Saturday, November 22, 2008

WE WILL SURVIVE, I HOPE

The cow is giving kerosene,
Kids can't read at seventeen,
The words he knows are all obscene,
But it's all right.
I will get by. I will get by. I will get by.
I will survive.

So wrote my all-time favorite songwriter Robert Hunter, for my all-time favorite band, the Grateful Dead. The song – A Touch of Grey – doesn't perfectly echo my inner feelings about what's transpiring around us, but it's appropriate.

I present it to you alongside the knowledge that The Herald, unless it's sold by our parent corporation, the Journal Register Company, will cease operation on Jan. 12. The same fate awaits The Bristol Press and many of the weeklies surrounding Hartford that have been disseminating our local news.

The Herald and The Press, two grand old ladies who have walked hand-in-hand with people west of Hartford for 130 or so years, have been given their last rites. Unless another company with deep pockets and foresight can interpret that their legacy should live on, important voices will be silenced.

Why the demise? It's heartbreaking for me to say this but our world has become one of instant gratification. People want to know right away and they want it delivered in a short sentence or two. Flashes on the internet or television suffice. Hmmm, is this why text messaging has become so popular? People using their thumbs to tap out abbreviated words that convey instant messages, never taking the time to learn how to read, never taking the time to learn how to spell.

That's their life, and I'm sure they'll be the worse for it. That’s only one reason. There are others. But regardless of why, New Britain and Bristol will surely be the worse for not having detailed local news at their fingertips, even if it isn't carried by an electronic messenger in broken phrases and doesn't reach you in a moment's notice.

We have witnessed how the latent, pernicious human trait of greed has permeated our society, greater than any society in the past. We've seen how the soulless Satans who run the Enrons of the world put their own excesses ahead of the hard-working couple trying desperately to finance their golden years. We've watched helplessly as board-room greed has invaded the once unfettered world of sports. Greed mongers, who have reached their sinister fingers into our pockets in trying to pluck our last nickel, have even pirated our games of leisure.

They will all suffer for their sins. I hope we survive long enough to run their obituaries.

If indeed this is the end, I want to tell you how exciting and satisfying it has been to serve you at both of these newspapers since 1991 – to inform you in what I hope was an entertaining manner. I truly hope that I become blessed with another forum in which to do so until these fingers can no longer slide across the keyboard and this mind can no longer describe and interpret what these eyes see.

Some will say that’s already happened, but I digress.

I thank you for inviting me into your homes, allowing me to stimulate your thought, permitting me access to your wonderful children, many of whom have gone on to make all of us proud and our world a better place. Let us pray that our newspapers are not silenced. For the good of everybody who lives from Terryville to Rocky Hill, from Windsor Locks to Southington, that the original mission of our newspapers survive.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

AM I BLOGGING YET?

Okay, okay. I keep hearing from computer-savvy colleagues and friends that I just don't get it about blogging. I'll admit it. I don't get it. I write columns instead of blogs, tales from the crypt like the ones that grissled veterans of the written word produced for papers when I was young.

It figures because I'm stuck in the past. I'll admit that, too. I listen to the music of my youth -- the Grateful Dead, Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Tull, CSN & Y. I prefer the films of Hollywood's Golden Era, which means I only stop on movies that are black and white -- your grandparents may remember the stars -- Cagney, Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable.

I can't begin to comprehend the value of rap music, hip hop or contemporary rock. They sing of hate. We always preferred songs of love. I don't want to see special effects. I want to see great acting and well-written stories (although Charlie Wilson's War was cool. Friday Night Lights and We Are Marshall, too.).

I read books about baseball in the 19th Century (that's the 1800s). For those who would like to know, I'm currently reading "Rothstein," a book about Arnold Rothstein, a powerful NYC gambler who fixed the 1919 World Series that evolved into the Black Sox Scandal.

My favorite places: The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y; Sturbridge Village; Plimouth Plantation; the Basketball Hall of Fame; the Pro Football Hall of Fame. You could have guessed that.

I'll admit it, I'm damned proud of it and I'm not going to change. I'm a stick-in-the-mud, but the mud can be cool on a hot day. I'm Living in the Past (Jethro Tull, 1971). I'm a fuddy-duddy. I'm trying to re-live a misspent youth. Guilty, on all counts.

Let's see, what do I see when I read the legitmate blogs that proliferate on the internet?

Some writers enjoy predicting the outcome of games. Sorry, I don't get a kick out of that. I don't go in for gambling and don't profess to be the world's greatest prognisticator or sports savant. I don't look at how many points a team's getting before the game so I obviously don't care. I love the games in their purest forms, even hockey.

What I know best are state high school sports (fall and winter only) and the Rock Cats. That's what I've covered for the last 12 years. Those of the areas I research and follow. Those are the sports scenes I feel most comfortable and knowledgeable writing about.

I don't believe in publicly predicting high school football games. My philosophy is that high school sports, first and foremost, are vehicles for our youngsters to learn valuable lessons about life. It isn't going to do the kids from a winless football team any good if they read where I said they're going to lose Friday night. The kids have enough on their plate for me to make them feel any worse about being 0-8. The idea is to prepare them, through sports, about the complex nature of surviving 80 or more years on Planet Earth.

With the Rock Cats, few actually follow minor league baseball like they do other sports. Even the major league teams' reasons for having minor league affiliates don't start with winning. Player development is the only reason the Rock Cats are here, and while winning and development go hand-in-hand, the parent Minnesota Twins are far more pleased that they've developed former Cats like Nick Blackburn, Scott Baker, Alexi Casilla and Denard Span than they are about New Britain making the playoffs in 2003. The unique essence of minor league baseball neither diminishes its importance nor challenges its vibrancy across the width and breadth of "The Fruited Plain," as my great predecessor at The Herald Bart Fisher so eloquently calls it.

I could do what other bloggers do if it's something you'd like to see, like telling you about my Saturday evening at the Platt High gym, writing about the CCC Volleyball Tournament final between Southington and Farmington. I enjoyed the match, always love chatting with two great coaches, teachers and people in FHS' Laura Arena and SHS' Rich Heitz and enjoyed the camaraderie of my wife Lisa, two cherished collegues in Tiffany Ventura (Meriden Record Journal) and John Goralski (Southington Observer) and the many friends I saw from the two towns we cover.

Lisa and I ate at Dominic and Vinnie's Pizza Restaurant on Meriden Road in Southington. Very good. I can't believe I ate the whole thing. I got home in time to watch the end of a very entertaining college football game in which Texas Tech upset Texas. When are they going to put in a playoff system anyway?

So, am I blogging yet?

Friday, October 31, 2008

HOW GRANDPA WOULD HAVE SEEN IT

There he was, sitting there, my blue couch discernible through his apparition. It was my grandpa, Julius Lipshez, my father's father.

Julie, as his nephews and cousins called him, came to the U.S. in about 1900 at 13 from the Ukraine. He died in the early 1970s while arguing vehemently with SNET about a telephone bill. Yes, there are many who knew us both that say I'm a chip off the old block.

Grandpa, who attended the 1926 World Series game when a hung over Grover Cleveland Alexander closed the Series for the Cardinals against his beloved Yanks, came back to ask me some questions about sports. Perhaps the internet has finally made its way to heaven. Lord knows it's been to hell and back countless times.

Which provides an interesting segue for the reason of his visit. Julie didn't say anything. He just handed me a sheet of paper with the following comments and questions, folded his arms and waited for answers.

1) It costs how much to see a baseball game these days? Why I could never have taken your Dad to the Polo Grounds when he was a boy with me working as a laborer in the textile industry. And if I hadn't taken him, would you have ever developed your love for sports? Would you be writing sports right now? It's a good thing your Grandma was understanding as it was.

2) The Red Sox won 2 World Series in 3 years? What the heck is that all about? Who's cheating down there? Well at least they never won again in my lifetime. Heck, your dad was a year old when they had last won in 1918. Boy, I'd like to thank them for Babe Ruth though. He was fun to watch when I'd take the train to NYC.

3) I was looking at the NHL standings. Now you know our family was never much into mathematics but can you please tell me how the teams collectively have more wins than losses? Every time somebody wins, somebody has to lose, right? Grandson, when did that change? Has this politically correct bourgeois I keep hearing about really taken root in sports?

4) What on earth is going on in colleges these days? I was a heck of an athlete in my day. I told you the stories how I wrestled, and I don't mean that Gorgeous George crap on the television. Legitimate wrestling. Now they're dishing out scholarships to guys who can't even read just because they can play basketball or football and attract big crowds? If I had that opportunity, you wouldn't be struggling to make ends meet right now. I'll tell you that. That great-grandson of mine living under your roof would be getting a college education instead of having to struggle like his great-grandpa.

I remember when some Yale kids boldly challenged some Harvard kids in a few sports like football and baseball. It was all in great fun. I remember going over there to see it from time to time. Yale was a great sports college. Would still be, I reckon, if corruption and greed hadn't consumed the sports world. Where's Grantland Rice when you need him, son. four Horsemen of Notre Dame. Aah, those were the days. I could still smell the wet grass on a fall afternoon at Yale Bowl ... and what's this about you not even playing on grass anymore? What's that plastic stuff all about?

5) When are you fellas going to come up with a better way to report sports than that ESPN? Who do they think they are with their irreverent junk? If they want to be comedians, have them see Milton Berle. How about giving us the scores and who hit the home runs without their idiotic commentary.

6) One last thing, grandson, and it's not about sports, it's about newspapers. I've been looking at all the papers down there and see that this African-American Obama is running for president. That's fine, but I can't seem to find any articles on who he's running against.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A SATURDAY FOR THE SPIRIT

The day brimmed with a spirit that suggested a zest for life. The French call it "joie de vivre" and that sums it up succinctly.

Vin Lavorgna, my buddy since the blissful days of childhood in Hamden, followed his heart. His love of the outdoors directed him toward forestry, which led him to West Virginia University, where he earned his degree and met his wife Janet. He runs Brooksvale Park on the Hamden-Cheshire line, a pastoral snapshot of diverse natural beauty.

On Saturday, the Lavorgnas and an able crew of part-timers and volunteers staged Brooksvale's annual Fall Festival. Children enjoyed nature-related activities and presentations. Adults enjoyed live, family-style music, food and a healthy dose of camraderie.

The foods, friends and music of my youth put my wife Lisa and I in the right spirit for what was to follow. The Brooksvale crew cleaned up the remnants of a long, enjoyable day of reveries and convened at the barn where the post-festival party began.

Janet has such joie de vivre that she could probably breathe life into a corpse. She sings in a band called Blue Trail, which plays a conglomerate of music inspired by folk, bluegrass and some classic rock that can be traced to the Grateful Dead.

Dale Long (no relation to the late ex-Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman who once hit 8 homers in 8 games) writes songs, strums his electric folk guitar and sings. Carl Legere plays lead guitar and sings. Janet sings and plays some guitar and fiddle. Dale's wife Cindy sings some lead and does wonderful harmonies.

Blue Trail (www.bluetrail.com) played a set during the day at the festival but that joie de vivre (enhanced by a few adult cocktails) enabled them to overcome any fatigue and they began strumming away in the barn. Their kids played blissfully. Their happy-go-lucky dog Jazz strolled in and out collecting pets and whatever morsels people may have dropped.

Dave DiMartino of North Haven, one of Vin's part-timers who doubles as a high school football and basketball official, brought his unique brand of joie de vivre. He cleaned up, he joined in the singing (a lyrical linesman?) and never stopped smiling.

Outside the barn, a campfire raged, warming the hearts and souls of folks who told some jokes and did some singing of their own.

Why do I bring it up? Everybody has parties, but it had such special meaning for me. I ran into so many people from my hometown who I hadn't seen in half a lifetime, something not everybody is fortunate enough to do.

The day started well, too. I was invited to the New Britain Sports Hall of Fame breakfast at Angelico's Restaurant to engage in a different kind of joie de vivre.

Dennis Beatty, the New Britain policeman and backbone of the renowned PAL Raiders Youth Football program, joined us. How many kids do you figure he's whisked off the streets and sent in the right direction through football? Enough to fill the grandstands at New Britain Stadium perhaps?

Bill Huber, the force behind the organization (www.NewBritainSportsHallofFame.com) since the passing of the legendary Don Clerkin, has captured the secret of staying young. Beatty and Huber are indeed inspirations in their respective endeavors.

My only regret was that I missed John Campanello's Wethersfield football team beating Windsor, which would have fanned the flames of my spirit in yet another way, but this was an autumn Saturday to remember. It reinforced something I already knew very well -- I have some great friends.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

I'M WITH YOU, COACH CAP

The dark side of the internet has cast its nefarious shadow on The Herald, its readers and one of the finest high school football coaches I've known in my 17 years of sports reporting.

For those who aren't familiar with the issue, it begins with the tragic and rare downfall of one of our local athletes.

Ryan Molloy was a terrific football player for Berlin High and head coach John Capodice. He was arrested for possession of cocaine and drunken driving early Sunday morning.

The Herald offers readers an opportunity to respond to articles online and a coward delivered some idiotic remarks posing as Coach Capodice. Naturally, subsequent readers assumed that it was indeed the coach who filed the crude email and let some more terrible remarks fly about the coach's character.

Capodice and his undefeated Redcoats were in the midst of their final practice before Friday's huge Nutmeg League game against Rocky Hill when all this came down. When he returned home and caught wind of it, he sent me a series of emails that indicated just how upset he is. He sent an email to The Herald's website to describe his feelings for Molloy and what he's about to endure.

This opens up several issues. Generally, this whole internet thing scares me more and more every day. The cyberworld, as wonderful as it is for research and communication, is cheapened by a lawless frontier that allows the scum of the world to fester in their anonymous glory. That is a deep and disturbing issue that I can only hope someday will be resolved. A few rotten apples spoil what should be a tremendous asset for us all.

Then there's the coach, who spends so much of his time way beyond what he's compensated to help boys become men. In nearly every case, he succeeds, which gives him a hell of a winning percentage. Even those who may have a problem with his coaching or teaching style or something he's done or the importance placed in sports by our society, it can't be denied that he's a pillar of the community. How unfortunate that he should have to undergo this scrutiny and abuse.

Finally, there's Ryan Molloy.

Good kids do bad things for any number of reasons. I have known Ryan in passing and written about him extensively. What he's done tends to make him out to be a villain but I hope we can give him the benefit of the doubt until we determine what turned him to alcohol and drugs.

I'm no psychologist and surely not a social worker, but I care about the kids I've covered and I'm not turning my back on Ryan. I truly wish there was something I could do to help him. I have faith that he can learn a lesson from this mess and become a productive human being as he grows into adulthood.

I just can't figure out contemporary society. We have a list of all these riduculous politically incorrect things that used to be okay but can't be whispered anymore without somebody getting bent out of control, yet we haven't come close to having the common sense to keep from hurting each other for no good reason.

I hope we have the resources to find the lowlife who misrepresented Coach Capodice and punish that person to the full extent of what the law allows. If the person was too slick or simply can't be found or can't be prosecuted, I hope the person's conscience inflicts a lifetime's worth of guilt.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

EVENT SETS PLAINVILLE APART

Byron J. Treado III had a vision.

The “Forever Plainville” sportsman/banker anticipated a yearly evening of fellowship, revelry, nostalgia and fine dining where the people of his sports-loving community could honor those who left a legacy on the fields, in the gymnasiums and the pool at the high school.

Treado’s brainchild – the Plainville Sports Hall of Fame Induction Dinner – celebrated its 10th anniversary in grand style Saturday night with a packed house at Nuchie’s Restaurant in Forestville a stirring testament to its popularity.

The Class of 2008 befits the milestone.

James Tufts (’59) played on the state championship basketball team in 1958-59 and continued to nourish the community as a teacher and coach. Kevin Beaudin (’81) was an All-State baseball player under coach Ron Jones and went on to play for Jones at Eastern Connecticut State University.

Peter Van Zandt (’85) and his sister Amy Van Zandt (’89) set multiple swimming records that remain posted on the wall at the pool. Gregory Henry (’76) starred for the Blue Devils in football, basketball and track before heading to Dartmouth.

Lou Mandeville Jr. (’85) spent 18 years as baseball coach Bob Freimuth’s assistant and 10 seasons assisting his wife Lisa, who retired as girls basketball coach after last season. Matt Buckler (’70) received the John E. Toffolon Memorial Distinguished Service Award for his commitment to PHS sports through a prominent career in local media.

Many towns and cities have Halls of Fame. New Britain’s has to rank as one of the best anywhere. Wethersfield and Rocky Hill started theirs in recent years. To the best of my knowledge, the other local towns have yet to turn the key to their own rich heritage because they need somebody to take them by the hand.

Inevitably, some will take the efforts put forth by community-minded folks like Treado for granted. The domains of local sports and history will wed only in certain hearts and Plainville has benefited greatly from Treado’s devotion and meticulous administration.

Peter Van Zandt captured the essence of Treado’s passion in one sentence when he said about the honor bestowed upon him, “The more I read about it, the more I understood what it all meant.”

Peter discovered the importance of strengthening the bonds that link the generations of a community; that they can revive the spirit and enhance the lives of the folks who have lived there. Such factors have great motivation for Treado as he goes through the painstaking preparation for the event year in and year out.

For example, when the honorees arrived Saturday, Treado took their photos, had them processed promptly and returned to the hall, slipped them into custom-made plaques for presentation after dinner. Since the actual plaques go on display in a wing near Ivan Wood Gymnasium, these photo-plaques allow the honorees to go home with a palpable memory of the evening.

Then there’s the dinner itself. Treado could barely savor his baked stuffed shrimp because of the brush fires that kept popping up. Ten people who hadn’t made plans to attend walked through the door during cocktail hour and Treado somehow had to expand the capacity of a room that was already pretty full.

Of course he got it done.

But Treado would be uneasy for any attention placed on him. One last item on Plainville’s Great Organizer is that next year will be his last as chairman of the committee. He seems relatively sure that others will pick up the ball and run with it.

First on the docket for enshrinement was Mandeville. He requested the first slot so his yawning boy Tyler could watch Dad receive the honor before heading off to slumber.

Lisa, enshrined herself in 2006, presented Lou with the award after Jones read a robust four-page greeting from Freimuth, also a 2006 inductee who was out of town for the event.
Said Lisa, her voice cracking with the same emotion that we will always remember as she slapped those patent leathers on the gym floor to get her players’ attention: “Whether it was I or Freem receiving the accolades, Lou never said a word. Lou is my Hall of Famer.”

Buckler, a longtime sports writer at the Manchester Journal Inquirer and the public address voice at several state auto racing venues, brought the house down with self-deprecating humor that had the assemblage roaring with laughter.

“Who was the best athlete in the history of this school? Was it John Gacek or Steve Vargo? Was it Earle Jackson or Bill Lasher? Was it Tim Graney or Niko Koutouvides? The arguments go on and on,” Buckler began.

“But there is no argument who the worst athlete in the history of the school is. Right here.”
He went on to poke fun at himself as the tackling dummy holder in football, foul ball chaser in baseball and charged with making sure his brother got to practice on time in basketball.

“The records I hold,” he continued. “Least amount of chin-ups done in four years. Zero. It’s a record that will never be broken. … In gym class we had to run the mile. I hold the record with a 4:17 – four days and 17 hours. I was gone so long they thought I dropped out of high school.”

Buckler then received citations from the State Legislature and Governor M. Jody Rell, courtesy of Plainville State Representative Betty Boukus. Buckler, primarily an entertainment page editor at the J-I but still active covering local sports, was genuinely touched.

But it all goes back to Treado. From nostalgic tears shed to wonderful memories relived and the guffaws during Buckler’s performance, none would have filled the room at Nuchie’s and so many hearts had it not been for his effort.

Every town should have such a person who gives of himself so its sports legacy can flourish for future generations to cherish. It helps make Plainville anything but plain.

Friday, October 3, 2008

CCC STILL DELIBERATING ON CHANGES

The CCC deliberated on Thursday but did not make any official decisions on whether or not to add Rocky Hill and Tolland or how to cut up the soon-to-be 32-school league into divisions.

The decisions are likely to be made at the next meeting in mid-October.

One of the divisions reportedly placed on the table would include the following: Farmington; New Britain; Southington; Newington; Conard; Hall; Northwest Catholic; Simsbury. Another would probably link the two Bristol schools, the two Meriden schools, Plainville, Berlin, Rocky Hill and perhaps Weaver.

One rumor suggests that Windsor and Bloomfield would just as soon be grouped together and with schools east of the Connecticut River. That sounds logical seeing that those schools would use I-291 to cross the river rather than having to muddle through Hartford trafic on I-84.

Another thought was that Middletown could also be grouped with schools to the east since it readily can use the Arregony Bridge to Portland.

The committee will almost surely create one set of divisions for football and another for the other sports in which all 32 schools participate. Sports in which participation isn't total, like field hockey, ice hockey, swimming and gymnastics, will adjust accordingly.

Another rumor floating around is that Avon expressed some late interest but including a 33rd team does not appear to be an option. With the situation in Hartford so tenuous and changeable, perhaps Avon would be put on a waiting list until something happens.

Judging by the way the Sheff v. O'Neill lawsuit has ravaged sports in the city, anything can happen. Sports and Medical Sciences Academy will open a brand new building just south of Dillon Stadium as early as next year. Who knows what change that will bring.

The feeling here is that the committee is on the right track. There is no possible way of pleasing everybody. Commissioner John Tarnuzzer, the league's athletic directors and its policy board (principals) should be given plenty of credit for acting decisively so as not to adversely affect the student-athletes. This is an extremely difficult set of circumstances that will make for some exciting developments in high school sports in this region.

With the exploding cost of attending professional and major college sports and the state of the economy, sports fans can do a lot worse than considering some of the local contests to satisfy their cravings for competition. The schedule is filled with exciting clashes in each and every sport.

In some cases the games are free; in others there is a nominal fee which goes toward the programs, which are in need of financial support. Think about where a dollar spent at a high school games goes as opposed to those spent at the heavy-handed professional and major college games. Do yourself a favor and support your local high school teams.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

NB FOOTBALL, BERLIN SPIKERS IMPRESSIVE

A week is in the books for HS sports so here are some observations from what I've seen and heard.

On the football front, New Britain isn't getting much respect from around the state based on its past performance but this year's team is deep in talent. How it maifests itself remains to be seen but coach Paul Morrell has size, speed, experience in key spots and an embarassing wealth of offensive talent.

The five-point margin of victory against Conard doesn't truly tell the story. When the chips were down, the 'Canes took command and held a 24-13 lead late in the game that looked like it would stand. A blocked punt led to Conard's late score, and the Chieftains could have put themselves in a position for a dramatic comeback win if the ensuing onside kick had bounced their way.

The 'Canes went to the air early, exploiting the depth and talent they possess in their wide receiving corps.

It's easy to look at the name "Tebucky Jones Jr." and surmise that any son of the former NBHS, Syracuse and New England Patriots star would have to be the second coming. But Jones the Junior should be respected in his own right. He's explosive, elusive and has that intangible quality that the great athletes have. He had the wherewithal to snag what proved to be the winning touchdown pass as he lay flat on his back in the end zone. He was also effective on the end sweep.

QB Rafal Garcarz, a junior now in his third year as a varsity starter (freshman starter at St. Paul), has other go-to guys on the outside. Tarik Hightower and Markeith Cirenna were effective against Conard. Speedsters Selwyn Cartie and Chris Linares, presently concentrating on their defensive assignments as cover corners, can be used in Morrell's spread when he chooses to leave an empty backfield.

I have seen two volleyball matches thus far and came away impressed with both Berlin and Southington.

Berlin whipped a talented, well-coached Avon team three straight on the road in a brand, new gymnasium. Outside hitter Katelyn Zarotney, Herald athlete of the week, may be the top female athlete in the area this season. As it is with Tebucky Jr., she has that Larry Bird quality of savoir-faire (that's roughly translated as 'know how' but it sounds so elegant in French). She can hit them hard, but she has a knack for hitting 'em where they ain't.

But Berlin also has a deep, experienced group with Sarah Byrnes, Lindsay Roeder, setter Erica Bukowski and Krystie Luczynski. Byrnes has the benefit of playing with the Berlin basketball team that made a dramatic run in the postseason last year. She knows how to win.

Defensive specialists Carina D’Amato and Francesca Pedemonti are relative newcomers to varsity play who are learning quickly from their veteran teammates.

Southington exhibited a well-balanced attack force in ending nine years of frustration against Bristol Eastern.

The Eastern defense could not focus on any one SHS hitter because spikes were coming from nearly every place on the floor. Lexie Broytman, a 6-1 junior, led the way but Katie Byrnes, Liz Nichols, Lauren Bauchiero and Elyse St. Amand all smashed away at the Lancers' defense.

The Lancers had won 15 straight matches against Southington, several which SHS coach Rich Heitz recalls like they happened yesterday, but the Blue Knights weren't riding any waves of emotion. With setter Rachel Volpe guiding the way, they methodically turned back an Eastern squad that had been to the Class L finals three consecutive years and walked away with two titles.

But the pendulum swings at most smaller public schools when it comes to prolonged success and Eastern coach Stacy Rivoira has to bring together an inexperienced group if the Lancers are to retain their lofty spot in CT volleyball circles this season.

See you at the game.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

WHO'S GOT THE POWER?

The match between Farmington and Glastonbury featured perhaps the most crisp high school soccer I've ever seen. Unfortunately, the big crowd that rolled into Tunxis Mead and parked it at Al Bell Field did not get to see it come to a conclusion.

With 12:35 remaining in a 1-1 battle, a power surge put out half the lights that so brilliantly illuminate one of the best soccer fields in the state. The lights gradually came back, but with the 8 p.m. start, the hour at 10 and the scoreboard out of commission, the contest was suspended until today at 5:30.

Nevertheless, the play exhibited the kind of electricity that no surge could extinguish.

Farmington scored first on a little free-kick trickery when Alex Ayer leaped over the ball and Spencer Noon hit it perfectly from 25 yards out to beat Adam LaPlaca, surely among the state's best goalkeepers, to the left corner.

Glastonbury countered with just 10 seconds remaining in the first half. When I tell you Glastonbury forward Giuseppe Panajia is fast, that four-letter word doesn't convey the picture. He gets his feet moving so quickly that it resembles the circular buzzsaw that the roadrunner displays on that famous old cartoon when Wile E. Coyote gets a little too close.

Panajia, who scored the tying goal on a through-ball from Trevor Constantine, mixed a heap of determination into his runs as the top-ranked Tomahawks tried to draw even over the chorus of "Over-rated" from FHS students. I admire the kids' school spirit but I wouldn't say Glastonbury is overrated.

Panajia, by the way, was the lad who ended Farmington's tournament run prematurely last year when he scored in the second overtime to give his side a 1-0 win at the Mead.

Nor would I say Farmington is. The Indians are ranked fifth, and they were very impressive, too. With Noon's talents very well-documented in The Herald, among others who caught my eye were Ayer, sophomore Kevin Michalak and active goalkeeper Josh Kulak. I thought Farmington coach Steve Waters had his boys in midseason form.

Getting back to the power problem, it was disturbing that the teams had to go through this suspension. The Glastonbury people voiced their irritation with the facility, which was probably stated out of big-game tension. I also heard a game administrator mention that the lights had not been tested prior to the game.

The lights came on during the girls game, which started at about 6 p.m. they had been on for about two hours when the scene dimmed. Perhaps if they were tested beforehand the problem could have been avoided. With well over 1,000 in attendance, it was a "brown-eye" that the town didn't need.

But kilowatts aside, it was a marvelous match to begin Farmington's transition into the more competitive world of the Central Connecticut Conference. And while Waters' Indians may not run off their usual 16-2 or 17-1 this year, they will certainly be more prepared for the rigorous Class LL tournament, the only level at which Waters hasn't won in his illustrious quarter-century guiding the team.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

HS SPORTS, HERE WE COME

With the Eastern League season over and the Rock Cats tucked in for the offseason, I've swung back to high school sports coverage.

The first hurdle is the largest -- previews.

When done correctly, previews make a lot of readers happy and serve as a great reference for me for the course of the season and even into the next season. Doing previews gives me a great chance to talk to coaches. Some of them are hard to reach because they're so busy so I usually end up spending a lot of time waiting for the phone to ring.

That's why they're no fun. As soon as you step out, the phone starts to ring. But our coaches are generally great folks who dedicate so much time toward the development of our student-athletes with very little financial gain.

In recent years, I've previewed boys and girls soccer along with a couple of football teams. In football, I've talked extensively with Southington coach Bill Mella and New Britain's Paul Morrell. Both guys are terrific people with nothing but the best interests in mind for their athletes. Both have a chance for tremendous seasons.

Southington has a chance to strike a blow for much-maligned CT HS football when the Blue Knights travel to Giants Stadium to take on Bergen Catholic. Mella tells me that Bergen draws students to the school from all over the country. Aficionados of national HS football know that Bergen ranks right up there with the best. The Knights have their hands full. It's a very ambitious challenge.

New Britain has a massive front line, an experienced quarterback and plenty of speed, including Tebucky Jones Jr. Morrell has also secured a grant under the Play It Smart program to help address his players' academic issues. Keeping his kids on the field by educating them about the importance of studying and earning good grades is vital to New Britain's success. Last year, grades came out before the big game against Southington and the Hurricanes were just a shell of what they could have been. Hurricane super-booster Craig Johnson is on the job, aiding the players with their studies.

On the soccer scene, excitement reigns.

There are so many fabulous female soccer stars in the area: Blair Ferry of Berlin; Jewel Robinson and Bonnie Boornazian of Farmington; Annie Freer, Alexis Braziel and Shauna Edwards of Southington; Heather Lyhne and young Alex DeCaro of Wethersfield. All of those teams are capable of making deep tournament runs.

On the boys side, kudos to Farmington coach Steve Waters, who will be honoring local soccer legends at his home games. More to come on that. The Indians move to the CCC and their schedule is very difficult. Imagine, starting with Glastonbury and Simsbury.

Look for major improvement at Plainville. Tim Brown is in his second year there and he has the program on solid ground. The Blue Devils have a chance to leave years of struggle behind them and should make the tournament this year.

Wethersfield coach Rob Jachym has some rebuilding to do but he's got some talented players in the middle of the field. His team is already iimproving in leaps and bounds as the preseason plays out.

Other sports will be interesting, too. Volleyball, field hockey, swimming, cross country. Get out there and see some games. These kids deserve your support.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

REMINISCING ON MY SPECIAL DAY

I just read my friend and colleague Scott Whipple’s exceptional piece in today’s Herald (Aug. 19) on the nostalgia that captivates him when a new bank opens.

It just so happens that Scott picked my birthday, number 56, on which to write the kind of story that has made him a beloved local legend in our little corner of the world. Between his quotation from “It’s a Wonderful Life” – you remember, an emotional, young Jimmy Stewart, a breathtakingly beautiful Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore’s classic old miser – and my milestone, it got me to waxing nostalgic.

I remember when my Dad got up into his late 70s and 80s that all he wanted to talk about was his past. We had heard the stories so many times but we rarely interrupted him as he painted vivid pictures about a kinder, gentler New Haven, summers at Momauguin (East Haven shoreline) and World War II’s European theater.

I find myself traveling the same path as I reminisce about my 56 years. Almost everything seems to focus on the past, partly because that’s what folks my age tend to do and partly because present trends disturb me.

With the Rock Cats on the road for 12 days, it was the perfect time for Lisa (Mrs. Sportswriter, the best companion a person can have) and me to hit the vacation trail. We’re not the European jet-set type, mind you. Gas prices be damned, we love to hit the road, hug the country lanes instead of the interstates and wind up well off the beaten path where we can discover what’s left of America’s true warmth.

We went to Old Forge, N.Y. Where, you say? Old Forge is a nice destination for folks from Syracuse and Rochester but virtually unheard of this far away. It’s nestled in the southwest corner of the Adirondack Park, a 6-million acre chunk of New York State that President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed, “Forever Wild” during his legendary administration over a century ago.

We cruised on a small U.S. mailboat on the pristine Fulton Chain of Lakes. We shopped at the hardware store that resembled something out of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry. We drove through Blue Mountain Lake, the quaint town of Inlet and past expansive Raquette Lake, far enough from the commercial urban sprawl that has framed our generation.

On the way back, Lisa graciously allowed me to make my biannual pilgrimage to Cooperstown, the home of the game that has shaped my life. We also went to Howe Caverns – my third visit but Lisa’s first. It will never get tired to jump into an elevator, descend 155 feet into the earth and exit in a 52-degree world of stalactites and stalagmites.

We capped it off by attending the Vintage Base Ball World Series, a recreation of the game as it was in the 1980s, trimmed with plenty of extras to freeze an American scene of long ago.

Nostalgia. Scottie? Lisa? I guess it’s just what old folks do. And at 56, with an aching back, an expanding waist line and a love for what used to be, I certainly qualify.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

PC POLICE INVADE LITTLE LEAGUE DREAM

Little League, like so much in America these days, has been swept up in a wave of political correctness that gives credence to the oft-discussed notion that adults can sure make a mess out of a beautiful children’s game.

It was tragic that professional baseball has gotten so caught up in the inanity of the pitch-count limit. The way I see it, some pitchers have great mechanics and as they go through a successful game should not be governed by how many pitches they’ve thrown.

At least among the pros, intercession is based on the philosophy of the organization as interpreted by pitching coaches who have dedicated their lives to the craft.

In Little League, under the premise that kids’ arms need to be protected, an 85-pitch limit has been imposed. Now this is nothing that just came about. It’s just that I hadn’t seen a Little League game in awhile until I covered the New England Regional championship Saturday in which Shelton edged Manchester, N.H., 2-1, in a thrilling contest that went down to the final pitch.

So at 85 pitches, it is deemed dangerous for a boy to continue pitching. When he hits 85, he can finish throwing to the batter he’s facing, then must be replaced on the mound.

Has anybody ever proven that the reason for so many arm injuries for pitchers at every level can be correlated with how many pitches are thrown? It’s utter nonsense. Common sense should take precedent. When a coach can see that a pitcher is laboring, it’s time to come out. That’s where injury may occur. It could be 50 pitches for one and 150 for another.

And who determined that throwing extra pitches wouldn't strengthen somebody's arm instead of risking it to injury? Do weight-lifters bench-press fewer times as they seek to tighten their muscles? Do milers run fewer laps when they try to cut their time?

The problem lies in mechanics, not repetitions. Throwing a baseball with an overhand motion goes against the natural movements of the elbow and shoulder joints. If the process is done in an overly violent manner, or a pitcher resorts to twisting and contorting his arm to make pitches move, that’s where injuries occur. When he uses his whole body and learns the proper angles, he's less likely to suffer injury.

The idea that young pitchers should not throw curveballs is more appropriate thinking. A curveball, when thrown properly, shouldn’t damage young arms, but can be devastating when thrown improperly. Now, how many Little League coaches are adept at teaching kids to throw curveballs properly?

I recall one issue when I was covering Little League extensively corroborates my opinion. An 11-year old kid was the ace of his staff as his team tore through the local district playoffs. The team battled its way through the sectionals and states to earn a berth in the Eastern Regionals.

The team fell just short of its Williamsport goal. The pitcher in question never surfaced again. He never pitched high school ball. His pitching days were over. I remember that his tremendous success was based on his curveball. His arm never recovered, and it wasn’t because he went over 85 pitches.

Little League is intrinsically magnificent. The game of baseball is divine no matter what level it’s being played. But for heaven’s sake, let the kids play. They need to be protected from the adults more than from any aspect of the game.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

MORE PRESS BOX BANTER

I dedicated my previous blog to the Rock Cats press box. It was very late and I left out some very important people and things that you should know.

Let’s start with Dan Lovallo. Dan has become a well-known radio personality over the years, first in Torrington and later in the Hartford area on WDRC. Some of you may know him from his entertaining conservative talk show on WDRC-1360 from 3 to 6 p.m. on weekdays.

But in sports circles, Dan has been sitting in with Rock Cats voice Jeff Dooley for nine years. Dan’s one of the nicest, gentlest people I’ve ever known. He can be one of your best friends but don’t start the relationship with any liberal talking points or anti-Yankee chatter. The Pinstripers can do no wrong in Dan’s book, and they always lead the sports report on his talk show. And God help Nancy Pelosi if she ever comes to Hartford.

I won’t hold that any of that against him (particular his conservative bent). He’s a classy man.

Which leads us to Dooley, or Dools as his friends call him. Dools has been telling folks about the Rock Cats for 11 seasons now. He never misses a game. Nothing can keep one of Rhode Island’s finest from his perch in the press box, no matter where the Rock Cats roam.

As I type in the comfort of my own home This fine Thursday morning, Dools is bouncing around in the Rock Cats bus, off on a 12-day road trip that will take him to Bowie, Md.; Erie, Pa; and Akron, Ohio. That means time away from his wonderful wife Marne and the cutest and smartest little guy I know, apple of his grandpa's eye, Master Joe Dooley.

What a sight it is to see Little Joe sitting on a high stool in the press box, listening intently to Dad doing his postgame wrap. Dools says Joe complains to Mom in the car when she listens to music. “Put Dad on!” are his implicit instructions.

If Joe should decide to become a sportscaster, that would make three in the family. Marne’s brother is Don Orsillo, a man who has the ear of Red Sox Nation on television along with Jerry Remy. Now there’s a sports family! Poor Marne.

There are others in the press box who make going there seem like anything but work. Luke Pawlak deftly handles the technical operation of the incredible video board that captures everybody’s attention with a plethora of movie clips and contemporary stuff like Simpsons and Sponge Bob Square Pants. I can’t convince him to run any shots of Bogart, Cagney or Greta Garbo. I also can't convince him that baseball is so much better than soccer. Beckham could never hit the curveball, Luke.

Then there’s Manny, the video recording guru. That’s not his real name. The guy just resembles Manny Ramirez so closely – dreadlocks, dark complexion, round face, omnipresent smile – that everybody just calls him Manny. I haven’t met anybody yet who knows his real name. The big difference between Ramirez and our Manny is that the Rock Cats would never trade him to L.A.

If there is a better PA announcer than Don Steele of WCCC FM fame, please introduce him (or her) to me. Don’s familiar voice fills the air, just drawing in everybody within earshot because of his vast expertise in his field. He handles the 3-inch think script that gets plopped on his table every night. How he squeezes in all that stuff, I’ll never know, but trust me, he squeezes it in. I know better than anybody because he is right behind me.

Mike Torres has been a press-box staple for more than a decade, handling sound effects. You know, when a batter walks and you hear the country song, “Big Wheels Rollin.” Or when he wants to get the crowd going, it’s that old Cab Calloway gem, “Heidi Heidi Ho.” I’m still trying to steal his music and replace it with Grateful Dead but there’s always somebody watching.

So there you have it, the reasons why I love going to Rock Cats games, except for when somebody starts a rally at deadline time or the crack waitress staff totes up dinner with cheese on it. Darryl, Jamie – hold the cheese, if you please.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A PRESS BOX BLOG

I’m still trying to get the hang of this blogging stuff.

I’ve been reading those written by some of my colleagues in New Britain and around professional baseball and it’s a lot more casual than most of the copy I’ve produced on Lip Service.

One problem is that I’m not really enamored with writing about myself. I’m not inclined to spout my opinion on national sports that I don’t cover, unlike popular puffed-up pontificators Mike and the Mad Dog, Jim Rome and so many of the other TV talking heads who have turned sports into a soap opera.

Another problem is generational. Many of you can’t imagine life without ESPN. When I was growing up, we had WPIX-11 doing Yankee games, and we’d be able to swing a few Mets games on WOR-9 when the atmospheric conditions allowed. Other than that, it was the Game of the Week on Saturday.

My parents would only subscribe to one newspaper – The New Haven Register – which circulated in the afternoon. I didn’t want to wait that long, so I would sneak over to my next-door neighbor’s front stoop and quietly take the elastic band off their morning paper, The Journal-Courier. Every now and then, Mrs. Cannata would open the door with her robe on and see me sitting there. Talk about feeling stupid.

But I digress. How about if I tell you about some of the activities that have been going on in the Rock Cats press box?

I got to meet Babe Ruth’s granddaughter. Yep. The elegant and eloquent Linda Ruth Tosetti stopped by to help draw awareness to a local child with a rare illness. She would also like The Bambino’s uniform number 3 to be retired across the board in MLB.

We’ve had many famous visitors over the years – U.S. Senator Chris Dodd, U.S. Attorney Kevin O’Connor, U.S. Congressman Chris Murphy, former Congresswoman Nancy Johnson, MLB executives Terry Ryan of the Twins, Brian Sabean of the Giants and Brian Cashman of the Yankees.

The press box is a great place to spend seven or eight hours for every home game, and it’s the people who work there that make it great.

Scoreboard operator Larry Michaels has missed three games since the franchise came to New Britain in 1983. Official scorer Ed Smith, retired New Britain High teacher and wrestling coach, joined us last year. Nicer people and more knowledgeable baseball aficionados you’ll never meet.

Larry rarely misses a pitch. Ed’s scorebook is so meticulously done that it makes mine look like chicken scratch.

Rock Cats voice Jeff Dooley, as accommodating and affable as they come, has been atit for 11 years now. What a sight it is to see his 3-year-old son Joey sitting on Jeff’s stool with the headset on during the postgame show. If Joey should go into broadcasting, that would make the third member of the family in such a role. Jeff’s brother-in-law is Red Sox voice Don Orsillo.

I would be remiss without mentioning the Dowlings. Most folks in central Connecticut and beyond know Bill, the owner and president. Bill’s got a heart of gold, unless you scoff the last piece of pizza before he gets a chance to get upstairs.

But Bill’s brother Bob works behind the scenes as the media relations director. I haven’t met the reporter or photographer yet that didn’t get the red carpet treatment from Bob.

Okay, I’m done. Have I blogged correctly now? I hope so, because it’s 1 a.m. and I’m all blogged out.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

JOHN RUSSELL DESERVES BETTER

Baseball continues to evolve into a mockery of what it once was with all these last-minute deals that sap the strength from small-market teams and add beef to the big boys.

Selfish Red Sox and Yankees fans can gloat and disagree all they want but there surely isn’t one of them willing to look at life through the eyes of Pittsburgh Pirates manager John Russell.

Russell, as some may know, was manager of the Rock Cats from 1998-2000. When you interview someone night-in and night-out for three seasons, you can’t help but grow close to them. I came to respect Russell as a human being aside from his stellar playing career as a fine catcher and subsequent climb up the ladder toward a big league managerial career.

Russ paid his dues in minor league outposts like Elizabethton, Tenn., Fort Myers, Fla., New Britain, Edmonton, Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Pa., and Ottawa. He served as a third-base coach in Pittsburgh before the Bucs gave him the keys prior to this season.

I saw Russ in Fort Myers this spring as the Pirates prepared to play a Grapefruit League game against the Twins. We talked about the once-proud Pirates of Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell fame reduced to small-market pawns to MLB’s top-heavy titans. The Bucs are working on their 16th consecutive losing season.

Russ was so upbeat. My heart soared with the possibility that the soft-spoken, no-nonsense backstop who caught Nolan Ryan’s sixth no-hitter on June 11, 1990, would indeed lead the Pirates off turbulent seas into the calm waters of National League Central contention.

“We can’t worry about what’s happened in the past,” he said. “We came in with the idea from ownership on down on changing the culture and getting back to that tradition that’s associated with Pittsburgh.”

He was optimistic.

“Lower market teams that don’t have big payrolls have been competitive,” he said. “We feel like we’ve got good players. We’re concentrating on scouting and development and building a strong organization.”

He may have well been on his way until the Yankees had needs and the Pirates looked into their wallets instead of the hearts of their fans. Good-bye, Xavier Nady. Good-bye Damaso Marte. Hello, three pitchers who have a chance to be mediocre and a temperamental teenager who may grow up and be okay.

Now it’s good-bye to Jason Bay, whom many Boston fans didn’t know existed until late Thursday afternoon but was the name on the backs of so many folks’ jerseys in humble, blue-collar Steel City.

The Red Sox get Bay. The Dodgers get Manny. Pittsburgh comes away with two teams’ litter in exchange for its favorite son.

So what of Russell? The rookie manager gets judged on his record, which obviously isn’t going to be as good as it would have been. Maybe the Pirates will judge him accordingly. Maybe they won’t and they’ll move on to the next sitting duck.

The Pirates, like the A’s and others that get used solely for parts like scrap cars at the junkyard, claim they’re looking toward the future. But when the future becomes the present, they’ll still be looking ahead.

When will the fans get smart and stay away?

Monday, July 28, 2008

REDS: STRANGERS IN THEIR OWN TOWN

Two television cameras rolled throughout the afternoon on the sidelines of Veterans Memorial Stadium.

The gathering of fans was representative, although any crowd looks small given the backdrop of the Vet’s 10,000 seats.

This was the Eastern Conference championship match for a right of passage to the 2008 Women’s Premier Soccer League National Championship Aug. 2 and 3 in Sacramento, Calif.
A major event for New Britain? Okay, so the WPSL doesn’t exactly stir the cockles of local sports-loving hearts. We in Central Connecticut, although we stand firmly behind our daughters playing soccer and revel in the thought of their getting some interest from colleges someday, cannot get excited about the crème de la crème of American women’s soccer playing a meaningful game.

Perhaps you didn’t know about it. The major Connecticut media paid it no heed so you wouldn’t have heard about it on the radio or TV.

Although some of these women – numerous from the fertile soccer programs in state hotbeds like Farmington, Glastonbury and Guilford – will go on to play in Women’s Professional Soccer next spring, few get a kick from that.

The television cameras and the most vocal of the fans were not from Hartford. Unfortunately for the local team – the SoccerPlus Connecticut Reds – most of the interested parties who convened at the Vet were there in support of the visitors, the New England Mutiny.

It was like a Mutiny home game. Maybe that’s why the underdogs came out like a house on fire and eventually upset the Reds, 1-0. Both head coaches without hearing what the other said in the game’s rain-soaked aftermath talked about heart. It was clear that the Mutiny had it and the Reds did not.

The Reds must have felt like strangers in their own land, like the Baltimore Orioles do when the Red Sox and Yanks come to Camden Yards; like the Rock Cats do when the Portland Sea Dogs (Sox) are visiting.

The Mutiny are based in the Springfield area. Their home games are played at a high school field in Agawam. The Springfield region is incredibly avid when it comes to soccer. Families can be seen in towns like Agawam and Ludlow walking down the streets toward their stadium with blankets and pompoms and little kids in tow.

In the Hartford area just a few miles south, you rarely see anything – even the high school football games that used to captivate entire communities – bringing townsfolk together. I’ve been told by more than one person familiar with the Mutiny and the Ludlow-based Western Mass. Pioneers that the population has a Portuguese flavor and that they savor their soccer in any package.

When Sunday’s match ended, the Mutiny’s passionate celebration was recorded by the Springfield TV cameras. The star of the game – Erin Clark of Somers – was interviewed. The players took the Eastern Conference championship cup, playfully placed one of the puppies that was leashed to their bench inside and lifted it jubilantly over their heads.

Passion. Passion for the game, passion for each other and passion for the team’s loyal band of followers.

Meanwhile, the heartbroken Reds moved rapidly toward the sanctuary and melancholy of their locker room.

Now I don’t mean to indict either the fans of central Connecticut or the regional media for not warming up to soccer. It’s just very evident that the “attitude” that Reds coach Lisa Cole referred to in reference to the Mutiny, and the team spirit that both Mutiny coach Tony Horta and owner Joe Ferrara convey, is well-received by fans and players alike.

Perhaps that is why the Mutiny are packing for Sacramento and the Reds, undefeated in 13 games before their loss on Sunday, are staying home.

HAL LEVY: SCHOLASTIC SPORTS LOSE A LEGEND

Some of you knew him well, others knew him in passing and some may just know his name, but every sports-loving soul in Connecticut became a bit less fortunate Thursday with the death of longtime Shore Line Times executive sports editor Hal Levy.

Levy’s work was epic, a model on which weekly sports sections should be based, and thousands of young athletes along Connecticut’s shoreline east of New Haven and bordering the I-91 corridor northbound to his native Middletown will have a vestige of his magnificent prose and unflagging dedication in their scrapbooks or folded up neatly in their wallets.

For those who didn't know, Levy was diagnosed with liver cancer in March. The disease progressed rapidly. Thankfully, he had a chance to say good-bye to many of his friends at a very special party in Cromwell June 26. Through the efforts of Larry McHugh and a committee organized by his Middlesex Chamber of Commerce, Levy was afforded the chance that not many of us get – a living wake.

As a member of that committee, I spread the word among Connecticut media about the party that helped Levy savor some of life’s final days and offset the expenses in as courageous a battle against cancer that I’ve ever witnessed.

This vignette will give you a glimpse into Hal’s personality. I banged out a brief press release about the party and sent it to every sports media person I know. I referred to Hal as being the executive sports editor of the Shoreline Times. What I neglected to do was to leave Hal’s email off the list.

Not more than 2 minutes after I hit the send button, I received the following terse reply: “It’s Shore Line Times.”

Levy’s dedication was especially essential to the Conn. Sports Writers’ Alliance, a sports journalists’ league that dates back to 1939 and will suffer greatly from his departure.

He understood the value of preserving our state’s sports history and honoring those who have contributed to its grandeur. He relished nominating people he deemed worthy of receiving the John Wentworth Good Sport Award. At the Gold Key Dinner, he’d bask in the radiance of his honorees’ bliss as they took their place behind the lectern for a few words.

He told me how badly he wanted to emcee the annual event and the CSWA granted him that wish. By the end of April, the cancer was taking its toll but he battled through the event in typical Levy fashion and had the assembly in the palm of his hand from start to finish.
He fought hard for what he felt was right, no matter how unpopular it may have been with his CSWA colleagues. He never groused when the cards turned up against him.

I met Hal Levy in 1980 when my journalism advisor at Southern Connecticut State University strongly suggested that I accept an internship with his Guilford-based publication. He had a firm plan how to educate aspiring sports writers from entering bowling scores in these new-fangled technological wonders he called tubes to interviewing nationally esteemed former Yale football coach Carmen Cozza.

He tore me down for being too heavy-handed in editing what I viewed as biased ramblings of an in-house sycophant, and then built me up by handing me the assignment of covering a dissertation by the son of turn-of-the-century Baseball Hall-of-Famer “Big Ed” Walsh at the Wallingford Public Library during the 1980 World Series.

In regard to my hatchet job on his reporter’s copy, Hal explained to me that his paper would feature what the hometown folks wanted to read. He was stern enough to rankle your innards, yet astute enough to keep you from flipping up your middle finger, bellowing a few expletives and slamming the door in his face.

Now, within walking distance of that very Wallingford library, my mentor and treasured colleague will be sent to his eternal rest at the B.C. Bailey Funeral Home on 273 South Elm Street, Wednesday between 4 and 8 p.m.

At that time, I will bid Hal farewell on his everlasting journey in my own way, but a sizable chunk of his spirit and knowledge will live on in my heart. The residue of his wisdom will also live on in such outstanding writers as Mike DiMauro of The New London Day, Dom Amore of The Hartford Courant, Les Carpenter of The Washington Post, Paul Nichols of The Middletown Press and Ed Price of The Newark Star-Ledger.

A smaller trace will live on in the next generation of sports writers in whose hearts Hal’s devoted students stoked a passion for our craft.

Hal Levy ignited my ire like no other person I’ve ever met. Yet I could never stay angry with him because of the great respect and appreciation that he elicited. Such extreme polarization made him so exquisitely unique that I often sought out his advice above all others in any journalistic matters.

Scholastic athletes racing up and down the fields, tracks, pools and gymnasiums of Southern Connecticut have lost their greatest advocate. May the spirit that moved him reverse the course of every sports writer who has ever gone to a community sports event and mailed it in.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

WHERE'S ROBIN HOOD WHEN YOU NEED HIM

Boy am I glad I had a chance to follow Major League Baseball when it was truly great.

I remember the day when every team had an equal chance, when impressionable boys trying to comprehend the nuances of the game didn't have to have it explained to them why the best player on their favorite team have been traded away for minor leaguers in the midst of a pennant race with half the season still remaining.

Half the season!

CC Sabathia could have possibly led the Cleveland Indians back up the ladder but he's now a Milwaukee Brewer. Anybody familiar with the New York Giants' remarkable second-half surge to catch the seemingly uncatchable Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951 could attest that the possibility of an Indian uprising was (and maybe still is) within the realm of possibility.

The Oakland A's are only four games out in the American League West yet they succumbed to the allure of the Chicago Cubs for one of the game's top pitchers, Rich Harden. Darned good thing Billy Beane isn't in community relations where he'd have to explain to loyal Oakland ticket-buyers how he could throw away their season when truly in a tight pennant race.

So the fans of Cleveland and Oakland who plunked down their hard-earned bucks (unlike the cosmopolitan corporations that pay the freight in the major markets) have been led into a crumbling mine shaft.

More deals are pending. The cash-strapped will sell out to the fat cats with no regard for the fans. Too bad for the hard-working Oakland dad who bought the tickets and Harden shirts for his kids. Screw you, buddy, but we'll be back next winter to convince you to fork over another $250 to support a team that's going to sell out in July.

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Perhaps Robin Hood should have carried a baseball bat instead of an archer's bow.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

SUMMER'S HERE & THE LOSIN' IS EASY

I'm not fond of being critical.

There's nothing more that I would like to do than tell our readership every night how wonderful the Rock Cats are playing; how even in defeat, they strive to drain every ounce of effort out of the talent with which God has blessed them and can be counted upon for top-notch entertainment.

What we're watching lately has fallen somewhat short of entertainment. Pitchers are either getting pounded or bowing to opposing hitters by issuing walks. The defense has suffered. When fielders endure walk-a-thons, they tend to rock back on their heels, unprepared to react. Even the hitters, resolute as they've been for most of the season, are losing their edge.

This is nothing new in New Britain, where winning baseball has eluded local fans since 2003. I can understand a season in the basement now and then, and as many sub-.500 campaigns mixed in with the plus years. But for one reason or another, the Minnesota Twins' Double-A offerings have lacked the kind of luster that true baseball fans crave.

Despite on-the-field shortcomings, tickets continue to sell briskly. The Rock Cats' administration does its due diligence, providing affordable fun, good food, a colorful atmosphere, intriguing promotions and making enough phone calls to bring in groups of all kinds. But it's time the fans get rewarded with some winning baseball.

We've watched the Portland (Red Sox) Sea Dogs and Trenton (Yankees) Thunder march exceptional pitchers through the Eastern League and into the heat of major league pennant races for the last five years: Jonathan Papelbon, Clay Buchholz and now Justin Masterson in red, Chien-Ming Wang, Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes in blue.

We've caught smatterings of Francisco Liriano and Matt Garza here, but for some reason I can't dissect, they don't seem to inspire at the Double-A level. We haven't seen a prodigy in our midst since we marveled at the skills of Joe Mauer. That was 2003, when the Rock Cats last made the EL playoffs.

Now it's time to draw conclusions, and that's no easy task. The Twins are great people to work with. They're always as candid as their industry allows them to be without cutting their own throats. Their administrators come through town often and pleasantly answer all the questions.

The painful truth is the organization that drew such high praise when it was sending us Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, Mauer and Garza just hasn't been unearthing the best talent over the last four or five years. First-round draft picks have fallen short of expectations and the later rounds haven't produced the diamonds-in-the-rough that gleam from some of the buses entering the New Britain Stadium lot with each passing homestand.

Perhaps the day is coming. Former Rock Cat catcher Jeff Smith, one of the most popular players to frequent New Britain during the Twins' 14-year term here, has managed the high Class A Fort Myers Miracle to a first-half title in the Florida State League's Western Division.

Some of the players who could ignite a Rock Cats rebirth are second baseman Brian Dinkelman, outfielder Rene Tosoni, third baseman Danny Valencia, catcher Wilson Ramos, right-handed starter Jeff Manship, former St. John's University right-hander Rob Delaney and right-hander Anthony Slama.

Some of the players on the current New Britain roster could still be in town for such a transformation, but given the dismal record here over the last month in particular and five years in general, something needs to be done to initiate a spark that can shoot another championship banner up the flagpole ... or at least give the central Connecticut fan a bit more bang for the buck.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

THE TRUTH ABOUT "BLOGGING"

I’ve just about had it with the concept of blogging.

My cup bubbled over when I tripped upon a website that proclaimed a new day in sports journalism; that you, the reader and fan, can contribute to this site with your opinions on sports. Poof! You’re a journalist.

There would be no remuneration for your efforts, of course, not that somebody’s totally uninformed and, in many cases ignorant, ravings are worth any compensation. But this website is going to make the learned prose espoused in places like The New York Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe obsolete. Yeh, right.

Let’s put some keen analysis into what you get on such websites – and you can lump a goodly percentage of these inane electronic media-generated talk shows in with them.

You’re getting the opinion, in most places clumsily arranged, of someone who is watching games on TV or listening to them on the radio and coming up with profound revelations that have no basis in fact.

These “new sports journalists” aren’t talking to the athletes about whom they write. They’re not given credentials to venture into clubhouses to conduct interviews or perceive any other clues that an athlete may project about why a team is winning or losing. Imagine if they did get credentials. The grandstands would be empty and the press boxes would be jammed with phonies out to get free meals and access to their heroes.

They shoot from the hip, taking aim at somebody like beleaguered San Francisco Giants pitcher Barry Zito or New York Mets manager Willie Randolph because an ERA is high or their beloved team is on a losing streak.

I was aghast recently when I heard a commentator utter that he’d love to have a job like Zito’s; where he can have a job that pays get paid $126 million for doing nothing. Yeh, like Zito is soft-tossing meatballs to home plate, lounging around the swimming pool between starts and amassing a 7-plus ERA because he’s lazy or doesn’t care. Get a grip. If Zito strings together 10 straight wins, and pitches two or three shutouts, such “faux” journalists will be first in line for autographs.

All this may lead you to say, “Why is this guy dissing the art of blogging when he blogs himself?”

Trust me, when I was told I needed to do some blogging to keep up with new industry standards, I cringed. I don’t mind writing. I love to write. I love to delve into subjects and report on them. But please can we call what I do something other than blogging? After spending more than 25 years involved with professional baseball and more than 15 writing about local high school and amateur sports, I like to think that I know a little something about the subjects I cover.

You’ll notice that it’s extremely rare that I “blog” about something I don’t cover.

I “blog” about the Rock Cats, and people who know me also know that the number of Rock Cats home games I’ve missed since 1997 can be counted on two hands. That’s less than 10 out of about 850.

I have unique access into the Rock Cats and Minnesota Twins organizations, which I’ve earned by nurturing my contact with some pretty wonderful people. They tell me plenty on the record. They tell me things off the record that I can use indirectly to keep you informed about matters of interest.

I “blog” about New Britain sports, but never without getting the proper perspective by talking to people like venerable former Herald sports editor Bart Fisher, equally venerable retired New Haven Register scholastic football maven Bob Barton, another ex-Herald sports editor Gerry deSimas who enlightens me on scholastic wrestling and many coaches – active and retired – who shaped the landscape that I continue to tread.

If your interest lies with the Red Sox, Celtics or Patriots, there are numerous professionals at places like Associated Press, The Globe, The Boston Herald, The Courant and papers in Springfield and Providence who can tell you much more beyond the score. Don’t rely on the ranting of dolts who want players dumped because they struck out with the bases loaded.

We have people in our midst who can keep you informed on all things UConn. New York fans have The Daily News, The Post, Newsday and The Times.

The next time some computer geek who can’t tell the difference between a split-fingered fastball and a circle change tells you that he’s revolutionizing sports journalism, all he’s revolutionizing is a scam similar to those Nigerian bank account e-mail schemes to make easy money by doing nothing.

Monday, May 19, 2008

UGLY SUNDAY BECOMES WONDROUS MONDAY

One 30-hour stretch at New Britain Stadium showed how ugly and how beautiful the game of baseball can be.

The yawn-provoking creeper between the Cats and Portland Sea Dogs on dreary Sunday afternoon took 3 hours, 51 minutes to complete. No surprise that the Boston Red Sox' farm team was involved. The painstaking marathons between the Beantowners and Yankees that often flirt with 4 hours reflect the offensive philosophy of going deep in the count.

The Sox-to-be cajoled eight walks from New Britain pitching, four of which became tallies. Meanwhile, bright Boston pitching prospects Michael Bowden and Daniel Bard had the Rock Cats hitters batting the breeze for 12 strikeouts. Walks and strikeouts, you see, take much more time than first-pitch swings that send grounders to second.

As the Sea Dogs prepared to lock down a 7-4 win, the never-say-die Cats scrapped for a couple of ninth-inning markers and had the tying run at third with one out. No, not extra innings, spare me. Portland closer Beau Vaughan got his bearings straight and retired the last two hitters to put a merciful seal on nine innings of tedium.

The sun came out on Monday with the Harrisburg Senators in town.

Rock Cats righty Jay Rainville, whose struggles were accurately reflected in his 9.00 ERA, was on the hill with pitcher, team and beat writer yearning for a well-pitched game. Rainville kept his fastball down, retired the first hitter in each of his seven innings, and (glory-be) didn't walk a soul.

Zach Ward, a starter at Fort Myers last year, used his wicked slider to continue Rainville's handiwork in the eighth and ninth innings to tie down a neatly packaged 5-1 win in 2 hours, 33 minutes.

Meanwhile, in the back of the New Britain Stadium press box, the covey of Red Sox fans that flutter around there all the time reveled in a no-hitter by Jon Lester. Two short years ago, Lester was batttling cancer. Red Sox fan or not, you have to love how destiny can sometimes play sweet music where there were once nothing but sour notes.

My faith in baseball restored, I trudged home with my backpack in tow, wondering what tomorrow would bring.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

STARTING ROTATION FAILING IN CATS SLIDE

The atmosphere was electric during the last homestand when the Rock Cats were building a nine-game winning streak and celebrating Cinco de Mayo in style.

But the power source for their success was the offense. In every game except the one that started the skein, the offense had to power its way back from an early deficit. Lost amid the line drives, alert baserunning, situational hitting and clubhouse merriment was the shortcomings of the starting rotation.

Long-term baseball success relies on starting pitchers providing at least six, preferably seven solid innings before turning it over to competent relievers, which the Rock Cats have in number.
The offense tallied seven runs in the game that snuffed out the winning streak in the homestand finale against Bowie last Thursday. The crusher came on the first night in New Hampshire when the hitters posted 11 runs – and lost.

That was the turning point. The offense that carried the Rock Cats to their best record (19-12) since the halcyon days of 2001 with Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, Michael Restovich and Dustan Mohr began to quiet down. It was inevitable. Good pitching always stops good hitting.
But the pitchers did not rise to the occasion. The Rock Cats, going into the final game of a miserable road trip on Thursday, had lost six of seven to the two bottom-feeding clubs in the Eastern League North and looking for all the world like they would be joining them.

Since the winning streak ended, the Rock Cats staff has posted a 7.14 ERA. In 34 2/3 innings, starters gave up 48 hits and walked 18. An average of two baserunners per inning is not going to cut it.

The bullpen, which had been among the EL’s best, began to crack under the pressure of starters being unable to get into the late innings. The bullpen’s ERA ballooned to 6.56 in the post-streak doldrums.

The Twins’ minor league administrators have given the current crop of starters ample time to get adjusted.

Right-hander Anthony Swarzak had an 0.56 ERA after three games. It’s now 3.96. Left-hander Ryan Mullins, the most consistent of the lot, checks in at 3.25.

Yohan Pino, who will be skipped Thursday in favor of left-hander Errol Simonitsch, was among the ERA leaders until he struggled against New Hampshire Saturday.

That’s where the bottom falls out. Rhode Island right-hander Jay Rainville has been unable to consistently locate his pitches and his velocity hasn’t reached the level he had attained before shoulder surgery in 2006. He has given up 51 hits in 29 2/3 innings and has a 9.00 ERA after seven starts.

The big mystery is what’s happened to Oswaldo Sosa. Sosa, the lone Rock Cat on Minnesota’s 40-man major league roster, has yielded 37 hits and a hefty 21 walks in 29 1/3 frames. His ERA is at 7.06.

June is coming. That’s when the Twins traditionally make a major shift between those who are excelling at high-A Fort Myers and those who have struggled to find success in New Britain.
Rainville and Sosa have a couple more starts to convince minor league pitching coordinator Rick Knapp and farm director Jim Rantz that Double-A is their forte.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

KNAPP OUTLINES TWINS PITCHING STRATEGY

Pitching is serious business for the Minnesota Twins.
There’s nothing unusual there. Most pundits will say that pitching ranks anywhere from 75 to 90 percent of the game.
But the game’s most precious commodity is even more dear for a small-market club like the Twins, who can’t order from the non-contenders’ menu at midseason if their starters break down.
So pitching philosophy runs deep in New Britain, especially when veteran pitching coordinator Rick Knapp makes his semi-seasonal visit.
While in New Britain this season, Knapp can exchange pitching wisdom with two well-versed experts in manager Bobby Cuellar and pitching coach Steve Mintz.
Cuellar pitched professionally for nine years and has spent most of the last 26 as either a pitching or bullpen coach. Mintz, who led the New Britain Red Sox in ERA in 1993, pitched professionally for 12 seasons.
The Rock Cats clubhouse became quite the venue for pitching forums when Knapp came through last week.
“Having these guys here is a really good test for me because they’re gonna bounce around questions and thoughts, and it really makes me examine what we’re doing a little bit closer,” said Knapp, now in his 12th season as the Twins’ minor league pitching guru. “The thoughts and ideas they give me are a motivator for me. Everybody has their skew but we see eye to eye on things.”
The Rock Cats have been plagued by inefficiency at the back of their starting rotation. Rhode Island right-hander Jay Rainville (2-4, 10.01 ERA), just a year removed from shoulder surgery to correct a nerve problem that cost him the 2006 season, has struggled. So has right-hander Oswaldo Sosa (1-2, 7.06).
But fans always have to be reminded that winning isn’t everything in minor league baseball. Knapp is focused on development, and the organization prefers that prospects get in their work with statistics a secondary concern.
Rainville emerged from a pack of young hurlers in spring training to merit a promotion to New Britain for the start of the season.
“Some guys were scuffling and some guys were on track,” Knapp said. “Jay was pitching well although his delivery didn’t look great but you don’t want to get too deep in his head while he’s competing to make a club. It was one of those things where your eyes kind of deceive you a little bit. The numbers were what they were but the delivery wasn’t what you were hoping for.”
So Rainville’s Double-A struggle is far from a total surprise to Knapp.
“I kind of had an idea what it was coming in but until you watch you don’t know for sure,” he said. “It was something that was really a small technically that goes with our philosophy of pitching. We worked it a little, he felt more confident and he was throwing the ball harder.”
Rainville’s velocity is down for reasons the Twins cannot pinpoint, but recuperating from surgery can often take more than a year, so they remain patient.
“He hasn’t felt any weakness. (The effect of surgery) is all resolved, as far as we’re concerned, but there is still arm strengthening issues and mechanical issues that we’re trying to get to,” Knapp said.
He said that warmer weather may help.
“I think he will eventually throw harder. It’s a matter of let’s make sure we get his delivery right,” Knapp said. “Let’s sequence him properly and I think good things for in store for him.”
Knapp expects the young New Britain rotation – Anthony Swarzak, Ryan Mullins, Yohan Pino, Rainville and Sosa – to remain in tact, at least until the season’s midway point. Last year, he moved left-hander Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn up early when injuries wracked the Twins’ staff.
“Last year we got lucky because I had Duensing and Blackburn ready to go to Triple-A,” Knapp said. “I don’t feel as good about sending Swarzak or Mullins or Rainville to Triple-A yet. Duensing had pitched a year in this league before. Blackburn had pitched a year and a half in this league. I felt OK sending them to Triple-A.”
Swarzak enjoyed an outstanding start but wasn’t as effective when Knapp got a first-hand look.
“During the course of the year you have struggles and his outing the other night wasn’t all that great. I come in here and see him one time and you see a small piece of the bigger picture,” Knapp said.
“Yeh, he seems to be on track. If we hadn’t made that (Santana) trade he’d probably be pitching in Triple-A although I don’t know that he’s ready for Triple-A. The trade we made worked out good for all parties concerned, mainly with our pitching because it gives us depth and allows our guys to stay where they’re supposed to stay.”
Acquiring ex-big leaguer Danny Graves, and keeping minor league veterans Jason Miller (25) and Jay Sawatski (26) strays a bit from the standard Twins strategy of moving ’em in, moving ’em up and moving ’em out. Again, uncertainty in Minnesota has altered the makeup of the Rock Cats.
“I don’t want to say that’s why we (retained) Miller and Sawatski, who have Triple-A experience as well, but those guys are (young),” Knapp said. “I wanted to make sure we had protection.”
The recent collapse of the Rock Cats starters will not force Knapp’s hand.
“The reason I’ve got some of the older guys here is that there are some players in Fort Myers I don’t want to send here yet,” Knapp said. “I want them to get a full season or even a half season under their belt before they come here. Triple-A’s got some really good arms. We’ve got some good arms here.”
Jeff Manship, 23, is a right-hander with college experience (Notre Dame) who was a Double-A candidate out of spring training and is pitching well at high-A Fort Myers (4-0, 3.23). Knapp is using experience as a yardstick.
“Manship is doing OK. It’s just one of those things that he pitched a half-season there last year and deserves another half season,” Knapp explained. “I don’t want to skip any steps. I want these guys to get their innings at their levels.
“Whether he pitches 100 or 150 innings in (high A), is that a positive for a college pitcher or a negative? I think the more that he pitches there the better off he’ll be when he gets here.”
The Twins generally make a major shift between New Britain and Fort Myers in mid-June. Along with Manship, St. John’s grad Rob Delaney (0.54 ERA, 8 saves), Anthony Slama (2-0, 0.47) and Danny Vais (4-0, 0.86) have been brilliant
“(Manship) and one of those relievers may get up here at the halfway mark but I’m not in any rush with any of them,” Knapp said. “If (Manship) pitches a full season in Fort Myers, that will be fine with me. It means the guys here will get the time they need here. I’m happy with the way things are going so far.”

Thursday, May 8, 2008

ROCK CATS DANCE THEIR WAY TO PROSPERITY

The atmosphere at New Britain Stadium is spellbinding.

The wins keep piling up with no visitor's lead safe. A new hero emerges every day as a team adds another course of brick to its bulwark of character. The enchanting effect of success, complete with coaches and players whooping it up and dancing in a strobe-lit, fog-shrouded clubhouse that has evolved into a house of glee, has cast a light on Rock Cats baseball not seen in these parts in seven years.

Times and players were a bit more conservative back in 2001 when Michael Cuddyer, Dustan Mohr, Michael Restovich and Justin Morneau helped give New Britain its first Eastern League glory since Clemens was nothing more than a bottle rocket in 1983.

These new Cats were nothing more than a collection of players with a new manager just 50 days ago on the back lots of Fort Myers' Lee County Complex. But winning serves as an intoxicant that can turn even the stoic into giddy schoolboys.

Danny Graves watched from the distance of a clubhouse corner Wednesday night as his younger teammates exulted in their ninth straight win to tie a Rock Cats record. His grin told the whole story. He really didn't have to say this was the greatest thing he had ever seen, and that coming from an ultra-successful major league expatriot with 182 career saves seeking one more opportunity to grace the screen on Baseball Tonight.

Chances are pretty good that the Rock Cats will lose someday, but you can't tell that to the likes of clubhouse leaders Drew Butera, Trevor Plouffe and Brock Peterson. They're having much too good of a time to be reminded that this can't last forever. And it doesn't have to! This is baseball, where you're remarkable if you can win 70 percent of the time.

With the character the Rock Cats are building, that possibility seems very likely.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

CATS HAVE TALENT AND KIDS HAVE FUN

Something special is brewing at New Britain Stadium.

What's happening on the field is baseball worth watching. What's happening in the grandstands and on the promotional front is nothing new, but represents an evolving center of entertainment.

On the field, the New Britain Rock Cats are balanced, motivated, mature and confident.

The offense has been magnificent. Luke Hughes and Dustin Martin set the tone at the top of the lineup. Brock Peterson has been a solid run producer. Double-A veterans Matt Moses and David Winfree are warming up.

Trevor Plouffe continues to develop into the prospect the Minnesota Twins thought he was when they drafted him in the first round directly out of high school. Catcher Drew Butera provides the defense with a tenacious catch-and-throw guy, and Jeff Christy has supplied solid play behind him.

Pitching, of course, is key.

The bullpen has been nothing short of excellent. Over the last week, whoever has had his number called by manager Bobby Cuellar has responded brilliantly. Between the end of the road series at Binghamton and the start of the home set with New Hampshire, the relievers strung together 17 2/3 consecutive scoreless frames.

Veteran Ben Julianel has done most of the closing, but Kyle Aselton and Armando Gabino have taken turns finishing games. Cuellar has ample set-up men from both sides ranging from former Cincinnati Reds All-Star Danny Graves and Zach Ward from the right side, and Jay Sawatski and Jason Miller on the left.

The back end of the rotation has been inconsistent. Jay Rainville had his best start of the season Saturday. Oswaldo Sosa started well Sunday but the New Hampshire hitters caught up with him the second time through the lineup.

The front end features Anthony Swarzak, Ryan Mullins and Yohan Pino, who is among the EL leaders in ERA.

Off the field, I've seen so many happy youngsters roaming a well-populated stadium concourse. While that may be nothing unusual in July and August, it was surely worth noting that the unseasonably comfortable April weather convinced fans that summer had come early. Even on Friday and Saturday, when the weather was much more New England-like, many more than your average handful withstood the elements.

Can the Rock Cats win an Eastern League title? That's a loaded question in May because personnel changes are part of the Double-A landscape. Unless injuries in the majors or Triple-A dictate otherwise, the Twins generally wait until June before they make any wholesale changes.

However, the Fort Myers Miracle, where future Rock Cats play, have a nice mix of talent waging battle in the Florida State League. Should some key Rock Cats get tickets for Triple-A Rochester or even Minnesota, the talent below is substantial.

You can't predict EL titles in May or June but I have one prediction that will not fall short. New Britain Stadium is a great place to spend some time. If you haven't been there, you've missed too much already.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

GOLD KEY DINNER WARMS THE HEART

The Gold Key Dinner always strikes a melodic chord and reinforces why I spend so much time helping administer the state's premier sports banquet.

Folks like high school basketball aficionados Frank and Sheila Beneski of Suffield, youth basketball volunteer Robert Burns of Hamden, lifetime Waterford sportsman Francis X. Sweeney and Hartford summer basketball league founder Peter Higgins give back to their communities through the goodness that permeates their hearts.

They relish their opportunity to speak their minds before family, friends and more than 300 state sports lovers at the magnificent Aqua Turf Club in Southington. Their contributions weave the fabric that enhance the lives of young athletes. They ask nothing in return, and we at the Connecticut Sports Writers' Alliance cherish the chance to honor them.

Putnam High hoop coach Tony Falzarano, GHO godfather Ted May and retired Brien McMahon (Norwalk) coach and administrator Ralph King were eloquent as they received the state's highest sports honor, a Gold Key.

Former Hartford Courant scribe Woody Anderson drew laughs as he waxed poetic about a career that led to his earning the Art McGinley Sports Writer of the Year Award. The crowd was fixed on every word uttered by Central Connecticut State University men's soccer coach Shaun Green as he related what it was like to survive a deadly heart attack. Green received the Bob Casey Courage Award.

Superb professional boxer Chad Dawson of New Haven and record-breaking Southern Connecticut State University swimmer Kristen Frost accepted athlete of the year recognition.

All proceeds from the event help the CSWA perpetuate the sports writers' craft by subsidizing college-bound high school students who will hopefully become the next generation of chroniclers.

As the organization's treasurer, I'm pleased to report that the Gold Key Dinner and the Bohdan M. Kolinsky Memorial Golf Tournament continue to be ultrasuccessful fund raisers. The honorees, the CSWA membership and all the good folks who attended help make our state a much better place to live.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

CATS ROTATION STRUGGLES AT BACK END

Mediocre is the best adjective to describe the New Britain Rock Cats' pitching situation to date.

It's too early to pass out report cards since the season is in its infancy, but when I was in school and we were in academic trouble, the teachers would give us interim notices that would have to be taken home to our parents, signed and returned.

So with 15 percent of the season in the books, here are some interim notices.

While the top of the rotation -- Anthony Swarzak, Ryan Mullins and Yohan Pino -- has been sensational, the back end is in dire straits. Interim notices go out to right-handers Jay Rainville and Oswaldo Sosa.

Rainville, at 1-2 with a 9.53 ERA, obviously has not shown that he can get Double-A hitters out. The Eastern League is battering him at a .392 clip with 29 hits in 17 innings.

Rainville, a Rhode Island native, missed the entire 2006 season due to a nerve problem in his pitching shoulder. He has not regained the velocity he had when he was posting big numbers in low Class A. Rainville, a supplemental first-round choice by the Twins in 2004, is still only 22-years-old, so a return to high-A Fort Myers may be in order.

Sosa, the only Rock Cat on Minnesota's 40-man big league roster, has been unable to command his fastball. He's falling behind in counts and paying the price with an 0-2 record and 7.04 ERA.

Even more eye-popping is 13 walks in 15 1/3 innings. When you issue that many free passes and the league is hitting .333 against you, questions are sure to follow. Sosa was outstanding at Fort Myers last year and his late-season work in New Britain showed some promise, but he'll have to start showing some command to avoid a return trip to the Florida State League.

Sosa, 22, is a product of the Twins' Venezuela Baseball Academy.

As always, there are candidates at Fort Myers putting up the kind of numbers that warrant consideration for promotion.

Right-hander Jeff Manship, 23, has been remarkably consistent in his two-plus pro seasons. He dominated low-A last year (7-1, 1.51 ERA, 9 walks, 77 strikeouts, 77 1/3 innings) and
competed well at Fort Myers (8-5, 3.15 ERA in 13 games).

The Notre Dame product could have well been among Rock Cats starters on the opening day roster but was sent back to Fort Myers where he is 3-0 wth a 3.38 in his five starts.

It's only a matter of time before Manship and right-hander Deolis Guerra get their Double-A indoctrinations. Guerra, perhaps the plum in the Johan Santana trade with the Mets, is 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA with the Miracle.

Guerra, however, won't turn 20 until next April and rushing him along may not be the best choice.

Both the Rock Cats and Miracle have gotten outstanding bullpen work. In New Britain, Ben Julianel (4 saves, 2.84) has been an effective closer. Lefty Jay Sawatski had some tough outings but appears to be settling down (2 hits, 7 strikeouts in last 5 innings).

Righty Zach Ward, primarily a starter last year, was lights-out until suffering a slight lapse of control Saturday. Righty Armando Gabino (8 games, 1.50 ERA) has also been exceptional as has lefty Kyle Aselton (6 games, 1.64 ERA, .179 BA against him).

And right now manager Bobby Cuellar has the added advantage of having former big-league closer Danny Graves around. That's not likely to be the case for very long.

Some of the numbers coming out of the Fort Myers bullpen are equally gaudy.

Former St. John's star Rob Delaney, 23, has an 0.77 ERA, five saves, two walks and 13 strikeouts in 11 2/3 innings.

Anthony Slama, 24, is also a college guy from the University of San Diego. In seven games (11 1/3 innings), he has yielded just four hits, saved three games and has a 0.00 ERA.

Danny Vais, 23, is 4-0 with a 1.26 ERA in eight appearances with FSL hitters batting .104 against him.

At this writing, the Rock Cats are 10-11, so it's too early to pull the plug on Rainville or Sosa, but with some quality arms knocking on the door to Double-A, they'll have to put some positive innings together soon or they'll be headed back to Class A come June.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

REMINISCING: NB SPORTS HALL OF FAME

As my father turned the corner into his golden years, I noticed more and more how much he enjoyed recounting the exploits of his life.

How he loved cruising through New Haven's city streets and reliving his memories, or taking out a map of France and Germany to trace his route during World War II. With every year he aged, the more he liked to reminisce.

Now that I'm within a Texas League single of 60, I feel the same forces descending on me. The bottom line is, that's what you do when you get older, and there's not a damned thing wrong with it.

That point came home to roost Thursday night when I was an invited guest at the annual New Britain Sports Hall of Fame Dinner. Now that I've been chronicling New Britain sporting events for 14 years, more and more faces are becoming familiar to me. I've become more familiar with the grand history of New Britain High football and Central Connecticut State University men's basketball.

I can't imagine that there is another community in Connecticut more steeped in sports grandeur than the Hardware City.

The NB Sports Hall of Fame Committee makes all the right choices. The first choice that allowed me to settle comfortably into my seat for a relaxing, informative evening was that Bart Fisher served as toastmaster.

Fisher was the sports editor at The Herald for nearly 30 years and still writes captivating columns on sports and general history like nobody else could. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001. Everybody knows and respects Bart Fisher. Nobody else could possibly run such an affair.

The 2008 inductees were the center of attention as they should be, but the side show was listening to the patriarchs of New Britain's sports heritage spin their tales, just like Dad used to do about life in New Haven. I wish I could have cloned myself about seven times and dropped in on more of the conversations.

Former New Britain High athletic director Bill Huber defies the passage of time with his youthful exuberance and looks to match. Peter Roby, now the athletic director at Northeastern University, acknowledged Fisher's salute.

There was the legendary Steve Dalkowski, whose fastball shattered everything in its path and sent young hitters looking for other springtime pursuits. Esteemed CCSU hoop coach Howie Dickenman always has a commanding presence when he enters a room. Revered UConn patriarch John Toner. The list goes on and on.

And how about some of the names already enshrined?

Tom Thibodeau couldn't make it. As assistant coach of a Celtics team destined for a deep run in the NBA playoffs, he was just a little busy. The NFL is well-represented by Tommy Myers, Willie Hall and Tebucky Jones. Thomas J. Lynch is in the baseball Hall of Fame after serving as an umpire and president of the National League a century ago.

Local legends still making headlines abound, like NBHS boys hoop coach Stan Glowiak; Berlin girls mentor Sheila King; former St. Thomas Aquinas luminary Bill Cardarelli; Dennis Beatty, the Godfather of PAL and the nationally reknowned Raiders; Joe Lombardo, who put Goodwin Tech on the sports map.

And it humbles me to see the sports writers on the docket. In addition to Fisher, I saw the names of Gerry Crean and John Wentworth, gentlemen of the fourth estate whom I unfortunately never got to meet except through microfilm.

The scene was magnificent. How rewarding in our world haunted by bad news and suffering that so many people can get together and smile. Dad, now I know how you felt.