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The Miller 45’s did it the hard way.

After losing to Maxim 7-5 on Sunday afternoon the three time defending national champion 45’s had to fight back from the loser’s bracket to capture their fifth No Glove Nationals championship.

They did it by defeating the Bucketheads 5-2 to set up a rematch with Maxim Sunday night. They handed Maxim their first loss of the tournament 6-3 to force an extra game in the double elimination tournament.

In the final game the 45’s came out slugging, exploding for eight runs in the top of the first to practically put the game away before Maxim even had a chance to bat. The 45’s went on to a stunning 20-3 rout to capture the title.

“We knew we had to come out hitting,” said 45’s first baseman Israel Sanchez, who was named tournament most valuable player for the second time. “We knew we had to score some runs to get on top of them early. Any time a team gets down like that it’s disheartening and it’s tough to come back from.”

Sanchez, who will turn 43 years old in three weeks, was 12 for 19 at the plate for a .632 batting average with 12 RBI, seven runs scored and three triples in seven games at tournament.

Although Sanchez is a slugger in softball, when he was younger he was a major league pitcher for the Kansas City Royals. He played parts of three seasons for the Royals. In 1988 he appeared in 19 games, starting one, and finishing with a record of 3-2 and a 4.54 ERA in 35 2/3 innings pitched.

When his 11 year professional baseball career ended he took up softball and has played first base for the 45’s the last seven years. He has enjoyed the opportunity to swing the bat, an opportunity he never had in professional baseball.

“I never got a chance to hit in the pros,” said Sanchez. “We were always told not to touch the bat. I always loved to hit even when I was in high school. I was drafted as a pitcher and I didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter.”

In the final game the 45’s sent 11 men to the plate in the first inning, scoring six runs. Shell shocked Maxim could never recover.

Gancarz, 39, was on the mound and earned all the wins for the 45’s. He said it was tough for him and his veteran teammates to play four games in 90 degree heat. But they did what was necessary.

Gancarz had a special advantage. Gancarz, in his non-softball life, works as district manager for Miller Brewing company, (hence the Miller 45’s) and has special dispensation to down a brew between games.

“It’s hard at our age, because you start cramping up,” said Gancarz. “Most of the guys are in their mid 30’s or low 40’s. It’s not easy.”

Gancarz showed that, despite his age, he still has cat quick reactions. In the fourth inning of the final game he raised his hands to stop a line smash hit right back at him, batted the ball up a couple feet in the air and then caught it in the fourth inning.

For only the third time since the tournament went to its double elimination format the winner came out of the loser’s bracket. The others to do it were the 45’s in 2003 and the Splinters in 1992.Gancarz has played for all three. The victory marked the 45’s third championship in the last four years.

Novak honored for 33 years with park district

Dave Novak walked away with a plaque and a jersey from the final Forest Park Invitational softball tournament, better known as the No Glove Nationals, that he will oversee as executive director of the Forest Park Park District. The plaque and the jersey were presented to Novak Sunday night before the championship game by park district board president Bud Boy. The jersey had Novak’s name on the back along with the number 33, the number of years Novak has been an employee of the Park District.

But what Novak will really treasure are the memories and the friends that he has made while building the tournament into the premier no gloves softball tournament in the nation.

“I am truly grateful,” said Novak who will retire from his position as executive director of the park district on January 31st, 2007. “It’s bittersweet. I’m glad that I’ve been given the opportunity to do something that I enjoy for 33 years. To have a job that you really enjoy and love is very satisfying.”

It was an emotional weekend for everyone involved in the tournament. Despite the sweltering heat, the fans and the volunteers turned out in just about their usual numbers.

For the many volunteers it is a labor of love and civic pride. It had to be to spend hours grilling hamburgers, hot dogs, Italian beef, Italian sausage and steak tacos in the extreme heat.

“It was the hottest tournament we’ve ever had,” said Novak.

The park commissioners get right in there and do some of the dirty work themselves.

“Everyone contributes,” said park commissioner Cathleen McDermott. “Politics is put aside. This is a community event. We showcase the village. We have over 125 volunteers and most of them come back for more than one shift.”

The Forest Park fire department chipped in by providing a misting shower that was a particular delight to children, but was also taken advantage of by fans and players. Despite the extreme heat only a few minor cases of dehydration were reported. But paramedics were always on duty just in case.

Bob Ginger, a volunteer since 1995, was there despite fighting pancreatic cancer. He was driven around in golf cart, but his presence was emotional and inspiring to all the volunteers.

As Sunday night’s game ended the volunteers finally had a chance to relax and sample their own wares. They sat under a dark clear sky eating steaks, drinking beer and just being together.

Novak sat at a picnic table with Bud Boy and others. They were eating, drinking a beer just relaxing.

That’s the kind of memory Novak will most cherish.