As Tommy Vargulich of St. Charles scores the first run in Saturday's exhibition game starring kids with developmental and physical disabilities at the Little League Baseball World Series in Pennsylvania, he writes the latest chapter in a family baseball story that spans three generations and 41 years.
"He had a great time. It was so cool. This is a great connection between me and my dad and now Tommy," says Tommy's father, Peter Vargulich, who played on that same field in 1972 with his father coaching. "When Tommy was born and having Down (syndrome), you don't know what is going to be possible. The unique feature for my family would not be possible without Little League initially starting this division (for children with disabilities) in 1989 and then (hosting) this game (beginning) in 2001. The benefits that happen for each player are amazing."
Now 54, Peter Vargulich remembers what it is like to perform on Little League Baseball's biggest stage. So does Tommy's grandfather, 83-year-old Tom Vargulich, although from a different vantage point.
Born into The Depression in 1930, Tom Vargulich didn't have the benefits of Little League, the latest equipment, fancy fields or adult coaches.
"I grew up in the coal mines of Pennsylvania, down around Uniontown," the grandfather recalls. "We played all summer long. We played a lot of ball. We'd choose up sides and that would balance the talent. The sides were different every day."
The youngest of seven kids, Tom Vargulich got so good at baseball that instead of following his older brothers into the coal mines, he attended the University of Wisconsin on a baseball scholarship.
"I was going to be the starting center fielder," he remembers.
An injury during a game on a bitterly cold spring day in northern Wisconsin derailed his baseball aspirations.
"I pulled a muscle sliding on a close play at home and I felt something go wrong. It was my hip," he remembers. "Every time I'd take a good healthy swing after that, my hip would go out of place."
But his love of baseball and knowledge of the game continued to grow. Living in Hammond, Ind., and working in the steel mills, he coached his son's Little League team.
"He took to catching like a duck to water," Tom Vargulich says of young Peter.
Blessed with a good neighborhood team, the coach brought in special pitching instructors, offered extra hitting and fielding clinics, and worked on fine points of the game such as bunting. He predicted to friends that his 1972 Edison Little League team named after the local school was good enough to win the state championship.
"They laughed at me, and that made me more determined," the coach remembers.
"It was just a fortunate thing we had that many players from one little neighborhood in Hammond who were that good," remembers Peter Vargulich, who was 12 that summer.
"Baseball came naturally to me, and I became a better manager," Tom Vargulich says.
His team finished the season winning 10 straight tournament games to wrap up the state championship and then the chance to represent the north region of the United States in the 1972 Little League Baseball World Series. After winning a 2-1 squeaker against a team from Virginia, they beat Puerto Rico 10-7 to nail down a spot in the championship game against a powerhouse Taiwan team that already had recorded a no-hitter and had dominant pitching.
"I don't remember all the details, but in general, I remember I had a pretty good series," Peter Vargulich says, noting he got one of his team's four hits in the final 6-0 loss to Taiwan. While the team was used to pressure games, it was a new experience to have that final game broadcast on ABC-TV's iconic "Wide World of Sports."
"That we had never done," remembers Peter Vargulich, now a landscape architect and urban planner. "Mickey Mantle did the color for the game. We got to meet him. It was a lot of fun. For me, it was just fun to be there, and be with my dad and all my teammates."
Representing more than 30,000 Challenger players and more than 900 leagues worldwide, the game between Tommy's Illinois District 13 squad and a team from the San Francisco area aired Saturday on TV stations around the globe.
"You're going to be on that field, and you're going to be on TV," Peter Vargulich would tell Tommy as they watched earlier games on TV.
In addition to the three generations of Vargulich baseball players, the family cheering section included Peter Vargulich's wife, Sandie Benhart, her 22-year-old son, Brian, other relatives and Tommy's sister, Kate, 19, making the trip from Illinois State University, where she is a sophomore.
Launched in 1994 in Bartlett, the Challenger District 13 program now boasts 16 teams from across the suburbs, featuring about 165 people between the ages of 4 and 22.
While Tommy responds "yeah" to all questions about the joys of following the family path and playing in a big game on national TV, his dad says his son has benefited much from playing baseball with his teammates.
"I was looking for things that would help him grow confidence and independence. When he first started playing, he wouldn't go out on the field unless I went with him," says the dad. Now Tommy wants to do things on his own, although each player in the Challenger game has a "baseball buddy" who helps when needed. Bartlett Little League player Quinn Bendis assists Tommy. Everyone gets to bat until he or she hits the ball, and officials don't keep score.
"For them (Little League officials) to step up is an awesome example of what programs can do for people with special needs," says Peter Vargulich, whose family now boasts a heartwarming baseball story 41 years in the making. "Every player on the team has a unique family story. I am so honored to share my family's story to broaden the understanding of special-needs persons."