Mark Belanger documentary premieres at Berkshire Community College's Boland Theatre

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PITTSFIELD — Mark Belanger was a fighter.

The All-Star, Gold Glove shortstop fought hard to break into the Baltimore Orioles starting lineup. He fought for pro baseball players' financial security. He fought cancer to the very end.

Yet, the local boy who made it big in The Bigs never forgot his hometown roots. The Lanesborough kid done good would return during the baseball offseason to work at the former Besse-Clarke clothing store on North Street. His stature as a major leaguer made him the most sought-after salesman in the store.

Mark Mazzer of Pittsfield found Belanger never seemed to let stardom go to his head.

"Every winter I used to buy my Chuck Taylors (sneakers) at Besse-Clarke. Mark was very friendly, very approachable; he was just another guy," said the long-time Orioles fan.

Upon watching "Belanger: Big League Ballplayer, Small Town Story," one comes away with the impression that the Pittsfield High School baseball and basketball standout from 1959-1962 was a down-to-earth human being who wasn't afraid to speak his mind.

Nearly 500 people packed the Boland Theatre at Berkshire Community College for Saturday's premiere of the hour-long documentary from its creator and director, Dominic Dastoli. The Pittsfield native took the stage at movie's end to a standing ovation, the crowd appreciating his work as much as the life story of a favorite son who died 20 years ago.

Brother Al Belanger, interviewed for the movie, was seeing the documentary for the first time and was "extremely pleased" with the final cut.

Two decades later, the elder sibling still gets choked up about his little brother being diagnosed with the "Big C."

"The hard part was knowing he had [lung] cancer," Al Belanger said.

Mark Belanger was born June 8, 1944, learning how to handle bad hops by playing baseball on farm land near his Lanesborough home.

"It was no major league baseball field, that's for sure, but it was all we had to play on," Mark's sister, Linda Thornton, said in the movie.

Once he entered Pittsfield High and played American Legion ball for Post 68, Belanger's skills as a shortstop immediately drew interest from Major League scouts, especially the Orioles. As a senior in 1962, Belanger helped the basketball team to its first Western Massachusetts title since 1915. Several in the movie felt Belanger was a better basketball player, but he would eventually sign a contract with The Birds. The documentary tells how Belanger quickly rose through the minor leagues and would have become the starting shortstop sooner for the parent club if not for Luis Aparicio. The former Chicago White Sox

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star shortstop had been traded to Baltimore in 1963, a year into Belanger's minor league career. Four years later, Aparicio was traded back to Chicago while Belanger and his first wife were on their honeymoon.

"That was a nice wedding gift," said Dee Belanger in her movie interview.

Belanger's persistence paid off and for the next decade-plus, he was the Orioles everyday shortstop, finishing with one of the highest fielding percentages for a shortstop in Major League history, while unfortunately having a batting average in the .220 range for most of that time. By 1982, his last season, the 38-year-old Belanger was a backup shortstop with the Los Angeles Dodgers, playing in 54 games, his fewest in 15 years.

"We know as players, when we're done," Belanger said in an interview years later that was incorporated into the documentary.

Belanger ended his big-league career with eight American League Gold Gloves at shortstop, four World Series appearances and one championship ring when Baltimore beat Cincinnati in the 1970 Fall Classic.

Having been Baltimore's player representative for the Major League Baseball Players Association, Belanger would stay in the game by becoming the first ex-player to work for the players union. He would have a vital role, from a player's perspective, in fighting the owner's salary cap and creating salary arbitration, further strengthening player free agency.

Belanger ended up a special assistant to former MLBPA executive director Donald Fehr, who found Belanger to be a voice of reason in a room full of lawyers.

"[Mark] had incredible political instincts; he knew how to listen and could guide the conversation. He would very much bring us back to earth," Fehr said as the crowd filed out of Boland Theatre.

"I got to know him as a no-nonsense guy," added Steve Rogers, a former MLBPA member and All-Star pitcher for the Montreal Expos.

Speaking to The Eagle after the screening, Rogers and Fehr were among the 30 special guests invited to the premiere.

One fight Mark Belanger couldn't win was his battle with Stage 4 lung cancer, likely caused by 30 years of smoking. The father of two grown boys, Rich and Rob Belanger, stayed strong throughout most of his illness until he was too weak and was hospitalized in New York City where he had been living with his second wife, Virginia. On Oct. 6, 1998 at the age of 54, Belanger died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, New York City.

"Not all movies have happy endings," Al Belanger said to an Eagle reporter after the screening.

In the closing credits, Dastoli has listed the movie in memory of Rob Belanger, who died two years ago from cancer and the late Derek Gentile who died last year. The former Eagle reporter, who appeared in the film, was cited by director for his knowledge of the local sports scene and stories about Mark Belanger few others knew.

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6233


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