In 1968, after graduating from The University of Tampa, Dom Cassano moved to Brandon from Long Island, New York. Cassano was a baseball fanatic and an avid follower of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s. He had the urge to start a baseball team at the local South Brandon Little League, but he needed help. He walked over to introduce himself to his new next-door neighbor, Gene Hink, to ask him to join him in his efforts. A friendship of 50 years and a baseball bond for several years ensued, culminating in a District 13 championship.
Together, in 1970, they formed a team sponsored by Pepsi and built a dynasty that reached its pinnacle in 1972 with an undefeated team that won the District 13 title as an underdog against powerhouse West Tampa. Cassano, the coach, together with Hink, the manager and ‘master of pre-game fungo,’ put together a core group of talent that has gone unmatched since.
Cassano’s two sons, John and Paul, were bat boys for the team.
“I can remember at the age of 7, along with my brother, Paul, watching in astonishment as Gene gave pregame fungo warm-ups to the players,” said John. “It was legendary, as coaches, players and parents from other local little leagues would come out just to watch the precision of this team warming up.”
Tryouts for all players were always on a Saturday morning in early February, with the draft taking place the following Monday evening in the league press box. Players selected by each coach were then called at home the following evening and advised of their selection.
“I loved hearing the stories of my father and Gene sitting side by side in that draft room and licking their chops at the talent still available to them after each coach’s selection,” said John. “They both grew up with and truly loved the game and had a keen eye for talent.”
Cassano and Hink would find any place to practice at least twice a week, whether it was an empty pasture, a vacant church lot or someone’s backyard, as long as the fundamentals and players stayed sharp every week.
“Both were very passionate about the game,” said Hink’s son, Darrell. “When there was a questionable call by the umpires, one may be overzealous to the point of getting asked to watch the game from outside the fence. When that happened, the other would make sure he did not also get ejected, because they wanted to be sure that one of them would always be with the kids in the dugout.”
John said that Hink was loved by his players. He recalls Hink seemingly having the only swimming pool in Brandon at the time and would always invite the players over for pizza and a swim after a game.
“My dad and Mr. Cassano were very superstitious about baseball, and they had fun with the kids,” said Darrell. “My dad had an old pair of socks he would wear at the games and told the kids they were for good luck. After he told them that, they would always make sure he was wearing them at the game. For that season, maybe it helped—that and a team full of talented ball players.”
John said that his father was hard on his players, and he demanded respect for the game, respect for teammates and commitment to hard work. He can recall players coming up to him years later and telling him what an impact the two coaches had on their baseball careers.
Cassano and Hink had a strong team for several years, but their best club by far was the ’72 Pepsi-sponsored team that went undefeated and won the District 13 title.
“I distinctly recall driving home after the championship game in West Tampa with cars loaded with players, parents and coaches; banners waving; and kids screaming, only for the celebration to end when the car horns went dead,” said John. “It was a unique time to grow up in Brandon with a group of players, parents and coaches that made it very special.”
Cassano was not only a pillar in the community as a baseball coach, but he was also the retail advertising manager for The Tampa Tribune for 25-plus years. He made an impact on many young lives, but his son, John, was his biggest fan of all.
“There was a sign in front of the little league complex that commemorated the ’72 team with all the players’ and coaches’ names that stood for 30 years that is now gone,” said John. “It broke my heart when I moved back from New York to see it removed, as I drove by it 20 times a day, always glancing over and smiling.”
Cassano passed away in December 2019 and Hink recently passed away last month; however, their legacy will live on. February 2022 will mark the 50-year anniversary of the team.