One of many newspaper clippings Canales has saved and preserved over the years.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Of the many supporters of the LaFesta Baseball Exchange, none comes up in conversation with co-founder George Canales more than former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.
So it was particularly concerning to Canales when the five-term mayor was AWOL in the moments leading up to the 2003 game in the North End.
"I said to [Boston's] John Romano, who started the exchange with me, 'Where's Mayor Menino?' " Canales recalled this week. "And he said, 'Don't worry. He'll be here.'
"All of a sudden, an ambulance came onto the field. They opened the back, and Mayor Menino came out on a stretcher. They wheeled him over to the North Adams dugout, and he put medals on all the kids. He said, 'I wish I could stay and watch this game and Sunday's game, but I just had back surgery. But I wanted to say hi and welcome to Boston.
"I'll never forget that."
On Saturday, the 28th edition of the LaFesta Exchange gets underway at Joe Wolfe Field, where a team of players from North County will face off against friendly rivals from the North End in the 100th game played since Canales and Romano hatched the idea to build cross-state friendships through the game they both love.
In a couple of weeks, the same two teams will meet again in Boston.
The Babe Ruth baseball players from towns throughout Northern Berkshire will join a long line who have gone before them, playing a lot of games and forming a lot of friendships.
Over the last three decades, the North Adams and North End teams have combined to travel 16,200 miles back and forth across the commonwealth. More than 900 players have taken part with six going on to sign professional contracts.
North Adams holds a 57-42 lead over the first 99 games, but the event never has been about winning percentages.
"I was a coach for 40 years," Canales said during a chat at Main Street's Empire Cafe. "The thing for me is, I want to bring sportsmanship back — to the high school, the Little League, the Babe Ruth, all levels.
"It's only a game. Win or lose, you should be able to walk off the field and say, 'I played my best,' and have fun with your teammates."
Canales cringes when he sees a kid throw a glove or drop an expletive on the field.
His face lights up when he talks about seeing LaFesta players come out of the dugout between innings and congratulate a player on the other team for making a good play.
The LaFesta Exchange not only provides an opportunity to compete against players that each side normally would not see. It also allows the kids to see an entirely different side of Massachusetts.
"The Boston contingent gets to Greenfield [coming west], and it takes them an hour and 20 minutes to get to North Adams from there because they've never seen mountains before," Canales said. "They sit at Joe Wolfe Field and look out at the mountains, they're amazed. We take that view for granted.
"To see the looks on their faces when we go to Windsor Lake … And at the cookout on Saturday, the kids all sit down at tables, and they can't sit down with a table of Boston kids and a table of North Adams kids. They're all mixed. They mingle together."
While the Bostonians get a taste of rural Western Massachusetts, the North County squad, when it heads east, gets to walk around the North End, where they always get a warm reception from the natives, Canales said, and visit sites like Quincy Market.
"I tell them, go have fun, and come back to this spot in front of the flower shop at a certain time," Canales said. "You know, in 27 years, I've never had to wait for a player."
He has no shortage of similar stories about how well behaved the ballplayers have been on the yearly cross-state sojourns.
"Two years ago, we were at the hotel [in Boston], and a bus came in with a senior group," Canales recounts. "After a while, I said to Mike Gladu, who was coaching with us, 'Where's the team?' He says, 'They're out helping the elderly people with their luggage.' "
Canales thanked the Williams Inn locally for accommodating the North End squad and the Constitution Inn in Boston, two of many businesses that have helped support the exchange over the years. He said about 25 local businesses have contributed to making this year's event a success, and he specifically called out the civic group CIAO for holding a spaghetti supper that was an essential piece of fund-raising.
Canales has held on to every newspaper clipping he can get his hands on about the LaFesta Exchange and every piece of memorabilia he could find over the last 27 years. He has a collection of baseballs signed by the players on both teams from every year of the exchange and a half-dozen scrapbooks filled with game records, letters from former players, photographs and the like.
"There's a room in the house my wife let me take over," Canales said.
Canales addresses the crowd at Joe Wolfe Field before last year's LaFesta Baseball Exchange.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to support from his wife, Nancy Canales, and the rest of the family.
"I could never do it without my family," Canales said. "There are a total of 14 of us, and we all have a job. That's my board of directors."
And he knows that the spirit of service he and Nancy exemplified has been passed on to the next generations.
"I have a granddaughter, Samantha," Canales said. "She comes to me and says, 'Can I talk to you a minute?' She takes me aside and gives me an envelope; she says she's been selling candy bars and doing baby-sitting. There's $200 in the envelope. She says, 'I want you to use this for the Baseball Exchange' — a 13-year-old kid."
Saturday's opening ceremony at Joe Wolfe Field is at 6 p.m. If you want to learn more about the LaFesta Exchange and how to contribute, visit its Facebook page at LaFesta Baseball Exchange.
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