The Recorder – Greenfield baseball coach Tom Suchanek still thriving in 50th season on the job

The recent hot temps and sunny skies made it a perfect time to watch the summer game. On April 14, the Greenfield High School baseball team played Hopkins Academy at Veterans Field and onlookers were scattered from foul pole to foul pole.

Some stood in the shade under the tall pines near the tennis courts, and others sat in lawn chairs behind home plate. The snack shop cashier rested her elbows on the counter and idly watched pitcher Michael Pierce warm up, and sun worshippers put their backs to the picnic tables and waited for the umpire to yell, “Play ball!”

Frank Siano arrived in time to watch his grandson Luca throw to second base, a coach yelled “C’mon guys, little chatter here!” and Hopkins leadoff hitter Cooper Beckwith stepped up to bat.

The weather was a gift from the gods, but the Norman Rockwell tableau was crafted by Tom Suchanek. People want constancy, and Suchanek has provided it for half a century. He has coached other sports and other teams, but his name is synonymous with GHS baseball.

This is his 50th year in the dugout, and at age 75 he remains big as a rhino and sometimes as ornery, staring at the field in his windbreaker and green baseball hat with the dark green “G” bordered in white.

When the season ends he’ll drop the scorebook into a milk crate; fifty years, 50 scorebooks. Asked how many different names are in them he answered, “Couple thousand? I’m just guessing. It’s a hard number to come up with.”

A few years ago one of his former pitchers, Jason Grader, came up and said, “So-and-so says he got three hits off me in a game.’ I looked it up and said, ‘Nope, he was wrong.’”

Doug Welenc was the first Suchanek protege to play professionally. “We had Sean Killeen and Jeremiah Bayer — they both went to Trinity and played for [Harvard coach] Bill Decker who played for me — and obviously Peter Bergeron.”

Welenc pitched five seasons in the minors, Killeen and Bayer both played in the Red Sox organization, and Bergeron played 308 games for the Montreal Expos. On July 18, 2000, at Fenway Park, he doubled off Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez.

A stint in the pros

Suchanek was born and raised in Greenfield and was a three-sport athlete at GHS. He did a PG year at Deerfield Academy and was drafted in the 15th round by the Houston Astros on the recommendation of Stan Benjamin, a Houston scout and GHS coach. 

“Stan was one of two or three guys who had a big impact on me,” Suchanek said. “I had a teacher named Jack Thompson who was like a second father, and the other was football coach Jim Smith at Deerfield.”

Those men ingrained four principles into his playing and coaching mantra: self-discipline, focus, fierceness, and respect for the opponent.  

Suchanek’s career mark in the minors was 7-6 with a 2.92 ERA for Covington (Va.) in the Appalachian League and Cocoa in the Florida State League.

“The first year I played I was coached by Tony Pacheco, he was knowledgeable and a good guy. The second year he started out with us in Cocoa and went back to Covington. The new coach was Leo Posada.

“We were in Miami, sitting in the lobby and some young girl came up and we started talking. Afterward Posada told me. ‘I don’t want you messing around with any girls. I said, ‘I do what you tell me on the field, but off the field is my business.’

“Three or four weeks later I got released and wound up going home with Frank Siano and my former wife (Donna) who’d come down to watch.

“Stan told me I had a chance to sign with Seattle but I didn’t want to waste my time in Single A. I had money in my contract for school so I went back and finished my education. I’d lost my scholarship at the University of Vermont so I transferred after one semester to Johnson State. I finished there and coached two years of college ball.”

The prodigal son returns

In 1972, Suchanek returned to Greenfield and taught physical education. “In 1973, Lou Bush finished coaching, and being a teacher in the system I had priority. I don’t know if anyone else even applied.”

By his own count he’s won 673 games and lost somewhere in the mid-300’s. Statmaster Mike Cadran of Turners Falls puts it at 669-364, but at this point who’s really counting?

Asked what it’s taken to be a successful coach he said, “Skills. Repetition. Being consistent how you run your team, your rules, your commitment. It’s not always fun. We practice six days a week including Saturday mornings. I’ve had kids who work jobs and I’ll let ‘em leave early, but they know this is our routine.”

Cell phones stay in the locker room or in backpacks. “If you pull them out you’re going to be doing something extracurricular,” he said. “No degrading messages to any other schools. We try to make them behave, but it’s a lot more difficult.”

Coaching assistants and volunteerism

“I can’t remember how many assistants I’ve had but I’ve been blessed,” said Suchanek. “Billy Burns was my first, but the others I tried counting them once and I couldn’t do it. It doesn’t always have to be on me to do stuff. It’s not me trying to be the power person.”

His current staff is composed of Vinnie Melendez, Tom Luippold and Aaron Campbell. “These guys have been with me the longest and it’s neat that they played for me and coaching their sons makes it special.

“Aaron does pre-game infield and outfield, Tom does maintenance and is good with the young kids pulling them aside, and Vinnie busts his butt. He’s big on the golf tournament. He and his wife Kate run the whole thing.”

Revenue from the golf outing goes for scholarships and to underwrite improvements for Vets Field. “We don’t get a great deal of money from the school system — balls, bats, scorebooks, new game jerseys — but mostly we go out and buy stuff ourselves.

“We raised money to irrigate the fields. We’re in the process of building new dugouts. Pinky Bernard’s been doing the work and has been real fair with us.”

It took six years but they financed and built two all-weather hitting tunnels, and when a section of chain link fence collapsed they fixed it themselves. “I got a $15,000 estimate and said forget it. John Hickey knows how to weld and every Saturday we’d cut pipes and make our own fencing.”

Post 81’s Billy Phelps is another cog in the town’s baseball legacy. “Billy and I played a lot of ball together,” said Suchanek. “He wanted to do things that would improve our facility.”

Five years ago Phelps enlisted the help of contractor Mowry and Schmidt, Bernard Concrete and Booska Flooring to build a new press box. When it was completed, Post 81 dedicated it to Stan Benjamin and Suchanek.

The press box, batting tunnels and even the picnic benches have helped make Veterans Field a town landmark, and nobody has fought harder for it than Suchanek. He has tangled with school committees and planning boards and has reminded local politicians of their unkept promises.

“They wanted to put the new high school building on our field and I said no way, and they wanted to put the track around it and there was no way.”

When other schools began installing lights around their fields, Suchanek had the daunting task of making it happen in Greenfield. “I made a flyer and went house to house and explained what we were doing. They had misconceptions. I said these lights are very directional, they won’t bother you.”

The cycle stays unbroken

He’s proud of his family coaching tree. His son Ryan is the assistant athletic director at Cushing Academy and Tim coached youth football in New Jersey. His daughter Erin has coached the GHS field hockey team and now at Pioneer, and her husband Scott Thayer is Pioneer’s boys basketball coach.

“There’s coaching in the blood,” he said.

“My wife Cindy is very supportive of me,” he added. “She knows I have to put in a lot of time and I try to make it up to her in the summer. We go up to Maine for a week. She’s a beach person.”

Greenfield lost to Hopkins that afternoon, 8-3, and was no-hit by Frontier this week. “We’re young, we’re making mistakes. We just need time.”

His teams have won league and regional titles, and his legacy has earned him inductions into halls of fame and appointments to boards and committees, all from coaching the game he loves.

“I do it,” he said, “because I enjoy it and hope I can make a difference in kids’ lives.”

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