NILES - It's an event that was close to the heart of the late Wally Bell, which is all that John Hirschbeck needed to know.
Hirschbeck, a 32-year Major League Baseball umpire, was close to Bell, who passed away of a heart attack last October. When Hirschbeck was invited to be a speaker at the annual Youngstown State University First Pitch Breakfast, he didn't hesitate to make the trip north from his winter home in Sarasota, Fla.
"(YSU athletic director) Ron Strollo approached me and asked if I would want to become involved with the program, and I literally jumped at the chance," said Hirschbeck, who also resides in Poland. "I've been in Florida since the first of January, but I flew home for this."
The fourth annual breakfast raised money to benefit the YSU baseball program. There were silent auctions for memorabilia and other prizes available, along with opportunities to meet members of the baseball team.
Other speakers were former Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder-infielder Al Oliver and Cleveland Indians President Mark Shapiro.
Bell, who lived in Austintown, enjoyed supporting local causes. He was popular on the speaking circuit because of his colorful personality, which Hirschbeck spoke of when he eulogized Bell.
The love of a strong friendship was evident during the eulogy. It was no surprise then that Hirschbeck wanted to attend the breakfast, which was held at McMenamy's Restaurant and Banquet Center.
"People that know us know how close we were," Hirschbeck said. "It was like brothers, best friends, father-son. They're big shoes to fill. I know this was important to Wally, and it's for Youngstown State and the community. I always try to do whatever I can to help out."
Shapiro has local ties because of his long tenure with the Indians, which included serving as general manager before being promoted to president. The Indians have a strong area commitment through the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, their affiliate in the New York-Penn League.
"I have a soft spot for baseball in Northeast Ohio," Shapiro said. "I have great respect for (YSU) coach (Steve) Gillespie and what he's trying to build here. I've been through building processes before, so I align with that.
"I'm as supportive as anyone, especially playing amateur baseball in Northeastern Ohio. I know how tough it is. I know the resolve and toughness it takes to play here, and anything I can do to help out is a pleasure for me."
Oliver doesn't have local ties, but he's certainly a fan favorite from his days with the Pirates (1968-77). He was a member of five division championship teams in Pittsburgh and was on the 1971 team that defeated the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.
Having grown up in Portsmouth, Ohio, Oliver feels a connection to the Youngstown area.
"Youngstown over the years is kind of like my own hometown," Oliver said. "It was always a steel mill town with hard-working people. Any time I feel I can help somebody, then I'm usually there."
There was definitely a feel for baseball in the air at the breakfast. Now that January has turned to February and trucks carrying equipment are headed to spring training sites, there was a sense that winter is on its way out.
"I'm starting my 32nd year in the big leagues, and I still get excited to start spring training," said Hirschbeck, who worked the World Series last year. "It's a fun time of the year. With all the excitement of starting a new baseball season, everybody has hope that they could have a chance of going to the World Series."
You could almost hear the crack of the bat.