Baltimorean strives to help young athletes feel like major-leaguers SPECIAL OLYMPICS

July 07, 1995|By Paul Davies | Paul Davies,Special to The Sun

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- Frank Kolarek knows what it feels like to be told you are not good enough.

The Baltimore native spent five years playing minor-league baseball, but never made the big show.

Maybe that's why Kolarek is at the Special Olympics World Games this week helping athletes compete for the gold medal in softball.

Kolarek, 42, was told he never would make the big leagues, yet he's managed to make a living around the baseball diamond. As a full-time director for the Maryland Special Olympics, Kolarek helps others enjoy the game he loves.

"Baseball has been my life," Kolarek said while leaning on the backstop at East Shore Park in New Haven, watching a women's softball game between Australia and Massachusetts.

"And this is as good as it gets for a boy from St. Benedict's Street [in southwest Baltimore]."

Kolarek, who also serves as the softball director for Special Olympics International, is one of the key organizers behind the World Games softball competition. He spent the past two years helping to plan the softball event, which includes athletes from -- six countries and 20 states.

In all, more than 7,200 athletes from 146 countries are competing in the 1995 World Games, which is three times the size of the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

This week, Kolarek is working 10- to 12-hour days helping to ensure the softball competition goes off without a hitch. Meals on the run include ice cream and peanuts. He missed church on Sunday, but does not want his mother to know.

Kolarek sports sneakers, tan shorts and a white Special Olympics T-shirt as he strolls around the four fields, sipping a soda and speaking to other officials by walkie-talkie. There's a beeper hooked to his belt, and he is carrying a clipboard and black sunglasses.

Kolarek shakes hands and waves to volunteers and athletes passing by and asks if everything is OK. All the while, he keeps one eye on the four games going on around him.

"Nice play! Look at that nice force play there," Kolarek said after the shortstop snagged a sharp grounder and made the toss to second base to get the force out. "That's why I like softball; it's a thinking person's game. You need to have skills, but you also need to use your head."

Kolarek graduated from Mount St. Joseph High School and the University of Maryland, where he played catcher.

He was not drafted out of college in 1975, but was signed by the Oakland Athletics after a tryout camp. The scout who signed him was Syd Thrift, now the Orioles' farm director.

Kolarek moved up to Triple-A, but never made the big leagues.

After retiring as a player in 1981, Kolarek spent a year as an A's minor-league coach, then three more years as a scout for the Milwaukee Brewers.

Kolarek's involvement with Special Olympics started during his first season in the minor leagues. Kolarek's roommate was a special education major and did volunteer work with Special Olympics.

"He dragged me along, and then I got hooked," Kolarek said.

Kolarek continued with the Special Olympics while bouncing around the minors. His volunteer efforts led to a full-time job with the Maryland Special Olympics.

The World Games in Connecticut are Kolarek's second. He helped with the softball competition during the 1991 World Games in Minneapolis.

"Frank has a lot of knowledge and experience," said Tony Catapano, head of this year's World Games softball competition, who worked as an umpire in the 1991 Games. "Plus his professional baseball experience gives him a good understanding of the game."

For his part, Kolarek said he is happy the Special Olympians are enjoying the increased attention and respect.

"We have ESPN out here," he said. "What more do you need to say?"

Kolarek said fans who are fed up with strikes and whining athletes are finding pleasure in events such as the Special Olympics.

"I've seen fans ask these players for their autographs," he said. "We have eight all-women teams this year, compared to zero in 1991 -- that's progress."

Despite Kolarek's involvement, Maryland does not have a softball team at the Games, because a lottery system selects teams from each state.

"I'm hearing about it, too," Kolarek said. "Everyone is like, 'We thought you were a big-shot director.' "

Kolarek said he's no big shot, but just one of many trying to make sure the athletes have a chance to compete and have some fun. It's a job he feels lucky to have.

"I just hope I'm giving as much as I'm getting back," he said.

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