BRANDON — Sitting in a New York City restaurant, Tony Saladino III noticed a middle-aged man wearing a ring the size of a small coffee table. Saladino figured it had to be some sort of championship ring, so he casually asked the man about it.
The man, who turned out to be a former Major League Baseball team executive, told Saladino it was a World Series ring. And When Saladino told him his last name, he got a surprising response.
" 'Oh yeah, I've known your father for about 30 years,' " Saladino remembers the man telling him. " 'That guy is Tampa baseball.' "
Even more than 1,000 miles from home, the Saladino name is synonymous with baseball.
Twenty-nine years ago, the elder Saladino founded the annual high school baseball tournament that bears his name. He and his wife, Bertha, are perhaps the area's most famous and fervent supporters of high school baseball.
"It was just so amazing to be sitting there with a stranger in New York, and we were talking about my Dad," Saladino said. "His name goes a long way in this area, that's for sure."
And now it's time for Tony Saladino III to carry on that tradition.
Last year, Saladino and business partner Donny Scolaro started the Saladino Baseball Academy for aspiring players throughout the county. The school, based out of South Brandon Little League, started last summer. After a year of experience, the academy's engine hums.
Saladino said the academy averages about 60 players a week through the 11 weeks of summer. There are weekly rates and pro-rated prices for daily campers.
"We are very flexible," Saladino said. "We are able to cater to kids who want to come for a day or stay for a week."
The academy's association with the South Brandon Little League has worked out well. There are five baseball fields available, a dozen batting cages, and bullpen access for pitchers and catchers. Saladino said he plans to expand to South and North Tampa in the future.
"It's worked out great so far," he said. "Five years from now we want to be all over the city."
The Saladino Academy isn't exclusively a summer program. There's an after-school program throughout the school year that ends at 6 p.m., which coincides with South Brandon Little League start times.
Saladino said the main difference between the first and second years of the academy is organizational.
"We have a better understanding of how to keep things running better," he said. "Mostly, it's simple things like getting kids signed in and things like that."
One change to the academy has been the addition of specialized camps throughout the summer. There are specific pitcher and catcher sessions designed to give more attention to individual aspects of baseball.
"We want to open as many options to our kids as possible," Saladino said.
Saladino said he considers himself the luckiest man around. He wakes up every day, heads to the complex and gets to play baseball with a bunch of kids who are just like him.
"I'm from Brandon," Saladino said. "Born and raised."
His father shows up throughout the week, encouraging the young campers and rubbing elbows with parents. After all, it's still a family affair.
"I think he would be fine with me saying this; my dad's a legend around here," Saladino said. "He comes out, and the kids all know who he is. They all love him."
Saladino laughs when he thinks back to the conversation in New York City . With the academy flourishing and the Saladino name continuing on throughout the Tampa area, that meeting gives the man who runs the academy a reason to smile.
"I remember that guy may have given me the best line ever about my dad," Saladino said. "He said, 'You know, your dad paid the fare so now you can enjoy the ride.' "