Family, baseball, and the University of Southern Maine were some of Vinnie Degifico’s greatest loves. People from those three corners of his life showed how much they loved him in return by coming together for a tribute to his memory.
With emotions from his death last year still fresh, the mood swung between tears and laughs at a ceremony to retire the number that Degifico wore on his jersey during a stellar playing career for the Huskies. He’s the only person to receive that honor across any sport in the history of USM Athletics.
Head Baseball Coach Ed Flaherty used to be skeptical about the tradition of retiring numbers. He felt uncomfortable singling out any individual in a team sport. But Flaherty made an exception for Degifico as someone who embodied the “team first” philosophy.
“To have your number retired, you’ve got to be special. He’s that guy,” said Flaherty.
Degifico made the most of the three years that he played for Flaherty at USM. In 1986, he led the nation across all NCAA divisions with a .526 batting average. The following season, his power hitting propelled the Huskies into the NCAA tournament. He set nine program records and earned two All-American selections.
The buzz around Degifico attracted big league scouts and the Red Sox drafted him in 1987. After five years of development in the minors, an ankle injury ended his dream of playing professionally. But he was far from done with baseball.
Flaherty welcomed Degifico back to USM as an assistant coach. He thrived in the role for 28 years until he died of cancer last June. His impact continues to be felt by the hundreds of players that he mentored.
Tyler Delorme was one of those players. As hitters, he and Degifico had a lot in common. Both are record breakers and Husky Hall of Famers. But Delorme almost didn’t get the chance to prove himself. Flaherty was ready to cut him after a disappointing tryout. Degifico saw Delorme’s potential and convinced Flaherty to change his mind.
“I pretty much owe my entire baseball career to Vinnie. He’s had a profound impact on my life,” Delorme said.
Delorme was in attendance at Ed Flaherty Field in Gorham for the ceremony to honor Degifico on April 22. During the break between games in a double header, Delorme left his seat to stand along the third base line. He was joined by dozens of fellow alumni who either played with Degifico or were coached by him. The current team took up position on the first base line.
At the center of it all stood Degifico’s family. They burst out laughing as speakers shared their memories of clubhouse and travel bus hijinks. But the smiles grew more wistful as members of the baseball team presented their gift of a framed number 23 jersey to Cynthia Degifico, Vinnie’s wife.
Emotions swelled again as the crowd’s attention was directed to the brick wall behind the home plate seating. After a short countdown, the covering was pulled away from a new sign featuring Degifico’s number 23, now on permanent display. A hug from Coach Flaherty helped shore up the tears that were brimming in Cynthia’s eyes.
“I’m just really grateful that the University is doing this,” Cynthia said. “It’s a beautiful tribute. It’s very fitting.”
Cynthia and Vinnie Degifico were married in 1987. Baseball shaped both of their lives even though only one of them played. They celebrated wins and mourned losses together. And together, they established a scholarship to support students from South Portland High School who intend to play sports at USM. Cynthia remains involved in its management.
Their two children, Anthony and Maria, share their devotion to Husky athletics. Family games were raucous affairs with a dad who loved to compete. As Anthony’s talent for baseball developed, even playing catch with dad turned more serious. “Dad” eventually became “Coach Degifico” when Anthony joined the USM baseball team.
“He never took a day off, neither did I, but that was a lot of the fun, just enjoying the whole process with him,” Anthony said.
Maria brought the trademark Degifico grit to a different sport. Next fall, she’ll begin her third year as a guard on the women’s basketball team. Her games at Hill Gymnasium are just down the hall from the Ice Arena, where her dad also worked to keep the facility in top shape. No matter the sport, as long as she played hard, Maria knew her dad would support her.
“He was always competitive and made sure that I always tried my best and did my best. And I think he’d be really proud of me and everything I’ve accomplished,” Maria said.
Anthony interrupted his sister with a slight correction. “He’d want you to shoot more,” he said, drawing nods and laughs from the rest of the family.
After the ceremony, there was still a game to be played. The Huskies won the first half of the doubleheader against UMass Boston, 3-1. They’d go on to win the second game, 9-3. As with every game this season, the players wore a black patch with the number 23 on their left sleeves. A piece of Vinnie Degifico was still in play.