Steve Litras moved from Atlanta to Sag Harbor three years ago, but the joy of baseball was far from his mind. The Floral Park native and former professional baseball player decided to return home to Long Island after the unexpected death of his brother, John, who had lived close by.
Now 64, he relocated to Sag Harbor, where his sister and brother-in-law, Pam and Donald Schneider, have lived for more than 20 years. He just so happened to move into the same Noyac neighborhood as Kevin Dehler, another native of Floral Park who is part of a new team running the Sag Harbor Whalers of the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League (HCBL).
“We ran into each other accidentally,” said Litras, who played shortstop in the Detroit Tigers organization in the early and mid 1970s. “We found we were both born and raised in the same town, in Floral Park in Nassau County. Floral Park is a very small town, so we started talking about schools we went to and friends we had. Then we started talking about Whalers baseball. I said I would be really interested in managing the team and within a week to 10 days it went very quickly, and I got the job.”
Litras, Dehler and the rest of the organization will welcome a roster of roughly 25 collegiate players form across the country this week as they prepare for the Whalers’ season opener this Sunday, June 2, against the Southampton Breakers at 5 p.m. It will be, by all accounts, a quick introduction and a hurried effort to get ready to play. But Litras, for one, is welcoming the challenge.
“We’re going to have a lot of fun,” said Litras, who works in the executive search industry but is putting everything on hold for the summer so he can focus on the Whalers. “I love to teach baseball. I watch everything from the pros down to Little League and players aren’t learning the game like they used to. I like to play good, sound, fundamental baseball. We’re going to do everything you’re supposed to do to win ball games.”
Some players arriving in Sag Harbor this week — including a few from big time Division I programs — have Major League aspirations, which is something Litras, who was drafted by the Tigers out of high school in 1972, can help with.
“I was drafted by the Tigers and I graduated from high school on a Sunday,” he recalled. “We were not permitted to sign our contracts until we graduated. So Sunday night the Tigers were at my house with my contract and Monday I was in Clinton, Iowa, playing Minor League Baseball for Jim Leyland.”
Leyland went on to a wildly successful career as a Major League manager and won a World Series with the Florida Marlins in 1997. He remains a close friend and advisor to Litras, whose own career was just beginning to blossom when he suffered a serious ankle injury during spring training in 1975.
“In 1974, I had a great year and led the whole organization in hitting and doubles and triples,” Litras said. “The following year, I got called up to spring training and that’s when I had the injury. You get in one of those zones, and I was in one of them. I was hitting everything, my glove was good, and then the injury happened at second base during a game in Lakeland, Florida.”
Litras had a number of surgeries but never returned full time to playing baseball. He moved to Atlanta and lived there for 40 years, building his career, before moving to Sag Harbor. He even spent a couple of years on sabbatical from his professional life and ran a baseball training facility.
“I taught everyone from Little League up to college kids,” he said this week. “It was the best job I ever had.”
His new job began this week with a lunch gathering with the team at Page @63 Main Restaurant in Sag Harbor, which, he said, is donating the lunch and has been “just wonderful.” After that, there will be a couple of practices and then the opener on Sunday. The season will run through the end of July with games almost daily.
“I’m really excited to get with them and meet them,” Litras said about the incoming players. “I’ve talked to all of them about the things they need to work on. Some of these guys have a chance to make it big, so we’re just hoping to be a part of that and help them along the way.”
For Litras, it’s the next step in a long baseball journey that began on Long Island. For the Whalers and their new manager, it’s an opportunity for rebirth.
“I was still living in Atlanta and I was on the phone with my sister one night and said, ‘I’m miserable without John,’” Litras said about losing his brother. “She said ‘Just come home.’ So I moved up here and have not looked back since.”