Memories of Bertha Saladino: A love story for the ages
When translated to letters, the last four digits in Tony and Bertha Saladino's home phone number spelled B-A-L-L, and that was no coincidence.
More than 20 years since I first punched them into my phone, I still can hear Tony's soft, somber voice on their answering machine, delivering a message that never changed: We can't get to the phone right now. We're workin' on a baseball project.
Key word: We.
The matriarch of one of the area's most treasured high school sporting events is gone, and while that event likely will carry on, it won't ever be the same. Pulling off the sprawling Saladino Tournament each spring was a year-round collaborative effort, with the most blissfully wedded couple you'll ever see at its core.
That legwork — and that love — can't be replicated.
Since Bertha's death Sunday at 84, many have offered fond and glowing recollections of Bertha's warmth, gentle good nature, passion, kindness and Spanish cuisine, the latter of which can't be purchased in any restaurant for any amount of money.
My memories veer to the love she shared with her husband of 52 years. Their names — and arms — often seemed perpetually intertwined. Tony downright doted on his wife, who indulged her husband's baseball passion with indefatigable zeal.
It was a love of which I caught firsthand glimpses for two decades. A love I admired, respected, even coveted.
They had two kids together (Bertha had three others from a previous marriage), took trains to big-league ballparks together, cheered for grandkids together. When it came to the tournament, they worked the phones, ordered the food, set up the trailers together.
Tony without Bertha, or vice versa? That was akin to air without oxygen.
Now, at least in a bodily sense, death has disjoined them, taking a chunk of the Saladino Tournament's soul with it.
"When God dictates or (Bertha's) health dictates, we're stopping the usage of the name (for the tournament)," Tony told me nine years ago.
Chances are, the baseball community to which the Saladinos have endeared themselves won't let that happen. The tournament has become too revered, too ingrained in the local fabric to abruptly cease. Plenty of friends and loved ones remain to help Tony continue the event he and Bertha started — from the trunk of their car — 35 years ago.
Yep, it was a husband-wife effort, literally, from the first pitch. Come this spring, it still will be the Saladino.
But darned if it will be the same.