By Nick Abramo, Sports Columnist
After getting their dose of Rolfe’s tutelage as the head coach of the Northborough Legion baseball team, both men became major leaguers.
But there were hundreds of other kids in the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s who Rolfe got the most out of on the baseball diamond.
As Ken Giardina, a second baseman under Rolfe during Northborough’s 1965 state championship season, likes to point out, “Those two came out to pitch for the old-timers against the Legion team one time. Well, the old-timers would have won if the [youngsters] hadn’t gotten all their runs off of Mark and Kenny that day.”
Simply put, Rolfe dedicated himself to making many complete baseball players, not just those few headed to the bigs.
That Northborough squad, which disbanded in 1976, leading to a later version based in Marlborough, developed quite a following.
“Every game was covered in the paper, and Bob Fouracre did every game on WSRO,” Giardina said in a recent interview with the Community Advocate. “It was unbelievable. There was a 0-0, 14-inning game on the Fourth of July against Milford with about 3,000 to 5,000 people watching.”
Based on what his former players say, there is absolutely no doubt that confidence was one of the most important traits Rolfe passed along to players.
Fidrych — who died in 2009, about a month after Rolfe — told that to the Worcester Telegram upon Rolfe’s death.
“When you’d be facing a kid at the plate who’s 200 pounds, and you’re pushing 160, he’d be making sure you went after him, that he’s no better than you,” he said. “…If it wasn’t for a man like Mr. Rolfe, I may not have made it into professional baseball.”
Like a storm, Fidrych joined the Detroit Tigers in 1976. Despite well-known quirks, he went 19-9 and won American League Rookie of the Year honors.
Bob Battaglino, a leading home run hitter in the early 1980s for Marlboro Legion under Rolfe, didn’t lack in confidence, but he riffed on the confidence Rolfe showed in him.
“My essential memory of Ted Rolfe is the energy that was created when we interacted,” Battaglino said. “When I met him, he eyed me a little sideways due to my surly, long-haired, non-baseball look.”
“As soon as he saw my attitude and saw me play, that changed,” Battaglino continued. “I could tell he deeply enjoyed our interaction. He would grab my shoulders and look at me with wild intensity and say something like ‘Bobby, Bobby, go get ’em.’ We both reveled in each other’s intensity.”
“He was a fiery guy,” added Kenny Reynolds, who also played on that ’65 state championship team. He went on to pitch in the majors for various teams, including the Philadelphia Phillies and San Diego Padres.
“He made sure you were ready to play each game. And he found people, got ’em to try out and formed a very good team, a place for players from towns around Northborough to come and build a winner,” Reynolds said of Rolfe. “With only eight Legion teams in the state, you had 50 people trying out for a spot on the roster, so you had to bring your ‘A’ game to make the team.”
Rolfe’s firm belief in his players and winning attitude rubbed off on Giardina, who went on to be Rolfe’s assistant in Northborough and Marlborough before taking over the Marlborough program.
“We were playing Wellesley, a team filled with Greater Boston all-scholastic players who were going to Boston College and Holy Cross,” Giardiana said. “Nobody knew who we were. They had pinstripe uniforms and they took infield and outfield, looking really sharp. I was sitting next to Ted Rolfe and he says to me, ‘They look pretty good, don’t they? We can beat them.’”
Practices were no easy thing for players under Rolfe, who also served as baseball head coach at Hudson Catholic and a hockey head coach at Marlborough, Algonquin and St. Mark’s.
“If we didn’t have a game, we would practice every night, with 100 ground balls to each infielder,” Giardina said. “He was a no-nonsense guy. If you played the game, you played to win.”
Giardina has two indelible memories of those Legion practices of long ago.
“One time, the infield wasn’t doing well, and the third baseman threw to the catcher, and Ted caught it with his bare hands and said, ‘Are you through screwing around now?’” Giardina said.
Another time, Giardina saw Rolfe throw a fungo bat hard toward the backstop. It went right through one of the diamond holes in the chain-link fence.
“We knew he was mad, so we buckled down and knew it was time to stop fooling around,” Giardina added. “I got to know him really well, and he was the greatest guy. He loved working with kids and would do anything for ya.”
Believe it or not, winning baseball games was NOT everything for Rolfe. He taught the other lesson, the one about losing, as well.
“Mr. Rolfe would tell us after a night game, ‘Do you know how many millions and millions of people in China, where the sun is shining, are not going to know you lost?’” Giardina said.