Sidelines: Father-daughter team

Chrissy Fontana and her father John Fontana reflect on their love for all things baseball.

John Fontana’s cozy basement office is filled with reminders of what he has given youth baseball over the years.

He can revisit photos of some of the 192 players who reaped college athletic scholarships largely due to his 41 years as Southington (Conn.) High School’s baseball coach.

Other mementoes attest to his two state titles and numerous awards.

But his most cherished sporting legacy is the woman who helps curate it, his daughter.

Chrissy Fontana’s love for sports spawned in part from her devotion as her father’s record keeper.

An ESPN employee for 17 years, she is a Content Systems Integration Specialist.

She works to see that such staples as the ESPN 1st &10 system — represented by that giant yellow stripe you see on football telecasts — and the touchscreens used on SportsCenter and other programs run flawlessly.

“My role is to properly manage the business and technical requirements, coordinate product components, provide strategic direction and expertise, and maintain customer relationships,” she said.

As a teenager, she was de facto quality control director for the Blue Knights’ baseball team.

“She’s a pain in the neck,” her father said, chuckling.

“Me and my older sister started out as ball girls, but then I ended up in the dugout the whole time to keep the books,” she said.

“She kept the books. I couldn’t trust the guys with the books,” said her father, who won 669 games from 1962-2003 as mentor of the Blue Knights.

“We would go to this local Italian restaurant and literally — my father and I — would remember every play of the game,” she said.

Her transition to attending Florida Southern College was helped in part because of the school’s familiarity with the Southington High baseball program, she said.

“I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve run into people who say, ‘Fontana? Are you Coach’s daughter,” she said..

“Your father is this, your father helped me with this. Unbelievable.”

Former Southington High pitchers Rob Dibble and Carl Pavano won World Series rings, with the Cincinnati Reds and Florida Marlins, respectively.

In 1990, seven of Fontana’s players were competing in either the Division I or Division II College Baseball World Series.

Former Blue Knight Mark LaRosa (pictured in high school at right, below) won the 1991 College World Series title with Louisiana State University.

“I was tough to play for,” Fontana, 76, admits.

“I demanded excellence, over and over again. {You’re] hoping you’re going to come out with a great ballplayer. We practiced that way, and we had fun.”

The secret to Fontana’s coaching success: stressing work ethic, one of his disciples said.

“In essence, [work ethic] is the foundation of who you are as a player,” Pavano told Front Row via a Minnesota Twins’ public relations official.

In 1994, Pavano paced Southington High to the first of its two state titles under Fontana.

“Coach Fontana taught me that foundation.  He always knew how to win,” said Pavano, the Twins’ scheduled starter Monday against the Baltimore Orioles.

” I took his teachings from that point and continued moving forward from high school and into my professional career.”

And where did Fontana’s baseball work ethic come from?

His family has a rich baseball history: Chrissy is considering publishing letters from World War II battlegrounds sent by her great uncle Dom Malchiodii.

He was a New York Yankees catching prospect who died in a training mission shortly after the war ended, she said.

While John Fontana idolizes his great uncle, he also cherishes an 80-minute conversation he once had with Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams in 1956.

“He told me how to focus your eyes, how to use a lead bat, everything,” Fontana recalled.

The next day, the American International College centerfielder had 8 RBI in a game against Amherst.

Two days later, he went 5-for-6 at the plate against Central Connecticut State.

It wasn’t that Fontana instantly absorbed Williams’ teachings.

But he was so inspired, “I believed it.”

Fontana wasn’t lacking for confidence before the conversation with Williams. After all, Fontana was batting .500 at the time for the Yellow Jackets.

“The best bunter in the world. I don’t look it, but I could run like a deer,” he says proudly. “But I couldn’t hit it out of the infield” until Williams’ counsel.

Fontana retired from coaching years ago but remains an active member of both national and state coaches’ associations.

When he can, he’ll watch a few innings of the Little League World Series.

Yes, his daughter works for ESPN, the network airing the event for the 23rd consecutive year.

Still, he understands when some question whether 12-year-olds should be put under such spotlight.

“I would not stop the television. I think that’s great for baseball,” he said.

If he had his way, however, he’d avoid showing kids crying after losses or focusing on individual accomplishments.

“Just do the game.”

Editor’s Note: For even more on youth baseball, check out ESPN’s Little League World Series Facebook page.