At a Phillies game, in the old Veterans Stadium press box about 30 years ago, Rick Ventura showed me how he could recreate every pitch of a baseball game just by reading the box score.
Of course, the box score was his scorebook. He recorded every pitch in one of those thick scorebooks that baseball beat writers used. Rick truly loved baseball and keeping records. He knew so much about both. He packed so much passion into each pencil stroke.
And for almost 50 years, Rick blessed the readers and his co-workers at the Courier-Post with his knowledge of sports and his mastery of recording statistics. He allowed so many of us to write the sports because he did all the grinding background and unsung behind the scenes work.
Rick passed away last week at the age of 69, but the work he did for almost five decades will live on every time a South Jersey sports stat is researched.
But way beyond his meticulous work, Rick’s genuine goodness will continue every time many of us sit down to write a story.
Really, in the 33 years I worked with Rick, only once did I ever hear him say anything bad about anyone – and he actually didn’t say it.
For many years, Rick would go to the visiting locker room after Phillies games to get a couple of quotes for either the Associated Press or the old United Press International, maybe both. I was over at the Vet to write a story. After the game, we both went into the visiting locker room. He wished me “good luck” getting quotes from a particular manager. I asked why I would need the good luck. He said nicely that I would see. I pressed him a bit on the elevator from the fourth floor to the bowels of the Vet, but he really couldn’t say it… so I said something like “what is he a bad guy?” and Rick just nodded and said “yeah.”
So many of us here – Charlie Sprang, Mike Radano, Don Benevento, Gus Ostrum, and Sean Fallon - at the South Jersey Sports Digest worked with Rick for many, many years at the Courier-Post. So did Phil Anastasia, Bob Brookover and Marc Narducci of the Philadelphia Inquirer. We were all impacted and touched professionally by Rick, but personally as well. We all saw his goodness each night. So many of his admiring co-workers like Bob Viggiano, Jeanne Sigman, Dave Treffinger, Walt Burrows and Sue Tharpe, marveled when deadline encroached and Rick remained unflappable.
And, we all saw his courage, too.
Rick was born as a twin and was fused with his sister. After surgery to separate them, Rick needed crutches to walk for the rest of his life.
Each step for Rick in life was a challenge, but also a testament to his immense courage. His dedication to the job – and the readers and co-workers – often mixed with this courage as he would go to work from his home in Maple Shade despite bad weather.
A few years back, it was an icy Saturday late afternoon when I picked Rick up for work. His wooden front steps were cleared, but started to freeze. Still, one precarious step at a time, he made his way down. He didn’t want to miss work because he knew we needed him. And it was wrestling season. Keeping the wrestling records was so overwhelming that he knew he had to stay on top of that night’s matches.
For decades, Rick recorded every match. Yes, every match. Anyone who wrestled a varsity match made his over-sized ledger.
On this Saturday night, driving him home at 1:15 in the morning, his front wooden steps iced over. He bravely balanced himself with the crutches and again, one precarious step at a time, he reached the top, to his front door where he his mother, Marge, waited nervously, too.
Rick went to work on these bad weather nights because he knew the paper needed to get to the presses to get to the loyal reader’s doorsteps, and later computer screens and smart phones.
And then after work, Rick would cheerfully say good night, knowing he would enjoy watching the West Coast games in whatever sport of the season until the early morning hours.
Back in the 1980’s before the Courier-Post sports department had a TV, Rick would bring his transistor radio into work when the Phillies were on the road and he wasn’t at Veterans Stadium with Courier-Post Sports Editor Bob Kenney, who served as the Official Scorer of the Phillies for decades and former Courier-Post sports historian Doug Frambes. And from his desk, behind his computer screen, a slight cheer would come from Rick when Harry Kalas’ voice said the Phillies had won.
Truly, Rick’s life should be cheered.
Over the years, I met a handful of the kids Rick grew up with and they would tell me how he played sandlot baseball with them, running the bases with his crutches.
His love of baseball – and all sports – couldn’t be sidelined, wouldn’t stay on the bench.
Soon, Rick, a long-time member of the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association, started helping others in sports as the student manager for the old Merchantville High School basketball team.
Then, in later years, Rick was the long-time Commissioner of the Tri-County League. Just like Rick knew the name of every high school wrestler, he also seemingly knew everyone who ever played baseball in South Jersey. He was inducted in the South Jersey Baseball Hall of Fame and the South Jersey Wrestling Hall of Fame. He was a founding board member of the Camden County Hall of Fame – again he found ways to serve others.
Relatives and friends are invited to say thank you -- perhaps, let out a slight cheer of appreciation like Rick did after a Phillies win - during his viewing and visitation with his family on Tuesday from 7-9 p.m. and Wednesday from 10-11 a.m. at the Mark C. Tilghman Funeral Home at 38 North Forklanding Road in Maple Shade.
Unlike how Rick could recreate an entire baseball game from his scorebook, there will be no one who could duplicate his professionalism, goodness and courage for so many of us who were privileged to work and be friends with Rick.