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Opening Day will be missing a familiar smile (audio)

BRADENTON

Opening Day at McKechnie Field is like a family reunion.

Mary Dillman always felt that way.

A longtime season ticket holder in Section 2, the affable retired Manatee High School teacher would greet other seat holders, fans, vendors, police, team officials and ushers like long lost relatives.

Especially ushers.

“They were like extended family,” said her son, Chuck Dillman, in The Woodlands, Texas. “She appreciated them.”

Longtime McKechnie ushers reciprocated that affection.

“Mary was a joy to see,” said Henry Perry, the Pirate Booster Club president.

Ron Contois kidded how ushers fussed over Dillman when she’d arrive with her walker.

“They’d fall over each other to take care of her,” said the former usher.

One of them was Jim Moneck, retired as an usher after 25 years.

“Mary Dillman was special to me. You looked forward to seeing her every game,” he said. “Fans are like old friends. Being an usher, you get to know them and every year you always wait for their return.

“It makes me feel bad I’ll never see her again.”

Dillman passed away last July 5.

She was 91.

Her absence will be noticed when the Pirates host the Phillies in Saturday’s Grapefruit League home opener, but her legacy is alive and well.

Dillman’s passion for baseball belied her years.

“She loved watching the Pirates,” Moneck said. “I couldn’t believe she was as great a fan as she was — and I’m from Pittsburgh.”

“She always rooted us on,” said Trevor Gooby, the ballclub’s senior director of Florida operations.

That was Mom, her sons said.

“She was a baseball fanatic,” said Don Dillman in Inverness, Ill. “The way she kept stats in her head was amazing. She always knew who played for other teams, too.”

Born in Allegan, Mich., Dillman grew up a Chicago Cubs fan, but was thrilled when the Detroit Tigers won it all in 1968.

Yet her affinity for baseball took on another dimension when she retired from the classroom 30 years ago.

Mary and her husband, Ray, bought season tickets at McKechnie.

“They started going to spring training games and really enjoyed it,” said Don Dillman, who, like his brother and fellow MHS alum, became a commercial airline pilot.

“Years later it gave us an excuse to come together as a family,” he said. “It was a fun, intimate way to see a game and spend time with Mom.”

For his brother, time at McKechnie was an extension of their mutual love of the game.

“Dad played catch with me, just as most fathers and sons, but as adults it was more me and Mom who talked about baseball, especially at games after Dad died,” said Chuck Dillman, a former Hurricanes first baseman.

“I’m going to miss that.”

Dillman’s sons have the season tickets now and one of them will be at McKechnie for Opening Day.

“It’s going to be a good reminder of all the good times we had with her,” Chuck Dillman said.

That goes for some retired ushers, too.

Said Moneck: “God’s got her the best seat in heaven.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055, or write him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton 34206 or e-mail him at vmannix@bradenton.com. Include a phone number for verification.

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