Libbey, Dennis (2006)
DENNIS LIBBEY--TOUGH BATTLING BOTH ON AND OFF THE FIELD CHARACTERIZES THIS H.O.F. CAREER
Athletes sometimes like to joke about the supposed importance of their chosen hobby or vocation: “Life is just like baseball,” they might say, “only not quite as important!”
Pose that question to Dennis Libbey, University of Maine standout shortstop from l970 thru l973, and valued foursome member annually at the Black Bear Baseball golf tournament, and you might get a slightly different answer.
“I had Grade 4 renal carcinoma,” Libbey recalls of the news he got, coincidentally, shortly after September ll, 200l. “The doctor gave me two options. One was surgery.” The odds of successful surgery? “Five percent,” Libbey recalls.
Libbey, of course, went thru a tremendous ordeal. His family circled the wagons. He heard from both good friends and people long out of touch. Well wishers all.
Should he have surgery? What about the risks? If surgery, whom to do the two four-hour procedures?
“Dr. (Richard) Long explained it all to me. He was just great. He had that look, you know? He was the guy I wanted,” said Libbey, sounding like he was at a middle-of-the-inning mound conference telling his struggling teammate to throw strikes, and where. Let’s get two and get you out of this.
He had the surgery. All went well. He has bounced back remarkably.
Now what about that sports background? Did he have a great baseball career, leading to being one of only l7 diamondeers being inducted into the Black Bear Hall of Fame, because of the type of person and fighter he was?
Or did he fight thru this health crisis with his wife, Jayne, and children, because of the lessons he learned in sports?
“We went to visit him at the hospital” before surgery,” said long-time friend gilbert Coffin. “ A bunch of us went in together--Tommy Roberts, Dan Lux, and Gary Tracy.... We had thought we would never see him alive again.”
Dennis had explained to his visiting buddies what he was facing. He cried. They cried. Suddenly, things changed.
“Within three or four minutes, he went right back to being Dennis,” Coffin said. “He helped US get thru what was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
Dennis’ friends make sports analogies about what he went thru, and how he beat it. They love to tell the story that the first thing Dennis wanted after surgery and recuperation was a radio.
“I asked my wife to go home and get a radio so I could listen to the Bangor football game,” he admitted in an interview for a feature story in the Bangor Daily News.
As for Dennis, however, his take is a bit different. He credits some good karma from hospital mate Shawn Walsh, the UMO hockey coach who passed on the message to patient Libbey that he was praying and rooting for him. Libbey also remembers a guardian angel dressed in a white nurse’s uniform.
“Heidi Johnson Black, a nurse, she sat on the edge of my bed,” he says. “She said, “I heard what you have. I know your percentages don’t sound good. But you’ve got something special....Something tells me you’re going to make it through this.’
“She’s a great person for this profession,” Libby chuckles. “She gave a great pep talk.”
Human beings everywhere, and Maine state baseball fans, cheered Libbey’s recovery. There was much to want to keep alive, and not just memories.
Libbey grew up in Mattawankeag, and played baseball for Lee Academy. He also played for his “town” baseball team.
“Remember, back then, town team ball was a big deal, back in the l960s,” says friend Ray Cota. Dennis got to play with brothers Ken and Herb on those town teams.
Dennis went on to play ball at Orono. He started at shortstop for four years, graduating in l973. He was one of the last four-year players for the late coach Jack Butterfield.
Sacrilege to some baseball hard-cores, Dennis went onto play top-level softball after his baseball career ended. As far as Libbey was concerned, it was an activity with a ball, bats, gloves and four bases. Not surprisingly, he played for several state championship softball teams.
Veteran umpire and HOF member Al Card remembers Libbey as a great shortstop for the Black Bears in the early 70s. He says when Libbey went into the Maine Black Bear Hall of Fame in l997, he joined some elite company.
“Only l7 baseball players had gone in--DeVarney, Ferris, Butterfield, Swift, Flaherty, Merrill, Bordick.... some good company,” Card says.
Did Libbey stop at that? Did he begin to devote himself to putting together a king-sized scrapbook documenting his many baseball accomplishments in Mattawankeag, Orono, Cape Cod League, and elsewhere?
No. He headed to the Bangor West Side Little League. About 20 years later, he can say he has helped hundreds of kids with developing baseball fundamentals--and maybe even a love for the game.
“At one point, he had done about l6 years with the Little League, and also coached some l3 and l4 year olds in all star competition to a fourth place finish in the Eastern Regionals,” says Cota. “Many of his players went on to have outstanding high school and college careers. More than baseball skills, Dennis taught sportsmanship and other life lessons.”
The youth sports coaching came back to visit Dennis in a meaningful way in the hospital while he was recuperating from surgery. What was it they say about baseball and its relationship with life? Or vice versa?
“I got a letter in the hospital from a kid, a senior at Bangor High School. I had coached him. He (wished me well). It was so touching...I am so blessed with the people around me--my family, co workers (at Sargent, Tyler and West Insurance in Brewer), and players.”
BANGOR, Maine — There were 12 players on Dennis Libbey’s Mattawamkeag High School baseball team. There were only 83 kids in the entire school.
When he jogged out to shortstop for tryouts at the University of Maine, there were 14 other shortstops waiting to take ground balls.
“And I had thought I was special,” quipped Libbey. “The funniest thing was the guy next to me’s name was Rico Petrocelli. His real name was Paul, he was Rico’s nephew.”
Rico Petrocelli was a former Boston Red Sox shortstop.
“I was shaking and I think I booted that first ground ball,” recalled Libbey. “Nothing was guaranteed back in those days. With [coach] Jack Butterfield, you earned your way. Nobody was given anything.”
Libbey took a “deep breath” and competed for the position.
“Eventually, they started moving players around, some guys got cut and, by the time it was all done, I was left standing [with the position],” said Libbey.
He had played on the undefeated freshman team — freshmen weren’t allowed to play varsity at that time — and wound up starting at shortstop for all three years on the varsity.
When he graduated in 1973, the hard-nosed leadoff hitter owned the school record for singles and hits in a season as well as runs scored and stolen bases in a career.