John Sapora’s career stat line: a couple innings pitched, one moon-shot home run surrendered, one lifelong dream of taking the mound in the majors dashed.
But considering where he came from — Centennial High Class of ‘79 — just making the Illini baseball roster as a freshman was a feat in itself.
“The new coach, Tom Dedin, ‘recruited’ three of us Champaign townies to join the team because he needed players,” says Sapora (BA ’83), now VP for legal services at First Tee, the youth golf development organization based in St. Augustine, Fla.
Given the athletic prowess of the Sapora family tree, plucking from it was a good bet for any coach on campus.
An uncle, Joe Sapora, was the UI’s very first NCAA wrestling champion, winning the first of two titles in 1929. Nine years later, John’s dad, Allen Sapora, won it all at 126 pounds. And another uncle of John’s is none other than Harold ‘Hek’ Kenney, for whom Kenney Gym is named.
But alas, there’s no on-campus tribute to John’s abbreviated baseball career — despite how high he was riding in those early days.
“I felt like big man on campus until the team had to sell programs at Illini football games, so we could afford our junior varsity ‘spring’ trip to play in muddy, cold Southern Illinois,” says John, who also had a stint as VP and general counsel for the World Golf Foundation. “After our 1980 spring trip, my chance had come to pitch in a real varsity game at old Illinois Field, at Wright Street and University Avenue. Finally, I got the nod after warming up for 30 minutes and pitching three innings in the bullpen.
“As a crafty left-hander with an 80 mile-an-hour fastball, I was relieved to see a left-handed batter step to the plate. My first pitch was a high fastball, but he lurched as if I threw him a change-up, which was my first clue to what was to come.
“He timed my third pitch, a slider that he hit so high and so far over the right field fence that it safely cleared the parked cars on Wright Street and might have hit a house. The faint, shattering sound I heard could have been a window or my dream of pitching for the Chicago Cubs.”