Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A MARVELOUS NIGHT AT THE MEAD

The right side of the tree-lined lane that leads to spacious and beautiful Tunxis Mead Park was decorated with staggered signs honoring the seniors on the Farmington High girls soccer team.

On the left side, a little further ahead, the six seniors on Nelle Andrews' resurgent field hockey team were given their due.

The soccer field, named after the inimitable godfather of Farmington soccer Al Bell, was brightly lit with the junior varsity teams from Farmington and East Catholic squaring off. The baseball field, named for venerable Farmington sportsman and educator John Grocki, had its outfield adapted to host the field hockey team as is done once a year so the girls can play under the lights.

The field hockey parents had a gas grill smoking, churning out burgers and hot dogs to the folks on hand to watch Farmington play its last home game as an independent team. No FHS program will benefit more from the school's move to the Central Connecticut Conference next year. For the first time in generations, the girls who don the skirts and wield the curved sticks will get a chance to play for a league championship next fall.

The field hockey game started at 6:30 p.m. after the seniors were honored. The soccer game went off at 7 p.m. What a brilliant night for girls sports, for two teams that figure to go deep in their respective tournaments that begin next week.

Depth and determination were keys to two Farmington victories.

The stickers grabbed a 2-0 lead, ran fresh legs out in the second half and a decent Watertown team (6-6-1) couldn't keep pace. And Farmington, after getting a week off due to the cancellation of a match with Northwest Catholic, will end up playing five games in seven days.

"They're tired," Andrews said. "It's definitely been stressful. A lot of them have tons of schoolwork going on with the end of the quarter last week. It's frustrating, but it's definitely because we've been a non-league team and we have to get squeezed into everyone's open week. We'll be in a league next year and hopefully won't have that problem."

The booters withstood a game East Catholic squad, that outplayed Farmington early and had the game tied at 1 until Bonnie Boornazian, Kaylin Berger, Holly Cherlin, Taylor Escajeda, Kelly Boudreau and company took control.

Boornazian, a junior who had the game-winning goal in the state championship as a freshman, proved that she has recovered sufficiently from knee surgery. Her game gets better and better by the day. She scored twice in the 3-1 win over East.

"Two years ago, we lost to East Catholic on senior night and we didn't want to let that happen again," she said. "This was the last time playing in (the Northwest Conference) so we wanted to play well for our seniors and ourselves and end on a good note."

Boornazian had surgery January 31 and nobody was sure what kind of impact it would have on her game.

"The season was hard for me," she said. "I worked a lot but I finally got back to where I want to be. ... Coach (Steve Jarvis) said I'm getting my confidence back and that's all I want -- to get better every game."

Grocki Field went dark first. As the lights went out on Bell Field shortly thereafter, Farmington athletic director Jack Phelan had reason to smile. It was a marvelous night at the Mead.

Friday, October 26, 2007

THE GOOD IN GOODWIN

I'm so glad I had the opportunity to visit with the Goodwin Tech soccer team on Thursday. The kids on the team are reaching out to be appreciated. They may not compete at the same level as the Farmingtons and Wethersfields but they work just as hard and want to win just as badly.

The interaction between coaches Paul Soucy and Laura Waz, who are filling in for head coach Jerry Barner, and the kids is poignant. The players -- male and female -- hail from no less than 7 different countries. Some of them are still learning the English language but the universal languages of soccer and love break through such barriers.

I enjoyed writing up the Gladiators' 4-2 win over Grasso Tech that enabled them to qualify for the Class S tournament for the first time since 1991 (historical data courtesy of former Herald sports writer and dedicated high school sports historian Gerry deSimas Jr.). How they fare in the tournament is not nearly as important as the lessons and the love being disseminated by Soucy and Waz. While I have never met Barner, I'm sure he would be contributing more if he wasn't trying to shake off an infection that set in after foot surgery.

The team has some genuine talent in striker Pawel Siwinski and freshman midfielders Arek Wrobel and Raul Canales. Many of the others have the potential to be fine players if they heed the teachings of Soucy, who has coached soccer at Plainville, St. Thomas Aquinas and Wolcott.

I truly hope that the word passes through the student population at Goodwin that playing for the varsity team can be rewarding, great fun and a vital learning experience. Please look for the feature story I'm writing as a follow-up that should appear in Monday's paper. Whether or not you have an interest in Goodwin soccer, I urge you to read it and I think you'll enjoy it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

PC POLICE INVADE LOCAL SPORTS

The thinking behind the horrific 50-point rule, or score management policy as some Bohemians call it, is beginning to infiltrate other sports.

Look for soccer to follow football's lead. I wouldn't be at all surprised if soccer coaches who dare go beyond a seven-goal cushion start getting banished to purgatory in the near future. I haven't seen one 8-0 game all season. They all seem to stop at six and seven.

The same arguments that make the football rule a travesty are relevant in soccer. Say the score is 8-0 with 15 minutes left in the match. A coach must tell his players to just knock the ball around and not to shoot on goal.

Why is it less embarassing for a player on the losing team to be a victim in a humiliating game of keepaway than to lose 13-0? The answer to that is clear. Administrators don't want to see 13-0 scores in the newspaper.

Swimming has been doing it for years. When a team has clinched a victory, it swims the remainder of the events as "exhibitions," which means competitors will swim to win but their scores won't be counted in the team score. A 95-81 score looks so much better than 135-40, but what is that approach telling people who have dedicated their lives to delivering the news? Simple, it is more important for the meet to appear to be close that it is to tell the readers the truth.

In all these cases, kids are being given the wrong message. They're being sheltered from a reality that is just around the corner in their lives. They need to know that when other teams work harder, big deficits happen. If they feel a sense of embarassment, they need to work harder, and influence their teammates to work harder, so that deficit will diminish.

Getting back to soccer, I notice that many of the matches involving the girls and boys teams from St. Paul are not being reported. Here I am trying to maintain standings and my list of scoring leaders and I can't find information on the St. Paul games anywhere.

Unfortunately, these teams have struggled mightily and there seems to be a conspiracy among coaches, parents and/or school administrators around the Northwest Conference to keep their winless records a secret. That, by the way, is why you don't see my accustomed list of scoring leaders anymore.

Back to the gridiron. If we have such an aversion to football games won by more than 50 points, just stop the darned game and send everybody home. Let's not tarnish the game itself as it was meant to be played. What kind of message are we sending to kids when we require them to run out of bounds, drop passes and miss tackles on purpose so the head coach doesn't get suspended?

What's next? Maybe every football team in the state should be mandated to go 5-5, with each making the postseason and all playoff games ending in ties. After all, we don't want to hurt anybody's feelings.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

INGRAM, CUELLAR AND THE CATS

The announcement that Riccardo Ingram has been replaced by Bobby Cuellar as New Britain Rock Cats manager for 2008 elicits several emotions.

Ingram will be missed. His demeanor was always upbeat and he was congenial even in the throes of losing streaks. Knowing that he would be waiting for you in the manager's office was always a welcome thought. You knew you'd be able to crack a little joke and he would smile from ear to ear.

Cuellar, not to be mistaken for former Orioles 20-game winner Mike Cuellar, is a longtime minor league coach with exceptional credentials. He handled three Cy Young Award winners during his tenure -- Pedro Martinez when he was with the Expos, Randy Johnson during his tenure with Seattle and Johan Santana when he pitched with the Twins in Triple A.

I go back a ways with the new skipper. I first met him when he was the Expos' pitching coach. I went to Fenway Park to cover the Expos against Boston when Southington native Carl Pavano pitched for Montreal. During batting practice, I talked to Bobby about Pavano and received a very detailed, clear assessment that became a lengthy feature story in The Herald.

I ran into Cuellar numerous times at spring training when he was with the Twins organization from 2002-05. I awlays like to remind him that he's just a kid. He was born on Aug. 20, 1952, one day after me.

While I will miss Rico Ingram, I know I'll get to see him at Fort Myers next spring and hopefully during the season if I can escape to Pawtucket when Rochester comes in. As for Cuellar, I'm sure fans are going to like his affable, easy-going nature as well.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

FALL FOLIAGE TOUR

Come with me on a little fall foliage sports tour of central Connecticut ...

Kudos to East Catholic boys soccer coach Tom Malin on his 300th career victory. Boys soccer just scratches the surface on how much Malin has contributed to youngsters at his school over the years. He is always very amenable to the needs of the media, and in case you didn't know, sports writers getting what they need at high school events is often quite difficult.

Thanks, Tom, for all you do. ...

Oh, the wind and rain ... Anybody who went out for a sporting event Friday night will no doubt have mold and mildew growing in their footwear by now. At Fontana Field in Southington where the mighty Blue Knights splashed past East Hartford, the mist and rain were horizontal for a good part of the night.

The conditions didn't bother Savino Melluzzo. He stands but 5'7 and even Friday night couldn't have weighed more than 175 pounds, but he follows his blocks magnificently and keeps those feet moving, even in puddles.

Perhaps the most stunning moment came when Southington safety Israel Burgos just flew down the field on a punt and separated the East Hartford return man from the ball and nearly walked into the end zone. Hey, Israel, it was rainy and wet. You're not supposed to be able to do that. ...

A tip of the hat and very rare exposure of the old chrome dome to the RHAM volleyball team. The Sachems challenge Bristol Eastern as the best I've seen this year, although Rich Heitz has that Southington group peaking for the Class LL tournament (if the Knights can knock off Eastern Monday, now that would be quite a statement!).

Farmington and Berlin have fine teams. Respective coaches Laura Arena and Bob Tarigo have built superb programs from top to bottom. But this is surely the Year of the RHAM. For those who don't know, RHAM stands for Regional Hebron Andover Marlborough. I've seen them play twice and a more cohesive group you won't see in any sport anywhere.

Berlin has lost to the Sachems twice. Farmington has another shot in RHAM's house this week. Time for the Indians to make a statement, or it's a battle for second place between them and the Redcoats. ...

Now get out and support your local teams. The kids work so hard, the competition is tremendous, the parking is free, the food at the concessions stands is good and tickets are cheap. You've got an invitation; what more do you want?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

THE BLAME GAME

Switching gears. Back to baseball, where I have a problem with most of the reporting I see on the playoffs.

Why, when a team loses, do writers around here have to blame somebody? Sox lose, blame Eric Gagne. Sox lose again, blame Matsuzaka. Sox lose again, blame Tito Francona for not starting Beckett.

Why can't some of these guys tip their hat to a great Cleveland team with lots of great players. I'm tipping mine to Grady Sizemore.

Grady played right here in New Britain for the Akron Aeros a few years ago. He played in the 2003 EL All-Star Game hosted magnificently by Bill Dowling and Company and I had the chance to interview him. Boy, if I were starting a team right now, I'd like to have Sizemore on the squad. He does it all and has a great attitude. How about some love for Grady?

Here's another pet peeve. It irks me when a casual fan says, "Can you believe A-Rod made an out with the bases loaded? He's making all that money." What the heck does one have to do with the other?

If a surgical patient paid a doctor five times his fee, should the doctor perform better on his surgery than on the poor guy's? Can you imagine if your car mechanic said, "Sorry, you only paid me $2,500 for that ring job. Your neighbor paid me $5K so I'm not going to fix yours as well as I'll fix his." It's preposterous. Paying somebody more money does not change human frailty. Remember, the difference between a pop-up and a monster shot is about a half-inch.

SAL'S GALS HAVE THE KNACK

I'm still trying to get this blog thing straight. I don't know if there are any rules but I've been just throwing my opinion out there on a variety of subjects then see where the chips fall. I'm supposed to direct a lot of my focus on high school sports so here we go.

I saw 2 great girls soccer games the last 2 days. Farmington spotted a goal to Northwest Catholic before its depth took over and popped in a pair of late goals. I was most impressed with Farmington's central defender Taylor Escajeda. She's smart. She anticipates so well. With her in back, Kelly Bourdreau behind her and Mary Hogan and Kaylin Berger on the defensive wings, the Indians should go far.

They do have to find some consistent scoring. Holly Cherlin has done a great job and Bonnie Boornazian is so courageous to be going all out despite her knee problem.

The biggest tragedy is poor Jewel Robinson. Jewel's high school career was so promising with her great speed and nose for the ball but she blew out one knee late last fall and then the other one when she returned to action in July. But she's still got a great attitude and I'm hoping -- praying -- that she can have a huge senior year next year.

Then there's Southington. I really figured the Knights would fade this year after a strong finish last year because of the graduation losses they took. Then Jackie Marchetti goes down with a knee injury. Charlene DaSilva, too. Heartbreaking.

But the Knights have regrouped and are leading the CCC North, ahead of perennial powers Simsbury and Glastonbury.

Shauna Edwards is as good a forward as I've seen this season. She's got these great spin moves that left several Simsbury defenders guarding nothing but empty space Tuesday. She worked her way into open space for medium-range shots all day in Tuesday's 1-0 win. Unfortunately, she was ruled offsides in the goal she scored, but she set up the game-winner in the 89th minute.

Which leads me to the other part of coach Sal Penta's one-two combo, Molly Alfieri. Every time Molly got the ball in the right corner, she either drew a corner kick or worked her way free along the baseline for a cross or a shot. She was on the receiving end of Edwards' cross that won the game. And she had to beat one terrific keeper in Jill Kelley to score that goal.

What looked like a rebuilding year has become a great season. Hats off to Penta, his girls and his staff. No longer is the CCC North the property of Simsbury and Glastonbury. Sal's Gals are leading the division.

I haven't see Steve Yanosy's Berlin squad yet, nor Plainville's resurgent Blue Devils led by one of the best female athletes the area has ever seen, Desiree Pina. I've seen Angelo Marchetti's Newington team and the Indians have a great defensive squad. They're still searching for that go-to goal-scorer so I hope somebody steps up come tourney time.

And here's to Wethersfield and new coach Miek Servedio. The Eagles are undefeated in that always tough CCC West with Conard and Hall behind them. Heather Lyhne has been sensational.

Get out and root on your local team. The girls deserve your support the way they play so hard. I hope we can crown a couple state champs come November.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

THE FIFTY-POINT FARCE

When the CIAC football committee overreacted to the manifestations of coach/oppressor Jack Cochran prior to the 2006 season by implementing its score management policy, Connecticut scholastic football became a laughingstock from sea to shining sea.

The 50-point rule, or Cochran rule as most have labeled it, was trashed by columnists from media diverse and renowned as Sports Illustrated, USA Today and Bloomberg News.

It changes the nature of the game. Suddenly, coaches who have always displayed nothing but integrity, who are guilty of nothing but working harder than their colleagues, were sweating out whether a second-string sophomore eluded a tackle near the goal line or fell down on purpose.

One local coach requesting anonymity readily admitted he had to tell a backup quarterback to purposely take a delay-of-game penalty earlier this season to avoid the possibility of scoring another touchdown.

It compromises the whole purpose for playing sports at the high school level. The theory is that sports provide a forum to teach youngsters about life. Some games end in ecstatic celebration, other in gut-wrenching disappointment. Some lives are bathed in fame and fortune, others are shrouded in gloom and doom.

Nobody wants to see a teenager to collapse on the field in tears after he’s thrown a game-changing interception, but the game is a microcosm of life. So many chapters in the book of life end in sadness and tragedy, so isn’t it better that our youngsters are prepared for this instead of offering them the illusion that a bowl of cherries will be awaiting them on every postgame dinner table?

The 50-point rule, which calls for the one-week suspension of any coach who defeats an opponent by more than 50 points, alters the precepts of football, and sets an unfortunate precedent that could lead to the same in other scholastic sports.

Have you heard about the unwritten soccer rule that prohibits teams from scoring more than eight goals? Yeh, it’s far better to have a team leading 7-0 with its freshmen in the game to play keep-away from an already humiliated opponent. I guess it’s okay because you can’t read about the deleterious effects of keep-away in the next day’s sports section. Nobody puts the "nyaah-nyaahs" in quotes.

Perhaps the academics who constructed the rule didn’t perceive its wide-ranging effects, so prior to this season, the appeal criteria were softened. Some of the items that will be considered are:

* Did the coach start substituting skill players when it was evident the game was in hand?

* Did the coach substitute “wholesale” early in the game when it was evident the game was in hand?

* Did the coach keep the play going by having runners stay in bounds, did not use timeouts, limited passing game? (sic)

* Did the coach control the kicking game – such as punt on fourth and short, fair catch returns, no field goal attempts, go for one (extra point) on a score?

These questions are all subject to the perception of a committee that may be just as skewed as the committee that came up with this rule.

When is it evident that a game is in hand? If a strong team blows through a foe for 21 quick points and the weaker team has shown it can’t compete with 5 minutes still to go in the first quarter, is that evidence enough?

If so, what kind of message are we sending to the quarterback of the winning team who eschewed other opportunities to practice all summer and got bigger, faster and stronger than an opponent who was hanging out at the mall? Work hard, son, and when the consequence of your hard works comes to fruition, we’re going to reward your diligence by benching you.

Did the coach substitute “wholesale?” What constitutes wholesale? Is that somewhere between two and five, three and six, five and eight? Hey, you shouldn’t have kept those quick, sure-handed receivers in the game. Does the committee realize that their understudies are freshmen who may get maimed by an angry senior linebacker who’s losing by 50 points?

So why does this come to light right now? Berlin steamrolled Farmington, 57-0, on Friday night and Redcoats coach John Capodice has to spend half the week preparing his courtroom defense instead of his zone defense. He has to implement an alternate coaching plan in the event he gets suspended.

Does the committee care to evaluate what that might mean to the Berlin kids, who are trying to get ready for a severe test against Northwest Catholic next week? Does the committee care to assess how their decision may affect the Redcoats’ chances for a league title and a playoff berth? Does the committee care to consider how their decision may separate a hard-working student-athlete from his dream?

Based on the new appeal criteria, Capodice should be exonerated. Another criterium is how the vanquished coach feels about the game and Capodice said he ran into Farmington coach Bruce Wearne on Saturday and there were no hard feelings.

“I did everything in my power to protect the other team and I was cognizant of the score and opponent,” Capodice said. “And (there’s) my respect for Coach Wearne as a veteran football coach. Also, our philosophy at Berlin is to never embarrass the opponent.”

This year’s Berlin team may just be the finest in the school’s storied history. Farmington, while well-stocked at the skill positions, is notoriously thin in the lines – where football games are won and lost. It was a difficult day for the Farmington kids, a difficult day for Wearne, and it was no picnic for Capodice as he fields questions from sports writers around the state who care nothing about his terrific team and sweats out the scrutiny of another committee.

Here’s my message: Free Coach Cap and get rid of this ridiculous rule.

Friday, October 12, 2007

TOURNEY CONTENDERS ABOUND

The fall season in high school sports is already half over and I'd like to provide a report card on what I've seen and what I gather from talking to our coaches.

BOYS SOCCER

The Wethersfield boys secured the top spot in the state in last week's coaches' poll and promptly lost to Bristol Central.

I saw the Eagles' previous game against Fermi and while they were creating many excellent chances, they weren't finishing to coach Rob Jachym's satisfaction. Perhaps the 2-1 defeat at the hands of the Rams will push the Eagles to work just a little bit harder, for if they do, a state title is surely within their reach. ...

I haven't seen Steve Waters' Farmington squad yet but hope to soon. The Indians just may supplant Wethersfield as the state's top team, although powerful Simsbury may have something to say about that.

The problem with seeing Farmington has been two-fold. They outclass most of the teams they play in the Northwest Conference and when they do play an East Catholic or a Rocky Hill, it's on a Friday night when The Herald is obliged to bring you all the local football games.

Waters used to have the flexibility to schedule a Glastonbury on opening day and a Hand, Simsbury or Xavier in the regular-season finale, but when Rocky Hill and RHAM joined the NWC, that opportunity was lost. The coaches who vote in the poll surely consider the general condition of the NWC when they evaluate the Indians.

The fun will begin next year when Waters and his boys join the CCC and get Conard, Hall and Wethersfield in home-and-home sets, and will see the best of what the other three CCC divisions have to offer, like Simsbury, Glastonbury, Bristol Central, Southington, South Windsor and E.O. Smith.

A slate like that will prepare Farmington for the rugged Class LL tournament and the evolution will be fun to watch.

GIRLS SOCCER

The NWC, as usual, belongs to Farmington and Berlin, but the Redcoats suffered their first loss at the hands of Northwest Catholic. The teams battled to a scoreless tie in their first match (it had to be on a Friday night. Rats!). Their second one should be a doozy and it's on a Thursday. Alright, schedule-makers!

And here's a tip of the Herald cap and a deep bow for Southington coach Sal Penta. Faced with what looked like a rebuilding season, Penta has his Blue Knights among the best teams in the region if not the state. Things looked bleak when his stellar senior captain Jackie Marchetti went down with a knee injury in the preseason, but Shauna Edwards, Danielle Bottaro, Molly Alfieri and Pauline Koziol among others have stepped up.

VOLLEYBALL

When you start listing great local coaches, don't forget Berlin's Bob Tarigo and Laura Arena of Farmington. They have great teams, yes, but they have programs where the talent goes deep into the junior varsity and beyond.

Berlin was missing big hitters Katelyn Zarotney and Sarah Byrnes for the match against always-potent Avon Thursday but Tarigo received sensational play from their understudies. Avon fell in three games. Ronnie Roche is the quiet leader of the Redcoats.

Both Berlin and Farmington, however, are looking up at RHAM, which clearly was the class of the conference in the first half. The Sachems give up plenty of size against both of them, but make up for it with incredible cohesiveness and athleticism. A win over RHAM for either Farmington or Berlin would be a major coup as the teams wind toward tourney time.

In the CCC North, New Britain is coming along under coach Michelle Abraham and has a future star in Angelika Zygo. Southington coach Rich Heitz, like Arena and Tarigo, has built quite the dynasty. The Knights will be in great tourney shape if they can knock off defending Class L titlist Bristol Eastern in their rematch Oct. 22.

FIELD HOCKEY

Farmington is back.

The Indians don't have the superstar they had last year in Laura Burdick, but coach Nelle Andrews has a host of excellent players in Lauren Schweighoffer, Amy Lee, Carly Piraneo, goalie Erin Corcoran, Kristy Rider, Meghan Murray, etc.

It's a young team, too, so Andrews should make quite a splash when the independent Indians get a chance to play in the CCC next year.

MORRELL BUILDS A DYNASTY

Nobody will mistake current New Britain High head football coach Paul Morrell for his predecessor Jack Cochran.

No, Morrell has not won any state championships. He doesn't sleep on a cot at the high school coaches' office and pore over game tape in between catnaps. Winning holds plenty of importance to him and his staff, but his top priority by far is turning his football players into productive human beings.

So when I asked Morrell after Friday night's 34-6 win over East Hartford about his amazing tailback B.J. Aponte, he said the following: "I tell you guys after every game that as great as B.J. is as a football player, he's even greater as a human being. He's going to go places."

With all the negative junk that we have to report about kids, Morrell's assessment of Aponte needs to be printed. It was printed in The Herald Saturday, and now it's here for all the world to see.

It helps to hear Morrell express his love for his All-State candidate, but Aponte's determined play demonstrates quite well that he has a passion for success, a passion for life. When he hits a hole behind that big offensive line, he accelerates like a Porsche burning high test. If the hole gets plugged, he squirms and battles for every inch.

On defense, he uses his quickness and that determination to make big plays, too.

Morrell may not have the 'Canes quite where Cochran had them in a football sense, but when the final reviews come in many years from now, who do you think will be the big winner? Morrell is building men -- fine young men -- and that stands to be far more important for the school and the community in the long run.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

HOLTZ COMES FROM THE HEART

I had the uplifting experience of hearing Lou Holtz speak Wednesday night.

Holtz is a man who comes from humble beginnings (Follansbee, W. Va.) who has stared adversity in the face and come away a better man both on and off the football team. He takes great pleasure in sharing his experiences and eloquently advancing the power of positive thinking.

He appeared at the Bristol Central High School, courtesy of the Bristol Sports Hall of Fame, which surely is one of the oldest and best of its kind in the state.

Holtz, who turned 70 in January, interjected his unique sense of humor, some of it self-deprecating, and kept the audience in stitches. He finished the evening with a magic trick, tearing apart a copy of USA Today that incredibly became whole again right there in his hands. He did the same trick Saturday on TV in his latest endeavor as ESPN analyst.

He bluntly mentioned several times that he was not lecturing or preaching – in fact, he refused to stand behind the lectern – but he admonished the young athletes in the crowd, of which there were many, about the relationship between talent, motivation and attitude.

He stressed the meaning of teamwork, indicating that individuals cannot possibly win football games. He used the euphemism, “What’s Important Now,” to illustrate how an athlete should put him or herself in a positive frame of mind.

Among those in the audience were new Central Connecticut State University women’s basketball coach Beryl Piper and an attentive group of young ladies soon to wear the Devils’ blue.

“I just hope they listened,” Piper said.

Holtz’s message was sincere, thorough and totally honest (he let us know ahead of time when he embellished one story).

Holtz has written five books, including New York Times bestseller, “Winning Every Day,” published in 1999. Quick to point out that he wasn’t the best of students, he quipped, “I may be the only person to have written more books than I’ve read.”

One local sportsperson who shall remain nameless crossed paths with Holtz at one of his collegiate stops and referred to him as Lou Bolts. Indeed, Holtz will be remembered for taking difficult jobs, rebuilding programs and seeking other challenges. He is the only football coach in NCAA annals to guide six different programs to bowl games and four to final top-20 rankings.

His favorite resuscitation act must have been South Carolina. He ended his first retirement from coaching in 1999 to take over the 1-10 Gamecocks. He led them to an 8-4 record in 2000, a season culminated with a win over prohibitive favorite Ohio State in the Outback Bowl.

He coached at Notre Dame from 1986-96, when he walked away from a lifetime contract for reasons he never disclosed. His beloved wife, Beth, had been diagnosed with throat cancer at the time, yet is doing well.

Holtz looked at his watch and told the assemblage that he’d like to talk all night but had to leave.

“I’m dog tired,” he said. “And Beth and I have this thing where we think about each other every night at 10 o’clock.”

That’s the kind of man Lou Holtz is, and the Bristol Hall of Fame deserves a lot of credit for making such a wonderful speaker available to local fans and student-athletes. I’d like to toss out special kudos to Dave Mills, former Bristol Eastern coach who provided a stirring introduction and concluding remarks, and longtime Bristol sportsman Bob Kalat, who was nice enough to offer me an opportunity that I will remember and cherish always.

The BSHOF presented a check to Bristol Hospital in the name of Beth Holtz as a token of their esteem for the coach’s time.

But the most important facet was expressed by Piper, who wondered if the young athletes took Holtz’s messages to heart. Far too often kids will fidget and fail to pay heed. Those who didn’t will recall Holtz’s words sometime in the future and wish that they did.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

CHEW ON THIS, BASEBALL FANS

Hmmm, what can I use to illustrate my economic theory.

How about bread? Bread was once baked lovingly in the home with the finest ingredients available, but sometime after the turn of the 20th century, some savvy entrepreneurs found that it could be cheaply mass produced to take the burden off the housewife, appealing to our seemingly insatiable urge for expediency over common sense

So companies replaced the homemade, whole-grain breads of the 19th century with a nutrition-free, mass-produced substitute our grandparents came to know as white bread. It took 75 or so years to realize that the mass-produced product was removing most of the stuff, like fiber, that made bread mankind's staff of life. Check the figures on the rising tide of colon cancer.

Only now have people in the know come to realize that whole grains are essential in our diet, and son-of-a-gun if it doesn’t taste a whole lot better than that sorry Wonder Bread that held my tuna fish salad together in the Fifties and Sixties.

So what’s the point? What does bread have to do with sports?

We accepted the expedient concept of mass-produced bread. We are force-fed the concept of bottom line over common sense in professional baseball.

Yes, it all boils down to bread, man, in the sense of the world that our generation coined about the time Nixon was mining Hanoi Harbor. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and as long as the rich are in baseball’s major markets, all is well.

As the glowing reports of baseball’s increased attendance radiate throughout the industry, the once-proud Pittsburgh Pirates have endured their 15th straight losing season. Atlanta, once perceived as one of the big boys while dominating the NL East, can no longer afford Andruw Jones.

Even the considerable loyalty Torii Hunter has for the organization that nurtured his ascent didn’t stop him from rejecting three years and $45 million from the Minnesota Twins for a shot at even greater riches. Who can blame him? Did the Wonder Bread CEO consider anything but bucks?

Gluttony rules. Those of us who have lived for a while recognize this. Most of those bred on ESPN – surely one of the prime enablers in greed’s molding of sports – wouldn’t know any better, so paying exorbitant prices for entertainment is as conventional to them as consuming white bread was to us.

Bread often is examined as a barometer of economic times. Proportionally, the price of a baseball ticket has risen more than bread ever will. On the surface, consumers foolishly pay the price. Underlying research will show that corporations using tickets as write-offs are the ones footing the bill.

Naturally, most of the corporations are headquartered in large cities so the gap between the small markets and large markets is ever widening. Given the free market system that baseball enjoys, thus banishing Mr. and Mrs. Everyman and their two children from attending, the rich thrive, the poor get trashed and all that most people care about is if their team makes the playoffs.

Congratulations, your team made it. Common sense dictates that people with the most money in their hands will come home with the nicest Christmas presents so what are you barking about?

Way to go. Pat yourself on the back as you live vicariously through that logo plastered on your sweatshirt, cap and car bumper. I’ll be damned if I care. To the richest go the spoils. The only reason they play 162 games is 162 more reasons to turn you upside down and shake the coins from your pockets because we all know the rich guys are going to win.

New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago. Wow, big surprise. Is anybody taking any bets for next year when Jones, Hunter, et al jump on the large-market gravy train and make the situation even more lopsided, pitting grown men on the major market squads against the minor-league youngsters the less fortunate are reduced to using?

And to make matters worse, only the richest can afford the cream of the international imports. Even the amateur draft, where small-market clubs are reduced to drafting only players they could afford and are compelled to stay away from the clients of blood-sucking agents like Scott Boras. It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better as the ability to compete slowly drains from all but a handful.

And now, enjoy your playoff party, but check out that sandwich bread. It’s likely to be a whole lot better than the junk that surrounds the $8 stadium hot dogs.