There is something special about a father and son playing 16-inch softball together. Mickey Balestri and his son, Mick, share a passion for softball that shapes their relationship. It all started when Balestri was growing up in Bridgeport, playing softball at Armour Square Park, in the shadow of Comiskey Park.
Armour Square was one of three local parks where Balestri played. The others were Donovan, McGuane and Boyce. Neighbors packed these parks on weekday evenings to take in games. It was a family affair, complete with smoke-filled air, stocked coolers and a few bets on the side.
Balestri’s first softball gig, though, was batboy for the St. Albert the Great team. The lineup featured eight members of the Bobcats, who would later be inducted into the 16-inch Hall of Fame. At 15, he took a 14-and-under-team to a league championship. Balestri has been a player/manager ever since. “I wanted to control the game,” he said, “I wanted to organize teams, recruit players and hustle for sponsors.”
When Balestri was 16, he started playing in a league at Santa Lucia Catholic Church. The right hander played shortstop and center field. Balestri may have started his softball career at a young age but his son, Mick, was even more precocious. Mick began keeping score for his dad’s team when he was only 5. He also charted the opposing batters and served as batboy. He grew up in the game the same way his dad did.
When Balestri wasn’t playing softball, he played baseball for De La Salle High School. He was a Meteor for four years and graduated in 1973. Six weeks after graduating, Balestri was hired by the City of Chicago Streets and Sanitation Department as a tree trimmer. He continued to work for the city until his retirement in 2009. Balestri is 68 but still active in softball.
Mick has kept up with him through the years. When he was 16, he began playing for his dad’s team. Balestri pitched while Mick played 2nd base and right field. The right-handed batter was “real skinny” at that age and specialized in beating out infield hits. After Mick put on some weight, he became a gap hitter with power.
It was a thrill for Balestri to play alongside his son but he was still drawn to managing. “Not a lot of other players stepped up to manage teams,” he recalled. It could be a thankless job when Balestri had to act as an “adult babysitter.” But that wasn’t the case when Balestri became player/manager for Crush in 1982. The team was a powerhouse that competed at the highest level of softball. Balestri continued to manage Crush until 2018.
Mick was 18 when he joined Crush. He played right field for them in the 2000 No Gloves tournament, where they lost to the 45’s in the championship game. That was the game that gave Mick his “five seconds of fame.” Mike North was broadcasting for Sportscast TV and Mick was running the bases. “Look at this kid fly!” said North.
Mick enjoyed a stellar playing career but admired his dad’s managerial skills. “He was more knowledgeable than other players. He was a good student of the game. He did more with less. He didn’t tolerate prima donnas. He stocked his team with hitters with hard-nosed attitudes.”
Mick began pitching in 2003. Father and son have pitched against each other and continue to play together. Last year, Balestri was playing alongside Mick, when he separated his shoulder and cracked a rib. He was out for 10 weeks.
“Plenty of people are still playing,” said Balestri. “But the quality has declined.” Also, the quantity. “Neighborhood leagues were dying in the late 90’s,” said Mick, “There was no more softball being played in Bridgeport parks.”
He still believes, though, that the future of the game looks bright. Mick, who is a paralegal for a law firm, is strictly playing for park leagues now. “Park ball is the best softball I ever played. I play more now than ever. In the south suburbs, there is no shortage of softball.”
The future also looks bright for the No Gloves tournament. “It’s the granddaddy of all 16-inch tournaments,” Balestri said, “It invites the best teams, including the three best Iowa teams. Everyone comes to it. No one skips it.”
In the 1995 No Gloves, Balestri was on the mound for Dollhouse, when they beat Lettuce for the championship. “I pitched in all five games,” he said. Mick has played in 15 No Gloves tournaments. His highest finish was second with Crush.
Throughout their years in softball, father and son have maintained a healthy relationship. They can give each other a hard time without hard feelings. In 2004, Mick gave the speech when Balestri was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Balestri hopes to return the favor someday.
Mick sums up how he feels toward his father. “Anything I do with my dad is better than not doing it with him.” To show their appreciation for their dad, the Balestri kids bought him a brick to be installed at the Hall of Fame.
That expresses how the Balestri family feels about the game. Mick and Balestri recently returned from watching Mick’s daughter, Kacey, play a game. “Someone has to carry on the family name in softball,” the 12-year-old declared.