Sunday, March 30, 2008

THE UNIQUE PERSPECTIVE OF STAN CLIBURN

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Stan Cliburn addresses his Triple-A Rochester clubs early Wednesday morning with two items on his agenda.

Several players with major-league hopes just learned that their dream had suffered a temporary setback. Instead of riding planes and playing before 40,000, they’d be bumping along the all-too-familiar highways of the International League with Rochester. Cliburn had to restore any competitive edge that may have been drained by disappointment.

As a means to that end, Cliburn’s Red Wings had a date with his old club, the New Britain Rock Cats, now managed by Bobby Cuellar. Cuellar’s Cats would be bolstered by a start from big-league right-hander Scott Baker, and Cliburn saw the opportunity as a tonic to awaken his troops.

Cliburn took center stage, an interesting mix between a fire-and-brimstone Southern Baptist preacher, perhaps a latter-day Will Rogers or a comedian flexing his shtick on a Las Vegas stage. He admonished, joked, philosophized and motivated all at the same time.

“Look at this lineup card,” he said with a straight face. “It’s blank. I’m as confused as you are. … You never know what’s going to happen in this game and that’s the beauty of it.”

Among those on the bench at the Fort Myers back lot were veteran pitcher Danny Graves, who was getting his first dose of Cliburn’s country charm. Infielder Chris Basak, once a Mets prospect, played in three games and got an at-bat with the Yankees last year.

On the home-grown list, popular ex-Rock Cat and Fort Myers native Tommy Watkins went 10-for-28 in a brief stint with the Twins last year, but he apparently had been nosed out for a big-league job by Matt Tolbert.

“I’ve been in this game for 27 years,” Cliburn quipped. “I spent one month in the big leagues last year and I’d go 27 more to get one more.”

He glanced over the heads of the seated players and saw that I had arrived in town. I quoted Cliburn for five years as he dragged a colorful brush stroke over New Britain Stadium from 2001-05.

“Respect the media,” he told his players, his voice lilting back and forth in his prominent Mississippi manner. “They can carry you a long way. Kind of reminds me of Clint Eastwood -- the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

He spoke of other players he’s managed who he’s had to address the same way. He talked about Rich Aurilia, once a “bubble” player who ended up hitting behind Barry Bonds. He related the story of Casey Blake, a former Twins farmhand who is thriving with the Cleveland Indians.

He equated his job to that of an orchestra leader.

“I’m waving the same old baton,” he said. “I have the same old goal and the same old beliefs. It’s just a different orchestra with a different piano player and a different drummer.”

Different drummer, indeed. Very few have moved to a beat as exotic yet simple as that of Stan Cliburn, not since Casey Stengel.

Friday, March 14, 2008

LEN CORTO IS A HERO

Heroes are hard to find when you get too old to worship sports figures and begin to comprehend that the Frank Robinsons and Larry Birds of the world are flesh and blood just like you and me.

But I've found my hero, and he's also my friend.

New Britain High School athletic director coach Lenny Corto is as kind and gentle a soul as any ex-football coach can be. The misguided will say Corto crossed the politically correct line on Friday at the Bloomfield-Old Saybrook basketball game when he ejected two fans for refusing to honor America by standing for the National Anthem.

Corto graciously offered New Britain High's Chick Shea Gymnasium as a neutral site for that Class S semifinal. I don't know exactly what prompted him to take the action he did, but I'm sure he expected to feel heat from it and I salute him for putting the love of his country in front of any personal repercussions he may endure as a result.

According to reports, the two fans -- Jeffrey Green and Aaron Johnson of New Haven -- have played their "victim" card and gone whimpering to the media about being mistreated. WTNH Channel 8 aired a report on the incident, and while the report did not contain comment from either Corto, the school superintendent or the NBHS principal, I have to assume my friend is under fire. For the record, Johnson and Green had their admissions refunded.

For God's sake there's a war on. Despite any perceived improprieties regarding our nation's past, Americans do bask in the glow of freedom. Before every sporting event, we're asked to honor our great nation by taking less than two minutes to remove our hats, stand and acknowledge the flag that symbolizes that nation. Is that really too much to ask?

Green and Johnson are African-Americans. Johnson is an assistant basketball coach at the Hyde Leadership School in Hamden, and I thank him for giving back to the youth of his area through that personal sacrifice because I can assure you he isn't doing it for the money. I realize that I sit here exposing myself to short-sighted idealists like the American Civil Liberties Union as a racist, but I don't care because I know I'm not, and the thousands of black, white, Dominican, Venezuelan, Puerto Rican, Oriental, Polish, Jewish, Indian, etc. whom I've written about and befriended over my 55 years know I'm not. Neither is Lenny, not by a longshot. This issue isn't about black and white, it's about red, white and blue.

I can't reach Lenny right now to offer him my support. I suppose he has sequestered himself on his own or on the advice of the school system. He is a sensitive man who, in a society where political correctness has run amuck, is feeling the brunt of his patriotic actions when the vast, vast majority of Americans would and will be singing his praises as this hot-button topic permeates cyberspace. I would like a photo of Lenny standing in front of the flag so I can put it on the wall in my office next to the other people I've revered as heroes, like Theodore Roosevelt, Civil War general Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Mark Twain, Errol Flynn, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, George Foster, Larry Bird and my father.

To Green and Johnson, I understand that you feel persecuted. As a Jewish person, my ancestors were persecuted and some relatives slaughtered. I'm sure yours were, too, and I surely feel your pain. But in America, both your people and mine live in freedom and we have a lot to be thankful for. Many people have died so that we can have this freedom, and we acknowledge the flag at sporting events to honor their memories.

You can make your personal statements when you enter the voting booth. You can protest whatever you may see as an indiscretion in any non-violent manner you wish. You can answer this blog for all our readers to see. But please don't dishonor my country. Lenny and I treasure it dearly. We hope that someday you'll understand why and choose to treaure it, too.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

NB'S UNSUNG HEROINES

Steady Eddie.

That's what New Britain girls basketball coach Karen Byrne calls junior Monika Malec. Malec doesn't generate a lot of attention when the Hurricanes' great Symone Roberts is scoring 20, 25 and 30 points per game.

Malec isn't ripping down rebounds like driven sophomore center Tyler Kimball, and she doesn't scoot around the court like effervescent point guard Sarah Sideranko. Malec, Bell and "sixth man" Heather O'Bright are role players, the kind that every successful team needs. Byrne appreciates this very much, as do the regular fans who have watched the 'Canes win game after game.

Malec has the stuff to make medium-range shots and keeps her feet moving on defense. Bell is the best perimeter shooter on the team, plays masterfully on the defensive end and doesn't allow missed shots or mistakes fester. These girls will not make All-State or even All-CCC North but no team makes it to championship games without the kind of contributions they make.

Monika. Cassie. Heather. I just want you to know that my Herald colleague Ryan Pipke and I appreciate you, too.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

FUTURE BRIGHT FOR BOYS' HOOP TEAMS

The common ground on which the 2007-08 scholastic boys basketball season rests locally is one of inconsistency and promise for the future.

New Britain, fresh from a big victory over eight-seeded CCC North champion Glastonbury, signals that coach Stan Glowiak has the undivided attention of a team that has no seniors and a load of talent featuring the top six players -- Darius Watson, Raheem McKinley, Tebucky Jones, Quashon Moore, Robert Bryant and Robert McKinnon.

First, these six and others like Tarik Hightower need to work together in the off season to learn more about each other's tendencies. Glowiak can surely use a big center and perhaps another guard/forward who can shoot the three.

He also needs to stress to this group that they need to get on that free-throw line and practice, practice, practice. They went a horrific 6-for-19 from the stripe and beat Glastonbury regardless. That soap won't wash Thursday againnst FCIAC monster St. Joseph and will surely be the downfall as the team sets out next year with an eye on league and perhaps a state title.

Another promising story is developing in Wethersfield where juniors P.J. Santavenere and Vic Anderson can approach superstar status next year.

The 6-1 Santavenere was exceptional in the Eagles' first-round loss to Wilby Monday night, scoring 30 points and showing leadership potential. Anderson has a powerful physique attached to his 6-2 frame and a sharp shooting eye, a tough matchup for any team.

Mike Verderame, who has a bright future as a coach, has an athletic swingman in Tyler Murphy and active guards in Adam Williams and Peter Skevas, a point man who is on the small side but makes up for it with scrappiness and enthusiasm. Role players like Bobby Charbonneau, Brandon Dillon and Anthony Bonelli abound.

Another interesting story is developing in Farmington, which will join Wethersfield in a CCC West that will bid adieu to Bloomfield (bound for CCC East).

Spencer Noon looms as one of the best guards in the state. Ryan Murphy, like Anderson and McKinley, is a glass-eater at 6-2. He can also stick the medium-range jumper, and if he improves as much over the off-season as he did during this season, watch out!

Adam Schrecengost, the 6-6 transfer from Pittsburgh, can fill the bill at center if he works at his game in the off-season. He had some great moments early on this year but his playing time diminished as the year went on. Devin Hahn was a 6-5 perimeter player this season. He spots up and shoots very well, but coach Duane Witter needs him to add some muscle and pound the boards more.

Joe Jurkiewicz, who nabbed some of Schrecengost's minutes, emerged as a hustling defensive specialist but must gain some confidence on the offensive side.

Witter will have to replace rugged 6-5 forward Tom Sangeloty and sixth man Matt Brechun. He'll need more depth with the St. Pauls, Rocky Hills and RHAMs being replaced on the schedule by Windsor, Weaver and Wethersfield.

The other local teams, however, face rebuilding chores -- some major and some minor.

Berlin's Anthony Hill, another coach who proved his mettle on the bench this year, loses his two top guns in 6-6 Jeremy Thompson and hustling swingman Pat McCandless. He'll return some serious firepower on the perimeter with Steven Glowiak and Richie Conway.

Most of his support players -- John Guzze, Scott Waskiewicz, Eric O'Neill, Patrick King and Jeff Muzio -- are seniors.

At Newington, Scot Wenzel will look to guard Shane Leupold to lead. Nearly everybody else who takes the floor next December will lack varsity experience. Southington will return guards Pat McLaughlin and Matt Roncaioli, who looms as one of football coach Bill Mella's leaders in the Knights' secondary.

Rocky Hill's Jim McKinnon, yet another blossoming young coach, has some serious rebuilding to do, too. The centerpiece is guard William Davis.

Plainville and Goodwin Tech, both winless this year, are question marks. The Blue Devils' top player was freshman Chase Tarca. Mike Thomas also looms as a key piece in Plainville's renaissance plans.

The Gladiators, their player pool diminished by the emergence of Hartford's magnet schools, needs junior Leyland Loller and freshmen Mahlon Robertson and Dominic Hooks to come back strong and prepared.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

FAN'S BEHAVIOR BEYOND ABHORRENT

What I witnessed during the New Britain girls' impressive victory over Lauralton Hall of Milford in the Class LL quarterfinals at Sheehan High Saturday raised the hair on my neck.

The Sheehan site director was kind enough to provide me and Will Schubert of The Courant a table opposite from the scorer's table from which to cover the game. Most of the New Britain fans flanked us on our left, the Lauralton fans on our right.

Sitting just above me was a couple who I'd guess were the parents of a Lauralton Hall player. I never could discern exactly which one. Now I'd be proud as can be if I had a child playing basketball at that level and cheering your child on is absolutely essential, but ripping everybody else on the floor from the referees to the opposing coach and even extending to the youngsters on the other team is reprehensible.

The man showed a blatant disregard for everything high school sports stand for. Winning was all he had in mind, and he was going to chastise the officials, harass the opposing coach as she tried to do her job, whistle while New Britain players were on the foul line and even cheer when a Lauralton player committed a hard foul on New Britain's high-scorer Symone Roberts.

Every New Britain defensive effort was a foul. Every Lauralton hack was a clean play.

"You're on their payroll," he kept shouting at the refs.

This ignoramus had no clue how detrimental his actions were. We as adults need to set an example for our kids. If we act like barbarians, they're going to interpret those actions as acceptable behavior. Is he too ignorant to comprehend this?

When I look out on the floor and see 10 dedicated teenagers playing basketball, I see 10 great kids who are striving for excellence. Above and beyond winning the game, they are learning lessons on how to cope with the challenging journey we call life. They are learning how to work together with their peers toward a common goal.

So many youngsters come back to their high school haunts five, 10, 15 years later and tell their former coaches how valuable their high school sports experience was toward building a foundation for their life. That's why we playe these games.

Was this idiot unable to understand that each of those New Britain kids have parents, too? Doesn't he realize that the stinking few bucks he puts out for a ticket do not give him license to hurt kids? This isn't Fenway Park where athletes are being paid princely sums to play games. It isn't even Gampel Pavilion where elite athletes are provided four expensive years of college for free in exchange for their athletic services.

These are high school kids, folks. The next time your kid's team gets beat, why not exercise some sportsmanship and congratulate the winners like your children are told to do after the game.

The experience reminded me of a few autumns ago when the Xavier rooters made complete asses out of themselves by using vulgarity and boorish behavior to distract the Southington players and even harass the other school's marching band. Real classy.

I credit the Northwest Conference for making fan behavior a policy and explaining it before every game. Judging from the games I was at, I'd have to say the strategy worked to a large exgtent. It doesn't please me that administrators have to threaten wayward fans with banishment and that youngsters can't look into their own hearts and see that they're being hurtful.

Maybe it's time for the South-West Conference -- Lauralton Hall's league -- to implement the same method. Although a reminder over the public address at Sheehan didn't stop one idiot from making a spectacle of himself and misrepresenting what I'm sure is a very fine school.

Here is a rule-of-thumb for Mr. Personality. If you find yourself cheering for your school's players, you are doing what you're supposed to do. If you find yourself deriding the other team, pal, you're out of bounds.

I hope we can all learn from this so an episode like this doesn't evolve into an embarrassing fracas that sets high school athletics back.