In the 1950-60s, Collegeville's leading sports icon was Horace Ashenfelter, an FBI-employed World War II veteran who won the 3,000-meter steeplechase in the 1952 games in Helsinki, breaking the world record. Ashenfelter had been considered a long shot, especially since the previous record holder, Vladimir Kasantzev, was running in the lane next to him.
The town - small today, but smaller 60 years ago - beamed with pride for their world champion. It wasn't often that a citizen would be the marvel of the planet. Such radiant success would not be seen in Colelgeville until years later, as a teenager was tearing through the local high school sports scene, obliterating scoring records on the way to a career in professional baseball.
But Gerry Hunsicker, who will be inducted into the Montgomery County Sports Hall of Fame on September 26 along with 11 other worthy candidates would never win Olympic gold, or break a world record, or even wear a uniform. Still, though - he wound up an undeniable success.
Collegeville was still developing at this point – it got its first police officer in 1940, just 10 years before Hunsicker was born – but as Hunsicker's legs grew under him, he needed a way to run off his endless adolescent steam. Fortunately, the town had no shortage of baseball diamonds, basketball nets, or football fields; Collegeville's chief natural resource was and remains big, wide open spaces.
"Outside of television, there wasn't a whole lot going on," Hunsicker says. "We found ourselves playing one sport or another depending on the time of year. Sports occupied a lot of our time back then."
Hunsicker's natural athleticism took over in his teens, and he inherited a cross-sport leadership role quite easily, racking up runs, points, and touchdowns as big fish in small town ponds tend to do. He quickly made enough rounds through little league and midget football circuits to see that he was simply playing on a higher level than most of the teams and players.
At 16, he went semi-pro with the Perkiomen Valley Twilight League. Two years later, he went to Wichita, Kansas to play as a state rep in the National Baseball Congress Tournament. After high school, he secured a baseball scholarship to play at St. Joe's.
"My world revolved around sports," he said, "and as I got be a senior in high school and had to make a decision on the next chapter, baseball was my lot. I continued pursuing my dream of playing professionally at St. Joe's, but at the end of my college career, the reality hit me in the face that that dream was not gonna happen."
It's the same old story for small town high school legends. After being celebrated for years, eventually, they roll the dice and get on the bus. Suddenly outmatched, Hunsicker found himself among his equals and betters on the diamond.
The coldness of reality found him as he finished at St. Joe's. "I wanted to stay in sports," he said definitively. "I guess at that point, I started to refocus my game plan."
Our conversation is occurring across four time zones, from Philadelphia to Hunsicker's office in Los Angeles, where he is the Senior Baseball Advisor for the Dodgers. So clearly, the story has a happy ending, if not the one 16-year-old Gerry Hunsicker had imagined.
"I went into college coaching and I thought of myself as an educator and a coach at that point and that I possibly would be an athletic director – I actually taught for a year – so I had some educator in my blood," Hunsicker says. "If I wasn't going to be as a player, then I was going to be a coach, and eventually, an administrator and executive."
Hunsicker's foresight was sharp. After attending Florida International University, he was hired as the assistant baseball coach until 1978. Ten years later, he worked himself into the Mets organization, serving as director of minor league operations and assistant general manager.
Then came the call: in 1998, Hunsicker took over as the general manager of the Houston Astros. He inherited a team with a lot of working parts: Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Moises Alou were in the prime of their early 30s, and all of them finished the season hitting over .300. (Meanwhile, a grizzled, broken, 34-year-old Pete Incaviglia sputtered to a .125 BA in 17 PA.) They had only won 84 games the year before, but at that time, 84 wins was all you needed to take the weakling NL Central.
Hunsicker acquired Randy Johnson from the Mariners at the trade deadline, and the Astros were off to a 102-60 season, winning their division for the second straight year, albeit a bit more handedly under the new GM.
The Astros went down in the first round of the playoffs to the World Series-bound Padres, but during Hunsicker's term from 1998-2004, the team finished lower than second place only once, in 2000.
Meanwhile, back in the Delaware Valley, Hunsicker's former colleague Ed Wade had charge of the Phillies' front office.
"Ed and I go way back," Hunsicker recalled. "Ed and I actually started our professional careers together in Houston, as a young man in the public relations department and I started out in the baseball department. We got to know each other back in the late '70s as we were getting our feet wet."
On the back of that relationship, Hunsicker got Wade to take Billy Wagner in the winter of 2003, in exchange for Brandon Duckworth and a group of other forgettable Phillies of the late '90s.
"The Billy Wagner trade was probably one of the most difficult trades that I had to make. Billy was getting expensive. We couldn't really afford to keep him," Hunsicker said. "The opportunity to trade him to Philadelphia came up early in that offseason. On the surface, obviously that trade was not a very good trade for the Houston Astros, but in reality, it was a financial driven trade that sometimes teams find themselves in."
It's the surface level perception – that the deal made the Astros look like rubes – that haunts the general manager profession. Like any job, there those who excel at it and those who falter, but the very view of a GM's job performance can be skewed by the ignorance of what exactly goes on. Sure, a top of the line closer wasn't worth four meaningless Phillies prospects. But Wagner had to go; there was simply no money to pay him, and there was always the chance that maybe at least one of the four players they got in return would catch on.
It's a thankless, friendless role in the GM's office, and Hunsicker knew it. Maybe not as well as Wade would come to know it, but still.
"The role of the GM today is far more complicated than it's ever been, with a lot of factors that are involved in decision making, and from a public standpoint, somebody's got to be responsible," Hunsicker admitted. "In the sport of baseball, the GM is generally looked at as the most responsible executive and of course the field manager is the other individual. So, I've always felt that the GM gets too much credit when things go well, and on the flip side, too much blame when things don't go well. But that goes with the territory. That's just the nature of the beast."
Growing up near Philadelphia, Hunsicker knows all too well about passionate sports fans and what tough times can feel like.
"They live and die with their sports teams," he recalls with a chuckle. "When times are good, they're really good, and when times are bad, they're very challenging, if you're in one of those leadership positions."
Times for the Astros may not have been better under Hunsicker's reign than in 2004, when the Astros were immediate World Series favorites thanks to Hunsicker's intensified dealing. During the 2003 offseason as a free agent, Yankees legend Andy Pettitte had not felt particularly loved or pursued by his former team, and Hunsicker helped make the ALCS MVP feel better with a three-year, $31.5 million contract in Houston.
Pettitte's arrival with the Astros convinced Roger Clemens to come out of retirement and join his former Yankees teammate, after having it written into his contract that he didn't have to travel to away games if he wasn't schedule to pitch.
The offense would be filled out by Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman, Jeff Bagwell and Jeff Kent, who were joined by Carlos Beltran at the trade deadline just in case those four All-Stars, half of which were former NL MVPs, weren't enough.
And oddly, they weren't. The team only broke .500 at the All-Star break (which helped motivate the Beltran signing), and then fired their manager, Jimy Williams, in favor of franchise legend Phil Garner.
So it was something of a relief that the team went 46-26 in the second half and entered the playoffs as the NL Wild Card team, dispatching of the favored Braves, 3-2, in the NLDS, and proceeding into the League Championship Series to face a terrifying 24-year-old Albert Pujols and the NL Central champion Cardinals.
At this point, St. Louis wasn't a perennial powerhouse. A victory would put the Cardinals in their first World Series since 1987. But the Astros had established a competitive era of baseball in Houston, and were trying to break through while the window was still open, despite a few pitfalls - Pettitte had left the rotation for shoulder surgery, and would sit out the 2004 playoffs.
It had been a frantic series entering Game 7. Beltran tied an MLB record with home runs in five straight postseason games, as well as the record for most total home runs in the playoffs, with eight. Kent and Berkman supplied the rest of the power and Brad Lidge was pinning down the back end of the bullpen. Clemens had thrown seven shutout innings for the win in Game 3, and when Jim Edmonds hit a walkoff home run in the bottom of the 12th to force Game 7, Clemens was penciled in to carry the Astros the rest of the way.
The Cardinals, however, ended up dancing on the field at the end of the night after the Astros watch their early lead get erased by a Pujols double and a two-run Scott Rolen dagger in the sixth.
The following year, the Astros finally pushed past the Cardinals in the NLCS, but did so without their general manager of six years. Hunsicker resigned following the 2004 season.
In 2005, Hunsicker joined up with the fledgling Tampa Bay Rays franchise as senior vice president, planning to get them headed in the right direction within three years. Three years turned into seven, and all throughout, he was sought by other teams. When Pat Gillick stepped down as GM of Hunsicker's hometown Phillies after 2007, several advocates appeared to suggest him for the job that went to Ruben Amaro Jr. Finally in 2012, he felt the job had been done and moved on to his current position with the Dodgers.
Layered behind a few walls of inexposure and deserved insulation, Hunsicker isn't the first name uttered by someone looking for a scapegoat to blame for performance or hustle or failed prospects or Yasiel Puig getting pulled over for going 90 m.p.h. over the speed limit on a hover craft or whatever else for which general managers take the heat. Besides, in the expanse of a baseball franchise, there's no one figure that can be blamed (or take credit) for everything (barring a few exceptions).
"I have to thank my predecessors on the front end because a number of the pieces were either in place or percolating in the minor leagues when I got to Houston," Hunsicker says. "And on the flip side, at the end when I left after the 2004 season, a lot of those players who took us to the playoffs in 2004 formed the nucleus of that 2005 team. Success is a shared thing."
"I'm very proud of what we accomplished in Houston during my time there," Hunsicker insists. And he should be, as Houston in the current era is a long way from the World Series (but not too long, according to Sports Illustrated). With the team's rebuild completing another regular season in last place, it's Hunsicker's era that provides fans the proof that a World Series can come South Texas.
"When you're trying to operate a business in public, it creates its own unique challenges," Hunsicker says. "Except for the sports industry, no one announces to the world publicly every day what they're doing, why they're doing it, and how they made those decisions. Even public companies only disclose a certain amount of information. Part of it is for proprietary information, because you obviously don't want to give away any trade secrets to the competition, and part of it is it's impossible to run a business publicly."
He could be added to the list of countless general managers who left a club without a ring, but a comprehensive look at Hunsicker's career shows he's still the pride of Collegeville, from the slick 16-year-old tearing up the Twilight League to the Montco Hall of Fame inductee to be honored on September 26.
"We are ultimately judged on our record, we're judged on the wins and the losses, that's what we do in sports," Hunsicker said. "That's how the fans judge teams, managers, players, executives - and I'll let my record speak for itself."
The Montco Hall of Fame will induct its 2014 class on September 26. The class includes local legends Tameka Green, Jim Church, Glenn Fine, Gerry Hunsicker, Clarence Scott, Shelly Chamberlan, Amanda O'Leary, Craig Littlepage, Randy Garber, John Rienstra, and Jim Gibbons (deceased).