BRANDON — Ronald Reagan was the president. Gas prices hovered around $1.35 per gallon. A ticket to the movies cost less than $3, and New York Giants' quarterback Eli Manning was born. The year was 1981 and a local — and soon to be national — treasure held its inaugural game.
The Tony Saladino Baseball Tournament, now in its 30th year, concludes at 7 tonight with the championship game at Brandon High School. For three decades, the tournament has been a fixture every spring break for Hillsborough County baseball teams. It draws acclaim across the country and has received coverage in national publications including Sports Illustrated.
"We really love baseball," Bertha Saladino said of herself and her husband Tony's commitment to the game. "And this week is all about the kids and baseball."
The Saladinos started the tournament as a tribute to Tony's late father, an avid baseball fan. The inaugural tournament featured 11 teams and has grown to its current 28-team format. Major League Baseball scouts routinely attend the tournament, which counts stars such as Dwight Gooden, Gary Sheffield, Fred McGriff, Tino Martinez and Chone Figgins as alumni.
"These younger kids have all grown up watching their friends and brothers play in this tournament. Then they get to high school and have their turn," Tony Saladino said. "And it's always great to see the kids who have played come back years later to watch the guys who follow them."
The tournament isn't just about what happens between the lines. Coaches routinely bring their youth teams out to the fields to share in the tradition. Trailers housing large amounts of memorabilia sit just past the batting cages at Brandon High School. Another trailer, strictly devoted to kids, contains games, puzzles, coloring books and baseball videos.
"I love to see the little kids out here, running around," Bertha Saladino said. "It's a time for families."
The crown jewel of the event may lie in a trailer tucked away just beyond the left field fence. That's where "Bertha's Kitchen" sits, a place where scouts, umpires, volunteers, coaches, players and media congregate to get a taste of Bertha's cooking.
In her 30 years of cooking, one particular meal stands out in Bertha's mind. When the tournament headquarters was at the University of Tampa, a generator died and Bertha lost all power in her kitchen. Panicked, she rounded up her five George Foreman grills, a handful of volunteers and instructed them to find any power source in order to cook hot dogs for the two teams coming to eat.
"I told them to look for lights because where there's lights, there's power," she said. "I couldn't let the boys go hungry."
Those teams feasted on hot dogs and baked beans that day, but most of Bertha's food is more upscale. It's not unusual to find roast pork, yellow rice or chicken marsala on the menu.
"(Bertha's) cooking is legendary," volunteer Lois Ruth said. "We can read her after all these years, and when she needs something in the kitchen, we're right there to hand it to her without her even asking."
Ruth, who has been donating her time at the tournament for the past 29 years, is one of a number of longtime volunteers. Ed McCloskey has umpired and announced the tournament — sometimes performing both duties in one day — for the past 20 years.
"I was in the bucket for the championship game in 2006 at UT when Hillsborough won the tournament," McCloskey said. "It's such an honor in a prestigious tournament such as this to be behind the plate of a championship game. I'll never forget that."
Bertha, 78, and Tony, 75, have been married for 47 years and were offered a "huge sum of money" in the past to sell the tournament and go to other states to train others in running tournaments. But the first family of Hillsborough baseball never considered it.
"You can't buy the way we feel about this tournament," Bertha said. "There is no price tag."
The Saladinos have dealt with some health problems the past few years, prompting them to consider making each year the last.
"Then we think 'We can't let the community down,' " she said. "We keep over 700 kids out of trouble during this week. What would happen to them?"
Brandon Wright can be reached at email@example.com.