It is easy to look back on an athlete’s career and assess every statistic, every homerun, complete pass and goal. It is easy to compare numbers to determine a player’s level of greatness. That is the easy part. For Randy Nilsen, a 2015 Saugerties Sports Hall of Fame inductee, the significance of statistics pales in comparison to the stories he has to share. Nilsen reminisces about his glory days as a baseball player: the camaraderie, the exciting plays and the unforgettable undefeated season. Nilsen did not play for the numbers, but for the simple love of the game.
His father was a boxer, but Nilsen never had any interest. “I’m not boxing,” he said. “I’m not breaking my nose.”
It was his neighbor, Robert “Mouse” Wolven (also a Saugerties Sports Hall of Fame member), who inspired Nilsen to play baseball. “A lot of people thought he was my father because he would always take me up to the field. I played on his softball team. He was very instrumental.”
Nilsen also found support from his elementary school phys ed teacher, Coach Vizzy. Coach Vizzy asked a young Nilsen if he wanted to be a bat boy, and he eagerly accepted. Through that experience he found his love of the game.
John Harris, another inductee of this year’s Hall of Fame class, happened to be Nilsen’s best friend in high school. Some may even know them as “Chinner” and “Zambo.” Unsurprisingly, Nilsen’s nickname, “Zambo,” came from baseball. Ken Reitz of the St. Louis Cardinals was an extraordinary third baseman with an extremely impressive fielding percentage that got him the nickname of “The Zamboni Machine.” In Nilsen’s ninth grade year, he, too, played third base and did not make a single error. Thus, “Zambo” was born.
By senior year, Nilsen and Harris were great friends. “Both John and myself got out after fourth period, so we had nothing to do for three hours before practice. So we would go fishing every day. And it was the greatest time. Then we got — it was weird — we started watching soap operas. If you ever saw my hair in my senior picture, I loved Luke Spencer from General Hospital. It was the weirdest thing.”
In high school, Nilsen was an all-around athlete who played soccer, football, basketball and golf, but his true passion lay with baseball. His varsity career by the numbers was impressive with a record of 43-3. As a junior in 1981, Nilsen not only participated in the Sawyers’ championship game against Coleman, but helped turn the game around to lead Saugerties to victory. “They were winning 1-0, and the bases were loaded, and I was playing second base. It was a foul pop over the first baseman’s head, and I ran back, caught it behind my back, turned around, and the guy tagged up from third base and I nailed the guy at home. It was like the turning point of that game. It was one of my favorites.” The Sawyers went on to win 7-1, and victory became the norm.
The Sawyers went undefeated in 1982, Nilsen’s senior year. After the 20-0 season, the team went on to play in the state tournament at West Point. Unfortunately, in their first game against Port Jervis, the streak was broken with a 5-3 defeat. Although they lost, Nilsen spoke fondly about the experience. “It was really neat going to West Point. They actually had to stop the game because the sun was going down and they had to do taps. So everybody had to stop. All the Army soldiers there, they saluted. It was a nice time going down there.”
Although the Sawyers’ season had come to an end, Nilsen’s career in baseball did not.
After high school, Nilsen joined the Saugerties Dutchmen and played for nine seasons. Dutchmen team members Rich Kogel, Iggy Maines and Tommy Whittaker “took him under their wing,” mentoring and preparing him for this next level of baseball. He started in the field at second, but later moved to shortstop. His career with the Dutchmen had quite the impressive start when he took his first at-bat. “My first hit ever happened to be a grand slam home run. And then my second at bat, I hit another home run. Same game. I had never hit a home run in my life. In Little League, high school, Babe Ruth. Never.” In his second game with the Dutchmen, they played Columbia-Greene, and wouldn’t you know, he hit another homerun in his third at-bat. “That was one of my favorite moments.”
Today, sports remain a major part of Nilsen’s life. For the past 31 years, Nilsen has dedicated his life to Cantine Field, currently working as assistant superintendant of parks and buildings. Every Sunday he golfs with fellow 2015 inductee Mark “Doc” Silinovich and other well known Saugerties athletes from his day. Sports have been a vital aspect of Nilsen’s life; has both benefitted and contributed greatly to the Saugerties sports system. His induction into the hall is well deserved.
“I’ve played every sport. I’ve coached, I was the commissioner of biddy basketball. I’ve been on the Saugerties Athletic Association board of directors for 23 years now. Sports is my life. I think I deserve it.”
The deadline is May 3 to purchase tickets for the Saugerties Sports Hall of Fame Club’s 52nd annual induction banquet to be held on Saturday, May 9 at 6:30 p.m. at Diamond Mills Hotel & Tavern. Doors open an hour prior with a cocktail reception from 5:30-6:30 p.m. This year’s inductees are Jeff Dodig, Albert Giannotti (posthumously), John Harris, Randy Nilsen and Mark “Doc” Silinovich. Tickets are available by contacting Mark Becker at (518) 641-9520 or email@example.com. Cost is $25. There are no ticket sales at the door.