BRANDON — He's a short man, 5-foot-4. He has eyes that actually sparkle.
He says "knuckle-headed yo-yo" when he wants to make kids laugh. He calls them by their last names, and the goal is the same — get their attention, because they have to listen before they can learn.
The younger ones don't know who he is. But when they hit fourth- or fifthgrade, especially the ones who play baseball, or whose fathers played baseball, then they know. They'll say, "Coach, you're famous, aren't you?"
Their gym teacher is Tony Saladino Jr.
• • •
Rumors that Saladino is retiring — we trace this one to his wife, Bertha — are greatly exaggerated.
The founder of a 32-year-old high school tournament that has featured dozens of players who went on to the major leagues still gets up every morning at 5:15 a.m. and teaches physical education at Valrico Elementary School.
His own children are grown. One runs a baseball academy. Two grandsons play ball at Brandon High School. A third is a student at Valrico.
At 77, Saladino still delights in seeing a child make his first catch or connect bat with ball. "It's money in the bank," he says. He's coming up on 50 years teaching but says he has no plan to retire — ever.
Triple bypass surgery in 1995 didn't put him down. Nor did two strokes. Retirement in 1998 didn't last long. He came back to the school to volunteer, maybe help with the traffic. A job opened up. He grabbed it.
Old friends say he's a sucker for working at his age. But he looks at them and can't help thinking, I'm holding up so much better than you are.
Nor do his bosses want him to leave. Among other things, he reassures younger colleagues who struggle with the new teacher evaluation system.
"I've heard him say, 'This is my 49th year, and if somebody gives me feedback, I want to listen,' " says assistant principal Russell Wallace. " 'I'm still willing to learn and grow.' "
• • •
Anthony Montoto is playing second base for King High School. It's King's year to sweep the Saladino, a weeklong tournament that showcases high school baseball teams and is attended by major league scouts.
At least that's how it seems at the time. Derek Bell is in the King outfield. They enter the tournament, hosted that year at King.
Astonishingly, they lose to Brandon.
"But I learned how to bounce back and persevere," Montoto says, all these years later. "The world did not end because I lost to Brandon. It was character-building."
Bell was picked up by the Toronto Blue Jays. Ozzie Timmons, who was on the Brandon team, played for the Chicago Cubs and, later, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
But, Montoto says, forget about the list of pros that includes Dwight Gooden and Gary Sheffield, bright lights that gave Tampa a reputation as a baseball player factory. "It's not just major league players," Montoto says. "The tournament has produced principals. The tournament has produced lawyers, doctors, engineers. It has produced preachers."
Back up to principals: Montoto is one of them
He's Saladino's boss.
• • •
Saladino describes an unremarkable childhood. Always small for his age, he grew up in Ybor City, close with his father because he was an only child.
"I started playing in the house, with a little ball," he says. "Then a bigger ball, then outside."
Then on to Jefferson High School, where Saladino played on the same baseball team as former Gov. Bob Martinez.
Did Saladino want to play pro ball? What child doesn't? He tried out, unsuccessfully, for the St. Louis Cardinals. After college, he wanted to coach high school baseball.
"But in those days, the football staff were the other coaches," he says. "So I went to Forest Hills (Elementary School) and fell in love with the elementary kids. As they say, the rest is history."
On the side he worked for the city and county recreation departments, organizing a successful baseball program in Brandon.
He was 25 when his father suffered a heart attack at a bowling tournament. The elder Saladino died before he could get to a hospital. His son was inconsolable.
Saladino met Bertha shortly after. She suggested an annual baseball award in honor of his father, who was always supportive during his years at Jefferson. A decade later the award became a tournament.
Coinciding with spring break, the tournament is a celebration of all things baseball with awards ceremonies and activities for younger siblings.
Saladino says he never dreamed the tradition would last so long. Keeping it alive requires extensive planning and fundraising. But he keeps running into people who tell him what the experience meant to them. Children tell him, " 'I can't wait to play in your tournament.' "
• • •
The morning air is crisp behind Valrico Elementary, where a group of second-graders is told to "run, jog, or walk fast" according to the first letters of their pets' names.
Those without pets wait for Saladino to call "N," for "no pet."
It's not always pretty, establishing order when you have two classes while the other P.E. teacher is proctoring an exam.
Saladino runs a game-before-the-game, in which the group must stand shoulder to shoulder and count off to five.
When they mess up, he bellows: "Start over." It's a strategy he describes as "drive them crazy before they drive you crazy." It works. They fall in line and are thrilled when "fishy fishy" — like dodge ball, but with a softer ball — gets under way.
When the exceptional student education class comes out, aides run with the kids and sometimes throw the ball for them. When a child isn't fast enough to avoid the sponge ball, Saladino gently tells her, "You can't be going like a little choo-choo train, you've got to go!"
Dominick Griffin, 8, loses his shoe mid-sprint.
"Griffin," Saladino calls.
"Do you know how to tie your shoes?"
"Thank you for answering honestly. What time do I tie my shoes?"
"Five-thirty in the morning, sir."
"They stay tied all day. Do you know why?"
"Because you know how to tie your shoes."
Saladino smiles as Dominick runs off. "I wish I had his energy."
Physical education hasn't changed much since 1958, he says. But children have.
They're not as respectful. Some are couch potatoes. They complain of aches and pains to avoid participating. Saladino, as bothered as anyone by childhood obesity, tries to get them involved without a lot of fanfare.
He remembers when children were paddled. Today he must carefully consider a pat on the back.
Nicknames are taboo because you never know what might result. He uses "knuckle-headed yo-yo," always affectionately. He even has it printed on a card.
Once a parent complained. "I called him a knuckle-headed yo-yo," Saladino says.
He sees children as pieces of clay, to shape and mold. "I stress at any age the need to be caring and responsible citizens," he says. "I'm getting them ready for life."
He remembers a student, years ago, who had a prosthetic foot. As he ran across the field, the foot came off.
"He put it back on and kept on going," says Saladino, who became emotional at the sight. "There's a lesson in life right there. That child had every reason not to run."
The baseball players confess they never made it to the majors. Sometimes they say it and sometimes he says it: "I never made it in baseball. But I made it in life."
Mandi Nething, 35, was Saladino's student at Seffner Elementary School. Now a mother of four, she ran into him at Valrico, where he teaches her children.
"He remembered me," Nething says. "He called me 'Lowe,' " her maiden name. "It just floored me. He is exactly the same."
Saladino calls her children "Lowe," she says, and "they think it's the neatest thing."
• • •
Saladino can insist all day that the years don't matter, that work keeps him sharp and age is just a number.
But here's where it does matter: His wife is 81, and when she's not feeling well, it weighs heavily on him.
Bertha Saladino wore out her rotator cuff — not pitching, but cooking potato salad for thousands at a time. To hear Saladino tell it, scouts travel miles out of their way for her potato salad.
The arthritis in her knee is so bad, she spent a year using a wheelchair. Now she gets injections.
"There's nothing extraordinary about me except my wife," Saladino says.
Bertha Saladino says this of her husband: "He is the most gentle and most wonderful man I know." And perhaps she did mention that they could sleep later if he would retire.
But she's not pushing the issue. "It's a personal decision," she says. "It's up to him."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]