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vintage base ball

Tom Fesolowich, Captain of the New York Mutuals, on Playing Baseball by 1864 Rules

Tom Fesolowich, at left.

You may recognize the New York Mutuals as one of the teams featured in the memorable Conan O'Brien sketch in which the host attended (and played in) a vintage-baseball game at the Old Bethpage Village Restoration on Long Island. An old-timey travel team of sorts, the Mutuals will play a game by 1864 "base ball" rules tomorrow at 1 p.m. at the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum in Pelham Bay Park. Tom Fesolowich serves as the team's first baseman and captain when he's not at his day job, teaching at P.S. 316 in Brooklyn. (The 49-year-old Fesolowich will actually be handling announcing duties tomorrow as he recovers from a finger injury.) He spoke with The Sports Section about playing a gentlemanly style of baseball and about that Late Night sketch.

How did you get started playing vintage baseball?
We're made up of players that played at the Old Bethpage Village Restoration. We came from that league, and that's where we play our home games. It started as a Civil War reenactment in 1980, though it wasn't technically a reenactment. They actually played. In fact, they're the oldest nineteenth-century baseball program in the country. From that point, the interest just grew, and it formed into a four-team league. And then Smithsonian Magazine in 1998 wrote an article on it, and it made the cover. That's when the boom really hit. We decided to have a travel team, which is where the Mutuals came in.

Are the players mostly Civil War reenactment participants, or folks with baseball experience? Can anyone play?
It's more people that have had baseball experience. Some people that just came down to the Bethpage Village, saw it, showed an interest, and decided to give it a try. We have former Minor Leaguers and college players, and we have pure amateurs as well. We have a diversity of players. Anyone can play at Bethpage Restoration. It's a total volunteer program. You can show up the day of a game and get outfitted right then and there.

Did you get a lot of attention after the Conan O'Brien sketch?
Oh absolutely. People always talk about it. They still talk about it today. And obviously, Conan said it was one of his best pieces ever. But a lot of people saw us there and expressed an interest, and saw that we were actually serious about it. And while we enjoyed the joke, we're pretty serious about what we do.

What did you think of the sketch? Were you in it?
I thought it was amazing. Hilarious. I mean, he's a very funny person. It gave publicity to the program. A little tongue-in-cheek is always funny. I wasn't in it at any point because I had to work, unfortunately, that day, and I came late. But most of the Mutuals were.

Are there any rules from 1864 that you prefer to the modern rules?
I enjoy the aspect of not using a glove. It changes the game a lot, the more gentlemanly manner of the game. While we're competitive, it's still just a game. And I would guess for 1864 — because we do play a lot of different years as the Mutuals — I enjoy the one-bounce rule. You can catch the ball on a bounce in 1864 for an out. It kind of changes the game a little bit.

Are there any rules you have to play with that you can't stand?
The hardest one, and one that's hardest to get used to, is overrunning first base. You're not allowed to overrun first base in 1864, and from our perspective, it's inbred in us to overrun first base. So it's difficult.

Your nickname is "Big Bat" Fesolowich. Does everybody get a nickname?

Yeah, everybody kind of earns a nickname. You don't choose your nickname. Whether it's something you did, or some aspect of your game.

How did you earn your nickname? Did you hit a particularly long home run?
It wasn't so much the length of the hit. I used a bat that was 42 inches long when I first started, so that's where it kind of came from. I mean, I do hit the long ball, but I think it was more from the bat.

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Photo: Courtesy of New York Mutuals