There were two intramural sports programs on Lockport's West End growing up.
One was the generous one provided each summer at City of Lockport parks — consisting mainly of a highly-competitive boys and girls softball league.
Most Lockportians who've been here awhile can remember either playing on a summer parks team or watching a game. Summer parks games drew hundreds, especially the rivalry games — which was pretty much every game. Teams from Dolan, Kibler, Dudley Square, Willow, Outwater, Rogers and my beloved Grossi Park were made up of players who lived in the neighborhood closest to it, making each contest a personal one.
But that's another story for another time.
Because the other free program each summer came in the form of one unforgettable, Batman-loving, freckle-faced, redheaded teenager we all loved named Matt Bishop. Matt would put together daily sporting contests, mostly baseball and street hockey pick-up games, using only a phone, three baseball mitts, a half dozen baseball bats, a baseball, three or four hockey sticks, three hockey balls, one good hockey net, one set of genuine goalie pads and a reliable little brother, Tommy.
Matt stood out as that one kid in the neighborhood who was the best at putting together a good pick-up game. He'd get on the house telephone — yeah kids, those old phones, the only ones we had, one per family, with a three-inch chord and rotary dials — with his booming radio voice and announce a place and time for a baseball or street hockey game. Within minutes there'd be dozens of little rug-rats playing baseball in the back (window-less side) of Charlotte Cross, trying to slug a genuine home run over the left field fence in back of St. Anthony's Church.
Tommy, Matt and my brother, Joey, and I were almost always a “yes” for baseball games. Joe and I lived adjacent to Cross, but the usual suspects of players varied daily and included guys who also lived just around the corner, like the Main brothers, Tim, Tom, Tracy, Ted and Todd, Jeff Jones, Kenny and Scott Dunkelburger, Dave and Cliff Rising, Mike “Spike” Florio, Tommy Weinheimer, Danny and Jimmy Cuillo, Kevin Hilliker, Johnny Tolli, Tim “Werty” Wertman, Chuck, Johnny and Butch States, Eddie and Timmy Conners and Timmy Korff.
Then there were the countless number of street hockey games behind Cross and at the Credit Union parking lot near Stevens Street that Matt organized, some of which went from morning to dusk.
Matt was quite the goalie and I always got a kick out of the way he leaned on his goalie stick when the hockey ball was away. He did it just the way Kenny Dryden used to do it for the Montreal Canadiens, casually, with one hand holding the stick upright in front of him and his other forearm resting over the top of the stick. At times, arguably, Matt not only looked like Dryden, but he could play like him.
I wish I could show you all the highlights, but I-phones were still another generation away. You showed up with a hockey stick and hoped someone besides Matt brought a second net. If your stick broke, you either borrowed a stick from Matt or someone who was sitting waiting to play or you went home and asked your dad if he could buy you a new one. Matt shared all the equipment he had, but most games everyone shared whatever they had as well.
A baseball game at Cross could end abruptly if someone socked a homer and hit the ball on top of the school, but the custodian, Mr. Smith, would occasionally go up on the the roof and throw down all the baseballs he could find.
Matt always said that a good start to any baseball game at Charlotte Cross began with the Main brothers, because of the numbers they brought. If those five guys were available to play, there was a game for sure.
We played a lot of games over many years, thanks mainly to Matt, who went on to a successful radio career at WJJL in Niagara Falls and retired a few years ago as a decorated 9-1-1 police dispatcher in Syracuse.
It was also no surprise to any of Matt's old friends to hear of his son, Matt Bishop, being recently hired by ESPN (Matt Jr.'s yet another person with Lockport ties to be hired by ESPN. Christy Nemi Sousa, the daughter of Dave and Anna Nemi of Lockport, has been a producer at ESPN since 2003 and she's now living in Hartford with her husband and two children).
Matt loved sports, was creative, knew how to organize, was a natural leader and made the most out of every single toy or piece of sports equipment he ever bought or received as a gift.
Matt's “stuff” never laid around the house, whether it was his cool action figures, Batman collection or a simple baseball glove. Matt's things never languished on the back porch of the old Bishop homestead on South Bristol Street, collecting dust.
Nope, Matt put everything he had around him to good use and when it was all said and done and he moved on to Syracuse with his wife, Barbara, to raise a family, he left a good part of his heart and soul on those nameless parking lots where we once played.
We all deserve a Matt Bishop growing up in our neighborhood.
I was one of the lucky ones.
Follow veteran US&J sports reporter/editor John D'Onofrio on Twitter at @JohnD'ONofrio7.