CHELSEA — The trophy stands near a plate of Christmas cookies in the middle of the kitchen table. On the black plastic base is a fading inscription, “Member, 1959 World Champions.” Above the base is the gold-colored statuette, a little boy, in baseball knickers and a small billed cap. He is poised, shoulders high, waiting for the pitch.
His hands are empty.
The bat is missing.
“It fell off,” Marlene Piasecki says. “Joe wanted to get it fixed, but we never found anyone to do it.”
She crosses her hands on her lap, and looks at her son, and her daughter, and Joe’s sister, and Joe’s mother. The coffee cups are full, snow is falling outside, and the Christmas tree is still in the living room. It could be any holiday table conversation. Except, of course, for one empty chair.
“None of us could ever see this coming,” whispers Pat, Joe’s sister. “I mean, how do you see it coming?”
This is the story of a good man in a good town who nine days before Christmas told his wife to meet him after school and they’d finish the shopping. He never came home. Marlene was waiting when she flicked on the TV and saw the special news report — “Two school administrators shot by a teacher in Chelsea High.” She didn’t wait for names. She ran to the car, sped to the school, passed the ambulance going the other way. She ran inside the building and yelled, “Was it Joe?”
Moments later she, too, was racing to the hospital, thinking only that you can be shot and not die, it happens all the time, right? As she prayed, the word was spreading, up and down Main Street, and through the Jiffy Mix factory. Chelsea, population 3,800, which hadn’t seen a murder in two decades, began to shiver. It was small-town America, late afternoon, and school was out . . . Boys of summer
Small-town America, late afternoon, school was out. That meant one thing in Hamtramck in the summer of 1959: baseball practice. In the shadow of the factories that kept the town alive, a group of 12-year-old players was about to climb a rainbow. They were on their way to Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series. All those drills, all those practices, all those night games and day games and chasing fly balls and working double plays — it was all paying off.
The Little League World Series! More than 5,000 teams began the competition. But Hamtramck, then a town of extraordinary pride in youth, sports and dirt-under-the-fingernails spirit, well, Hamtramck had hitters and Hamtramck had fielders and Hamtramck had a pitcher named Art (Pinky) Deras, a hulking 5- foot-8 kid with thick black hair and a man’s grin who threw something like 10 no-hitters in a row. This was some team. Everybody knew it. With crew cuts and high sneakers they boarded the bus to their destiny.
“Remember what’s written on the front of your uniforms,” the coaches urged.
In 1959, that was enough.
Joe Piasecki was the backup catcher on that team. The son of a tavern owner, he was an altar boy in a Catholic church, and his face indeed seemed blessed by light: reddish hair, freckles, a smile that jumped out at you like that of John F. Kennedy, the young Democrat who soon would run for president.
Those were the final days of American innocence, a time when kids like Joe and Pinky and Greg Pniewski, the starting catcher, and Mark Modich, the second baseman, hung around Cunningham’s Drug Store after practice and ordered cherry Cokes and spun on the stools and sang the words to “Stand By Me” and
“Under The Boardwalk.” On the bus to Williamsport, they wore their caps and slapped their gloves and passed the time chanting call-and-responds like: Oh, you can’t get to heaven!
(Oh, you can’t get to heaven!) In Joe P’s socks!
(In Joe P’s socks!)
Because Joe P’s socks!
(Because Joe P’s socks!) Stink for 48 blocks!
(Stink for 48 blocks!)
When they reached Williamsport, they marveled at the foothills — “Where we came from, everything was flat,” one would later say — and they cooed at the stadium, which seemed like the biggest place on Earth. During games, fans would crowd on blankets on the slopes above the field, until you couldn’t even see the grass beneath them.
Maybe they should have been nervous, these Hamtramck kids. Maybe they should have been overwhelmed. Instead, they were invincible. In their red, white and blue uniforms, they beat Puerto Rico, 5-0 (Deras struck out 17 of the 19 batters he faced); they beat Hawaii, 7-1, and in the title game, they clobbered California behind another Deras shutout, 12-0. They raced to the mound in a happy, youthful rush, as photographers snapped the first — and still the only — Midwestern team to win the Little League title.
“You did it!” yelled “Shy” Piasecki, Joe’s father, as he hugged his son with the pride of a million small-town dreams. “You did it! . . .”
Who did it? While Marlene Piasecki agonized in the hospital waiting room, the questions burned through Chelsea like fire burns through thatch. What had happened between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. in Joe’s office on Thursday, Dec. 16? The story that emerged was this:
Stephen Leith, a 39-year-old chemistry teacher who wore a ponytail, sometimes let his students blast rock music, and took unkindly to supervisory criticism, had met with Piasecki, 47, the superintendent of schools, over a grievance Leith had filed. Something about access to a file. They talked, things got heated and, eventually, Leith stormed out, slamming the door behind him.
Maybe 15 minutes later, Leith’s wife, Alice, who also teaches at the school, called a teachers union representative to say she was worried that her husband might “do harm.” That representative immediately called Piasecki, and urged him and everyone else to “get out of the building.”
For whatever reason, Joe Piasecki, who always looked for the good in people, played down the warning. Maybe he figured nobody gets that mad. Maybe, being the honest and direct person he had been through more than 20 years in education, he felt whatever Leith had to say, he would listen and answer back.
But Leith was done talking. Police say he came back with a gun, a 9 mm semiautomatic — one of many guns he owns — and entered Piasecki’s office. He pulled the trigger, again and again.
Four shots hit Piasecki in the chest. Another hit school principal Ron Mead in the leg, and another hit Phil Jones, a teacher and union representative, grazing his abdomen. Out in the hall, someone pulled a fire alarm. A secretary dove under her desk, grabbed a phone and called 911. Amidst the hysteria, Leith’s wife, who had called in the warning, suddenly appeared in the doorway. Her husband, allegedly, pointed the gun at her, too. She pleaded with him, he lowered his aim, and she ran to Piasecki and tried to revive him.
When the police came, they found Leith alone in his chemistry classroom, sitting quietly at a desk. He did not resist arrest. In the days that followed, his profile would slip out: He was using Prozac. He was seeing a psychiatrist. He has a strange history of flirting with female students.
It was all too late. You need that kind of information before the guy reaches for the gun. At the hospital, Marlene Piasecki waited breathlessly for the doctor, hoping against hope. Funny. She and Joe had begun to fall in love at a hospital, back in college, on a winter night, when a group of student went tobogganing down the hills near Central Michigan’s campus. It was cold, and, for some reason, Marlene began to hyperventilate. They took her to the hospital. Joe, who barely knew her, stayed right next to her. At one point, her palms began to curl from lack of oxygen.
“Shouldn’t we do something?” one of Marlene’s friends asked.
And Joe Piasecki, former Little League hero, former altar boy, a kid who told his mother as a teenager “I want to be a priest,” did what came naturally to him: He put his hand inside Marlene’s hand and held it tight.
Now someone else was holding her hand, a doctor, a stranger, a man she didn’t know, sitting down in front of her. “Why is he sitting down?” Marlene thought. “If he’s sitting down, he can’t be saving Joe.”
The doctor looked at her. He couldn’t say the words. Marlene said them for him.
She cried so hard, “I heard sounds from my body I had never heard before.”
When Mark Modich saw the news on the TV, he felt a jolt inside, as if a spirit had touched him from a previous life. Although he hadn’t really kept up with Joe or the other guys from the team, he made a few calls, and pretty soon, he was on his way to the funeral home in Chelsea. When he walked in, one of the first things he saw was a photo of the 1959 Little League champions. In it, he was standing next to Joe.
“Look,” he says now, pointing at the same photo in the tidy kitchen of his home in Royal Oak, where he works as a sixth- grade teacher. “We always seemed to stand next to each other. You see that smile? That’s the way Joe looked. Always smiling.”
He holds a photo of the team with Lawrence Welk. As celebration for their title, Hamtramck flew the boys to California for an all-expenses-paid extravaganza, which included Disneyland, and an appearance on Welk’s show. In fact, Welk met the team at the airport in a long Chrysler convertible. In one black-and-white picture, the kids are stuffed inside that car, and Joe Piasecki, age 12, is on top of them all, arms lifted to the sky.
“I felt so old when I heard about his death,” Modich says now. “The last time I saw him was at a reunion banquet a few years ago. He got up and made this great speech, really funny, great speaker. I remember looking at a guy we both knew and saying, ‘Is this quiet Joe Piasecki, the backup catcher?’ “
Modich shakes his head and closes the scrapbook. Later, he is asked whether he still has the trophy from Williamsport. He rummages through the basement. When he brings it upstairs, he finds, to his surprise, that the bat is broken. The memories
A few hours later, in a small house in eastside Detroit, Greg Pniewski is also talking about Joe.
“We were in Catholic school together. The teachers loved Joe. Me, they kept locked in the closet. I ended up stealing other kids’ lunch money from their coat pockets.”
Pniewski laughs. He no longer resembles the scrawny kid in the old photos. He has shaggy gray hair, a mustache and swelling midsection beneath his
“Carolina Panthers” sweatshirt. He makes his living going from place to place, hawking stuff like this from tables.
Pniewski was the starting catcher on the 1959 team, the guy who played ahead of Joe Piasecki. “It never bothered Joe. He worked just as hard as everyone else.
“When I read the story about him in the paper, I went ‘Damn.’ He would never provoke nobody. Not Joe. He was a clean-cut kid.”
Pniewski led a different life. He went to prison when he was 18. Forgery. Did nearly two years. He says there were inmates there who told him, “I remember you. That Little League team. Look at you now, you’re a bum.”
Everyone knew about Pniewski’s troubles. But when the team got together for its reunion in 1989, nobody judged him, least of all Joe Piasecki. “He treated me like he always did. He was a great kid. I can’t believe he’s dead.”
Pniewski is asked whether he keeps any souvenirs from the old team. He says, “I dunno. My Mom has ’em somewhere. . . .
“I do have this.”
He lifts the golden boy statue from behind some photos on his mother’s fireplace. It is dirty, and slightly rusting.
The bat is missing. Life goes on
Back in Chelsea, the Piasecki family sits together in the kitchen, glancing now and then at the falling snow. “There were so many people at the funeral,” says Joe’s mother, Margie.
“There were lines outside,” says Pat, his sister.
“The girls swim team came, and the boys swim team, and the wrestling team,” says Nicki, his teenage daughter.
Nicki is a student at Chelsea High. Stephen Leith, charged as her father’s killer, was her chemistry teacher. In fact, she thought, he was “one of the best teachers I ever had.” Leith’s wife, Alice, is also Nicki’s English teacher. They met last week, at a neutral site, to talk, and Nicki encouraged Alice to come back and teach her class, hard as it will be, because she didn’t blame Alice for what happened. This is the kind of child Joe Piasecki raised.
And these are the kind of issues that now face a family that did nothing to deserve this. A trial, publicity, a rehashing of the worst hour of their lives, over and over. Marlene Piasecki says, “We do nothing these days but cry, remember, cry, not sleep. I don’t want to go out, I don’t want to read a paper, I don’t want to watch TV. Everything else seems insignificant.”
And the reminders never stop. On Christmas morning, last week, there were presents under the Piasecki tree. The cards read “From Dad,” who died nine days earlier, but not before he had done his shopping.
The family hugs, and tries to go on. These are remarkable people. In two hours of conversation, Marlene Piasecki cries only once. Not when she talks about all the good her husband did for the school systems, not when she talks about the trips he took with students to Washington, D.C., or all the charities he worked for. Not when she talks about his endless support for Chelsea’s sports teams, or his bellowing laugh, or how his 1959 team jacket now hangs in the Little League museum in Williamsport. Not even when she mentions the sign on his desk at school that read “Do What’s Right,” or how that desk had to “chopped up” because of the bullet holes, or how her daughter asked the other day, “Does Mr. Leith know how badly he has hurt us forever?”
No. The only time she cries is when she tells of a letter that came after Joe’s death, a letter from an old female high school friend.
“She said there was this time when she had a party, and about 20 girls came but only four boys showed up. And she didn’t know what to do. So she called this pool hall where she knew the guys hung out in Hamtramck, and she asked who was there. And when she heard Joe was there, she said to ‘put him on the phone.’
“She hardly even knew Joe, but she thought he was nice, and she asked if he could help. And he didn’t even know her . . . and . . . but . . . he got all the guys from the place to go to her party . . . you know, to help her out .
You ask yourself for a moral in these stories. There is no moral. This is the world we live in now. The snow falls, summer is a distant memory, and even golden boys of Little League have the bats taken out of their hands.