It began roughly 30 years ago as a small get-together among softball teammates. Bo Bertino and his buddies would gather at a local watering hole on the first Saturday in December to share tall tales and cold brews. Recollections of home runs and spectacular catches were embellished. Laughter filled the room.
Over time, the parties became much bigger as Bertino, a big guy with a big heart, suggested to friends they expand their shindig and invite more members from the softball community. A new holiday tradition was born; a tradition that continued last Saturday when about 100 softball players and their significant others gathered at Fatso’s XL Italian restaurant on Buffalo Road.
As always, a good time was had by all but this party, like previous ones thrown by this bonded-by-softball group, was about more than just conviviality. It also was about giving back; about boosting the spirits of those dealing with the challenging curves life tosses our way.
Bertino has always been a guy who thinks about others, especially those in need, and many moons ago, he urged the large, close-knit Rochester softball community to throw its weight behind charitable causes.
Through the years, the group has helped players and spouses who have fallen on hard times. They’ve also aided a number of charitable organizations, near and far. One year, they purchased bats, balls and gloves and shipped them to our troops serving in Afghanistan. In other years, they made significant donations to Camp Good Days, Wounded Warriors, and a local theater group featuring kids with Down syndrome.
And this year, they collected 72 new winter coats and 10 gently used ones and donated them, along with $670, to the Scott Spino Foundation, which was established 17 years ago by Jerry and Geri Spino in memory of their son, a beloved Rochester city schoolteacher who died at age 28 after being struck by a drunk driver. In addition to the donations, which will be used to provide children – kindergarten through third grade – with winter clothing, Bertino’s group presented Jerry with its second annual “Denny Warren Man-of-the-Year Award.” (Warren, who’s devoted his life to helping others and honoring the rich history of Rochester softball, was the first recipient.) In addition to the award, Jerry was given a Rochester Softball Hall of Fame ring with his name engraved on the side.
“They and my wife pulled a fast one on me,’’ he said, chuckling. “I usually don’t like surprises, but that one I really loved.”
Four years ago, Jerry received a surprise he hated, when he was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. It’s been a tough slog. At one stretch, he underwent 39 straight months of chemotherapy and has lost about 70 pounds. But he says he’s been feeling better and is in remission. “Saturday definitely lifted my spirits,’’ said Jerry, who got to know Bertino and numerous other players while umpiring slow-pitch for 27 years. “Bo was a great player, and he’s an even better guy.”
A humble one, too. When I interviewed Bertino for this column, he told me: “Please don’t make this about me. Make it about all the caring people in the Rochester softball community.” Sorry, Bo, but this needs to be about you – as well as that softball community you’ve helped galvanize.
A graduate of Marshall High School and SUNY Brockport, Bertino spent three seasons pitching in the minor leagues before embarking on a 40-year softball career that has earned him numerous accolades, including inductions into the Rochester and New York State softball halls of fame. But the longtime teacher and coach has made a much greater impact with his generosity than his bat. And that’s saying something given his lofty softball achievements. “Bo does wonderful work for our softball community,’’ said Dan Guilfoyle, a local radio and softball legend who’s battled a series of serious health problems in recent years. “He’s always thinking about others. He’s just a truly great person.”
A person whose give-back spirit reminds Jerry Spino of his son.
“Scott was the kindest, best son you could ever have asked for,” Jerry said. “His passion was to make a difference in his community and in the lives of children through teaching, coaching, and mentoring. The slogan for our foundation is: Live a life that matters. Scott did during his 28 years on this planet. And I think Bo and others in his group definitely have made a difference, too.”
Like Jerry, Bertino received shocking news a year ago when he was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors told him he wouldn’t survive a marrow transplant, but Bertino admits to being as stubborn as he is kind. He insisted on giving the transplant a shot, and a year later the 75-year-old finds himself in remission.
“I feel good,’’ he said. “I feel blessed.”
Through the years, whenever he has heard about a member of the softball community going through a tough time, Bertino has added him or her to his prayer list and has encouraged others to pray for them, too. When word of his illness got out, hundreds of his softball friends told him they were keeping him in their prayers. “I’m a man of faith and I believe prayer is powerful,’’ he said. “I’ve seen it help me and others, and I can’t thank people enough for thinking of me because I truly believe they helped me experience a miracle.”
A miracle that’s enabled him to keep living a life similar to the ones lived by the Spino family. A life that matters.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.l