Every city has a Rico and we just lost ours.
Nick Rico was one of those guys you see in every major North American city, an old sandlotter who hung around long after his glory days to play it forward with the next generation of baseball nuts. I was just one of the many whose lives Nicky touched and it had hardly anything to do with baseball.
Two years ago a bunch of us got together to thank “the Reek” for his friendship. I lied to him and told him that a bunch of old ball players were getting together at the Canadiana, a west end banquet joint. He had no idea it was about him.That’s the kind of man Nick was. But I knew from our friendship that the shadows were lengthening for him and in Arthur Miller’s words, ”attention,attention must be paid to such a person.” We needed to thank Nick personally. and so the old players came out in droves to thank the lovely man.
Some were there whom Nick had tutored on their way to pro ball, others were there simply because Nicky was one of the nicest guys on the planet, man always ready to help, a guy who never took himself too seriously, who hated humbug of any type and whose values were rock solid.
There were a special few, people like myself Bobby Miwa, Joe Sawchuk who really knew the talent of Nick Rico.
When he had returned from his 5 years in pro ball, he naturally gravitated to the man who had impacted many of us, one of the first inductees into the Canadian baseball Hall of Fame, Carmen Bush. Known alternatively as “the Dictator”, “the Brain”, “the Baron of the Pits”, the “Sage of Bellwoods” Carm had given his life to kids in a ramshackle old club in little Italy near where the Rico family near Trinity-bellwoods Park. Nicky was just one of the many beneficiaries who lucked out when they played for Carmen and Columbus Boys Club.
Having a cat bird’s seat on Carm’s life I knew that he literally never made more than $10,000 a year and supplemented his meagre income by refereeing and umpiring. Hard to believe but the Knights of Columbus got Carm cheap. And 15 years after he had retired at a celebration of a 1944 Juvenile hockey team the Grand Knight showed up with some “guilt money” and ponied up another grand for their former employee. A man of tremendous integrity who turned down lucrative offers of his “gumbah” the Italian realtor Sam Sorbara to “stay with his little Wops” at the Club. So Nicky came home to Carm. Many of course came “home to Carm” including myself and young priest-to-be whom Carm introduce me to t in 1960,Tom McKIllop.
After 5 years chasing his baseball dream in towns like Bristol,Conn, Gastonia, Georgia, Mooresville, North Carolina, Lawton,Oklahoma, Ogden,Utah Nick landed back in his hometown ‘working the debit” in insurance and selling pasta for Primo. At this time we were playing for Carm and there was Nicky at the nightly post-mortems regaling us with his hilarious stories of life in the minors.
We would watch him playing third base and pitching for Clintons in the senior league while we were juveniles and juniors. We never saw anything like him.Yes he actually did bounce a ball off the clubhouse roof in straight centrefield about 450 feet from home plate. We never had seen a hitter like Nick. He would just laugh.”after pro ball, Ted it’s like hitting change ups all game long.’
Then he became our coach as we moved into senior ball but for years it was simply the bull sessions, the post mortems which remain. Our peerless leader Carmen Bush had set the festive board for all of us including “Niccolo” whom he loved as a son. Carm made us realize that the game is simply the place where we meet as fellow humans in relationship; that the post-mortem was just as important as the score board , that friendships crafted between foul lines were the really important things.
We never lost touch. Many of us stopped coaching but not Nicky. He would answer any call to help a young player including the Toronto born National League MVP Joey Votto. It turns out many of us unconsciously had taken Polonius advice in the Bard’s Hamlet
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
We could never let Nicky go.We knew where he hung out at High Seas Fish and Chips on Islington Ave. We came regularly to bask in the warmth of his smile.Nicky washed dishes there but just as often he was the maitre d’ of an old timers’ reunion. High Seas had become the terminus of a secular pilgrimage, an urban monastery where friendship was the raison d’etre. I remember bringing Fungo Joe Irvine and Tom McKillop out to see Nicky, friends who went back to the old Viaduct League of 1950—and McKillop had the pictures to prove it.
And then that night in December 2012 when we came to thank Nick.He had no idea that it was about him because it was never about him. In his extemporaneous remarks all he could talk about was his debt to Carmen.”Nobody he met in all of baseball could compare with him.’
A few days before he died we talked. Typical Nick.No complaints. Lotta weight loss and pretty weak, then the inevitable decline. Over the years we would often would talk about Carmen and how we missed him. Now, Nick has gone as well “to the higher league”, a true ikon of the Columbus Boys Club simple motto: “the other guy.”
Nick will be buried on Holy Thursday.Something appropriate about this.