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May 6, 2013

A Bob Ettinger column: After 50 years, Tulino IS Little League

ASHTABULA — At 71 years old, Tony Tulino could spend his summers on a boat, fishing pole in hand. He could be out walking a golf course or traveling the country with his wife, Sandy.

For those who know him, picturing Tulino spending his retirement years doing anything different than he has for the last half century is preposterous.

“I can’t imagine him doing anything other than being down here (at Cederquist Park),” Tulino’s son, Todd Tulino, said. “When you think of Little League, you think of Tony Tulino, especially in our area.”  

“I think the time will come when he says, ‘OK, that’s enough,’ Kovacic said. “But it will always be in his heart. Even after he steps down, he’ll still be down at the ballpark watching games.”

Even Tony Tulino, himself, can’t picture spending his time in any other way.

“This is retirement,” he said. “This is my enjoyment. I have grandkids I come down and watch and during tournament time, I try to get out and watch all of the kids play.”

Ashtabula Little League recognized Tulino for his 50 years of service at Cederquist Park on Saturday.

“It’s just about everything he stands for,” District 1 information officer Rose Kovacic said. “He loves the game. He has hometown pride. He is Little League.”

Not one to be comfortable in the spotlight, Tulino threw out a ceremonial first pitch... actually, two ceremonial first pitches Saturday morning on Tulino Field. His grandsons, Alex and Tanner, were on the receiving end of the offerings. It was a proud moment for the entire Tulino clan.

“I always tell people I’ve got a well-respected father,” Troy Tulino said. “I live in Lake County and when I go to the mall, people will ask if I’m a Tulino or they will say they know my father. I play softball in Mentor and an umpire told me he umpired with my father years ago.

“It feels good to have a father who is well-respected. A lot of people look up to him. It’s nice to see him get recognized.”

“It’s a huge accomplishment,” Todd Tulino said. “I’m proud to be his son. I’m proud to carry the Tulino name. Him getting recognized makes me happy. Fifty years is a long time. Most parents who get involved with Little League, when their kids are done, the parents are done.”

There is a very simple reason Tony Tulino has spent more than two-thirds of his life at a ballpark.

“He loves it,” Sandy Tulino said. “It’s always been for the kids.

“It’s the love of his life beside the boys and the family. It has always has been.”

“It’s the kids,” Tony Tulino said. “I want to help them learn the game.

“Little League has been good for me. I’ve made some beautiful friends.”   

“We spent every night down here as kids,” Troy Tulino said. “I remember many nights we didn’t get home until after dark. I grew up with him watching us play and watching him umpire. That’s just my dad. He loves to do it. He does it for the kids. It’s always been about the kids.”

Anybody who has played Little League in Ashtabula since 1963 knows who Tony Tulino is. In fact, several generations of entire families have come and gone through the program under Tulino’s ever watchful eye.

“A kid who had played will come up and say hello and ask if I remember him,” Tony Tulino said. “Sometimes, I have to ask their names. They’re grown men now and some don’t have any hair or they’re big, strapping men.

“I watched kids, who went on to have kids I watched and they now have kids playing down here.”

Tony Tulino got involved with Little League baseball in much the same manner as anybody else. He volunteered to become a coach. Over the last five decades, his role expanded to include umpiring as well as a myriad of administrative roles. He is currently serving as the District 1 administrator.

“At the top of the hill, there was a gas station,” Tony Tulino said. “I used to work there and a guy would come in and get gas. He had said he was a coach. I told him that if he ever needed a coach to let me know. A few weeks later he came in and asked if I was serious about coaching.”

Over the years, Tulino has become a beloved figure at ball fields not only in Ashtabula, but throughout Northeast Ohio and even around the country.

“It’s an honor to know they recognized my dad,” Todd Tulino said. “It’s everything he’s done in Little League, and not just in District 1, but in the state and the region. At the state meeting in Massillon, they gave him a plaque.”

The five Tulino boys, and even Sandy Tulino, followed Tony into service with the organization. Sandy served in an administrative role and, for a time, donned the umpire’s gear, while Tony, Terry, Todd, Troy and Tim all played in the program before becoming umpires. Most of them have coached.

It was simply all about joining the family business, so to speak.

“(His volunteering) came as part of the deal,” Sandy Tulino said. “He was doing it five years before we were married. It became part of my life, too.”

“If it weren’t for him, none of us would have been umpires,” Todd Tulino said. “All of us boys have umpired at one time or another. My mom even umpired. Because of my dad, I umpired at the state, the regional and the Little League World Series. Not just in Little League, but in our lives, he’s been a tremendous role model.

“In 2004, I was honored to umpire the championship game at third base. That’s the same base my dad did in the championship game 21 years before. It was a huge honor.”

Volunteering with the organization has always been a time-consuming endeavor for Tony Tulino. He has influenced thousands of kids in those hours he has been away from home. That doesn’t mean that he neglected his own family in the process.

“Even when he wasn’t there, he was there,” Troy Tulino said. “It was great growing up and having him teach me about baseball and umpiring.”

Tony and Sandy Tulino even found a way to get married right in the middle of Little League tournament season. In what has become a symbol of the life the Tulinos have chosen, Tony Tulino spends his anniversary at a ballpark somewhere before rushing home to a dinner date with Sandy.  

“I don’t know how they managed to get married during the Little League international tournament season.”

Family to Tony Tulino has a little bit of a different meaning. The Tulinos are a big family already, but included in that are the thousands who Tony volunteers to help.

“He amazes me,” Kovacic said. “He stands for love of family. Little extends into that idea of family. That’s essentially what Little League is, an extended family.”

In keeping with the reason Tony Tulino has volunteered so long — the kids — one of the things he is most proud of is the fact he was part of implementing rules to ensure everyone who was part of a team got to play.

“I like to say we were one of the first Little Leagues to ever institute a rule about mandatory play,” he said.               

Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula. Reach him at bettinger@starbeacon.com.

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