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Don Mahler: A Diamond Giant Departs

Woodsville’s John Bagonzi Cast a Wide Influence

John Bagonzi, shown at the Golden Age Museum  he created in the barn behind his home in Woodsville. Bagonzi, a retired pitcher and high school sports coach, is the winningest baseball coach in New Hampshire history, with a260-64 record at at Woodsville High. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage

John Bagonzi, shown at the Golden Age Museum he created in the barn behind his home in Woodsville. Bagonzi, a retired pitcher and high school sports coach, is the winningest baseball coach in New Hampshire history, with a260-64 record at at Woodsville High. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage

By any measure, we lost a giant last week.

By word of mouth we got the news, sad news, tragic news, tearful news: John Bagonzi had died Thursday at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center following a period of declining health.

When they built that legendary place called old school — where guys like John Bagonzi earned their letters — I bet his name was on the cornerstone.

Part John Wayne, part John Wooden, he was so many things to so many people. He wore so many hats during his 83-year life — and all so comfortably. He was Dr. John, Coach John, Teacher John, Father John, Husband John, Mentor John, Friend John, Hall of Famer John, Author John and always Woodsville’s John.

From the Little League kids learning to throw a fastball to the major leaguers looking to rediscover their curveball, John Bagonzi was always there — bigger than life, louder than thunder.

Out of the north hills he’d ride. The heat of his energy burning in the gymnasium. Black pants, cinched tight up over his waist. Trademark black (of course) turtleneck. Cigarette in one hand, scorebook in the other. A look of absolute disdain on his face. Chin up, eyes flashing, he radiated power and confidence.

From the bench in Woodsville — in baseball or basketball — he sent out his teams to wreak havoc on the competition. His players loved him, his town revered him; his opposition despised him. And he loved it.

What can I say to honor him today; what can my words add? How can I make you understand the depth of the man, the dimension of his influence? So, I went looking for his words. Who better than the man himself to tell you all you need to know about the man?

“There are some people who think I’m an ugly, vile person,” he once told me. “I suppose I should say, ‘Well, I care.’ I’d rather you don’t think that about me. I would say you really don’t understand me.

“Even though I berate the hell out of players, get in their faces and all of that stuff, players, to me, are treasures.”

In 24 years at Woodsville, he won 260 games and 13 state championships. And there could have been more. He was in the state semifinals 11 times and had two runner-up finishes. He was, in a word, driven. And that word may not even scratch the surface of his competitiveness.

“I was haunted, driven by little demons we don’t even know about,” he said once. “There’s this abnormal drive for perfection, this abnormal search for success in athletic contests.

“I never knew how to accept losing. I could never digest it.”

While he could coach, he also could play. He was signed out of the University of New Hampshire as the Boston Red Sox’ top New England prospect. That curveball his Woodsville pitchers were known for came directly from Bagonzi’s right arm.

But life isn’t always fair, and the baseball career got lost in military service and family obligations.

“It’s something I will probably take to the grave with me,” he recalled.

“I had an unfulfilled professional baseball career. And I think that that hollow thing is the source of my energy, source of my drive. I try to make everything I do now the best it can be, and transfer all of that to the kids.”

He transferred so much to his kids: Pride, confidence, a sense of team, a sense of belonging a sense of self so important in their teenage years.

“I told them, the only thing I can give you is my energy, my drive. And I hope it sinks in you and it becomes part of you. And I think it did a lot,” he explained.

“Some kids resented it. I don’t deny that exists. But certain ones seemed compelled to tell me that what they learned there, they use in their life. I think what I represented was not Xs and Os, not throwing a curveball; but how to cope, how to be a man.”

I am lucky: I can say he was a friend. But luckier still are those legions of players who had him give them a bear hug after a special victory or felt him rub their heads in joy after a special play or ever imagine the amount of love he transmitted to his children and wife.

They don’t make men like John Bagonzi anymore. To tell the truth, we wouldn’t know what to make of him, or how to react to him today if he was still roaming around in full roar.

But we do know is how to remember him in his passing — with smiles of memories tempered with those tears of loss.

Yes, there are big shoes we shall never fill on that bench up in the Woodsville Community Building this day. But we still have the footprints those shoes laid down, we still can see that direction that the man had carved out.

And while there is that void, we can take a small consolation on this sorrowful day that we did share in his life, and he in ours. For he loved his town more than anything.

“I thought to myself, ‘What is it about the town of Woodsville?’ ” Bagonzi once said. “Well, the kids come out of it kind of pure ... sort of unsullied. I want to be a part of that.”

And from this day forth, a part of us will always be missing.

Rest in peace, John Bagonzi. You’ve earned it.

Don Mahler can be reached at dmahler@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.