said Axelby.
Axelby was the Recreation Director back when the job was part time and had his hand in everything. He was the town’s first full-time Recreation Director only to give up the job shortly after being appointed.
If you grew up in Thomaston in the 1970s to mid 1990s and had in interest in sports you crossed paths with the soft-spoken big man and he touched bases with you.
He was even a financial source, helping out this reporter in his teens by hiring me to referee a lot of youth basketball games. We laugh now about how I used to greet him with my arm outstretched and palm up Not to say hi, but to say, where’s my money.
He was one of those sure things in life, you know, like death and taxes. And then we all were reminded that there are no sure things, nothing is permanent. In 1996 he noticed something different and in 1998 was diagnosed with depression.
Suddenly a lot of the zest was gone and nowhere to be found. It began in the summer of ’96 and when he returned to school at Wamogo in Sept. where he was working as an aide, he began to have panic attacks. He would just go to the secretary, say he had to leave and had no explanation.”
“There was no physical pain, all of the sudden I just didn’t want to get up,” said Axelby. “I would stay in bed an extra two hours, walk downstairs and lie on the couch for another two hours.
Axelby is hides nothing about this existence. He talks about not wanting to shower, the dishes piling up, not opening the mail for weeks at a time and not even wanting to watch sports. He even had a friend take his car for emissions testing every year.
There was no family for support. Parents gone, no wife, no kids, few relatives. The highlight of the day, any day, was going to one of the close to 12 doctors he had as they looked to treat, explain and help his condition.
He wasn’t forgotten and credits a number of people with keeping him going, especially former First Selectman and Little League buddy, Gene McMahon.
“(Sleeper) was a big help, he would come around to check up on me a couple of days a week,” said Axelby. The odd thing was that Axelby would get up and talk to any visitor like all was well and normal only to get back on the couch and revert after the visit.
It has been an arduous 14 or so years. The house has been his world. Few saw the man who had given so much. People remembered, but they wondered. What happened? Does he still live here? The questions abounded.
Then about four months ago, he seemed to snap out of it. He can’t explain it, he just knows that, “this is the longest in 14 years I have been out of it and been functional.”
The return to some normalcy began during the basketball season when he showed up at the end of the season to watch a few of the Thomaston High girls’ team’s games, the first time this century.
Feeling better, he ran into current Little League President Kathy Jo Butkevicius who is also an administrative assistant at one of his doctors, and agreed to umpire some game.
Never far from the disease, there was a condition. “I asked her not to count on me because I’ll start feeling the pressure and won’t do it.”
He calls his own schedule and particularly delights in working with the young umpires. He is second to no one in knowing the rules, although some leagues modify things a bit. On the field, he feels no pressure.
And the reaction? Well it has been off the charts from all quarters, especially the parents who have looked like they are seeing a ghost at first glance and then absorbed with jubilation that it is indeed Axelby standing out there in his umpire’s duds, like someone turned the clock back.
Megan Protzmann walked over to the other side of the field away from her son’s dugout just to say hi. She looked at me and said, “That’s Mr. Axelby, can you believe it. How great is this.”
She then introduced herself and Gene Torrence was kidding her, “Hey Meg, did you get his autograph.
They continue to come up and introduce themselves – Gary Wilson, John Hurlbert, Roger DuPont (Jr.), the list goes on. The conversation has been dominated by, “Hey, I heard Axelby’s back umpiring.”
Even the kids who don’t know Axelby from Axel grease have been impressed.
“They thought it was so cool to have him umpire last night,” said Butkevicius after the opening game. “All of the kids said, who is this guy: He’s awesome.”
Axelby has felt the response.
“If there are 10 signs that you have depression, I have about nine of them,” he said. “This makes me feel good. Meg Protzmann’s greeting has been a typical response. Baseball has given me something to look forward to during the day.”
Axelby has worked nearly every day since the season started and will work as many games as he is able. Right now, he is having a ball.
Little League is all about the kids. But these days, the little guys have to share the spotlight with the big guy. Smiles in big numbers have lit up the Reeves Field diamond in a unique way.
The big guy who has given so much to the youth of Thomaston in a big way is back. He had been gone for too long, locked in a world he didn’t want any part of. It is a very big deal. It has been the feel-good story of Little League so far and will always be part of this season.
Welcome back Rich Axelby. Now, play ball!