Former Tigers farmhand among firefighters killed
By Dennis Waszak Jr., The Associated Press
NEW YORK — Michael Weinberg was fearless on the baseball field, tracking down fly balls and coming up with big hits with quiet confidence.
To those who knew him, it seemed only natural that Weinberg would someday become one of New York's Bravest. And almost fitting that he died a hero.
The 34-year-old firefighter, former St. John's outfielder and player in the Detroit Tigers' farm system was killed in the aftermath of terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center.
"When I first heard about what was going on, one of the first things I said to my wife was, 'I hope Mike wasn't there,"' said Joe Russo, Weinberg's coach at St. John's from 1986-89.
Weinberg, from Maspeth, N.Y., was a member of the New York Fire Department, stationed at Engine 1, Ladder 24 in lower Manhattan. He was on vacation and getting ready to tee off at Forest Park Golf Course in Queens when he heard that the first plane crashed into one of the twin towers. His sister, Patricia Gambino, was working on the 72nd floor of Two World Trade Center, but escaped.
Weinberg's firefighter instincts kicked in, and he dropped everything so he could get into Manhattan and help out.
Russo said Weinberg drove to his station house before heading to the World Trade Center with the Rev. Mychal Judge, the fire chaplain, and Capt. Daniel Brethel.
All three men died after they sought cover as the towers collapsed, and Russo said Weinberg's family believed Judge was administering last rites to Weinberg when they were killed.
George Goldbach, a Brooklyn native who spent 20 years in the New York Fire Department before becoming chief of the West Metro Fire Protection District in Colorado, knew Weinberg.
"He got killed in the street," Goldbach said. "They found him under a truck that had debris fall on it."
Weinberg, who was buried Monday, always seemed to have a flair for heroics.
He was the Big East Tournament's Most Outstanding Player in 1988, when he hit two home runs, including a three-run game-winner against Villanova in the semifinal game. His two-run homer in the championship game against the Wildcats helped St. John's win the conference title and clinch a berth in the NCAA tournament.
"He never really reached his potential in baseball because he was injured — he broke his right collarbone — and it affected his throwing and swing a little," Russo said. "He was originally a catcher for us, but after he got injured, we moved him to the outfield and he did a nice job for us. And then, he just went berserk in the Big East tournament that year."
Weinberg was a career .256 hitter, with six homers and 59 RBI in four seasons at St. John's, and played two undistinguished minor league seasons in the Tigers organization. His teammates included future major leaguers Jose Lima, Danny Bautista and Felipe Lira.
He hit .238 with 16 RBI in 1990 with Niagara Falls of the New York-Penn League and just .217 with two homers and 11 RBI for Fayetteville of the South Atlantic League the following season.
After being released midway through the 1991 season and realizing his dream of getting to the majors was improbable, Weinberg opted to join the fire department.
But he never lost his competitive edge.
"I was told that he was always at the fire house swinging the bat or the golf club, and he really became a heck of a golfer," said Russo, who first heard of Weinberg's death from former St. John's athletic director John Kaiser and former player Frank Caccavale. "Mike was a good athlete in pretty much everything he did."
Mike Carey, St. John's assistant director of media relations, said Weinberg was described by those who knew him as "a good guy and extremely well liked."
"Mike was a great kid," said Russo, who coached at St. John's from 1974-95. "He was one of those guys who was always smiling. You couldn't get mad at him."
Weinberg was striking in person — a handsome and muscular man who was a featured model in the fire department's calendar. But his smile is what Russo said everyone will remember most.
"He was always laughing, and made everyone around him feel good," Russo said. "He was just a great person."