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Father and son combo share a memorable ballpark streak

Way back in 1789, Ben Franklin opined that nothing is certain except death and taxes. Well, I have a third sure thing to add to Ol’ Ben’s declaration of certitude: Tony and Chris Wells’ presence at Rochester Red Wings games at Frontier Field.

As the Flower City nine plays its final homestand of the 2021 season this week — a homestand, by the way, that will feature the first professional baseball games ever played here in the month of October — this father-and-son combo will add to streaks that would make Cal Ripken proud. As the Baltimore Orioles Iron Man shortstop proved while playing in a record 2,632 consecutive games, sometimes you win just by showing up, something the Wellses have been doing game after game, year after year, non-stop for a decade.

Tony, who attended his first game at old Red Wing Stadium at 500 Norton Street in 1957, had been to 729 consecutive home games heading into this week, with Chris right on his heels at 643. Should they occupy their box seats near the Wings dugout for each of the final five home games, Tony will record his 10th consecutive perfect attendance season, while Chris will finish off his ninth straight.

Like father, like son, indeed.

Tony has attended a majority of home games each season since moving back to his hometown in the summer of 1981 to become the sports information director at the University of Rochester. But it wasn’t until 2011 that he made it to every game in a season. The following year, Chris landed a job at the Olive Garden that gave him the schedule flexibility needed to accompany his dad to each game.

“I said to Chris, ‘Let’s just keep going and see how long it lasts,’” Tony said. “And guess what? It’s still going.”

And going. And going. And going.

Baseball often is a family heirloom passed down from one generation to the next. Tony’s dad, though, wasn’t much of a fan. But nine-year-old Tony was into baseball big-time. So much so, that he bugged Walter Wells incessantly about taking him to a Wings game. His old man eventually capitulated.

“I don’t remember who won or lost,” Tony recalled. “I just remember that Allie Clark, who had once played for the New York Yankees, hit a home run, and Wings manager Cot Deal also pitched for the team. It was drizzling, and my dad kept saying, ‘Let’s go,’ and I kept getting him to stay a bit longer. I think we got about seven innings in before we left.”

And that’s all it took for awe-struck Tony to be hooked for life. Soon, he and two of buddies from their Twelve Corners neighborhood in Brighton were taking the 15-cent bus trip to and from the ballpark. Tony vividly recalls a Sunday afternoon doubleheader featuring future Hall of Fame pitchers Bob Gibson and Satchel Paige.

“Nobody knew much about Gibson back then, but everyone knew about Paige,” said Tony, who turned 73 in March. “Old Satch had to be in his early 50s by then, but he still knew how to get batters out and entertain the crowd with his bizarre windups and trick pitches. He only pitched once a week for the Miami Marlins back then, and they would schedule him for the second game of Sunday doubleheaders to ensure that people stayed for the nightcap.”

Of all the Wings teams he’s seen through the decades, the 1961 club remains his favorite. It featured top Orioles’ prospect Boog Powell, fleet-footed centerfield Fred Valentine and aging slugger Luke Easter, who, by that time, had achieved minor-league folk hero status.

“I was young and impressionable,” Tony said. “And those guys made a lasting impression on me.”

Years later, Tony would pass his love of the game on to his sons, Doug and Chris, and they and their mom, Betsy, became fixtures at the park. Doug eventually married and moved away, leaving Chris to carry on the family tradition. Chris, who has autism, shares his father’s deep passion for the game, and continues to astound Tony with the boundless supply of facts, figures and trivia he has accumulated about America’s pastime through the years. The ballpark has become Chris’ second home, a safe haven where the 46-year-old can wander safely off to concession stands or men’s rooms without his father worrying about his whereabouts.

“When we first started going to games at Frontier, I’d shadow him and accompany him everywhere,” Tony said. “But about 10 years ago, I became more comfortable with him doing things on his own. The ushers know him. The concessionaires know him. Other season ticketholders know him. The Wings staff knows him. It’s been great for Chris socially. He doesn’t drive. He doesn’t get out a lot. So, this is a chance for him to interact with others in a safe environment.”

An environment where he can have a ton of fun.

“I love going to the ballpark,” Chris said. “I like the people we sit next to. I like the food. And I love baseball. Play ball!”

Chris is easy to spot in his box seat in Section 111, a few rows above the Wings batting circle. He’s the one wearing the white Rochester jersey with the No. 41 and the name “Restovich” sewn on the back. Each year, Chris would choose a favorite player to root for, and in 2003 he chose Michael Restovich. Chris became so enamored with him that Tony and Betsy gave their son a replica Restovich jersey that Christmas.

The slugger wound up returning to the Wings the following season, and Chris had his photo taken with him. Tony had copies made, and Chris autographed one of them for Restovich. The outfielder got a kick out of that, and a friendship was formed.

“He’s my all-time favorite Red Wing,” Chris said. “After he left, I stopped picking a favorite player each year.”

Wearing Restovich’s jersey is just one of Chris’ many game-day traditions. He always buys a bag of peanuts from famed vendor Tom “Conehead” Girot, and makes pre-game trips to the ice cream stand with season ticketholder Bernie Schmerbeck, who sits directly in front of the Welles. Chris also has been known to provide play-by-play commentary from his seat, and mimics the announcements of his friend, Wings P.A. man Rocky Perrotta. During the seventh inning stretch, Chris turns singer, joining neighboring seatholders Kathy O’Neill, Mary Gross, Diane Noga and Karen Gerrish in a rousing rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

Giving away foul balls is another Chris Wells tradition. He snagged his first one off the bat of Wings catcher Michael Hubbard on May 1, 2002, and still has it. Since then, he’s gotten his hands on at least a dozen more, but decided not to keep them.

“When I get a foul ball, I look for a kid who never got a foul ball before, and give it to him,” Chris says. “I always give it to a kid.”

Those acts of kindness usually evoke a round of applause from the crowd, and make his dad burst with pride.

Though disappointed by the Wings losing record this season, Tony and Chris are just grateful they’ve had the opportunity to attend games again after the entire 2020 season was wiped out by the pandemic. The loss of a season dealt the Wings a devastating financial blow, but Chris is doing his best to support the team. He’s used his $1,400 stimulus check to purchase his season ticket, parking for him and his “chauffeur” dad and concessions.

“He asked me what a stimulus check was, and I told him it was something that could be used to help local businesses,” Tony said. “Well, he decided the Wings was the local business he wanted to pump his money back into.”

Tacking onto the streak has been fun, and the Wellses hope to keep it going for as long as possible. But the impressive number of games isn’t what’s important here. This is more about a father taking his son to the ballgame, and making a lifetime-worth of memories.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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