Front row , from left, are Michael Houllis, Coach John Cruz and Buddy Paulk; back row, Manuel Pondakis, John Gentry, Laz Kavouklis, Randy Boyette, and Tommy Wabberson. The players pose with their championship trophy at the reunion dinner in September.
TARPON SPRINGS – In the main room at the Tarpon Springs Yacht Club, eight men crowded around a trophy, reminiscing on ballgames long called and at-bats described in whispered hushes to the grandchildren.
Ballplayers reliving their glory days as young boys, standing next to wives of 40 years. Fifty years ago, this group had their claim to fame written before they could drive: 1963 Southeastern Regional Senior League Champions.
“For a small town,” said Tarpon Springs centerfielder John Gentry, “we really did good.”
The Senior League World Series is barely older than the Tarpon Springs team’s title, with the first season being played in 1961. Ten teams of boys ages 14 to 16 compete in the World Series, most recently won by a Senior League team from Herrera, Panama. Teams from Florida have won six times since the tournament’s inception; only Taiwan has won more times with 16 championships. The Senior League team from Palm Harbor won in 2001, the team from Dunedin in 1995.
But when Tarpon Springs won their region 50 years ago, the tournament was still a mystery to many, and the players had to fight shrinking funds and stronger teams with each new round.
Speaking to a room of about 50 people on Sept. 28, leftfielder Michael Houllis reminisced on the journey the Tarpon Springs team took to the regional championship. The team beat teams from Azalea, Largo, St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, Winter Park, and Elberton, Ga., before losing 5-4 to Randleman, N.C.
“We were the underdogs,” said Houllis, who planned and organized the reunion. “The whole city was excited, but they didn’t know what to do about it.”
Beyond falling behind to five out of their first six opponents early in the game, Tarpon Springs still had to pay for gas and hotels. In the fourth inning of each game, Houllis said, a hat would be passed around the stands to raise money to help the winning team with travel expenses.
“The other team always had more fans,” he said, “so they’d put money in the hat and we’d take it.”
And every time, the team scraped together enough money to keep playing.
Gentry broke his left wrist after colliding with shortstop Randy Boyette a week before the tournament began, but still traveled with the team.
“We could really feel the support of the community the whole time,” he said. “The people in town did everything they could for us.”
Down by five runs (or six, he couldn’t remember) in the first game against Azalea, Laz Kavouklis hit a three-run homer to begin the scoring, and Tarpon Springs’ tournament success. Now, Kavouklis says he sees viable teams coming out of the Senior League. But in 1963, they were just a group of scrappy young boys who got lucky.
“Everybody got involved,” he said. “It was a real blow when we lost.”
The regional championship was as far as the Tarpon team went, with Monterrey, Mexico, eventually winning the tournament. But Houllis said he isn’t bitter; he remembers the journey more than the boxscore.
“For three weeks,” he said, “we captured the attention of the entire county.”