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In search of the boys of autumn

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I only wanted one thing for my 65th birthday last month.

To go back in time by going back to the Florida of my baseball-playing youth. Back to spring training in the Sunshine State in the late 1960s when boys like me were all dreaming of playing one day for the St. Louis Cardinals while thousands of other kids our age were just dreaming of getting home alive from Vietnam.

In my memory from that time in 1967, the faces are still young on those boys of spring who are now the boys of autumn.

So it was that last October, as the World Series played like background music for my birthday wish, I began to look for the ones I remember most fondly from that time when we bonded so briefly as Major League Baseball prospects.

But they weren't the ones who made it; they were the ones who felt the sting of being released, like me.

I wanted to know what happened when their little boys' dreams ended while they were still little more than boys. What did they do with the rest of their lives?

And as I hunted for them, I hoped.

Not just that I would find all of them, but that I would find them alive. There were about half a dozen guys who made the kind of impression that has lasted a lifetime.

Most of them played in the sauna-like and stinky pulp-and-paper town of Lewiston, Idaho, reputedly the smallest community in America with a professional baseball team back then.

Gradually, one by one, puzzle-like pieces of their lives appeared on my computer screen, and they came to life like surreal characters from a David Lynch neo-noir mystery film.

It was late February before I finally reached one of the boys.

Fred Covey, the likable little pitcher from Philipsburg, Pa., now lives near Napa Valley in California wine country. He's a PGA club pro and businessman.

"Have you found any of the other guys?" Fred wrote back on Facebook.

By that time I had, even if only as abstracts on the Internet.

Don Cooksey, intense and raw-boned, was the only one of us who was actually from St. Louis, which is where I picked up his trail. He became a St. Louis police detective and later spent more than four years as a private detective searching for the body of an 11-year-old Missouri boy who was abducted by a sex predator -- a boy who ended up making national news by being found alive as a teenager and making Cooksey weep.

Then there was Rich Farrell, who had played for the last Cardinal-sponsored Winnipeg Goldeyes in 1964. Three years later, we shared an apartment in Modesto, Calif. He, I discovered, is a lawyer in Redding, just north of his hometown, San Francisco.

I found the unforgettable Jessie James Dubois, a big African-American lefty with the even bigger smile, in an Ozark, Ala., obituary. Thankfully, it was somebody else's.

Jessie had spent 15 years working in the New Jersey education system from what I could see online. He was from Ozark, Ala., a small town in the Deep South he left one spring when Martin Luther King was assassinated, and where Dubois has since returned, with Barack Obama as his president. I wanted to ask Jesse what that feels like.

I wanted to ask all of them a lot of questions about what they remember about our time together, and what they did with the rest of their lives.

But I only spoke on the phone to one of them, and only this week.

Terry Milani, a natural-born leader and our captain in Lewiston, grew up in Chicago, the 40th overall pick and the first college player to be selected in the first baseball draft. He went on to get a PhD and is a student advisor at the University of Pittsburgh. As for the rest, there was one I couldn't find, and one I never will.

I remember Dennis Daboll most fondly as the right-hander from Las Vegas, who bailed me out when I loaded the bases with walks in the first of my meagre few and undistinguished pro appearances. I came upon a reference to Dennis Edward Daboll in a baseball card collector's blog. It mentioned a Topps rookie card from 1965 that featured the fresh young faces of Dennis and the three other hot Los Angeles Dodgers prospects from that year.

Dennis was the only one who didn't make the majors. The blog went on to answer my question about what Dennis did with the rest of his life after being released. He went missing while hiking alone in the Grand Canyon during early January of 1974. A snowstorm blew in, and three weeks later, his body was found at the bottom of a ravine.

Dennis Daboll was just 27 years old.

As for Stan Davis, a tall, handsome and articulate black kid from Riverside, Calif., he was the only one I couldn't locate online.

But I know he's an artist.

I know that because a couple of decades or so ago a couple from rural Manitoba chanced to meet him in Atlanta. When he learned where they were from, Stan asked them a question.

Did they know a guy from Winnipeg named he used to play ball with named Gordon Sinclair?

As for my question, I think most of the boys have answered it now.

What happens to the rest of our lives when our little boys' dreams end while they were still little more than boys?

The same that happens to most of us, hopefully.

We just keep dreaming...

Until one comes true.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2013 B1

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